10 More Interesting Napoleon Facts

Dashing on the battlefield, less so on the dance floor. Napoleon Bonaparte on the bridge at Arcola, by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1796. (Among many interesting Napoleon facts, he was a bad dancer.)

Dashing on the battlefield, less so on the dance floor. Napoleon Bonaparte on the bridge at Arcola, by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1796

Further to “10 Interesting Facts About Napoleon Bonaparte,” here are 10 more fun Napoleon facts you may not have come across.

1. Napoleon was a bad dancer.

Though Napoleon took dancing lessons in his youth, he did not shine as a dancer. When he danced at the balls his wife Josephine gave at her country home of Malmaison, “he confused the figures, and always called for La Monaco, as the easiest and the air to which he danced least badly.” (1)

2. Napoleon didn’t like women to wear black.

According to Pons de l’Hérault, who managed the iron mines on Elba, where Napoleon spent his first exile, Napoleon had a “profound antipathy” to black garments. When Pons’s wife presented herself in mourning clothes at dinner, Napoleon “became sombre and did not cheer up for a moment while he remained at the table. … General Drouot assured me that the Emperor had to make a great effort to remain for one hour beside a woman in black.” (2)

Napoleon’s private secretary Bourrienne also observed that Napoleon “detested coloured dresses, and especially dark ones.” (3)

3. Napoleon was hard to shave.

Napoleon’s valet Constant tells us that while Napoleon was being shaved,

he frequently talked, read the papers, moved round on his chair, turned suddenly, and I was obliged to use the greatest precaution to avoid wounding him. … When by chance he did not talk, he remained immovable and stiff as a statue, and one could not make him lower, raise, or bend his head, as would have been necessary in order to accomplish the task more easily. He had also one singular mania, which was to have only one side of his face lathered and shaved at a time. He would never let me pass to the other side until the first was finished. (4)

Bourrienne, who read newspaper articles to Napoleon during this ritual, notes:

I was often surprised that his valet did not cut him while I was reading; for whenever he heard anything interesting, he turned quickly round towards me. (5)

4. Napoleon liked to eat with his fingers.

It’s no exaggeration when Napoleon dips his fingers into the sugar bowl in Napoleon in America. According to Constant:

The Emperor by no means ate in a cleanly manner. He preferred to use his fingers instead of a fork, or even a spoon; we were careful to put the dish he liked best within his reach. He drew it to him…dipping his bread in the sauce and the gravy, which did not prevent the dish from circulating…. (6)

For more about Napoleon’s dining habits, see “What did Napoleon like to eat and drink?

5. Napoleon spoke French with a Corsican accent.

Napoleon was born in Corsica, where people spoke an Italian dialect closely related to Tuscan. He was teased about his accent when he was at military school in France. Jean-Antoine Chaptal, who served as interior minister under Napoleon, writes:

His native language was Corsican, which is an Italian dialect, and when he spoke French, one could easily see he was a foreigner. (7)

Though the accent stayed with him all his life, Napoleon regarded French as his first language. When he was in exile on St. Helena, he told Irish surgeon Barry O’Meara:

It has been said…that I understand Italian better than French, which is not true. Though I speak the Italian very fluently, it is not pure. Non parlo Toscana [I do not speak Tuscan], nor am I capable of writing a book in Italian, nor do I ever speak it in preference to the French. (8)

6. Napoleon had terrible handwriting.

Count de Las Cases, one of Napoleon’s companions on St. Helena, reports:

The Emperor left a great deal for the copyists to do; he was their torment: his handwriting actually formed hieroglyphics; he often could not decipher it himself. My son was one day reading to him a chapter of the Campaign of Italy: on a sudden he stopped short, unable to make out the writing. … The Emperor took the manuscript, tried a long while to read it, and at last threw it down, saying, ‘He is right: I cannot tell myself what is written.’ (9)

Napoleon told Dr. O’Meara that his handwriting actually improved on St. Helena.

