Image: Jeremy Bezanger on

A figure who needs little introduction, Napoleon Bonaparte made an impact on the world that has stood the test of time. The French military and political leader has been written about in many books, referenced in songs, and portrayed in film and television productions. His appearances, conquests, and even his love life have stayed in the popular consciousness for generations, influencing culture for over 200 years since his death.

However, ultimately, Napoleon was a man of contradiction, which is evident in two pieces of correspondence that Of Lost Time, Future Science Group’s literary unit, will include in a collection of famous letters.

Of Lost Time to Publish Two Letters by Napoleon

Napoleon displayed significant bipolarity, his mood oscillating as he balanced global ambitions with meticulous battlefield tactics. He mirrored the ideals of equality and liberty of the French Revolution and yet became power-hungry in pursuit of his ambitions.

It is said that Napoleon cried upon the death of his friend on the battlefield, showing much affection. Despite this display of consideration, during a meeting in Dresden after the failed Russian campaign of 1812, which saw over a million men die, Napoleon reportedly remarked: “a man like me does not give a damn about the lives of a million men”.

The two letters selected by Of Lost Time demonstrate Napoleon’s inconsistent moods and, at times, irrationality. The letters also spotlight his contradictory attitudes towards women in a letter to his wife Josephine and a letter discussing his opinion on an acceptable education for girls.

Famous Letters Reveal Napoleon’s Attitudes Towards Women

Napoleon had a great deal of respect and admiration for his mother, who is said to have been the earliest influence in his life; additionally, he was the first political leader to appoint a woman for a diplomatic mission in 1813 and also often penned romantic letters to his wife professing his strong affection for her. In one of the famous letters that Of Lost Time has selected to publish, which Napoleon wrote to his wife in 1796, he wrote of his depression upon being separated from Josephine:

“I thought that I loved you months ago, but since my separation from you I feel that I love you a thousandfold more. I entreat you to permit me to see some of your faults. Be less beautiful, less gracious, less affectionate, less good, especially be not over-anxious, and never weep. Your tears rob me of reason and inflame my blood. Believe me, it is not in my power to have a single thought which is not of thee.”  

This letter stands in direct contrast with Of Lost Time’s second letter chosen for publication, which Napoleon wrote more than a decade later with a different tone. The letter discussed the type of educational practices that Napoleon believed a French girls’ school should implement, revealing his misogynistic views on the education and role of girls.

He wrote: “What we ask of education is not that girls should think, but that they should believe. The weakness of women’s brains, the instability of their ideas, the place they will fill in society.”

In this letter, he went on to describe the lessons and languages that he believed girls should learn — and the ones they should not. Napoleon even stated that while he disapproved of allowing girls to “appear on the stage or stimulating rivalry among them”, such activities should be encouraged in boys and men, “who may have to make speeches, and who, having to master so many subjects, need the support and stimulus of competition. But in the case of young girls, competition should be banned: We don’t want to rouse their passions or to give play to the vanity which is one of the liveliest instincts of their sex.”

Napoleon’s views in this letter requested that schools deny girls the proper education provided to boys, depriving them of the knowledge required to reach their potential. These disrespectful views of women are, while common at the time, a direct contrast to Napoleon’s acknowledgement of his mother playing such a pivotal role in his upbringing and the deep affection and admiration he felt for his wife.

Even Geniuses Have Their Blind Spots

Despite his contradictory nature, it cannot be denied that Napoleon left his mark on the world. Through the Napoleonic code, he built the foundations of the civil law system used today, and, through his military strategy, he redrew the map of Europe. Although his blind spots are evident in the two famous letters chosen for publication by Of Lost Time, they perfectly capture his obstructed view of women and his contradictory nature, ultimately portraying the best and worst of this timeless leader.

About Of Lost Time

Of Lost Time’s collections of famous letters tell the stories of individuals throughout history who have insightful stories to tell or have paved the way for change in society, whether positive, negative, or both. Readers get to hear firsthand accounts from influential and inspiring people, such as suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, former prime minister Winston Churchill, and those who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust. Each letter collection follows a different theme, from sport, to incarceration, to the history of Christmas cards.