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Napoleonic Wars

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Margaret
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Napoleonic Wars

Post by Margaret » Tue January 11th, 2011, 5:23 am

These wars have spawned so many novels, I had to make a separate page for the period on my website. Annis has just contributed a particularly good review of C.S. Forester's 1932 classic Death to the French - which may be more familiar to some under the title Rifleman Dodd, because it's listed that way on the U.S. Marine Corps reading list. It's set during the Peninsular Campaign.

Anyone here read it while serving in the Marines?
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"Madame X", Massena's mistress- cherchez la femme

Post by annis » Sat January 15th, 2011, 8:32 pm

Image

Probable portrait of Henriette Leberton, though its provenance is unconfirmed.


Reading Kydd and Death to the French has had me doing quite a bit of Napoleonic-era background reading. I was especially curious about what went wrong for the French in the Peninsula, because it marked the turn of the tide for Napoleon’s fortunes. He made the mistake of becoming overconfident, letting the reins go loose and swanning around Europe showing off his new royal trophy-bride, Marie-Louise of Austria, instead of heading the Peninsular campaign himself. He underestimated the fierce determination of the Spanish and Portuguese to resist a French takeover and the brilliance of the British commander, Wellington, and overestimated the ability of his generals to run a campaign without his input. Although he had a talented group of generals, none of them had Napoleon's overall tactical genius. Napoleon settled on Marshal André Masséna as Commander-in-Chief, against his wishes. Masséna no longer had the fire or energy required; he was getting older, and felt that he’d already done more than his bit as far as campaigning went.

The intriguing discovery I made was that there was another reason for Masséna’s reluctance. He was suffering a major mid-life crisis, a rush of blood to the head or parts elsewhere. He had fallen madly in lust with a young girl whom he didn't want to leave, and he insisted on taking her to war with him. This was a disaster because it alienated his subordinate officers (and their wives) and distracted him to the point that he wasn't doing his job properly. She was a hothouse flower not suited to the rigors of the campaign trail and caused all sorts of delays and complications, and I suspect that what may have initially seemed to a pretty, ditzy girl like a grand adventure probably became something of a nightmare for her. Although she only merits a dismissive line or two in most accounts, often not even being named, she did play a significant part in events. There's not a lot of information around about her, mostly snippets from various memoirs, so I've been having fun doing a bit of research and thought I'd add my findings here in case anyone else is interested.

Collecting riches and women were always Masséna’s favourite pursuits outside of fighting, but despite being a notorious womanizer he was relatively discreet until he fell heavily for the sensual, supple charms of a much younger woman. Completely infatuated, he demanded she be allowed to accompany him on his Peninsular campaign. Some accounts even say Masséna refused to accept his commission unless the Emperor granted permission for this woman to go with him, though in truth Masséna begged Napoleon not to send him as Commander-in-Chief at all – his heart just wasn’t in it. Added as an extra aide-de-camp to Masséna’s extensive entourage (he took no less than 14 ADCs with him!), his mistress was charmingly but unconvincingly disguised as a cornet of dragoons, and to add insult to injury her specially tailored soldier's uniform bore the decoration of the Cross of the Legion d’Honneur. This inevitably invites speculation about what heroic deeds she might have performed in order to earn it! She was married to a well-regarded serving cavalry officer, and to avoid bandying her name around and embarrassing her husband, she was nicknamed “Madame X” by the army.

“Madame X” found conditions on campaign trying and was prone to fits of nerves. She seems to have been rather a high-maintenance girlfriend. Masséna made a fool of himself, fussing over her and guarding her jealously. He demanded her company everywhere he went, even at the front-line. Despite being at a safe distance, she found this terrifying and her shrieks of fright at each explosion greatly amused the veteran French campaigners. There were accusations that her presence caused critical delays. Rumour had it that Masséna was two hours late joining his sub-commanders at the Battle of Busaco because he was otherwise occupied with her, and that an ADC had to shout the details of Ney’s preliminary report to him through his locked bedroom door. The rough tracks not being suitable for carriages, “Madame X” travelled by horseback. She was an inexperienced rider and stops were frequently made when she fell off her horse or complained of discomfort or exhaustion. At one stage everything ground to a halt when she left behind her pet parakeet, and officers were detailed to go back and look for it!

