Napoléon Bonaparte’s love story.
To commemorate 200 years since the death of Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821), Emperor Napoléon I of France, this year, I read his love story again.
In 1795, at 26 years of age, before he become Emperor, Napoléon Bonaparte wrote a short story, a novella, called Clisson and Eugenie: A Love Story.
The 2007 edition includes an introduction by Armand Cabasson (author of the Quentin Margont series of thrillers set in the Napoléonic Wars), notes from translators Peter Hicks and Emilie Barthet, their interpretation of the meaning of the novella, and a brief history of the manuscript.
Six fragments of the manuscripts were found in different places at different times, with several of Napoléon’s versions and edits, which scholars have reconstructed over time. That Napoléon wrote the story is not in doubt. It is only the order, and piecing back together the correct versions – and the translation – that scholars debate.
The 18-page novella commences powerfully:
‘From birth Clisson was strongly attracted to war … victory was his constant companion.’
Clisson desired happiness, but had only found glory. During a period of introspection, the 18-year-old visits a friend in the country. He sees two women: 17-year-old Amelie and her 16-year-old friend Eugenie. He marries Eugenie and they have children, continuing to have ‘the same heart, the same soul, the same feelings’ throughout their marriage. When he is 24, the government calls Clisson urgently to Paris, just after Eugenie has painful forebodings of abandonment. He is gone for two years due to the war. At 26 years of age, Clisson sends officer Berville to Eugenie to inform her that he has been injured in battle and that Berville will keep her company until he recovers. Clisson recovers, Berville does not return, and Clisson prepares to lead another battle …
The actions of Clisson, Berville, and Eugenie are open to interpretation. The translators give their version. Did Berville and Eugenie become lovers? Was Clisson’s battle strategy borne from sacrificial love for country, heroic love for Eugenie, despair at Eugenie’s silence, or hatred for Berville?
This is fiction, but as the translators say, ‘some passages are firmly anchored in reality.’ Napoléon did, briefly – for less than a year – know a Eugenie: Eugenie Desiree Clary. That was before his love for Josephine de Beauharnais. And Napoléon had written several pieces of fiction, such as ‘On Suicide’ (1786), ‘A Meeting at Palais-Royal’ (1787), ‘Dialogue on Love’ (1791) and ‘The Supper in Beaucaire’ (1793).
On his deathbed, Napoléon Bonaparte is alleged to have said, ‘My life was such a novel!’
The novella is compact, describing events in rapid time through short, bullet-quick sentences. But there is no doubt that there is a love of culture, nature, and beauty, in his words. The way Napoléon describes and compares Amelie and Eugenie like pieces of music is sublime: they both affected Clisson differently – and these descriptions are open, honest, and boldly revealing.
‘She [Eugenie] had a strange effect on his heart, which disturbed the pleasure of the memory of the beautiful Amelie … their hearts were made to love each other.’
The plot is intriguing. The characters are interesting. The language is evocative with carefully chosen words. The novella is passionate and intense. This is a tragedy. This is a love story.