On the other hand, in Britain, the nickname “Corsican ogre” stuck to him for a long time despite his efforts – after his hasty departure from the “Isle of Beauty” in 1793 – to become French. After his first fall from grace in 1814, there was to be another denial of his French status, by Royalists contemptuously calling him a “fatal foreigner”. Chateaubriand even went so far as to claim that Napoleon was not French because he was born not in 1769 but one year earlier, when Corsica had not yet been sold to the kingdom of Louis XV.
In addition to this, there were rumours surrounding his birth which attributed his paternity to the French military governor of Corsica, Count Marbeuf, because of a supposed liaison between this soldier and his mother. So a second thesis, a contrario, just as false as the first, presented Napoleon as genetically Gallic.
As if that wasn’t enough, Napoleon himself added to the confusion. Coming back from Egypt, he expressed to the academic Monge doubts as to who his real father was. Where did his genius come from, he wondered? The wishy-washy Charles? Impossible, he thought, thereby revealing mixed feelings (to say the least) about his dad, despite the fact that all the evidence as to his filiation seems pretty much irrefutable.
Napoleon’s identity, whether mysterious or of foreign origin, was regularly called into question, and this recurrent problem of legitimacy was one to which he, consciously or not, kept on returning. This state of affairs most definitely contributed to the birth of the character we know. Since he came from elsewhere, his freedom of manoeuvre would appear to have been greater, giving him greater leeway to push back the boundaries, whether geographical, political or indeed human.
Pierre Branda (May 2019, translation Rebecca Young and Peter Hicks)
Pierre Branda is a historian and head of the Heritage Department at the Fondation Napoléon.