He observed that formerly he was frequently in the habit of writing only half or three quarters of each word, and running them into each other, which was not attended with much inconvenience, as the secretaries had become so well accustomed to it that they could read it with nearly as much facility as if it were written plainly; that, however, no person, except one accustomed to his manner of writing, could read it. Latterly, he said, he had begun to write a little more legibly, in consequence of not being so much hurried as on former occasions. (10)

7. Napoleon liked to give people nicknames.

Las Cases also observes:

In his common intercourse of life, and his familiar conversation, the Emperor mutilated the names most familiar to him, even ours; yet I do not think that this would have happened to him on a public occasion. … He would frequently create names of persons according to his fancy; and, when he had once adopted them, they remained fixed in his mind, although we pronounced them as they should be, a hundred times in the day, within his hearing; but he would have been struck if we had used them as he had altered them. (11)

8. Napoleon arranged his head like a tidy closet.

Here’s another gem from Las Cases:

The Emperor accounted for the clearness of his ideas, and the faculty of extremely protracted application which he possessed, by saying that the different affairs were arranged in his head as in a closet. ‘When I wish to turn from any business,’ said he, ‘I close the drawer which contains it, and I open that which contains another. They do not mix together, and do not fatigue me or inconvenience me.’ He had never been kept awake, he said, by an involuntary pre-occupation of mind. ‘If I wish to sleep, I shut up all the drawers, and I am soon asleep.’ (12)

9. Napoleon didn’t sleep much.

Louis-Joseph Marchand, Napoleon’s valet after Constant, tells us:

The Emperor slept little…. He rose several times during the night. He was so well organized he could sleep when he wanted. Six hours’ sleep was enough, taken all together or in several naps. (13)

Napoleon’s second valet, Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, notes that on St. Helena:

When the Emperor went to bed late the valet on duty was almost sure to pass a good night, but if he went to bed early one might expect him to ring toward one or two o’clock, ask for a light, and begin to work. Sometimes at that hour he would order a bath, which he would take or not, or might not take till daybreak. When he wanted to go to bed again after working he was often obliging enough to put out the light himself in order not to disturb the valet de chambre. (14)

10. Napoleon liked his rooms hot.

Constant writes:

It was necessary to have fire in all his apartments nearly all the year; he was habitually very sensitive to cold. (15)

On St. Helena, Napoleon complained that the British didn’t allow him enough fuel. Governor Hudson Lowe reported:

The number of fires at Plantation House [the governor’s residence] daily in winter are from nine to eleven; at Longwood [Napoleon’s residence], when the calculation was made, in May, fourteen. They must burn a fire in every room to make up the rest, whilst the English, living in the same house, and the offices with their families at the camp, use no fires at all. (16)

For more Napoleon facts, see 10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte.

You might also enjoy:

10 Myths About Napoleon Bonaparte

10 Napoleon Bonaparte Quotes in Context

10 Things Napoleon Never Said

What did Napoleon like to wear?

What did Napoleon like to read?

What did Napoleon like to eat and drink?

What was Napoleon’s favourite music?

Was Napoleon superstitious?

Was Napoleon religious?

What were Napoleon’s last words?

Napoleon the Workaholic

10 Interesting Facts About Napoleon’s Family

  1. Antoine Claire Thibaudeau, Mémoires sur le Consulat, 1799 à 1804 (Paris, 1827), p. 18.
  2. André Pons de L’Hérault, Souvenirs et Anecdotes de l’Île d’Elbe (Paris, 1897), pp. 260-261.
  3. Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourienne, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. I (London, 1836), p. 284.
  4. Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, translated by Elizabeth Gilbert Martin (New York, 1907), Vol. I, p. 153.
  5. Bourrienne, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. I, p. 279.
  6. Constant, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, Vol. I, pp. 320-321.
  7. Jean-Antoine Chaptal, Mes souvenirs sur Napoléon (Paris, 1893), pp. 351-352.
  8. Barry O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile; or, A Voice from St. Helena, Vol. II (London, 1822), pp. 10-11.
  9. Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile, and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. III (New York, 1855), pp. 343-344.
  10. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. II, pp. 15-16.
  11. Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile, and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. III, p. 345.
  12. Ibid., p. 346.
  13. Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), p. 88.
  14. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 181.
  15. Constant, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, Vol. I, p. 333.
  16. William Forsyth, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St. Helena from the Letters and Journals of the Late Lieut-Gen. Sir Hudson Lowe, Vol. II (London, 1853), p. 207.

22 commments on “10 More Interesting Napoleon Facts”

  • Pim Waakop Reijers says:

    I enjoyed reading your blog post; I love these small fun facts from the more every-day realm of Napoleon’s life. They can say so much about someone’s personality.
    I remember seeing a cartoon at a Napoleon exhibition in Bonn, on which Napoleon is taking dancing lessons from the then famous actor Talma. Like many of the cartoons of that era, it was hilarious.
    I often wonder to what extent Napoleon’s siblings resembled him or differed from him when it comes to these small habits.

