Napoleon's family was not impoverished, but it was by no means wealthy. During Napoleon's childhood, the Bonapartes owned only a few rooms of a large house (which they would eventually own in its entirety).
The Bonapartes were greatly helped when Napoleon's father, Carlo, applied for and received recognition as a member of the noble class. This allowed Carlo to pursue his political career and gave him advantages as a lawyer as well.
Even so, Carlo's salary was never great. Like parents everywhere, Carlo and Napoleon's mother, Leticia, wondered how they would afford their children's education. And like people throughout history, they would find that it never hurt to have good connections. Their connection in this case was substantial: Count Marbeuf, the French governor of Corsica.
Getting a helping hand from Marbeuf
By all accounts, Count Marbeuf was an outstanding governor of Corsica. He had been sent at a time when emotions were high and the French were not universally loved. But he worked hard to organize reforms and to improve life for average Corsicans. He lowered taxes and organized numerous building projects. This was made easier by the fact that the French government in Paris recognized the delicate nature of his position and supported him with adequate funds to try to make the Corsicans happy with his rule. He even worked on speaking the Corsican dialect of French so that he could better communicate with the common people on the island. In short, he was about as good as the islanders could have ever hoped to get.
When Marbeuf first arrived on the island, he actually stayed at the Bonaparte home. Carlo and Marbeuf hit it off quite well and developed a mutually useful relationship. Both men had a strong interest in agriculture and worked together on a couple of projects. They were also both interested in politics, and each supported the French presence on the island. Marbeuf might have helped the Bonapartes regardless of any other factors.
But there was another factor, of course. Marbeuf developed quite a strong interest in Carlo's wife, Leticia. With great beauty and a pleasing personality, she no doubt attracted the eyes and inspired the hopes of more than one man on the island. But Marbeuf, of course, was quite different than other men. At 64, he was much older, but more importantly, he was the governor and could offer favors the others could not.
Leticia was interested only in a friendly relationship, which seems to have been enough for Marbeuf. They took long walks and had nice talks. Marbeuf treated her family as though they were his own. It was Marbeuf who helped Carlo prove his nobility, and it was Marbeuf who told Carlo of the existence of free scholarships for education in France. With the right recommendation, boys could attend the seminary in Aix, France or a military academy, while girls could go to finishing school at Saint-Cyr — all paid for by the king!
This news was almost too good to be true, and Carlo was quick to take advantage of it. In 1777, Marbeuf forwarded his recommendations, and soon Napoleon was accepted to the military academy at Brienne and Napoleon's eldest brother, Joseph, was accepted to the seminary at Aix. But Joseph was too young to start seminary, and Napoleon had to await further processing before he could enter the academy. Again Marbeuf stepped in and sent both boys to stay (at his expense) with his nephew at the college of Autun, where they could learn French. (Marbeuf's nephew just happened to be the local bishop.) And just to help out a little more, Marbeuf arranged for Leticia's half-brother, Joseph Fesch, to attend the seminary at Aix.
On December 15, the two boys and Leticia's half-brother left Corsica for the mainland of France. Napoleon was 9 years old and about to enter a world beyond anything he had ever imagined possible. (No one would ever say that these three young men squandered their educations; they would eventually become an emperor, a king, and a cardinal.)
Learning to speak French
While at Autun, Napoleon had to learn French; as of yet, the future Emperor of the French could hardly speak the language. The effort did not go well. Napoleon found memorizing difficult, and his natural inclination to hurry did not do him well in the study of language. Worse yet, his French had (and always would have) a strong Corsican accent, a fact that did him no favors throughout his schooling. Still, after three months at Autun, Napoleon had learned conversational French and was able to pass his language exams.
By May 1778, Carlo had secured the necessary documents so Napoleon could move to the military school at Brienne. Napoleon and Joseph were unhappy to have to part company for what might be a very long time. But Napoleon's time at Autun had been well spent, and he was ready, at the ripe old age of 9, to move on.
Attending French military school
French military education in the late 18th century was not exactly a model of democracy. The opportunity to be an officer was reserved almost exclusively for the nobility and almost exclusively for native Frenchmen. To say that the system was elitist would be an understatement. Moreover, at least half the young students attended military school on expense accounts provided by their wealthy families. Scholarship recipients like Napoleon were looked down on by most of the students. Napoleon was poor by their standards, and it would show.
