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Napoleon Bonaparte spoke English -- just not very well

posted 5 Jun 2012, 06:12 by Mpelembe   [ updated 5 Jun 2012, 06:13 ]

A rare letter written in English by Napoleon Bonaparte goes on sale in Paris showing that the man who many feared would conquer the whole of Europe could not quite master the language of Shakespeare.

PARIS, FRANCE (JUNE 5, 2012) (REUTERS) - A rare letter written in English by the French Emperor Napoleon went on display in Paris on Tuesday (May 5) ahead of an auction set to take place this weekend where it is expected to make up to 80,000 euros.

A few hundred metres from the final resting place of the famous military commander at Les Invalides in Paris, the single sheet of yellowed paper is being held at an auction house specialising in historical artefacts.

The letter is one of only three written by Napoleon when he was in exile on the Atlantic island of St Helena where he became determined to master the language of his British captors.

It was written in March 1816 and is addressed to Napoleon's close aid Emmanuel de Las Cases who had spent time in London during the revolution and who acted as an English teacher.

Associate from Osenat auction house Jean-Christophe Chataignier believes the deposed Emperor relished the challenge, partly as a way of passing time on the notoriously inhospitable island.

"I think for him it was a sort of revenge, a historical revenge. He was imprisoned by the English, although I'm not sure he really was in his head, and he wants to continue to have a certain degree of independence, of freedom, and to be able to learn English without his gaolers knowing it was a great motivation for him," Chataignier told Reuters TV.

The letter was written by the famously hyperactive Emperor in the middle of the night and he declares in the opening sentence "It is two o'clock after midnight, I have eno[ugh] sleep".

According to Chataignier, despite his spidery scrawl, "French people who learn English today make lots more mistakes than Napoleon".

"He learnt this in two or three years, whilst a French student now takes a lot more time to learn English so it's really a relatively well-constructed letter. He's really a very good student, although he was a good student in lots of fields so it's maybe not that surprising," Chataignier added.

In the absence of spell-check Napoleon makes impressively few spelling errors, although some passages risk leaving the modern reader a little perplexed. The Emperor declares at one stage, "You shall have for this ocurens a letter from lady Las Case that shall you learn from himself could carry well".

Fortunately, Napoleon's English teacher was never very far away. His room was only a few doors down the corridor and the address on the front of the letter reads "very close".

But ultimately it seems that the man many feared might conquer the whole of Europe was not quite able to master the language of Shakespeare.

The auction takes place in Fontainebleau south of Paris, on Sunday.