  • Helen Webberley says:

    Napoleon had two problems that made him feel different from the other important people throughout his life: 1. he spoke French with a Corsican accent, as you noted and 2. he was barely average height. I understand how he felt.

  • Renee Reynolds says:

    #8 made me think of Sherlock and his mind palace, lol. I do admire his ability to “shut the drawers” and sleep.

    Fantastic and fascinating post as always!

  • Margaret Rodenberg says:

    Interesting post, as always, Shannon. It’s totally in character that Napoleon wouldn’t sit still for a shave.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Margaret. How true! In his prime, I don’t think he sat still for much of anything.

  • Gianni Fazzini says:

    I highly appreciated the curiosities about Napoleon.
    I am an author and historian and, of course, I esteem Napoleon to be a great politician and general (many times a bit lucky, too lucky, but terribly unlucky at Waterloo). The Russian Campaign was his terrible mistake: maybe he should have better considered and reflected on the misadventure of Charles XII of Sweden (Poltava…). From a human point of view I think that was intolerable the behaviour of Napoleon toward the innocent and quiet Duke of Enghien. This is one of the focal points for which I do not like “the Man Napoleon”. I thank Shannon Selin for her very interesting comments.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thank you, Gianni. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Russia was indeed Napoleon’s big mistake. And his execution of the Duke of Enghien was horrible.

  • Elle says:

    I was cracking up imagining Napoleon being shaved. Just curious: could he of had ADHD? I writing a book on Napoleon myself, and your blog has been a constant source of inspiration and information. Thanks!

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Good question, Elle. He certainly seemed to have trouble sitting still, though he later became quite sluggish on St. Helena. I’m glad you’re finding the blog helpful. Good luck with your book!

  • Edouard says:

    It is worth noting that many French people at this time spoke with pronounced accents, including some of Napoléon’s generals. Many people in this era natively spoke regional languages and only learned French later (or not at all).

    Of course, it was unusual for a French head of state to have an accent like that, though.

  • Tandy says:

    Great facts. I’m really impressed by your blog.

  • Marie-Noëlle says:

    I wonder if Napoléon’s accent was really a Corsican accent?
    I read somewhere (but where?) that some witnesses said he had a “strange” or a “foreign” accent, not a Corsican or an Italian one (for a French speaker, the Italian accent is not strange, just Italian).
    I am surprised that a man who learnt the French, who lived surrounded by French speakers, who couldn’t practice his mother tongue since he was less than 10 years old, still had a Corsican accent as an adult. Children learn very quickly a new language without accent.
    An hypothesis is that Napoléon learnt French with teachers who had an accent from Burgundy at the schools of Autun and Brienne. So, his accent could have been a mix of Corsican and Burgundian accents, which is certainly strange…

    PS: I hope you are well; I miss your blogs (you see, I reread your old blogs!).


  • Shannon Selin says:

    That’s interesting about Napoleon’s accent, Marie-Noëlle. I will have to read more to see if I can find the witness accounts you recollect. Now that you mention it, it is odd that Napoleon’s French was still accented despite him being immersed in the language from a relatively young age. Perhaps there is something to the Burgundian teacher hypothesis.

    I am well – thanks for thinking of me! I’m just taking a summer break from blogging and will return with new posts in the fall. I am so glad you are enjoying the blog!

  • Kelly says:

    Is it true that Napoleon brought a ballet company to Egypt? Lincoln Kirstein mentioned it in 1935, but can’t find any citations…

    • Shannon Selin says:

      On November 15, 1799, shortly after his return to France from Egypt, Napoleon wrote to the Minister of the Interior asking him “to compose a troupe of comedians for Egypt” and noted: “It will be well to add some ballet girls.” I don’t know whether they were ever sent.

  • Mindy says:

    My friend stated that her relative was the barber for Napoléon. Her brother married the ancestors of Napoleon’s physician.
    Where can I find a good source to confirm this?

    • Shannon Selin says:

      There is a book called Napoleon’s Doctors by Martin Howard (2006), which might be helpful to you. Good luck with the search!

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He preferred to use his fingers instead of a fork, or even a spoon; we were careful to put the dish he liked best within his reach.

Louis Constant Wairy