Worse yet, Napoleon wasn't even French! True, Corsica had become a French territory, but the French had a very low opinion of Corsicans (noble or otherwise), seeing them as just this side of barbarians. Many of the cadets came from wealthy and powerful families, and they did not necessarily appreciate having to mix with the "rabble," even that which was nobility. On Corsica, Napoleon's family was fairly high on the social scale. At Brienne, he was virtually at the bottom.
Add to that the fact that Napoleon didn't speak great French (and spoke it with a heavy Corsican accent), and it was clear that Napoleon was stepping into a situation that could prove to be very difficult. Young boys can be cruel in any circumstance, and this situation was made to order for bad behavior and bad attitudes.
Napoleon was assigned a small room in a dormitory. It was a Spartan existence, but that didn't seem to bother Napoleon. If nothing else, the dorm situation put all cadets on a somewhat equal footing. All cadets wore a uniform, which was another equalizer.
Napoleon was determined to succeed and immediately settled in to his new routine. As a student, he began to excel. (He wasn't a perfect student, though: His spelling and handwriting were quite bad.) He was serious about his studies and spent much of his free time reading. Of course, with his lack of funds he could do little else.
Napoleon's relations with the other cadets, however, did not go so well. The young boys of the elite nobility bullied Napoleon. Slight of build, he was less able to physically defend himself than he might have liked, though he did develop a reputation for generally holding his own against his larger adversaries. He began to withdraw somewhat, tending to keep to himself rather than socialize or engage in group activities. (He did enjoy gardening — each cadet was given a small plot of land.)
Dealing with poverty
Napoleon's poverty continued to be a problem, isolating him from some of the other cadets and preventing him from buying some things he may have wanted. As the years went on, his poverty bothered him more, and he longed to be either removed from school or given an allowance. In 1781, at the age of 12, he wrote his father asking for an allowance or a withdrawal, saying "I am tired of exhibiting indigence, and of seeing the smiles of insolent scholars who are only superior to me by reason of their fortune."
Carlo was in no position to give Napoleon any further assistance. His financial picture had not improved, and his health was deteriorating. He and Leticia were anxious for Napoleon to graduate as soon as possible to allow Napoleon's brother Lucien to go to school on the same scholarship.
Condemned to poverty, Napoleon resolved to do all the better in school. Soon he began to excel in history, math, and geography. Math was likely the most important of the three for a military career, but history really captured Napoleon's imagination. Like many young men, Napoleon was especially taken with the stories of ancient heroes like Achilles, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar. No one could have suspected then that he would eventually join that elite group.
While his poverty was certainly a source of difficulty for Napoleon, it almost certainly influenced his later behavior. For example,
Napoleon's poverty may have inspired his later commitment to promoting equality in France and throughout his empire.
The treatment he received at the hands of the arrogant French noble cadets was also likely a major reason he developed strong feelings for Corsican independence. Notwithstanding the fact that he was receiving an excellent education at French expense, Napoleon began to dream of Corsican independence and to idolize Paoli. These feelings would shape much of his behavior throughout his early career.
Napoleon also began to develop some important friendships. Probably the most important was Louis-Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, who would later serve as Napoleon's secretary. Napoleon also became friends with some of the adult staff. His relations with the other students improved somewhat, perhaps because they could see that he was exceptionally talented. His leadership was often sought for the periodic snowball fights that took place.
Moving to the next level
While Napoleon was at Brienne, Carlo's health continued to get worse. Joseph, who had been very successful at Autun, decided not to enter the seminary and seek a career in the Church. Instead, he wanted to go into the military. (Napoleon opposed this decision and said so, but to no avail.) Lucien, meanwhile, was poised to enter Brienne, which he did in 1784. Unlike Napoleon, however, Lucien had no financial aid, hoping to pick up Napoleon's scholarship upon his older brother's graduation. And Napoleon's youngest sister, Caroline, had been enrolled at the exclusive school at Saint Cyr, where Carlo had managed to get her a scholarship.
