Thursday, January 29, 2015

Fun Facts I Learned from Andrew Roberts' book Napoleon: A Life (2014)

Cover of Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts, 2014.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, painting by Jacques-Louis David, 1812. According to the clock behind Napoleon, it's about 4:13AM. He's been awake all night working hard to keep you safe, French Empire! This painting is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
In the course of reading Andrew Roberts’ excellent biography Napoleon: A Life, I learned a lot of random facts about Napoleon Bonaparte. Rather than try to fit them all into my review of the book, I thought it would make more sense to dedicate this post to sharing some of these fascinating Napoleonic tidbits. 

Napoleon wrote more than 33,000 letters during his 51 years on earth. (p.xxxii)

“More books have been written with Napoleon in the title than there have been days since his death in 1821.” That’s at least 70,500 books. (p.xxxii)

“Napoleon represented the Enlightenment on horseback. His letters show a charm, humor, and a capacity for candid self-appraisal…He personified the best parts of the French Revolution, the ones that have survived and infused European life ever since.” (p.xxxii)

When someone asked Napoleon why he didn’t take Frederick the Great’s sword when he visited Sans Souci, he replied, “Because I had my own.” (p.xxxv)

Napoleon wrote a novella in 1795 called Clisson and Eugenie. (p.62)

Napoleon took 167 “savants,” an assortment of scientists and intellectuals, with him on his 1798 campaign to Egypt. Perhaps their most significant discovery was the Rosetta Stone, which allowed hieroglyphics to be translated. (p.165)

During the first 3 months of 1807, Napoleon wrote 1,715 letters, an average of 19 letters per day. “Half went to military figures…and the rest were on diplomatic, administrative, family or personal matters. The subject of shoes and boots generated sixty-three letters.” (p.435)

Napoleon had either twenty-one or twenty-two mistresses that we know of. (p.437)

Napoleon once involved himself in a dispute between stage-hands at the Paris Opera. There was an argument over who was responsible for dropping a singer from a mechanical cloud and breaking her arm. Napoleon supported the deputy rather than the head stage-hand, writing, “I always support the underdog.” (p.449)

Johann Gottfried Schadow’s 1795 statue of Queen Louise of Prussia and her sister Frederike “was determined to be too erotic for public display.” (p. 460) Reading that sent me immediately to Google images, and fortunately we can all see the sculpture here.

Napoleon was never seen to be drunk. He only drank Chambertin wine. He ate his meals quickly, usually in less than ten minutes. (p.470)

After a long night of work, Napoleon would sometimes take his secretaries out for hot chocolate. This was one of my favorite facts from the whole book. (p.471)

Napoleon loved long hot baths. (p.471)

During the battle of Wagram in 1809, Napoleon took a 10 minute nap. He won the battle. (p.523)

After the battle of Borodino, Napoleon said, “After a victory there are no enemies, only men.” (p.609)

“Long ago it was said that priests and doctors render death painful.” Napoleon, in a letter to his brother Joseph. (p.698)

“I need to be comforted by the members of my family, but as a rule I get nothing but vexation from that quarter.” Napoleon, in a letter to Marie Louise, his second wife, when he thought that this brother Joseph was trying to sleep with her. (p.706)

During his first exile, while Napoleon was on the island of Elba, he “reorganized his new kingdom’s defenses,…read voraciously,…played with his pet monkey Jenar,…reformed customs and excise,…repaired the barracks, built a hospital, planted vineyards, paved parts of Portoferraio for the first time and irrigated land. He also organized regular rubbish collections, passed a law prohibiting children from sleeping more than five to a bed, set up a court of appeal and an inspectorate to widen roads and build bridges…His attention to the tiniest details was undimmed, even extending to the kind of bread he wanted fed to his hunting dogs.” (p.723)

“I do not allow myself to be governed by advice.” Napoleon, to General Antoine Drouot, who was trying to persuade him to stay in exile on Elba. (p.730) 

When Napoleon left Elba, he didn’t really have to escape; he just seems to have left. I guess he was on Scout’s Honor to stay there. (p.730)

When he got an invitation on St. Helena addressed to “General Bonaparte,” he said, “Send the card to the addressee; the last I heard of him was at the Pyramids and Mount Tabor.” (p.784-5)

The only medical operation Napoleon ever underwent was having one of his teeth removed on St. Helena. (p.793)

Those are just some of the many things I learned about Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the most fascinating men in history, while reading Napoleon: A Life.

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