Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Death of Napoleon by Charlotte Bronte

Here is a French devoir written by Charlotte Brontë for her teacher, M. Heger, translated by Margaret Lane. This appears in the Bronte Society Transactions, 1954.

How should one approach this theme? In simple words, or grandiose? That depends on one's conception of Napoleon, or rather, on the ideas of which one is capable. Great orators and writers, who understand politics, and who, possessing minds in some degree on Napoleon's level, can understand and appreciate his military and legislative achievements, may well commemorate his death in he grand and solemn periods of obsequy; but the plain person, of no special talent, cannot emulate the flight of imperial eagles; he prefers to walk beside the young Corsican, soldier of fortune, who to him is always young and a soldier, even when cap and uniform are hidden under crown and royal robes. But this plain person, has he the right to express his views on the life and death of Bonaparte? Can he judge him? Yes: however insignificant, he has the right to form an opinion and even to express it: kings and emperors have no authority to silence that inner voice which all men hear in their hearts, approving or condemning, not only their own deeds, but the deeds of those around them. So mediocrity must not be forbidden to judge genius, thought it does not follow that its judgement will be correct. The distinctive quality of mediocrity is moderation; a precious quality, but cold; the result of gentle temperament, of a happy balance of faculties, God's gift and nature's rather than of strenuous efforts by the self. So, whatever moralists may say, it is no better than Prejudice or Enthusiasm for helping us to form a judgement of extraordinary men and actions. Mediocrity can see the faults of genius, its imprudence, rashness, ambition; but is too cold, too restricted, too egotistical to understand the struggles, the sufferings, the sacrifices. Besides, mediocrity is envious, and sees the very virtues of genius in a false and jaundiced light. Let us then approach with respect that tomb hewn in the rocks of St Helena, and while refusing to bend in adulation before a god of flesh and clay, while maintaining our individual dignity, independent though inferior, take care to cast no word of insult on this tomb, now empty, but once consecrated by the bones of Napoleon.

Napoleon was born in Corsica and died in St Helena; between these two islands lie a vast continent and a mighty ocean. He was born a notary's son and died a captive; between the two states lie a soldier's victorious career, battlefields, a throne, a sea of blood, a Golgotha. His life is like the rainbow: the two ends touching earth, the curved arc spanning heaven. Yet, a mother soothed Napoleon in his cradle, he had brothers and sisters in childhood, he later possessed a wife whom he loved much; but Napoleon on his deathbed lies alone, without mother or father, without wife or child.  Let us consider his achievements, and reflect upon the solitude of his final hour. There he lies, exiled and captive, bound  to the bare rock. He has sinned the sin of Prometheus, and suffers his punishment.  Prometheus wished to become creator and god, and stole fire from Heaven to animate the body he had made; Bonaparte too was ambitious to create, not a man but an empire, and deprived whole nations of being to give life, soul, reality to his enterprise.  Jupiter, angered by the impiety of Prometheus, riveted him alive to the Caucasian peak: Providence, sickened by the greed of Bonaparte, bound him on a lonely Atlantic rock. There, it may be, he suffered all that can be endured by those who, far from home and kin, deprived of the affection of their kind, know the soul's thirst and hunger; and is there thirst more parching, hunger more sharp than this? Even if a stranger's hand would offer help. we must refuse it, for it is charity, not love, which prompts the gesture; it is a sweet illusion, offered for pity, and we must not allow ourselves to be deceived; contempt is charity's brother, and charity herself, though good, is cold.

But in speaking thus, do we not assume in Napoleon a weakness he never knew? Do we not betray our ignorance of the spirit of this great man? Was not total self-sufficient the distinguishing characteristic of his genius? When did he allow himself to be bound by ties of affection? Other  conquerors have been known to hesitate in their glorious career, to halt before some obstacle of love or friendship, to be stayed by a owmn'a hand, called back by the voice of friendshpi; - Napoleon never. He had no need to bind himself, like Ulysses to the mast, nor close his ears with wax; he did not fear the sirens' song, he scorned it; he turned himself to stone and iron, the better to achieve his grand designs. Napoleon saw himself as a nation incarnate; the brothers, sisters, wife and child whom Bonaparte the Corsican allowed himself - not to love, that would be too strong a word, but to consider as men and women - appeared to the eyes of this mightly Frenchman simply as tools, to be used so long as they served to further his designs, and thrown aside when they were no logner of use.

