Monday, 28 November 2011

So, Charles, what did you do on your holidays? by K. M. Grant

I'm highly indebted to Eve Edwards for including in the list of accepted but erroneous beliefs (3rd November), that ‘Napoleon was short’. It reminded me that interestingly, whatever height Napoleon actually was, the perception that he was short was contemporary to him - belittling propaganda, perhaps - rather than something foisted on him by posterity. A nosey ancestor visiting Napoleon on the island of Elba certainly describes the great man as on the small side, although who knows whether that was because he felt it politic to do so.

This nosey chap was Charles Standish. On the Grand Tour with friends in early 1815 and bored with marble heroes – he didn’t think much of Canova’s Three Graces either – he decided to inspect a human villain instead. Napoleon saw him coming. Believing Boney to be ‘history’, Standish answered every question Napoleon asked. What a noodle! Charles didn’t realise that all the questions were loaded and that Napoleon was milking him for information which would then be used to effect a successful escape.*

Knocking about in a drawer, my father had the letter Charles Standish wrote to his cousin Peregrine Towneley of Towneley, Burnley, about this visit. I transcribed the letter, occasionally berating my dead relation for his poor handwriting. I don't have a picture of Charles, but here's a picture of Peregrine in later life, and one of Towneley.

Standish begins with the usual salutations. Omissions are marked with … and I’ve offered, in italics, a few explanatory remarks and notes:

‘We embarked in a small boat for Porto Torreno where we arrived with tolerably prosperous gales in about four hours (18 miles) … His palace, for it is by courtesy called so, is a small house two stories high, built on the top of a rock and overlooking the town on one side and the sea on the other. The strictest possible system of police is established in the island …

He [Napoleon] had us one by one. The first room I was shown into was a small ante-room, where there were two aides-de-camp in waiting, and one or two other officers, all of whom appeared sullen, downcast and most shabby in their accoutrements. It is a fact, by the by, that does not much redound to the honour of France, that Napoleon has not as yet received one sous of the stipend that was guaranteed to him by the Treaty of Paris [signed on 30th May 1814, this restored Louis XVIII to the throne and set out how Napoleon and his family were to be treated]. In consequence of which, he has been obliged to reduce half his establishment and to curtail all the salaries of the people about him, and is now selling all the ordnance on the walls to Tuscany to get a little ready [cash]. He complains of it bitterly but says he will never apply for it.

He received me standing with his back to the fire, draped in a shabby green uniform with the Legion of Honour’s Grand Cross, Iron Crown and several other orders, a very small cocked hat under his arm and a snuff box in his hand, and ever and anon he put it to his nose and took it away again but seemed to make little use of its contents.

I was never more deceived in the idea I had formed of what were a man’s looks. That he is very low in stature and grown extremely lusty, we knew from most recent reports. But his physiognomy I expected to find most markedly striking. On the contrary, it is quite an inanimate face with a light grey eye and fat chops. Altogether those sorts of features that in a crowd would be passed by unnoticed. But I must not forget to say that when animated, he lights up in an extraordinary manner and becomes quite a different man, all fire and animation.’

Standish and Napoleon then spoke about the rumour that when Napoleon had been in Egypt, he had become a Muslim. Napoleon raised an eyebrow. He had certainly tried to court Muslim good opinion, and had even asked how to become a good Muslim. He was pleased, though, to tell Standish how he wriggled out of what might have been a rather uncomfortable conversion.

‘They [the Muslims] told me that I must first leave off the use of wine, and be circumcised. ‘As for wine,’ I replied, ‘I am a soldier and it is necessary for my wellbeing. As for being circumcised, not having much to circumcise, this would be impossible … these parts are not toys with which to amuse children.’

Standish was a Catholic, and as such was barred from serving in the army or navy. This gave Napoleon the opportunity to be rude about the stupidity of the British, and sneakily to add:

‘But the Princess of Wales, she is pretty lively is she not? At least that is what people say. However, there is something not quite right about her. She is not young, eh? But you love the older woman, you funny old English, don’t you.’

With disarming, self-deprecatory charm, Napoleon then asked ‘what do they say about me in France?’ Being a polite kind of chap, Standish answered in a polite kind of way that Napoleon had lots of friends, particularly in the army, and writes ‘This seemed to delight him and he betrayed it by a sort of vulgar wriggling of his whole person as an old woman does who is delighted with a scandalous story.’ Reading this, I sensed a distinctly pricklish Charles getting his own back for Napoleon’s rudery about the British.

There is, of course, lots more of this letter**, but you have the flavour. One of its delights is that it was written entirely unselfconsciously, i.e. not for posterity but for ‘my dear Peregrine’, a cousin of whom Charles Standish was extremely fond. Standish jokes about the inordinate length of the letter and promises ‘sternest silence till we next meet’. He signs off in the rather pretentious manner typical of the Grand Tourist, and if you’ll forgive me, I’ll do the same.

Affettuosamente tuo,
Katie Grant
November 28th

* Charles Standish’s letter is dated January 17th. Napoleon escaped from Elba on February 26th.
* *More of the letter was printed in a piece I wrote about it for the Daily Telegraph of Saturday 24h April 1999, and in the Quarterly Journal of Military History, Autumn 1999, Volume 12, No. 1, Primedia, USA.


Katherine Langrish said...

Katie, you have the most fascinating ancestors! What a marvellous letter to have 'knocking about in a drawer'!

Penny Dolan said...

What a gem! And agree with the thoughts on ancestors above.

b said...

It's remarkable to think that your ancestor's visit to Elba could have changed the course of French history. And how marvellous that he put it all in a letter. It could so easily have been: glorious weather, fabulous food. Wish you were here.

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

I pressed the wrong button. The above comment is from me.

Katie Grant said...

Thank you - I don't know what I'd have done without my ancestors - certainly not been a History Girl. For that (and only secondarily for possibly precipitating Napoleon's last hurrah) I thank them most profoundly.

Leslie Wilson said...

Fascinating - and I loved the image of Napoleon wriggling like an old woman enjoying a dirty joke. A piece of raw history.. oh how I do love primary sources.

Linda B-A said...

Oh, how I agree with Leslie: what writer of fiction would have dared come up "with a vulgar wriggling of his whole person" in relation to Napoleon? Fabulous.

Katherine Langrish said...

Kipling! The wonderful Kipling. In 'A Priest In Spite of Himself': 'Boney' appears as a subsidiary but very memorable character who 'slid a plate along just like a sulky child. he was a lank-haired, yellow-skinned little man, as nervous as a cat - and as dangerous' - and later, signing a letter, he 'sidled up to the table and jabbed his pen into the ink. Then he shies at the paper...'

Not quite 'a vulgar wriggling', but close.

Theresa Breslin said...

I loved the "fat chops" comment! Personal writing is my favourite primary source - letters give such insight into the subject of the letter but also the writer of the letter.