Rare Napoleon letter exhibits English skills

An illuminating letter written by Napoleon in English, sold at auction Sunday for €325,000 ($405,000), offers a window into the mind of the French emperor, struggling with syntax of the language of enemy Britain.

The standard-sized sheet of paper is a homework exercise Napoleon sent to an English teacher for correction in 1816 and was sealed with the imperial eagle wax stamp.

It's one of three such English-language letters by Napoleon in the world, according to the auction organizers, and was bought by Paris' Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in a dramatic bidding war near the Chateau of Fontainebleau, one of Napoleon's south of Paris.

The selling price — five times what was predicted — suggests the document's historic value, as rare proof that Napoleon, who famously dismissed England as a "nation of shopkeepers," learned to speak the language of Shakespeare late in life.

He wrote the letter while a captive by the British in the remote island of Saint Helena following his defeat at Waterloo, according to the Osenat auction house.

The house's president, Jean-Pierre Osenat, says Napoleon's English lessons were "very noble, respectful."

"He really had a great admiration for England, the rules and history. The English have the wrong idea: Napoleon didn't hate them, he was just a military man, and the French interests were different to the English," he said.

But did admiration alone lead the empire-building Frenchman to learn English?

It seems that vanity, too, may have played a role — and though he was stranded on the South Atlantic Ocean island, he still cared about what people thought.

"Of course, he was always very worried about his image. He wanted to read what was said about him in the English press," added Osenat, with a wry smile.

Whatever the reason and despite Napoleon's best efforts — months of hard study, often late into the night — the letter shows he still had some way to go in mastering the language of Shakespeare.

It begins: "It's two o'clock after midnight, I have enow sleep, I go then finish the night with you."

Napoleon addressed the letter to the Count Las Cases, his teacher, "at his bonk" — thought to be the word "bunk" misspelled.

In a moment of surprising humility, Napoleon Bonaparte asks his teacher in the letter to indulge him and correct his mistakes.

The document offers insight into the historical jigsaw puzzle of who Napoleon became when imprisoned and in exile.

After defeat at Waterloo, under constant watch and allowed only a small entourage, the great leader became depressed and neared death.

"It's very moving, since it's one of the last pieces of writings in English before his death," said 19th-century manuscript expert Alain Nicolas.

"At the end he's written: 'Four o'clock in the morning,' so he wrote that in two hours. He took some time to write it. ... It shows he couldn't sleep and took his time. He had painful cancer in the stomach. He was an insomniac," Nicolas said.

The letter shows a different face to Napoleon, pensive and in pain, than that of the feared emperor who conquered swathes of Europe.

The hours he spent toiling on a mere 13-line sheet also reveal a Napoleon grappling with the many hours alone.

"He had a lot of moments to sit and reflect in Saint Helena. Learning English was a way to fill his time. It was near the end of his life: he used it as a time to think about his life, his campaigns, regrets and remorse," Nicolas added.

Napoleon died in island exile on May 5, 1821, aged 52.


Thomas Adamson can be followed at http://Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP