“In his common intercourse of life, and his familiar conversation, the Emperor mutilated the names most familiar to him.”
By Shannon Selin
FURTHER TO MY previous article, “10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte,” here are 10 more fun Napoleon facts you may not have come across.
Napoleon was a bad dancer
Though Napoleon took dancing lessons in his youth, he did not shine as a dancer. When he danced at the balls his wife Josephine gave at her country home of Malmaison, “he confused the figures, and always called for La Monaco, as the easiest and the air to which he danced least badly.” (1)
Napoleon didn’t like women to wear black
According to Pons de l’Hérault, who managed the iron mines on Elba, where Napoleon spent his first exile, Napoleon had a “profound antipathy” to black garments. When Pons’s wife presented herself in mourning clothes at dinner, Napoleon “became sombre and did not cheer up for a moment while he remained at the table. … General Drouot assured me that the Emperor had to make a great effort to remain for one hour beside a woman in black.” (2)
Napoleon’s private secretary Bourrienne also observed that Napoleon “detested coloured dresses, and especially dark ones.” (3)
Napoleon was hard to shave
Napoleon’s valet Constant tells us that while Napoleon was being shaved:
He frequently talked, read the papers, moved round on his chair, turned suddenly, and I was obliged to use the greatest precaution to avoid wounding him. … When by chance he did not talk, he remained immovable and stiff as a statue, and one could not make him lower, raise, or bend his head, as would have been necessary in order to accomplish the task more easily. He had also one singular mania, which was to have only one side of his face lathered and shaved at a time. He would never let me pass to the other side until the first was finished. (4)
Bourrienne, who read newspaper articles to Napoleon during this ritual, notes:
I was often surprised that his valet did not cut him while I was reading; for whenever he heard anything interesting, he turned quickly round towards me. (5)
Napoleon liked to eat with his fingers
It’s no exaggeration when Napoleon dips his fingers into the sugar bowl in Napoleon in America. According to Constant:
The Emperor by no means ate in a cleanly manner. He preferred to use his fingers instead of a fork, or even a spoon; we were careful to put the dish he liked best within his reach. He drew it to him…dipping his bread in the sauce and the gravy, which did not prevent the dish from circulating…. (6)
For more about Napoleon’s dining habits, see “What did Napoleon like to eat and drink?”
Napoleon spoke French with a Corsican accent
Napoleon was born in Corsica, where people spoke an Italian dialect closely related to Tuscan. He was teased about his accent when he was at military school in France. Jean-Antoine Chaptal, who served as interior minister under Napoleon, writes:
His native language was Corsican, which is an Italian dialect, and when he spoke French, one could easily see he was a foreigner. (7)
Though the accent stayed with him all his life, Napoleon regarded French as his first language. When he was in exile on St. Helena, he told Irish surgeon Barry O’Meara:
It has been said…that I understand Italian better than French, which is not true. Though I speak the Italian very fluently, it is not pure. Non parlo Toscana [I do not speak Tuscan], nor am I capable of writing a book in Italian, nor do I ever speak it in preference to the French. (8)
Napoleon had terrible handwriting
Count de Las Cases, one of Napoleon’s companions on St. Helena, reports:
The Emperor left a great deal for the copyists to do; he was their torment: his handwriting actually formed hieroglyphics; he often could not decipher it himself. My son was one day reading to him a chapter of the Campaign of Italy: on a sudden he stopped short, unable to make out the writing… The Emperor took the manuscript, tried a long while to read it, and at last threw it down, saying, ‘He is right: I cannot tell myself what is written.’ (9)
Napoleon told Dr. O’Meara that his handwriting actually improved on St. Helena.
He observed that formerly he was frequently in the habit of writing only half or three quarters of each word, and running them into each other, which was not attended with much inconvenience, as the secretaries had become so well accustomed to it that they could read it with nearly as much facility as if it were written plainly; that, however, no person, except one accustomed to his manner of writing, could read it. Latterly, he said, he had begun to write a little more legibly, in consequence of not being so much hurried as on former occasions. (10)
Napoleon liked to give people nicknames
Las Cases also observes:
In his common intercourse of life, and his familiar conversation, the Emperor mutilated the names most familiar to him, even ours; yet I do not think that this would have happened to him on a public occasion. … He would frequently create names of persons according to his fancy; and, when he had once adopted them, they remained fixed in his mind, although we pronounced them as they should be, a hundred times in the day, within his hearing; but he would have been struck if we had used them as he had altered them. (11)
Napoleon arranged his head like a tidy closet
Here’s another gem from Las Cases:
The Emperor accounted for the clearness of his ideas, and the faculty of extremely protracted application which he possessed, by saying that the different affairs were arranged in his head as in a closet. ‘When I wish to turn from any business,’ said he, ‘I close the drawer which contains it, and I open that which contains another. They do not mix together, and do not fatigue me or inconvenience me.’ He had never been kept awake, he said, by an involuntary pre-occupation of mind. ‘If I wish to sleep, I shut up all the drawers, and I am soon asleep.’ (12)
Napoleon didn’t sleep much
Louis-Joseph Marchand, Napoleon’s valet after Constant, tells us:
The Emperor slept little…. He rose several times during the night. He was so well organized he could sleep when he wanted. Six hours’ sleep was enough, taken all together or in several naps. (13)
Napoleon’s second valet, Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, notes that on St. Helena:
When the Emperor went to bed late the valet on duty was almost sure to pass a good night, but if he went to bed early one might expect him to ring toward one or two o’clock, ask for a light, and begin to work. Sometimes at that hour he would order a bath, which he would take or not, or might not take till daybreak. When he wanted to go to bed again after working he was often obliging enough to put out the light himself in order not to disturb the valet de chambre. (14)
Napoleon liked his rooms hot
It was necessary to have fire in all his apartments nearly all the year; he was habitually very sensitive to cold. (15)
On St. Helena, Napoleon complained that the British didn’t allow him enough fuel. Governor Hudson Lowe reported:
The number of fires at Plantation House [the governor’s residence] daily in winter are from nine to eleven; at Longwood [Napoleon’s residence], when the calculation was made, in May, fourteen. They must burn a fire in every room to make up the rest, whilst the English, living in the same house, and the offices with their families at the camp, use no fires at all. (16)
Did you enjoy this article? For more Napoleon facts, see 10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte. You might also enjoy:
What did Napoleon like to read?
What did Napoleon like to eat and drink?
What was Napoleon’s favourite music?
Was Napoleon superstitious?
What were Napoleon’s last words?
10 Things Napoleon Never Said
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.