During a hard-fought game of Trivial Pursuit the other day, I discovered that Napoleon Bonaparte had written a romantic novel. Obviously, I decided that I had to get my hands on this as soon as possible. I had visions of balls and the language of fans, of brooding heroes, comic misunderstandings and smart-tongued heroines. This was foolish, I admit. In fact, this isn’t a novel so much as a short story, barely more than twenty pages long. It’s also very clearly Romantic rather than romantic. And Napoleon may have been a great general, but he wasn’t all that good as a novelist. Personally, I don’t believe this would have received any critical attention whatsoever were it not for the identity of its author; but that is interesting enough to warrant a bit of discussion.
Naturally, there are two ways to approach this. As a historian, I could treat this as a primary source and tease out what it tells us about Napoleon’s intellectual world, the conventions of Romantic fiction and male attitudes to women at the end of the 18th century. However, that’s already been done by the scholars who’ve written the essays with which the story is packaged. My alternative is to judge Clisson and Eugénie as a piece of fiction, which is what it pretends to be, and hold it up to the same standards as anything else I read. Unfortunately for Napoleon, that’s what I’m going to do. I should stress, of course, that I can’t judge the true quality of his writing because I’ve read this in an English translation by Peter Hicks.
The story is so slight that I’m afraid any synopsis can’t help but cover the entire plot, so tread with caution if you don’t want the ending spoiled for you. Clisson is a young soldier who is so brilliant at war that he has won renown, but this isn’t enough. Rather in the style of modern humble-bragging, ‘Like all men, he desired happiness, but he had found only glory’. And so he moves to the country to stay with a friend where, instead of joining in with society, he spends long hours wandering in the woods and helping impoverished peasants out of the goodness of his heart. Napoleon is a little confused about how Clisson spends his time: one minute he’s communing with nature (and peasants) ‘from dawn until dusk‘; the next he’s spending every minute at the local spa town, where he chats with all and sundry. And it’s here that he meets two girls.
Clisson is immediately struck by glitzy, obvious Amélie, but when her shy friend Eugénie ventures that she’d like to get to know him better, he switches his attentions and sparks fly (‘Their eyes met. Their hearts fused‘). Eugénie, the novel is at some lengths to explain, isn’t like Amélie. Everyone fancies Amélie. But Eugénie is special, unusual, subtle: she attracts connoisseurs, rather than the hoi polloi:
Amélie had the same effect as a piece of French music that everyone listens to with pleasure … Eugénie, on the other hand, was like a piece by Paesiello which transports and elevates only those souls born to appreciate it, leaving ordinary people unaffected.
We don’t get to know Eugénie at all, except in the ways that she throws a favourable light on Clisson. Having shown that his hero is too profound and noble to have his head turned by superficial women, Napoleon dismisses the next several years in a couple of sentences (‘Months and years sped by like hours. They had children and remained deeply in love’). Now Clisson and Eugénie go to tend to impoverished peasants together. Everything is wonderful. Clisson’s military rigour has been softened by the graces of his wife. For her part, Eugénie has benefitted enormously from being his wife: he has ‘been the making of [her]. Her mind had become cultivated and her exceedingly tender and weak emotions had taken on the strength and energy required of the mother of Clisson’s children.’ Ahem. The only problem is that she’s started to have premonitions that Clisson will leave her.
Right on cue, comes a messenger from the government, begging for Clisson’s aid at the front. Apparently he doesn’t come home for the next several years, which doesn’t say much about the French army’s holiday benefits. But he and Eugénie exchange long, passionate letters, although now Clisson also starts having strange dreams about losing Eugénie’s heart. He sends a young officer friend to keep her company while he’s at war and, because women are obviously fickle (and not because her husband hasn’t even bothered to pop by in seven years), Eugénie falls for the young officer and vice versa. Clisson’s heart, you should note, is as pure as the driven snow – no mention of camp followers here! – and, when he sees his beloved wife’s letters growing shorter and more formulaic, he knows only too well what has happened. Hélas! He has lost her! And so Clisson does what any noble soul would do. He wants his wife to be happy. He wants to save her and himself from shame. And so he finds the tightest, hottest, most lethal part of the battle and rides straight into it and goes down, so to speak, in a blaze of glory. Finis.
It isn’t hugely satisfying, psychologically. The story isn’t really about Eugénie at all. It’s all about showing off the depth of Clisson’s loyalty, love and nobility. You might think I’m being rather hard on Napoleon, who was merely writing in the style of his age; but, if you were to say that, I’d be compelled to point out that Les Liaisons dangereuses had been published about ten years before, and that the next twenty-five years would see the publication of Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein. Napoleon’s age was starting to get really excited about human nature, morality and social conventions. Napoleon was still stuck in a Rousseauean morass of sentiment and misogyny. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Having read the essays which accompany the story, I’m strongly tempted to say that this isn’t fiction at all, but a wish-fulfilment fantasy. The evidence, I think, is damning. Gather your notebooks, members of the jury. Let’s plunge in.
Clisson and Eugénie was written in the autumn of 1795, shortly after Napoleon had met the beguiling Josephine and, in quick succession, dumped his fiancee, who just happened to be called Eugénie (she did all right for herself nevertheless and ended up becoming Queen of Sweden). The story emphasises the hero’s status as a brilliant young man, a military genius, a prodigy recalled by his adoring country (Napoleon describes ‘his fervent imagination, … his blazing heart, his uncompromising intellect and his cool head‘). It concludes with Clisson’s self-sacrifice, leaving behind a bitterly passive-aggressive note which advises his unfaithful wife to celebrate his death and be happy (‘Really, darling, I don’t blame your infidelity at all for my attention-seeking suicide’). Napoleon himself would attempt a similarly risky attack the following spring at the Battle of Arcole, although he failed to emulate Clisson on two counts. First, he wasn’t killed, because a loyal friend threw himself in front of the bullet that was meant for him; secondly, the attack was repulsed by the enemy and it was all a bit of a waste of effort. Interestingly, there was one aspect in which he did resemble Clisson, though perhaps he didn’t realise it yet: his wife Joséphine, left behind in Paris, had embarked on an affair with a dashing young officer.
It’s hard to know whether to recommend this or not. On the one hand, it’s a novel by Napoleon, it’ll take no more than half an hour out of your life, and it’s the kind of thing you can casually bring up at drinks parties. On the other, it’s really not that exciting. For all the enthusiasm mustered by the scholars in their accompanying essays, I can’t help feeling that the story really doesn’t deserve that much attention. I always worry slightly when the length of a text is outweighed by the length of critical discussion published with it. It makes me feel that the critics are trying too hard to show me why it matters. So, judge for yourselves. Napoleon would unfortunately ease off on the fiction-writing for the rest of his career – he had other things to do, apparently – but he did make one final foray into the field in his last years. The Memorial of St Helena was Napoleon’s autobiography, dictated on the eponymous island and (according to the essays here) reflecting all his talents as a novelist. One day, it might be interesting to seek it out.
A small plea: this is obviously largely tongue-in-cheek. So no simmering responses from Bonapartists, please. I am judging no aspect of Napoleon beyond his ability as a fiction-writer; the rest, we shall leave for another day.