By Shannon Selin
NAPOLEON BONAPARTE was a voracious reader. He had a personal librarian, he always travelled with books, and he took a great interest in constructing the ultimate portable library to accompany him on his military campaigns. Napoleon’s taste in books was primarily classical. He had some lifelong favourite authors, including Plutarch, Homer and Ossian. But what else did he like to read?
Napoleon’s love of books
[Napoleon] would run to the library, where he read with great eagerness books of history, particularly Polybius and Plutarch. He also especially liked Arrian, but had little taste for Quintus Curtius. (1)
At the École Militaire in Paris and as a young artillery officer, Napoleon continued to read classical scholars, as well as more recent French and Italian authors. He also read a number of English works in translation. An idea of his favourites might be judged by what he chose to bring with him during a leave of absence in Corsica in 1786-87. His brother Joseph recounts,
[Napoleon] was then a passionate admirer of Jean-Jacques [Rousseau]; … a fan of the masterpieces of Corneille, Racine and Voltaire. He brought the works of Plutarch, Plato, Cicero, Cornelius Nepos, Livy and Tacitus, translated into French; and those of Montaigne, Montesquieu and Raynal. All of these works filled a trunk larger than the one that contained his toiletries. I don’t deny that he also had the poems of Ossian, but I do deny that he preferred them to Homer. (2)
Ossian’s cycle of epic poems was published by the Scottish poet James Macpherson beginning in 1760. Though Macpherson claimed the material originated from ancient Gaelic sources, many – including Samuel Johnson – criticized the work as a forgery, written by Macpherson himself.
[Napoleon] said he admired them very much, particularly Darthula, and inquired if the controversy about their authenticity was decided; and whether Macpherson had really written them. He laughed on her replying with quickness, that Macpherson was not capable of writing them. She said the Highland Society had done everything possible to investigate and had proved their authenticity beyond a doubt…. She said [the poems] had been more admired on the Continent than in England. He exclaimed with energy: ‘It was I, – I made them the fashion. I have been even accused of having my head filled with Ossian’s clouds.’ (3)
Napoleon’s librarians and libraries
Napoleon’s appetite for reading books continued as he rose in power. In 1798, about to depart on the Egyptian campaign, he gave Bourrienne a list of books he wanted in his camp library. These included works in Sciences and Arts (e.g., Treatise on Fortifications), Geography and Travels (e.g., Cook’s Voyages), History (e.g., Thucydides, Frederick II), Poetry (e.g., Ossian, Tasso, Ariosto), Novels (e.g., Voltaire, Héloïse, Werther and 40 volumes of “English novels”), and Politics and Morals (the Bible, the Koran, the Vedas, etc.). (4)
In 1800, Napoleon appointed Louis Ripault, an antiquarian who was a member of the Egyptian expedition, as his personal librarian. When Ripault proved to be too liberal, he was replaced in 1804 by an elderly Italian historian, Carlo Denina, author of The History of the Revolutions of Italy, which Napoleon had read as a student. In 1807, Denina was succeeded by the librarian Antoine-Alexandre Barbier.
Napoleon expected his librarian to be on call at all hours to read to him, to report on new books, to find sources of information on particular subjects, and to summarize content. Dissatisfied with the camp libraries formed for his use, in July 1808 Napoleon dictated from Bayonne instructions for Barbier to create a purpose-built travelling library.
The Emperor wants a portative library of thousand volumes in 12mo., printed in good type, without margin, and composed as nearly as possible of 40 volumes on religion, 40 of epics, 40 of plays, 60 of poetry, 100 of novels, 60 of history, the remainder, to make up the 1,000, of historical memoirs.
The religious works are to be the Old and New Testament, the Koran, a selection from the works of the Fathers of the Church, works respecting the Arians, Calvinists, a Mythology, &c.
The epics are to be Homer, Lucan, Tasso, Telemachus, the Henriade, &c. (5)
Among the novels were to be the masterpieces of Fielding, Richardson and Le Sage.
For the 1809 campaign against Austria, Barbier prepared a substantial library, arranged in a series of large mahogany cases, which could be opened up into instant bookshelves (the cases were later exchanged for leather ones, considered more durable). Dissatisfied that some books had to be omitted because of their bulk, Napoleon in June 1809 sent instructions from Vienna for Barbier to compose an even larger travelling library of historical works, in even smaller size.
His Majesty would wish the volumes of such a library to reach three thousand. This collection…should be divided into five or six parts: 1. Chronology and Universal History; 2. Ancient History by original writers, and Ancient History by modern writers; 3. History of the Lower Empire by original writers, and History of the Lower Empire by modern writers; 4. General and Particular History, like Voltaire’s Essays, etc.; 5. Modern History of the States of Europe, of France, Italy, etc. When these three thousand volumes of History are finished, they will be followed by three thousand more of Natural History, of Voyages, of Literature, etc. (6)
Barbier estimated the work would take six years to complete and would cost between 5.4 and 6.5 million francs. The project was never carried out. Meanwhile, the existing library was improved from time to time. For example, from Vitebsk during the Russian campaign in August 1812, Barbier was told,
The Emperor desires to have some amusing books. If there be any new novels which are good, or older ones which he does not know, or memoirs of light reading, you will do well to send them, for we have leisure moments here which are difficult to fill up. (7)
During the retreat from Moscow, a number of boxes of books from Napoleon’s travelling library were burned by the French.
