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The grubby little Corsican who changed history

Vanessa Kirby and Joaquin Phoenix in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon (2023)

Napoleon Bonaparte is considered a “titanic figure of French history”, say Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland on The Rest is History. But he wasn’t really French at all. He was born in 1769 on Corsica, which had been annexed by Paris that very year. When his middle-class family sent him to a military academy on the mainland, he had to take an “intensive course” in French first. Short and with a thick Corsican accent, he was “almost certainly bullied at school”. He got into fights and wrote gothic novels. But he was talented: he became an artillery officer and, still in his early twenties, masterminded a victory over the British Navy when they occupied the city of Toulon.

Napoleon was “not a man for the ladies”. His first, short-lived engagement was with Désirée Clary, the future queen of Sweden, whom he mocked “because she didn’t play the piano well enough”. But when he was promoted to commander of one of France’s armies, he met his great love, Josephine, in Paris. She had no teeth, on account of eating so much sugar from her family’s plantation in Martinique, but was known as a “very accomplished performer” in the bedroom. Initially, she wasn’t keen on Napoleon; she said he came from a “family of beggars”. But they eventually married, despite him turning up two hours late to the ceremony after being “distracted by his war plans”. His wedding gift to her was a medallion inscribed: “To Destiny”.

↯🤤 One of the things that particularly obsessed Napoleon was “the zigzags”, a mysterious sexual technique of Josephine’s. To this day, no one knows exactly what it was.