Bonaparte didn’t have a Napoleon Complex. In fact, he was charming
Irish nobleman's letter recounting an 1803 meeting belies the image of an aggressive little man
Alfred Adler, the psychoanalyst, was inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte when he diagnosed a syndrome in the last century in which men overcompensate for their short stature through aggressive behaviour. But it appears he may have been doing the French leader a great injustice, after a previously unpublished letter described the future emperor as charm personified.
An Irish nobleman wrote of meeting Napoleon at the Tuileries Palace on January 8 1803. Charles Vane, third Marquess of Londonderry – who, as a soldier in the British army, was to fight in the Napoleonic Wars – painted a portrait of a friendly, charismatic man who was then consul, and soon to become emperor.
In an 11-page letter to his father, he wrote of being presented to Napoleon: “I was excessively struck with Bonaparte’s countenance and manners. He is very different from the idea I had formed of him. His face is broad and his forehead vast, cheekbones rather high and chin long. He has the fiercest eyes and most fascinating smile I ever witnessed. He seems to have been borne for the honours of a Court.
“He has something new to say to everyone who is presented to him and there is always something pertinent and original in his remarks.”
He did notice Napoleon’s diminutive height: “He is a stouter man than I had imagined, although he is short.”
Impressed by the consul’s dress “in crimson velvet embroidered with gold”, he added: “After Bonaparte’s military levee, he changes his dress and puts on the consular uniform, goes into another suite of apartments with the other two consuls, receives all strangers.”
He was flattered by Napoleon’s interest in him, and irritated by fellow guest Lord Whitworth, then the British ambassador in Paris: “Bonaparte asked me where I had served – my regiment ... the height of my new horses – and seemed pleased to get answers. Lord Whitworth, rather unkindly in my opinion, when Bonaparte asked him if I was a relation of Gen Stewart ... did not say I was a brother of Lord Castlereagh, which he might have done and I should have been taken more notice of.”
He continued: “As to political intelligence, I can give you little ... It is rumoured that [Bonaparte] is to be created Emperor of the Gauls. He has increased the Senate to 150 from 30.”
On being shown the letter, Dr Mark Braude, author of The Invisible Emperor, about Napoleon’s exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, said: “Napoleon could be very charming. One to one, he had a respect for the English and saw the political value in charming them on an individual level.” But he added: “There was a disconnect between the person in the flesh and the propaganda. Napoleon was kind of short – 5ft 5in [1.65m] – but he was not tiny, compared to the average man at that time. This whole notion of Napoleon the emperor as this small person is the direct result of British propaganda. The caricaturists could skewer him in that way ... The Napoleon Complex harmed his image as well.”
Castlereagh, he pointed out, became foreign minister – “a key person in fighting Napoleon and, barely weeks after the letter was written, Britain and France were at war”.The letter will be sold by Chiswick Auctions in London on May 30. The vendor had discovered it among family papers. Valentina Borghi, Chiswick Auction’s specialist in printed books, autographs and manuscripts, spoke of the fascination of reading about Napoleon’s personality and charisma “from someone on the ground face-to-face”.She added: “This letter is probably one of the most authentic and detailed descriptions of Napoleon’s appearance that we will ever read.”– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)