Napoleon reading books in exile
During his exile on Elba in 1814, Napoleon maintained a library of “a considerable number of volumes.” He allowed no one to enter the room, which also served as an office, except his secretary and the floor polisher. (8)
In late June 1815, after the defeat at Waterloo, when Napoleon was at Malmaison contemplating escape to the United States, he instructed General Henri Bertrand to write to Barbier for “works upon America,” a report on everything published on the subject of his campaigns, “and in addition, several works on the United States.” The library was to be consigned to an American firm, “who will have it transported to America from Havre.” (9)
Napoleon did not make it to America. Instead, he gave himself up to the British, who banished him to St. Helena. On seeing an Englishman reading Milton’s Paradise Lost on board the Northumberland, the ship that conveyed him to exile, Napoleon reportedly said,
Your British Homer lacks taste, harmony, warmth, naturalness. Read again the poet of Achilles. Devour Ossian. Those are the poets who lift up the soul, and give to man a colossal greatness. (10)
Napoleon had plenty of time to read on St. Helena, and he developed a large library there. He brought with him on the Northumberland “six small mahogany cases containing what was called a field library, provided by M. Barbier, the Emperor’s librarian. These crates consisted of good works, and were of great assistance in fighting the boredom of such a lengthy crossing.” (11)
This was supplemented by the arrival, in June 1816, of the bulk of Napoleon’s library. Emmanuel de Las Cases reports:
The Emperor sent for me about three o’clock. He was in the topographical cabinet, surrounded by all the persons of his suite, who were engaged in unpacking some boxes of books which had arrived by the Newcastle. The Emperor himself helped to unpack, and seemed to be highly amused with the occupation. (12)
More books were brought by visitors, or sent to Napoleon by sympathizers, including England’s Lady Holland. One of the gifts, the three-volume Life of Marlborough by William Coxe, resulted in the dismissal of British orderly officer Engelbert Lutyens, as described in my post “General Bonaparte vs. Emperor Napoleon.”
It was customary in the evenings for Napoleon to read out loud to his companions, or for one of them to read to him. His librarian on St. Helena, the valet Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, writes:
The Emperor was infinitely fond of reading. The Greek and Roman historians were often in his hands, especially Plutarch. … He often read Rollin. The history of the Middle Ages, modern history, and particular histories occupied him only casually. The only religious book which he had was the Bible. He liked to read over in it the chapters which he had heard read in the ruins of the ancient cities of Syria.
Every time that he read Homer it was with a new admiration.
Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, often had one or two acts of their pieces read aloud.
He also took pleasure in reading some parts of Voltaire’s Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations, as well as some articles from the Dictionnaire Philosophique of the same author. Novels helped him to relax and broke the seriousness of his habitual occupations. Gil Blas, Don Quixote and a small number of others would be read by him.
It was only by chance that he took up a scientific work; books of this sort were only occasional. (13)
It was while he was on St. Helena that Napoleon read his brother Lucien’s Charlemagne:
What ability; what time and labour; thrown away! Twenty thousand verses – some few of them good verses – but the whole colourless, aimless, and resultless. (14)
By 1821, when Napoleon died, his library consisted of 1,814 volumes, 1,226 of which had been shipped from England. (15) In his will, Napoleon directed Saint-Denis to take care of “four hundred volumes, selected from those in my library of which I have been accustomed to use the most” and to convey them to his son, the King of Rome (Napoleon II), when he reached the age of 16. Napoleon’s companions took what they liked from the rest of his books. The remainder were purchased by the bookseller Bossange and Co., which organized an auction by Sotheby’s in London on July 23, 1823.
The catalogue listed 123 items, 10 of which were letters signed by Napoleon. A few volumes were given to members of Napoleon’s family. When General Bertrand died, all but about a dozen of the volumes belonging to his estate were sold for scrap. Even if you don’t understand French, you will be able to decipher some of the titles remaining, as well as those listed in the auction catalogue, in La Bibliothèque de Napoléon à Sainte Hélène by Victor Advielle (Paris, 1894).
Shannon Selin is the Canadian-based author of Napoleon in America, which imagines what might have happened if Bonaparte had escaped from St. Helena in 1821 and wound up in the United States. She blogs about Napoleonic and 19th century history at shannonselin.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShannonSelin.
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1. Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Mémoires de M. de Bourrienne sur Napoléon, le Directoire, le Consulat, l’Empire et la Restauration, Vol. I (Paris, 1829), p. 33
2. Du Casse, ed., Mémoires et Correspondance Politique et Militaire du Roi Joseph, Vol. I (Paris, 1855), pp. 32-33.
3. Clementina E. Malcolm, A Diary of St. Helena (1816, 1817): the Journal of Lady Malcolm, edited by Sir Arthur Wilson (London, 1899), pp. 24-25.
4. Bourrienne, Mémoires, Vol. II, pp. 49-50. Constituted by French general and scholar Louis Caffarelli du Falga with the help of the economist Jean-Baptiste Say, the Egyptian campaign library consisted of about 320 volumes, over half of them historical.
5. Bingham, ed., A Selection from the Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon, Vol. II (London, 1884), p. 400.
6. “Book Collectors,” Lippincott’s Magazine of Literature, Science and Education, Vol. VII (Philadelphia, 1871), pp. 310-311.
7. A Selection from the Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon, Vol. III, p. 167.
8. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 75.
9. A Selection from the Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon, Vol. III, p. 412.
10. Edward Edwards, Libraries and Founders of Libraries (London, 1865), p. 139.
11. Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), p. 333. It’s not clear what the books consisted of. Marchand refers to Napoleon taking notes on Lacratelle, a French historian and journalist.
12. Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena (London, 1823), Vol. II, p. 275.
13. Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, pp. 188-190.
14. Libraries and Founders of Libraries, p. 139.
15. In Napoleon’s Shadow, p. 333.