Mr. Bonaparte of Corsica

Author: John Kendrick Bangs

Chapter II: Brienne 1779-1785

As we have seen, the young Corsican was only ten years of age when, through the influence of Count Marboeuf, an old friend of the Bonaparte family, he was admitted to the military school at Brienne. Those who were present at the hour of his departure from home say that Napoleon would have wept like any other child had he yielded to the impulses of his heart, and had be not detected a smile of satisfaction upon the lips of his brother Joseph. It was this smile that drove all tender emotions from his breast. Taking Joseph to one side, he requested to know the cause of his mirth.

"I was thinking of something funny," said Joseph, paling slightly as he observed the stern expression of Napoleon’s face.

"Oh, indeed," said Napoleon; "and what was that something? I’d like to smile myself."

"H’m!—ah—why," faltered Joseph, "it may not strike you as funny, you know. What is a joke for one man is apt to be a serious matter for another, particularly when that other is of a taciturn and irritable disposition."

"Very likely," said Napoleon, dryly; "and sometimes what is a joke for the man of mirth is likewise in the end a serious matter for that same humorous person. This may turn out to be the case in the present emergency. What was the joke? If I do not find it a humorous joke, I’ll give you a parting caress which you won’t forget in a hurry."

"I was only thinking," said Joseph, uneasily, "that it is a very good thing for that little ferry-boat you are going away on that you are going on it."

Here Joseph smiled weakly, but Napoleon was grim as ever.

"Well," he said, impatiently, "what of that?"

"Why," returned Joseph, "it seemed to me that such a tireless little worker as the boat is would find it very restful to take a Nap."

For an instant Napoleon was silent.

"Joseph," said he, as he gazed solemnly out of the window, "I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this. I had had regrets at leaving home. A moment ago I was ready to break down for the sorrow of parting from my favorite Alp, from my home, from my mother, and my little brass cannon; but now—now I can go with a heart steeled against emotion. If you are going in for humor of that kind, I’m glad I’m going away. Farewell."

With this, picking Joseph up in his arms and concealing him beneath the sofa cushions, Napoleon imprinted a kiss upon his mother’s cheek, rushed aboard the craft that was to bear him to fame, and was soon but a memory in the little house at Ajaccio. "Parting is such sweet sorrow," murmured Joseph, as he watched the little vessel bounding over the turquoise waters of the imprisoned sea. "I shall miss him; but there are those who wax fat on grief, and, if I know myself, I am of that brand."

Arrived at Paris, Napoleon was naturally awe-stricken by the splendors of that wonderful city.

"I shall never forget the first sight I had of Paris," he said, years later, when speaking of his boyhood to Madame Junot, with whom he was enjoying a tete-a-tete in the palace at Versailles. "I wondered if I hadn’t died of sea-sickness on the way over, as I had several times wished I might, and got to heaven. I didn’t know how like the other place it was at that time, you see. It was like an enchanted land, a World’s Fair forever, and the prices I had to pay for things quite carried out the World’s Fair idea. They were enormous. Weary with walking, for instance, I hired a fiacre and drove about the city for an hour, and it cost me fifty francs; but I fell in with pleasant enough people, one of whom gave me a ten-franc ticket entitling me to a seat on a park bench—for five francs."

Madame Junot laughed.

"And yet they claim that bunco is a purely American institution," she said.

"Dame!" cried Napoleon, rising from the throne, and walking excitedly up and down the palace floor, "I never realized until this moment that I had been swindled! Bourrienne, send Fouche to me. I remember the man distinctly, and if he lives he has yet to die."

Calming down, he walked to Madame Junot’s side, and, taking her by the hand, continued:

"And then the theatres! What revelations of delight they were! I used to go to the Theatre Francais whenever I could sneak away and had the money to seat me with the gods in the galleries. Bernhardt was then playing juvenile parts, and Coquelin had not been heard of. Ah! my dear Madame Junot," he added, giving her ear a delicate pinch, "those were the days when life seemed worth the living—when one of a taciturn nature and prone to irritability could find real pleasure in existence. Oh to be unknown again!"

And then, Madame Junot’s husband having entered the room, the Emperor once more relapsed into a moody silence.

But to return to Brienne. Napoleon soon found that there is a gulf measurable by no calculable distance between existence as the dominating force of a family and life as a new boy at a boardingschool. He found his position reversed, and he began for the first time in his life to appreciate the virtues of his brother Joseph. He who had been the victorious general crossing the Alps now found himself the Alp, with a dozen victorious generals crossing him; he who had been the gunner was now the target, and his present inability to express his feelings in language which his tormentors could understand, for he had not yet mastered the French tongue, kept him in a state of being which may well be termed volcanic.

"I simply raged within in those days," Napoleon once said to Las Casas. "I could have swallowed my food raw and it would have been cooked on its way down, I boiled so. They took me for a snow-clad Alp, when, as a matter of fact, I was a small Vesuvius, with a temperature that would have made Tabasco sauce seem like iced water by contrast."

His treatment at the hands of his fellow-students did much to increase his irritability, but he kept himself well in hand, biding the time when he could repay their insults with interest. They jeered him because he was short—short of stature and short of funds; they twitted him on being an alien, calling him an Italian, and asking him why he did not seek out a position in the street-cleaning bureau instead of endeavoring to associate with gentlemen. To this the boy made a spirited reply.

"I am fitting myself for that," he said. "I’ll sweep your Parisian streets some day, and some of you particles will go with the rest of the dust before my broom."

He little guessed how prophetic were these words.

Again, they tormented Napoleon on being the son of a lawyer, and asked him who his tailor was, and whether or not his garments were the lost suits of his father’s clients, the result of which was that, though born of an aristocratic family, the boy became a pronounced Republican, and swore eternal enmity to the high-born. Another result of this attitude towards him was that he retired from the companionship of all save his books, and he became intimate with Homer and Ossian and Plutarch—familiar with the rise and fall of emperors and empires. Challenged to fight a duel with one of his classmates for a supposititious insult, he accepted, and, having the choice in weapons, chose an examination in mathematics, the one first failing in a demonstration to blow his brains out. "That is the safer for you," he said to his adversary. "You are sure to lose; but the after-effects will not be fatal, because you have no brains to blow out, so you can blow out a candle instead."

Whatever came of the duel we are not informed; but it is to be presumed that it did not result fatally for young Bonaparte, for he lived many years after the incident, as most of our readers are probably aware. Had he not done so, this biography would have had to stop here, and countless readers of our own day would have been deprived of much entertaining fiction that is even now being scattered broadcast over the world with Napoleon as its hero. His love of books combined with his fondness for military life was never more beautifully expressed than when he wrote to his mother: "With my sword at my side and my Homer in my pocket, I hope to carve my way through the world."

The beauty and simplicity of this statement is not at all affected by Joseph’s flippant suggestion that by this Napoleon probably meant that he would read his enemies to sleep with his Homer, and then use his sword to cut their heads off. Joseph, as we have already seen, had been completely subjugated by his younger brother, and it is not to be wondered at, perhaps, that, with his younger brother at a safe distance, he should manifest some jealousy, and affect to treat his sentiments with an unwarranted levity.

For Napoleon’s self-imposed solitude everything at Brienne arranged itself propitiously. Each of the students was provided with a small patch of ground which he could do with as he pleased, and Napoleon’s use of his allotted share was characteristic. He converted it into a fortified garden, surrounded by trees and palisades.

"Now I can mope in peace," he said—and he did.

It has been supposed by historians that it was here that Napoleon did all of his thinking, mapping out his future career, and some of them have told us what he thought. He dreamed of future glory always, one of them states; but whether upon the authority of a palisade or a tiger-lily is not mentioned. Others have given us his soliloquies as he passed to and fro in this little retreat alone, and heard only by the stars at night; but for ourselves, we must be accurate, and it is due to the reader at this point that we should confess—having no stars in our confidence—our entire ignorance as to what Napoleon Bonaparte said, did, or thought when sitting in solitude in his fortified bower; though if our candid impression is desired we have no hesitation in saying that we believe him to have been in Paris enjoying the sights of the great city during those periods of solitude. Boys are boys in all lands, and a knowledge of that peculiar species of human beings, the boarding-school boy, is convincing that, given a prospect of five or six hours of uninterrupted solitude, no youth of proper spirit would fail to avail himself of the opportunities thus offered to see life, particularly with a city like Paris within easy "hooky" distance.

