Illustration by Casey Jarman
On Joseph Bonaparte: Brother to Napoleon, King of Spain, Amateur Novelist. By Brett Mead and Andrew Ridker
I. A NOVEL
April, 1815. Joseph Bonaparte is living out his retirement in Switzerland. His brother, Napoleon, has just returned from exile and once again sits on the French throne. Meanwhile a massive allied army under the Duke of Wellington sits on the Belgian frontier. One night, fearing his brother’s probable defeat, Joseph wanders out into the darkness of his estate. There among the forest and its foxholes he buries five million francs worth of jewels—insurance. He leaves for Paris the next day.
Rochefort, France, three months later. Napoleon, who has just lost the Battle of Waterloo, tells of his intention to surrender to the British. Joseph offers to impersonate him and surrender in his brother’s stead. Napoleon declines. The two part ways.
Convinced of his own impending capture, Joseph leaves his beloved wife and daughters behind, assumes an improvised name, and boards a Swedish merchant ship bound for New York.
He checks his entire party into a single room at a seedy Manhattan hotel, but word of his arrival quickly spreads. The Mayor of New York knocks at his door. A Napoleonic veteran accosts him on Broadway.
And then the media catches on. One article, reassuring readers of the ominous appearance of a Bonaparte in America, draws his character with heartbreaking accuracy: “Those intimate with him say he is unambitious; and that the parts he has performed in the raree show of Kings were imposed upon him by his brother.”
He becomes a celebrity. What else, with a name like Bonaparte? Joseph mixes easily with Philadelphia’s elite. He befriends the wealthiest man in America—Stephen Girard, a Frenchman and the prime financier of the War of 1812. With his help, Joseph purchases a huge estate in Bordentown, New Jersey, naming it “Point Breeze.” Everyone calls it “Bonaparte’s Park.”
By the spring of 1816, Joseph is back in the press. A local printer named Isaac Riley is looking to capitalize on New York’s newest celebrity. He’s in luck: Joseph’s written a novel.
II. “YON PEACEFUL STREAMS.”
On April 26, 1816, the first advertisement for Joseph Bonaparte’s book hit newsstands: “THIS DAY PUBLISHED BY I. RILEY, MOINA, or the Peasant Girl of Mount Cenis, by Joseph Bonaparte, translated from the French—Price, 50 cents.”
The novel—originally published in 1799, the year Napoleon toppled the French Directory and granted himself dictatorial powers as First Consul—had failed to make a splash in the Bonapartes’ France. Madame de Stael had a few kind words, and Bernardin de Saint Pierre was apparently flattered that it borrowed from his own novel, Paul et Virginie. But that’s about it for contemporary compliments. One of Joseph’s biographers described it as “a sentimental novel of no merit.” Another damns it with faint praise, deeming it “romantic,” if “saccharine.” A third makes no mention of it at all.
The story opens on the narrator, also named Joseph Bonaparte, in the summer of 1796. He’s heading to the Bridge of Lodi, the site of Napoleon’s latest victory in his romp through Italy. The fictional Joseph is noble, brave, and above all loyal. He writes: “I deemed every moment lost, which did not accelerate my arrival at the scene of my brother’s glory.”
Three paragraphs in, Joseph encounters a young, wounded soldier. His name is Leander, and he entreats Joseph to accompany him back to his hometown, a village called Little Bramans. Joseph cedes the rest of the novel to Leander, who wastes no time in recounting his bizarre and surreal life story.
In the spring of youth,” Leander begins, “my days glided like yon peaceful streams.” And glide they do—Leander, we learn, is in love. Her name is Moina, the titular peasant girl of the mountain. “Happiness and Moina!” Leander tells Joseph. “I had no conception of the one distinct from the other.”
But fate intrudes upon their domestic bliss. Some shepherds catch them in flagrante and Leander is exiled to a neighboring village. He languishes there for six lovesick months until he’s sent on an errand that will take him by Moina’s house on the slopes of Mount Cenis. But once more, fate intervenes.
