PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Graying, ink stained notebook fragments showing Napoleon Bonaparte’s efforts two centuries ago to grasp the English language go on auction in Paris at the weekend, alongside some 350 other Napoleonic artifacts.
Defeated by the British at Waterloo and held on the remote Atlantic island of Saint Helena until his death in 1821, the French emperor used his time in captivity to learn English — although the scraps show the military mastermind to be a less-than-model pupil.
Written in Napoleon’s spidery handwriting, the remnants of his lessons from a French count also in exile on Saint Helena show how the headstrong leader doodled to combat boredom, and struggled with the intricacies of English grammar.
“Even learning English, he couldn’t shake off the soldier, the army man inside him. His doodles are of walls and designs of military fortifications,” said Jean-Pierre Osenat, chairman of Paris-based auction house Osenat, which is handling the sale.
The auction house expects the paper scraps, mounted on three framed boards, to fetch up to 9,500 euros ($13,660) in total at Sunday’s auction.
As ruler of France from 1804 to 1815, Napoleon established a powerful military empire extending over much of Western Europe before being defeated by the Duke of Wellington’s forces at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. After attempting to flee to the United States, Napoleon surrendered to British forces on the coast of western France a month later.
It was while being transferred to Saint Helena that he voiced his shame at never having learnt English, and his companion in exile, the Count of Las Cases, happily obliged by giving him lessons over the subsequent years.
“It’s incredible to think that after fighting the English for his entire life, Napoleon only decided to learn English at the end. He could have thought of it before,” said Osenat.
But the fearless leader and military strategist, who successfully invaded Egypt and Italy and famously escaped exile in Elba, appears to have stumbled over the idiosyncrasies of irregular English verbs, like many before and after him.
“Run, runned, running,” Napoleon wrote on one piece of paper. On another he translates the French “Qu’est-ce qui etait arrive?” as “What was it arrived,” rather than “What has happened?”
Also up for sale on Sunday will be a rare document from the French Revolution, a handwritten record of Louis XVI’s death sentence by the newly formed parliament or National Convention in 1793, a move which was to pave the way for Napoleon’s rise.
The document lists the names of all Convention members along with their choice of sentence for the fallen monarch, who was tried for treason after his flight from Paris in 1791 and capture at the town of Varennes in northeastern France.
Some members voted for imprisonment, others for exile, but a small majority, including famed revolutionaries Maximilien Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat chose to sentence the king to the guillotine.
Bertrand Barere, another Convention member, added a particularly damning verdict, transcribed in the record:
“Only the dead never come back, I vote that he die.”
Later annotations, added in 1818 in the right-hand margin of each page, show the fate of each member of the Convention, and are testimony to the bloodthirsty turn the Revolution was about to take with the onset of the Reign of Terror.
Many of the names in the list, including Robespierre and the Duc d’Orleans, died at the guillotine, while Marat was assassinated in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday.
(This story was corrected to make clear that Napoleon was not captured at Waterloo but surrendered a month later)
Editing by Catherine Bremer