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Boney’s books: Why Napoleon was history’s ultimate bookworm

Napoleon, surrounded by books in his office, takes a break from reading to discuss military matter with a small child, in this image from 1921. Despite the dress and ringlets, this may be his son, also named Napoleon - Credit: The Print Collector/Heritage Ima

In both war and peace, a love of reading made Napoleon history’s biggest bibliophile. 

When you’re an enthusiastically expansionist autocrat and visionary military leader building an empire that will cover almost an entire continent your work doesn’t, it’s fair to say, leave much time for hobbies. Julius Caesar produced no macramé of note; Alexander the Great’s stamp collection never really got off the ground.

By contrast Frederick the Great of Prussia made time for the arts over armies, leaving him free to play his flute and write with some of his era’s greatest musicians and composers, while Henry VIII also composed music and, certainly in his younger days, could often be found indulging his twin passions of falconry and jousting. Neither monarch, it should be noted, built a vast, continent-spanning empire.

Yet Napoleon Bonaparte, who died 200 years ago this week, managed to forge arguably the most influential European empire of them all while still allowing plenty of opportunity for his favourite pastime – reading.

From his earliest days as a military cadet to his twilight years in South Atlantic exile on Saint Helena Napoleon liked nothing more than to immerse himself in a good book. His brother Joseph would recall how even as a young artillery officer Napoleon’s books “filled a trunk larger than the one containing his toiletries”, while at the height of his military campaigns he had bespoke editions of his favourite works produced to fit into specially-commissioned travelling bookcases that went everywhere with him, from North Africa to Moscow.

When studying at the École Militaire in Paris, from which he became the first Corsican ever to graduate, in addition to his military studies Napoleon found time to read the classics as well as devour novels by modern French and Italian authors. Joseph told of how when Napoleon returned home to Corsica on leave in his late teens he was meticulous in selecting reading matter for the trip.

“He was at that time a passionate admirer of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and an enthusiast for the masterpieces of Corneille, Racine and Voltaire,” he wrote. “He took the works of Plutarch, Plato, Cicero, Livy and Tacitus translated into French as well as those of Montaigne, Montesquieu and Raynal.”

When exiled to Saint Helena after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 Napoleon took 400 books on voyage to keep himself occupied until his more substantial library could be shipped to the South Atlantic, including the classics that had first fired his imagination and ambition as a young man. He read Homer avidly throughout his life, for example, while Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, with its accounts of great battles and epic feats of empire-building in the ancient world, was a particular favourite. He also travelled with other beloved literary companions like Racine, Moliere, Beaumarchais and Corneille.

By far his favourite book of the Saint Helena years was Paul et Virginie, a faintly histrionic but popular 18th century novel by Bernardin de Saint Pierre. In the titular characters, who grow up in Mauritius, fall in love and are separated, Napoleon could return in his imagination to his own early years as a boy on the island of Corsica, as well as his former wife Josephine’s upbringing on Martinique. Of all the books accompanying him to exile Napoleon’s copy of Paul et Virginie was the most tattered from repeated reading.

To help pass the long evenings at Longwood, the house in which he lived on Saint Helena, Napoleon would host soirées for officers garrisoned on the island during which he would insist on reading from some of his favourite plays, pausing every now and again to comment on – or more likely criticise – a character’s actions or motivations.

Albine de Montholon, the wife of a French general who had elected to accompany Napoleon into exile (and who may have had the former emperor’s child while on the island) described Bonaparte’s dramatic recitations as “not remarkable, but interesting”, while other guests spoke later of the challenge presented by simply staying awake once Napoleon really got into his dramatic stride.

It was during his military campaigns that Napoleon’s reading assumed its greatest personal importance. In the space of a few days before leaving Paris to command the French Army of Italy in 1796 he found time to marry Joséphine de Beauharnais and hole up in the National Library of France reading about the land he was about to conquer, familiarising himself with the topography of Piedmont and Savoy and delving into the memoirs of earlier military leaders associated with the region.

Two years later, when sailing for Egypt to establish a French presence in the Middle East through which he planned to undermine British dominance, he assembled a shipboard library of some 300 books.

These ranged from accounts by explorers and travellers in the region to the Koran, determined as he was to equip himself with as much knowledge as possible about his destination and its people. There was a little light relief from the pre-campaign revision on Napoleon’s cabin shelf in the form of 40 novels translated from English as well as volumes of Voltaire and Goethe. The latter’s Sorrows of Young Werther could reduce him to tears and when Bonaparte met the author at the Congress of Erfurt in 1808 he gushed that he’d read the book at least seven times.

Napoleon was also sure to pack one of his all-time favourite works, one that arguably provides a more evocative glimpse beneath the veil of imperial and military power than the shelves groaning under the weight of ancient classics. Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gresset’ 1734 Vert-Vert would accompany Bonaparte everywhere, kept close at hand for whenever he needed the light relief that only an epic comic poem about a convent of nuns scandalised by the arrival of a parrot that swears like a docker can provide.

By 1800 Napoleon had realised he could no longer rely on recommendations from friends and advisers to keep up with the best and most important books of the age and appointed his first personal librarian. It wasn’t until 1804, the year he became emperor, that he settled upon Antoine-Alexandre Barbier as the literary man he trusted most to stay abreast of new publications and provide the right kind of books to sustain him politically, militarily and during rare moments of imperial downtime.

Four years later, in 1808, Napoleon instructed Barbier to create for him a custom-made travelling library suitable for a busy emperor on the move, one that could travel wherever he went, from tense summits in elaborate palaces to draughty battlefield tents.