It must also be remembered that the French had at this time abolished the hereafter, along with the idea of a Deity and all pertaining thereto, so that there was nothing beyond a purely temporal discipline and lack of funds to interfere with Bonaparte’s enjoyment of all the pleasures which Paris could give. Of temporal discipline he need have had no fear, since, it was perforce relaxed while he was master of his solitude; as for the lack of funds, history has shown that this never interfered with the fulfilment of Napoleon’s hopes, and hence the belief that the beautiful pictures, drawn by historians and painted by masters of the brush, of Napoleon in solitude should be revised to include a few accessories, drawn from such portions of Parisian life as will readily suggest themselves.

In his studies, however, Napoleon ranked high. His mathematical abilities were so marked that it was stated that he could square the circle with his eyes closed and both hands tied behind his back.

"The only circle I could not square at that time," said he, "was the family circle, being insufficiently provided with income to do so. I might have succeeded better had not Joseph’s appetite grown too fast for the strength of my pocket; that was the only respect, however, in which I ever had any difficulty in keeping up with my dear elder brother." It was here, too, that he learned the inestimably important military fact that the shortest distance between two points is in a straight line; and that he had fully mastered that fact was often painfully evident to such of his schoolmates as seemed to force him to measure with his right arm the distance between his shoulder and the ends of their noses. Nor was he utterly without wit. Asked by a cribbing comrade in examination what a corollary was, Napoleon scornfully whispered back:

"A mathematical camel with two humps."

In German only was he deficient, much to the irritation of his instructor.

"Will you ever learn anything?" asked M. Bouer, the German teacher.

"Certainly," said Napoleon; "but no more German. I know the only word I need in that language."

"And what, pray, is that?"

"Surrender; that’s all I’ll ever wish to say to the Germans. But lest I get it wrong, pray tell me the imperative form of surrender in your native tongue."

M. Bouer’s reply is not known to history, but it was probably not one which the Master of Etiquette at Brienne could have entirely commended.

So he lived at Brienne, thoroughly mastering the science of war; acquiring a military spirit; making no friends, but commanding ultimately the fearsome respect of his school-mates. One or two private interviews with little aristocrats who jeered at him for his ancestry convinced them that while he might not have had illustrious ancestors, it was not unlikely that he would in time develop illustrious descendants, and the jeerings and sneerings soon ceased. The climax of Bonaparte’s career at Brienne was in 1784, when he directed a snowball fight between two evenly divided branches of the school with such effect that one boy had his skull cracked and the rest were laid up for weeks from their wounds.

"It was a wonderful fight," remarked Napoleon, during his campaign in Egypt. "I took good care that an occasional missent ball should bowl off the hat of M. Bouer, and whenever any particularly aristocratic aristocrat’s head showed itself above the ramparts, an avalanche fell upon his facade with a dull, sickening thud. I have never seen an American college football game, but from all I can learn from accounts in the Paris editions of the American newspapers the effects physical in our fight and that game are about the same."

In 1784, shortly after this episode, Napoleon left Brienne, having learned all that those in authority there could teach him, and in 1785 he applied for and received admission to the regular army, much to the relief of Joseph.

"If he had flunked and come back to Corsica to live," said Joseph, "I think I should have emigrated. I love him dearly, but I’m fonder of myself, and Corsica, large as it is, is too small to contain Napoleon Bonaparte and his brother Joseph simultaneously, particularly as Joseph is distinctly weary of being used as an understudy for a gory battle-field."


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Mr. Bonaparte of Corsica

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Mr. Bonaparte of Corsica

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: John Kendrick Bangs, "Chapter II: Brienne 1779-1785," Mr. Bonaparte of Corsica in Mr. Bonaparte of Corsica (New York: The Century Co., 1918), Original Sources, accessed February 4, 2023,

MLA: Bangs, John Kendrick. "Chapter II: Brienne 1779-1785." Mr. Bonaparte of Corsica, in Mr. Bonaparte of Corsica, New York, The Century Co., 1918, Original Sources. 4 Feb. 2023.

Harvard: Bangs, JK, 'Chapter II: Brienne 1779-1785' in Mr. Bonaparte of Corsica. cited in 1918, Mr. Bonaparte of Corsica, The Century Co., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 4 February 2023, from