Our edition of Napoleon’s Correspondence and the ongoing saga of the not-so-unpublished letters in Ajaccio

Author(s) : LENTZ Thierry
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Our edition of Napoleon’s Correspondence and the ongoing saga of the not-so-unpublished letters in Ajaccio (19 September 2019)

As you will recall, almost twenty years of hard work went into the 15 volumes of Napoleon Bonaparte’s General Correspondence published by the Fondation Napoléon, the last of which came out in May 2018. The full set includes more than 40,000 letters gathered together from more than 200 archives and libraries around the world. And even though we’re saying it ourselves, it’s a fine work, indeed the go-to source for historians of Napoleon and Napoleonic enthusiasts alike.

Our edition of Napoleon’s Correspondence and the ongoing saga of the not-so-unpublished letters in Ajaccio

That being said, since the completion of this historical and editorial “adventure”, not a month has gone by without a letter by Napoleon being reported to us that has come to light in the course of some research or other, or during inventories or audits at various institutions. In response to each of these communications, François Houdecek (the lynchpin of the Correspondence publication operation) plunges back into his own inventories and, nine times out of ten, has to deliver the bad news: “The letter you have pointed out to us bears the number XXX in our edition of the Correspondence“. If, on the other hand, it turns out that the letter in question is indeed unknown to us, we are delighted to add it to the mass we already have, ready for the future digital edition of Napoleon’s Correspondence, that will be even richer than the paper one since we currently have a hundred or so truly unpublished letters ready to add to the corpus.

About a year ago, our attention was drawn to reports in various media that the Bibliothèque Municipale d’Ajaccio [the Public Library of Ajaccio, Corsica] had just discovered in its collection nine Napoleon letters, declared unpublished apparently without any further investigation. Alas, a simple email or phone call to the Fondation would have revealed that we had in fact been in possession of these letters since the very beginning of our operation and that the copies had been sent to us by the aforementioned Public Library itself (ahem…). Of course, the management of the establishment has changed in the meantime, and mistakes happen. No big deal. We simply informed the new management of the facts.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. The same Library is currently hosting an exhibition of some of its treasures: amongst missives sent to or by members of the Bonaparte family stand the nine aforementioned letters. The local press – who cannot be blamed for inventing it, the letters were presented to them as such – has once again proclaimed them to be “unpublished” and even found an excellent historian to confirm the fact. The article caused a “mini-sensation” and, towards the end of the summer, the Paris press even got hold of the story and relayed the information.

We won’t deny it, we’re are frankly quite twitchy about the Correspondence (after all nearly 500 people worked hard on our publishing project, so we feel we owe it to them to credit and defend their work), so this kind of error not just frustrates us, it gets us quite ‘exercised’, as you can understand.

It would not have been very difficult for anyone involved to consult the volumes of our Correspondence to see in a jiffy that these nine letters were no more “unpublished” this year than they had been last year! For all you Napoleon nerds out there, the letters in question bear the numbers: 34,593, 35,030, 35,043, 35,118, 35,119, 35,275, 35,487, 35,602 and 35,599 in our edition. And their source is clearly indicated: “Bibliothèque Municipale d’Ajaccio”.

You’ll say I shouldn’t get so bent out of shape about it! Everyone makes mistakes, don’t they? But archivists, historians and (even) journalists? For heaven’s sake, all they had to do was pick up a book …

Thierry Lentz (September 2019)

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