Let us then not approach his tomb with any feeling of pity, nor mark with tears the stone that covers his remains. Let no one call the hand that tore from him wife and child, a tyrant's hand; no! that hand was like his own, powerful, not bloody; he who stretched it forth could read his nature; was his equal, not his superior - such there has never been upon the earth - he was his peer. "Marie Louise is not the wife of Napoleon," said he, sole conqueror whom defeat could not humiliate nor victory make proud: "He is wedded to France; it is France he loves, France from whom I divorce and divide him, since their union has brought forth the ruin of Europe."

Weak and treacherous voices cried out against the man who thus passed sentence. "This is abusing your rights of conquest, this is trampling upon the vanquished! Let England open her arms, let her take her enemy to her breast! England perchance would have hearkened to this counsel, for in every land there are foolish spirits, seduced by flattery and fearful of reproach. But a man came forth to whom fear was quite unknown; who loved his country more than reputation; who was neither dismayed by threats nor won by praise. He stood before the council of the nation, and boldly lifting a brow fearless and noble, cried, "Treason, be silent! for it is treason that counsels you to treat with Bonaparte. I have seen these wars from which Europe now lies prostrate, bleeding like a victim under the sacrificial knife. I am resolved to break the blade that has dealt these deadly blows.  We must put an end to Napoleon Bonaparte. Do not shrink from so hard a word. I have no magnanimity, you say? What you say is indifferent to me; my aim is not to win a hero's reputation, but to find a cure for wounded, weary Europe, whose true interests you neglect, dreaming only of your game. You are weak, but I will help you. Send Bonaparte to St Helena: do not hesitate or reflect, or seek another place; I tell you it is the only one; I have reflected for you; that is his destination. Of Napoleon, man and soldier, I want nothing; he is a royal lion before whom you are but jackals; but Napoleon the emperor, him I will destroy!" He who spoke these words knew well how to keep his promises, and he did, in truth, destroy the power of Napoleon.

I have said he was Napoleon's equal; in genius, yes; in rectitude of character, in purity of aim, he is neither equal nor superior - he is of another species. Napoleon Bonaparte prized his reputation and sought fame; Arthur Wellesley cares for nether the one nor the other. Napoleon set great value on public opinion; for Wellington it was a mere abstraction, a trifle to be blown aside like a bubble by the breath of his will. Napoleon flattered the populace and sought its applause; Wellington treated it roughly; if his own conscience approved, that was enough; other praise galled him. In revenge the mob, which adored Bonaparte, was often angered by the arrogance of Wellington, and gave vent to its rage with owls and grinding of teeth. Then the proud Coriolanus lifted his Roman head, folded his strong arms, and stood alone upon his threshold, awaiting the attack. Alone and fearless he defied the mob in fury, and soon they recognised his greatness, and in shame for their rebellion, came to kiss the master's feet. But the haughty aristocrat disdained their homage as he disdained their hate, and in the London streets, before Apsley House, his ducal home, did not scruple to reject it with contempt.

Despite this pride, however, he was modest; shrank from eulogy, scorning extravagant praise, never spoke of himself, or suffered another to do so in his presence. His character matches in grandeur and in honesty surpasses that of any other hero, past or present. Like Jonah's vine, Napoleon's glory grew in the space of a night, and in a night it withered. Wellington's glory is like one of those ancient oaks which shade the home of his fathers on the banks of Shannon. The oak grows slowly; it must have time, not only to put forth its great branches but to send down powerful roots, roots which will entwine with the solid foundations of that isle of which he is both saviour and defender.

A hundred years from now, perchance, England will know the true worth of her hero; a hundred years, and all Europe will know that Wellington deserves her gratitude.

[Ed: This is interesting, because it is an early specimen of Wellington hero-worship, and because Charlotte praises his modesty as opposed to Napoleon's egotism. Here, Napoleon is shown as a shown, who seeks attention, and this might be interpreted as neurotic and desperate for attention, and Charlotte did seek attention for her writings, in her twenties and early thirties - she wrote to poets for advice, and seemed to think highly of herself and was desperate for praise. She condemns Napoleon for this trait, which has some similarities to herself. Here, Napoleon seems to be a crude attention-seeker, though brave and intelligent, and possibly a Corsican bandit. She cannot condemn his too much, for this is to be read by a Belgian, who would support France. On the other hand, Wellington is portrayed as a true natural gentleman and aristocrat, modest, intelligent, and unconcerned with public opinion. This was the ideal of 19th century nobility, and showed you were of a better class.  Ostentatious attention-seeking was considered vulgar. We can see traces of this sentiment in Jane Eyre and Villette: Mrs Dent, quiet and elegant, is considered better than the ostentatious Ingrams who dress extravagantly, and Paulina Home's light white dress more refined than Ginevra's bright red dress.]

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