For Barbier this meant more than just strolling along his boss’s bookshelves dropping a selection of titles into a crate and packing them off to whichever corner of Europe Napoleon happened to be putting to the sword. Instead this was to be a bespoke collection of new editions selected to be authoritative and designed to be portable and user-friendly.

“The Emperor wishes you to form a travelling library of one thousand volumes in small 12mo [roughly the size of a modern paperback] and printed in handsome type,” Napoleon wrote from Bayonne. “It is his Majesty’s intention to have these works printed for his special use and in order to economise space there is to be no margin. They should be of 500 to 600 pages and bound in covers as flexible as possible with spring backs. There should be 40 works on religion, 40 dramatic works, 40 volumes of epic and 60 of other poetry, 100 novels and 60 volumes of history, the remainder being historical memoirs from every period.”

Vert-Vert had to be there too of course – for who could contemplate on-the-spot military strategising without a foul-mouthed parrot for relief – as did The Poems of Ossian, the cycle of epic verse apparently translated from ancient texts in Scots Gaelic by the poet James Macpherson during the 1760s but widely considered to be Macpherson’s own invention. Even with its authorship openly doubted, the poems remained high in Napoleon’s estimation: when he learned the wife of a British admiral stationed on Saint Helena was from Scotland he bombarded her with questions about the Ossian poems. When the woman replied that while she was familiar with them she understood they were more popular in continental Europe than they were in Britain, Napoleon thumped the table with delight.

“It was I!” he exclaimed. “I made them the fashion! I have even been accused of having my head filled with Ossian’s clouds.”



Each volume of the portable library was bound in Moroccan leather, trimmed with gilt and stored in specially-made mahogany cases which when opened became instant bookshelves lined with green velvet. Each case contained a small catalogue detailing its contents in order that the emperor could find whatever he wanted as quickly as possible. Portable libraries were not new – Henry VIII carried a wide selection of books on his travels – but there had never been anything like the range and design of Napoleon’s creation.

Within a year the Emperor’s reading ambitions had already outgrown his new library. In the midst of his military campaign in Austria in 1809 Napoleon decided his thousand books were not enough and wrote to Barbier in Paris with instructions for a new portable library, this one to be 3,000 volumes strong comprising smaller editions designed to fit into 30 cases.

Barbier replied that while this was of course an excellent idea, it would take six years to complete and cost somewhere in the region of six million francs. Napoleon cooled on the plan but remained keen on keeping his portable library updated. During the summer of 1812 he wrote to Barbier from Vitebsk in Russia, stating, “The Emperor desires some amusing books. If there be any good new novels, or older ones he does not know, or memoirs with a light touch you will do well to send them. We have leisure moments here that are difficult to fill”.

Within a few months, however, Napoleon and his Grand Armée were making their disastrous retreat from Moscow, trudging through blizzards in conditions so cold that during just one night at the end of November up to 10,000 French soldiers froze to death. Many of the emperor’s books were burned en route in desperate efforts to keep warm.

Napoleon’s love of literature sustained him through a life of tumultuous highs and catastrophic lows. On Saint Helena he was able to pass the last six years of his life in peace and solitude, reading, writing letters, dictating his memoirs and, inspired by the volume of Plutarch that fired him to become the most powerful figure in Europe, writing a history of and personal commentary upon Julius Caesar’s military campaigns. He resisted, it seems, including of a blasphemous parrot.

FIVE GREAT BOOKS OUT THIS WEEK

NAPOLEON: A LIFE IN GARDENS AND SHADOWS

Ruth Scurr (Chatto & Windus, £30)

In this unusual and innovative biography published to mark the 200th anniversary of its subject’s death, Scurr tells the story of Napoleon through his relationship with nature, particularly the gardens that featured in his life, from Corsica to Saint Helena. A vividly human portrait of a figure who has in the last two centuries become more myth than man.

THE ANTHILL

Julianne Pachico (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

Arguably best known for her short stories, Pachico excels in the longer form here as Lina returns to Colombia 20 years in England where she’s been since her mother’s death. When reunited with her childhood friend Matty who runs The Anthill, a refuge for the street children of Medellín, Lina is forced to re-evaluate the past in a way she never expected.

COMRADE AEON’S FIELD GUIDE TO BANGKOK

Emma Larkin (Granta, £14.99)

The comrade of the title is a homeless insurgent who fled the city in 1976 during a crackdown on student protestors. On returning he finds refuge in a plot of land next to a Bangkok slum that also attracts a range of characters for different reasons, leading to events that reveal a much darker history of the silent politics at the heart of Thai culture.

SEEING SIDEWAYS: A MEMOIR OF MUSIC AND MOTHERHOOD

Kristin Hersh (Jawbone, £14.95)

In the second volume of memoir from the former leader of Throwing Muses, Hersh reflects on her career and motherhood through the perspective of her four sons, Doony, Ryder, Wyatt and Bodhi. Featuring custody battles, creative block, losing a home and PTSD this is a raw and uncompromising story fearlessly told.

WE RUN THE TIDES

Vendela Vida (Atlantic, £14.99)

In a perceptive and frequently hilarious examination of girlhood and friendship, We Run the Tides tells the story of teenagers Eulabee and Maria Fabiola of the San Francisco neighbourhood of Sea Cliff. Theirs is an idyllic youth spent in the pre-tech boom city until events one morning pull the girls and their destinies in contrasting directions.