It was clearly in the family's best interest for Napoleon to graduate as soon as possible. An islander by heritage, Napoleon applied for a position in the navy, but nothing came of that effort. Napoleon was very young, a fact that probably delayed his graduation and may well have prevented positive action on his request for naval service. Another factor was probably the death of the family benefactor, Count Marbeuf, who had been promoting Napoleon's naval aspirations.
With Marbeuf gone, the Bonapartes were on their own, and Napoleon needed to move forward in his education. Fortunately, he passed his exams in October 1784 and was accepted to the Military School of Paris. He was only 15 years old.
Having excelled at math and geometry, Napoleon selected the military branch that made the best use of those subjects: artillery. This was an excellent decision for many reasons, including the fact that artillery was an elite branch that offered excellent career opportunities. Those opportunities would be greatly enhanced by Napoleon's acceptance to his new school, which was essentially the equivalent of West Point in the United States or Sandhurst in the United Kingdom. Napoleon had really arrived: His nomination had been signed by no less than King Louis XVI.
With Napoleon graduated from Brienne, Carlo had hoped that Lucien would receive his scholarship, but that didn't happen. Fortunately, Joseph was able to attend Brienne on a royal scholarship, which certainly helped the family finances.
Wowing them in Paris
In late October 1784, Napoleon arrived in Paris. It was by far the largest city he had ever seen, and he was completely taken by all the sights. He bought a book about the city and was prepared for a grand time. He would soon discover, however, that Paris was a reflection of the state of French society. It was a city of great wealth but with great poverty as well. A large gap between the rich and the poor is always problematic, and the gap in Paris and throughout France was enormous.
None of that mattered much to Napoleon as he entered his new school. He was among the most elite of all France's military leaders. In keeping with its clientele, the school was luxurious. While the quarters were a bit on the small side, the classrooms were large and elegant. Located at one end of the Champ de Mars (today, the Eiffel Tower is at the other end) and near the Hôtel des Invalides (the home for retired veterans), it was very much in the center of things. (In death, Napoleon would return to the area, with his final resting place being under the gold dome of the Invalides. An adjacent military museum is largely dedicated to his career.)
In Paris, life was in some ways much grander for Napoleon. The cadets ate five-course meals and had the very best teachers available. The student-teacher ratio was very nearly one to one, which was (and is) virtually unheard of in other schools. Napoleon actually objected to the extravagance of the meals and wrote a lengthy letter to that effect to the Minister of War. At the advice of his former director at Brienne, he dropped the matter.
Napoleon continued to be something of a loner. The French nobility at this school were even higher on the social scale than those at Brienne, and they never missed an opportunity to put Napoleon in his place. He had more than one altercation with his comrades. On the other hand, he continued to be a popular selection for snowball fights.
As a student, Napoleon continued to excel, though his grades were not as good as they had been in Brienne. In addition to history and math, he developed a strong interest in literature. Still hoping for a commission in the navy, he nevertheless excelled at artillery. His love of Corsica and dreams of her independence did not lessen, nor did the negative reaction of both his classmates and his teachers, who had to remind him from time to time that he was there courtesy of the French king.
Losing his father
Napoleon's father continued to have serious health problems, and shortly after Napoleon entered school in Paris, Carlo went to southern France to seek diagnosis and treatment. He was told by doctors that his condition was terminal stomach cancer. He died in February 1785. As he had been in life, in death Carlo was deep in debt. If Napoleon thought he was poor when Carlo was alive, he was truly destitute with his father gone.
Napoleon was no doubt heartbroken with his father's death, though he likely saw it coming. He showed his strength of character by immediately writing to his mother and even by refusing the usual priestly consolation. As the eldest, it fell to Joseph to return to Corsica to see to family affairs, which allowed Napoleon to remain in school.
Graduating ahead of his class
The normal course of study for artillery at the Military School of Paris was two years. But Napoleon, who worked hard and excelled in much of what he did, was able to graduate after only one year. Detractors love to point out that his score was not that high — he ranked 42nd of the 58 young men who passed their exams that year. But most of those 58 had been in school at least two years. Napoleon was the fourth youngest of his graduating class and the only one for whom French was not his native language.
At 16, Napoleon received his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. He was about to step out into the real world — a world that he would soon come to dominate.