It seems an avalanche has swallowed up Moina’s house, Moina along with it. And then, in a deus ex machina that can only be described as an accidental precursor to magic realism, Leander falls into a river and awakens to discover that its current has carried him under the avalanche into a sort of hollowed-out bubble where Moina, and her house, are still intact. “Not the palaces of kings,” Leander says, “… could afford me such transporting exstacy as did this fortuitous discovery of the icy tomb of Moina.”
The lovers live there for two months, their health “unimpaired,” Moina looking more “beautiful” and “brilliant” than ever “in her narrow seclusion.” But springtime comes, rations run low, and Leander is forced to leave the sub-avalanched home the only way he can think of: by burning it down. Making their exit, the couple is greeted by a brutal scene that contains the novel’s most unrestrained writing.
“A verdant plain, enameled with flowers, presented itself to my astonished view, strewed with the dead, they dying and the wounded, weltering in their gore, promiscuously mingled on every side;—Broken arms—helmets, and scattered garments dyed in blood, covered the field—while horses deprived of their riders, and wild with affright, ran to and fro, trampling on everything they met in their way. Streams of blood flowed from the piles of the slain and the wounded—while groups of brutal soldiers, with savage ferocity, stripped off their cloathing, with equal indifference, their companions and their enemies, and wantonly slaughtered the grazing herds of carrel, as if delighting in nothing but devastation and destruction.” Moina, understandably, faints.
Unlike Joseph at the start of the novel, eager to take up arms and serve in battle, Leander confesses to a lack of “heroic unfeelingness.” He is, put simply, a sensitive guy. A romantic everyman. And as he is accosted, bound, and conscripted into the French Army of Italy, Leander finds himself babbling, “incessantly repeating the beloved name of Moina.”
Leander is no war hero. He is quickly traumatized by things he cannot un-see: men with “bloody aprons” and “long knives,” the “horrible agonies” of their victims. He rails against those who support and profit from war, the “cold hearted ambitious men” who lead armies, the supposed “field of glory” unmasked to be little more than a military hospital.
But after a year at a garrison in Nice and an uncharacteristic letter from Moina encouraging him to fulfill his duty as a citizen and soldier, Leander undergoes a change. He begins rattling platitudes about sacrificing one’s life for the French army, and the brave actions of his courageous companions. Sensitive, domestic Leander is seemingly no more.
The major shift in tone occurs at the Bridge of Lodi, where Leander and Joseph met. There, he falls under the magnetic sway of a young leader and his cowardice is cured. “I formed a conception of the astonishing moral effect, produced by the sublime and daring genius of a general.” That general is Napoleon.
Having been wounded in the battle, and feeling that his service has been sufficient, Leander decides to reunite with his long-lost love, bringing his story up to the present. Joseph walks with Leander to Moina’s village, where the lovers are instantly married.
On his way out of the village, we sense a shift in Joseph as well. Where Leander, by the novel’s end, adopts a soldier’s devotion to his general, Joseph wraps up the narrative in especially Leanderish terms: “A fertile soil and delightful climate but serve to invite the horrors of invasion and exterminating war; while the peaceful peasant of Bramans, lives in tranquility and happiness, contented with his domestic enjoyments, and his humble poverty.”
III. TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN
Moina is a portrait of two men, Joseph and Leander, who are actually the same man—the real-life Joseph Bonaparte—wrestling with the unspeakable beneath the fog of fiction. The brief statements in support of Napoleon and a man’s wartime duty do not approach, in length or substance, the wrenching (if clumsy) depictions of war and longing for domestic love that constitute most of the novel.
As a child, Joseph was Napoleon’s opposite—kind, soft-spoken, tall—and the child to which the Bonapartes pegged their financial future. Joseph was meant to join the clergy, the most stable, profitable profession available. He was charming and popular. His younger brother, by contrast, was violent and temperamental; Napoleon’s schooldays were utterly friendless.
If Leander is a fictionalized Joseph Bonaparte, sensitive and likable and unfit for war, then his Moina was Julie Clary. Joseph had little to offer her, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, at the time of their wedding. The Bonapartes were going bankrupt, and Napoleon had yet to distinguish himself in the mire of Revolutionary France. Joseph, then as ever, was easily contented. Julie, pretty, pleasant, and rich, was more than enough. He loved her from the first.
