Monday, June 3, 2013

What Tolstoy Inaccurately IMPLIED about Napoleon I in "War & Peace"

Was Napoleon 'Spoilt by Personal Service'?

Image Credit: Creative Commons

WAR&PEACE: Napoleon slightly turned his head, and put his plump little hand out behind him as if to take something. The members of his suite, guessing at once what he wanted, moved about and whispered as they passed something from one to another, and a page - the same one Rostov had seen the previous evening at Boris' - ran forward and, bowing respectfully over the outstretched hand and not keeping it waiting a moment, laid in it an Order on a red ribbon. Napoleon, without looking, pressed two fingers together and the badge was between them. Then he approached Lazarev (who rolled his eyes and persistently gazed at his own monarch), looked round at the Emperor Alexander to imply that what he was now doing was done for the sake of his ally, and the small white hand holding the Order touched one of Lazarev's buttons. It was as if Napoleon knew that it was only necessary for his hand to deign to touch that soldier's breast for the soldier to be forever happy, rewarded, and distinguished from everyone else in the world. Napoleon merely laid the cross on Lazarev's breast and, dropping his hand, turned toward Alexander as though sure that the cross would adhere there. And it really did.... 
(War & Peace Chapter XXI, Book Five)
  • 1
    Due to his congenital heart defect, Napoleon I did not experience an adolescent growth spurt at puberty. Hence both his hands and feet were proportionally smaller than typical for adult males. This did not mean that his "small white hands" were useless or unskilled. As a youth in the military he learned how to cast cannons and cannonballs, a skill he retained throughout his life. Likewise he was a sound shot, could draw and (when he had time) was a keen 'hands on' gardener.
  • 2
    As a youth, Napoleon I had neither personal servant nor 'help'. He mended his own clothes, cooked his own meals and arranged his own work. When his career began, Napoleon hoped to retain this "personal independence (as I called it). But it was soon clear to me that I needed a valet. It was not a thought congenial to me. Whilst I was capable of caring for myself, should I not care for myself? It seemed to meal that I would rather go without a meal, or mended clothes, if I could not do this myself for myself. Then I seriously considered my situation. I could mend my own [clothes]... or with the same time I could plan the strategy of my army. Whilst I could hire someone to mend [my clothes], there was no one besides me to plan and care for the army. TB had forced me to consider my own amenity; the next unmade meal (or unwashed floor) could be the death of me. My time was precious, I must use it to its highest value; and meanwhile clothes still must be mended and meals prepared. The solution stared at me: I needed (at least) a [ie one] personal valet. Then I tried to excuse myself on the basis 'From where shall I find the wage to pay a valet?' only for this difficulty to... resolve itself - my rank entitled me to a valet at army expense. As the demands of my work, particularly my empire, grew heavier I had commensurately less time to attend to my own needs. Indeed, it was (often) enough of an imposition on my time to stop to eat a meal; had it been left to myself I should certainly never have prepared it. I will not say I became dependent on valets and servants, so much as to say I needed their care and attention to live a civilised life as I worked." As his staff sometimes said "We take care of the Emperor, so the Emperor can take care of everything else."
  • 3
    Napoleon I found that "life functions much more [smoothly]... when those working for one are aware of their duties. Let them know precisely what is expected of them, and when, and much domestic discord shall be therefore avoided. As staff served me longer, they became accustomed to my habits and my wants. Often, they foresaw my needs and acted accordingly without being ordered. Sometimes I did not need to finish a sentence to be brought what I [needed]... immediately. I found this a particular boon when I was ill (which was galling enough to me) - provided I could admit my condition, my personal staff would do everything for me, without my needing to ask. I would be washed, dressed, [given compresses].., supplied with [chicken] soup.., given my... books, [the doctor called as needed] all with barely a gesture from me." Napoleon remarked that "those who most often grudge me such loyal and devoted staff are precisely those who have always been waited upon themselves."
  • 4
    "The chief talent of a general lies in understanding the soldier and winning his confidence," Napoleon I once remarked. From long experience, Napoleon I knew that "if a general truly cares for his soldiers, they will love and respect him. If he truly cares for his soldiers, he will understand this and let them express their loyalty." Learning how to accept the love and loyalty of his soldiers (administrators, staff and subjects) was "difficult for me. My [birth] mother had 'trained' me how to endure blows but not how to accept love. For a long time, I showed love to others yet forbade them to reciprocate. People considered me 'strange' and 'foreign' - I drove away people who meant me no harm and (indeed) only wished me good. A letter from a great American general (since left America and in English service) convinced me this [driving away people who loved me] was a defect [of character]. It was a harder lesson to learn than how to command an army. That is why in my early portraits I seem guarded... I was indeed guarded, but what you see there is very much less guarded than I had been [before that letter warned me about being over-guarded]. But the more I 'experimented' with letting others return my love, the more love I found I was showed, and the greater the victories we won together. For the sake of [all of us]... I had a duty to learn to accept love-in-return. To my surprise, I found that my ability to love others was so strong that the merest word of support or approval from me, the lightest handshake of agreement, was as a feast to those who received my words or such. It is not to say I rationed it, so much as to say I began to understand what it was truly worth. This was always humbling to me. If others perceived me as arrogant or haughty, this was their mistake; I merely understood my own value rather than apologizing for myself, and perhaps they were so accustomed to always being loved (without their returning any such love) they failed to understand me. Their poverty of spirit is not my responsibility."

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