MY FAVOURITE PIECE OF NAPOLEONIC MEMORABILIA
I discovered this piece in Sheffield, England around 1976. I was doing my teacher training at Sheffield City College of Education, studying history and geography. I lived in Marshall Hall, a hall of residence that was in Collegiate Crescent. Every day I would get up at six in the morning and jog down the steep street to Ecclesall Road, turn right and head for Endcliffe Park.
I don't know when I first spied the figure but it was in a shop window on the opposite side of Ecclesall Road, near its junction with Collegiate Crescent. Whenever I went to the nearby Post Office, there was Napoleon in all his majesty and grandeur, evoking a long-lost world of glory and achievement.
I can't even remember when I first took an interest in the Emperor, but I know I began to be fascinated by him by the time I was fourteen. Maybe, like many an adolescent, I felt somewhat confused and out-of-place - a bit like the young Napoleon when he left Corsica and went to Brienne in France. He was an 'outsider' and what adolescent isn't?
I remember that on one school visit prior to my Teaching Practice, I did a lesson on Napoleon's life with the '1812' Overture playing in the background. Not very original perhaps, but I certainly enjoyed that lesson:) Napoleon had relatively humble origins and that appealed to me as well. As Stendhal and others have written in their novels, Napoleon shows us all what is possible, what can be done, no matter what the obstacles.
I do not know the provenance of the piece. When my four year B.Ed. course came to an end I decided to treat myself and buy it. Already I had been alarmed when the statue disappeared from the window - it had become such a feature for me, almost a companion there in the shop window, that I dreaded the thought that someone else might already have purchased it.
If memory serves me right I think what caused me to think twice was that the then Labour Government had put luxury purchase tax on such items - 12% instead of the usual 8%(?) It cost me about £100 which was a King's ransom for a student. On much more familiar ground, I can recall that Guinness was 25p a pint in the College bar and a whisky was only 17p. My hall fees were £11 all-in a week. The year I passed my 'A' Levels - 1973 - a teacher's starting salary was only £26 a week, £1,300 a year. In 1974 the Houghton Review doubled that to £52 a week or £2,600 a year. So my Napoleon was the equivalent of two weeks' pay - and of course, he was worth it!
I must have stared at his unique profile dozens of times in that shop window. He was an inspiration and a solace, a figure of wonder and awe. Whenever College got me down I always knew I could go and 'see' the Emperor and he never failed to cheer me up.
For those who might be knowledgeable about such things, there is a large S , struck-through above a Made in GDR mark. The old East Germany for sure, but where exactly? The piece obviously owes its origin to the famous Meissonier portrait of the Emperor as he defended France in 1814 - hence the grim line of his mouth in the painting. Most people mistakenly believe it shows Napoleon in the Russian snows of 1812. I have that very painting on my wall as I write.
Meissonier was born in 1815, the year of Waterloo and he painted his 'Campaign of 1814' in 1864 as the Civil War raged in America. He died in 1891, the year after the last of the so-called 'Indian Wars' - the ridiculously named Battle of Wounded Knee was in December 1890 (the very month and year my grandmother was born). For me, my Napoleon on horseback always reminds me of a time nearly 35 years ago (but a mere twinkling of the eye), when I was young. As Heine says 'Come let us talk about the Emperor, when all was gold and green'.
Around 1986 I came across 'Eyewitness Accounts' of the 1812 campaign. It fired my imagination and I began planning my novel '1812' the following year. I began writing it in 1989. I have uploaded all that I have done so far 105,000 words and I hope to add a lot more to it. My admiration for the Emperor was engendered within me, and still survives, despite a grammar school education that conveyed the usual one-sided British bias towards him. Most of the books I have read about Napoleon are hopelessly partisan and antagonistic. Some of my articles for the INS take their authors to task - something I have wanted to do for years.
Plato told an allegory about a cave. He said that it is as if all human beings are staring into the back of a dark cave and all they see of reality are shadows cast upon the darkened wall from light that shines from outside in the 'real' world. Sometimes as I read about Napoleon and look though a glass darkly into a window on the past, I feel that I am merely a fleeting raindrop coursing down that historical pane of glass - but that 'reality' lies on the far side, within. We are but moths drawn to the light of a genius who once lived and breathed like the rest of us, but was so much more than we shall ever be. And even his detractors, especially his British ones, just HAVE to go on denigrating him because he committed the unpardonable sin of not being 'English'.
"Great men are destined to be consumed in illuminating their century," Napoleon said, shortly after he saw the famous comet of 1811. So it is, so it shall ever be. Leonardo once said; "Tell me if anything has ever been achieved?" The painter of the Mona Lisa, the inventor, the polymath par excellence of the Renaissance, felt himself to be a failure. Great men might be hard to understand, but they nevertheless remain great. No wonder that Napier, the famous British historian of the Peninsular War, wept on the news of Napoleon's death. No wonder that General Wilson who had been attached to Kutosov's Army in 1812 and who then hated the Emperor, learnt to 'see things in another light'. He was distraught when the news of Napoleon's passing was posted in the streets of London in 1821.
Many of the British soldiers who fought Napoleon ached for just a glimpse of the man Napier called a "genius". And the British tars on the 'Billy Ruffian' (Bellerophon - Napoleon asked for asylum from its Captain Maitland - he did not 'surrender') were absolutely chuffed when the Emperor who they had heard so much about deigned to watch them put on a play on the vessel. He especially liked seeing the Tars who were in drag and he laughed heartily at their antics. (H.G. Wells wrote in 1920 in his History of the World that Napoleon 'never laughed' (!) ) And the tars called Napoleon a "Fine fellow who does not deserve his fate". They were in awe of him and silently lined the ship when he left. There was total silence - a phenomenon unknown before to the crew of a boisterous English vessel. They knew they were witnessing the passing of an age, the final steps of a Titan. One officer nearly stole Napoleon's pistol because he so much wanted a memento of him. Such was Napoleon's greatness to these men who had fought against him - yet lived to see him in the flesh.
It is an incredible story that makes this Englishmen proud of his long-dead countrymen. They had lived to see the light of the comet and were scorched by the experience. Those memories of Napoleon were seared into their brains.
C. John Tarttelin 2010