Where Joseph was peaceful and domestic, Napoleon was passionate and ambitious. On his brother’s advice, he briefly courted Julie’s sister, Eugenie, but left her abruptly, settling instead for Josephine de Beauharnais, the mistress of his political patron. Shortly thereafter he left for Italy, the first step on a lightning ascent to supreme power. Joseph followed dutifully. The elder Bonaparte served—on his brother’s command—in a few plum diplomatic jobs, only settling down to the family life he craved after his brother’s place was secure. His two daughters, Charlotte and Zenaide, were born in 1802 and 1803, respectively.
By 1806, they were princesses of the French Empire. Their father a prince, their uncle an emperor. Napoleon had grown weary of his consular title two years prior, preferring to join the crowned heads he had made a career of cowing. Looking to secure his place among them, he began to place his brothers and sisters on the thrones of his conquered kingdoms. Joseph was handed a jewel of the Napoleonic Empire: in 1806 he and Julie took their seats as King and Queen of Naples. But Napoleon’s conquests did not stop. By 1808 another Bourbon state had given way to his will, and Joseph became the first Corsican King of Spain. Julie, refusing her brother-in-law’s order to depart for war-torn Iberia, was crowned in absentia.
In Moina, the Joseph and Leander characters, two sides of the same coin, both undergo unconvincing changes in attitude. Leander spends most of his life unfit for war, despising ambition, and wanting nothing more than to be with his love. At Lodi, however, he is transformed by Napoleon’s presence—or so he says, before quitting the war and returning to Moina. Joseph, by contrast, begins the novel dedicated to his brother’s cause. After hearing Leander’s tale, however, he comes to realize the brutalities of war and the bliss of peaceful country life.
In Spain, without Julie, a different kind of shift took place for the real-life Joseph Bonaparte. He spiraled into depression. He would sit on his palace roof for hours, staring through a telescope, his lone escape from the prison of court life. The Spanish took to calling him “Pepe Botalla,” or Father Bottle, mistaking the telescope for a bottle of wine.
Spain was the oozing sore of Napoleon’s empire. It bled men and materiel, its French occupiers clashing with English armies and Spanish rebels in a bloody cycle of diminishing returns. Joseph, miserable, sat on its throne. He missed Julie, and tried to please her despite the distance. One Christmas Eve, Antoine Saliceti—a former political rival of her father’s—did not wake up; a victim, it was rumored, of poisoning. Napoleon’s ruthless nature may well have been taking hold of Joseph. What better proof could there be than the cruel, Napoleonic love letter of political assassination?
François Gérard’s portrait of Julie Clary.
Napoleon, approaching his first downfall after the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812, turned on Joseph. He called Joseph’s views “narrow and pitiful” and callously implored him to “retire to the obscurity of some country-house forty leagues from Paris. You will live there quietly if I live; you will be killed or arrested if I die.” Napoleon was able to negotiate the terms of his first exile—both for himself and his brother. He was not so lucky the second time around. After Waterloo, at Rochefort, they parted ways for the last time. Joseph went to America, Napoleon to the South Atlantic rock of St. Helena.
V. “DOMESTIC AFFECTIONS”
Joseph Bonaparte could never call his brother a tyrant. He could never say that his ambition had destroyed their family. He couldn’t say that he never wanted to be thrust into history, that above all else he wanted to live out his days in quiet, country solitude with his wife and daughters. He couldn’t lay bare his philosophy, stated bluntly in Moina, that “Domestic affections constitute the chief Felicity of Human Life.”
But he could write a novel. A poorly plotted, unconvincing novel, peppered with obligatory references to Napoleon’s greatness, which nonetheless illuminates the one core truth of his life: that there is no such thing as the solitary general, the one-man army, the lone historical actor; that greatness does not live in a vacuum. It has wives, it has children, it has brothers.
Brett Mead is an amateur historian and law student at Columbia University.