French sub-commanders Marshals Ney, Junot and Reynier were less than impressed with the amorous antics of their besotted leader, muttering rebelliously that Masséna was cavorting with his mistress to the detriment of the campaign, and convinced that he was losing the plot, a fear that some of his poor military decisions appeared to confirm. They were particularly offended when Masséna invited them to dinner to find his mistress in attendance, and made their feelings known. There were tears before bedtime. Overcome by the atmosphere of frosty disapproval she had a bit of a turn and fainted. The dinner party quickly fell into disarray and the guests soon departed. Junot’s wife, the duchess d’Abrantès, had organised a reception to welcome Masséna on his arrival in Portugal and was outraged when he turned up with “Madame X “ in tow, dressed in her scandalous uniform. The duchess registered her displeasure by turning her back on the pair, snubbing them comprehensively. Convention of the time accepted that men (being men) would have mistresses, but dictated discretion; it was absolutely not the done thing to flaunt one's mistress or introduce her into polite society. One officer remarked tartly that “Le Maréchal n'est plus qu'un vieux renard, tout juste bon à prendre les poules." (The Marshal is nothing but an old fox, only good for catching chickens) The sting in this remark is evident when you understand that the French word poule can have the double meaning of a chicken and a whore. “What a mistake I made in taking a woman to war with me!” Masséna admitted ruefully, perhaps later blaming his infatuation in part for the failure of his campaign. This failure led to his recall to France in disgrace and the end of his military career. Napoleon never forgave him.

Unfortunately for the French army, the presence of “Madame X” distracted Masséna, delayed his army's march and cost him respect and the co-operation of his subordinates, being partly responsible for a serious breakdown in relations, especially with Ney. By no means the only cause, it did contribute in some degree to the French defeat in the Iberian Peninsula. Who was this distracting female known as both “Madame X “and la poule à Masséna? Her name was Henriette Leberton or Lebreton (née Renique), and her family came from Cambrai. She’s believed to have been aged somewhere around 18 at the time she took up with Masséna – he was 50. Described as amiable, and a lively, witty conversationalist, she had been a ballet dancer with the Paris Opéra and was married to one of Masséna’s former adjutants, Jacques-Denis-Louis Leberton, a captain (later major) of dragoons, whom she abandoned to follow Masséna. Masséna was keeping it in the family; Henriette was the attractive sister of one of his favoured aides-de-camp of the time, Captain Eugène Renique. According to legend, Massena also had an affair previously with an older sister, named variously as Eugénie and Louise, but it’s not clear whether this story is true or not, or even if there was in fact an older sister – it seems more likely to be the result of a misunderstanding or even malicious gossip. One mystery is what happened to Henriette. Rumour (again) says that Masséna abandoned her in Spain. Does anyone know any more about her, or her fate? Unfortunately not much information is available in English. I had to dust off my French for most of it, and there seem to be a few contradictions and variations in different accounts. It has to be remembered as well that these accounts are often flavoured by the disapproval with which their authors regarded "Madame X".

Readers of Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe series will recognize "Madame X" as the inspiration for the female character dressed in officer's uniform who appears sometimes in his novels, particularly Dona Juanita from Sharpe's Battle, who liked to dress in the uniform of her current lover and had quite a collection :)
Last edited by annis on Tue January 18th, 2011, 6:40 pm, edited 26 times in total.

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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Sun January 16th, 2011, 7:16 am

Poor girl. She certainly doesn't fit the current fashion in historical heroines. Any novel written about this pair would have to be comedy!
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Post by annis » Sun January 16th, 2011, 7:19 pm

Maybe a tragicomedy :) I see Henriette as a foot-stamper, and imagine her having a tantie if things weren't to her liking. I feel sorry for her, she seems to have been much more a young girl right out of her depth than femme fatale, and I wonder what happened to her later- her reputation would have been shot, which was a big deal at the time. Perhaps her head was turned by the attentions of a powerful, wealthy man, but if she'd hoped for financial rewards she probably would have been out of luck - Masséna was notoriously stingy.

Sir Harry Smith's wife Juana, subject of Georgette Heyer's The Spanish Bride, fits much more closely the current model of the redoubtable historical heroine. Straight out of a convent when she married Sir Harry and very young- i think she was about 14- she took to the life on campaign like a trooper. Mind you, unlike Masséna with Henriette, Sir Harry made no allowances for Juana, but treated her as a cross between lover and raw recruit, training her to ride and deal with military life just as he would any young officer in his charge.
Last edited by annis on Tue January 18th, 2011, 6:43 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Sun January 16th, 2011, 7:51 pm

Fascinating, Annis! The deeper you look into events, the more you understand how much happens below the surface, dictating where the iceberg goes while we are busy studying the bit that sticks above the (historical) water.

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Post by Margaret » Sun January 16th, 2011, 9:10 pm

The many historical novels featuring spunky heroines who dress up like men or otherwise refuse to behave like proper females sometimes seem like authors imposing modern values on the past in order to please readers - but it does seem that there were a lot of women in history who did, in fact, reject the usual female role. It's good to be reminded of that! There were quite a few women who disguised themselves as men to become soldiers during the U.S. Civil War or sailors in the British Navy. We know that because of the ones who were discovered as women, and I wonder how many we don't know about because they were never found out.

Speaking of which, the Pope Joan movie may be gathering steam for a regular U.S. release in movie theaters. When Cross's novel came out, a lot of historians reacted very huffily, insisting the medieval belief that there had been a woman pope was pure legend. We'll probably never know the truth about this, but the reaction struck me as more emotional than rational. I'm not convinced there wasn't a Pope Joan. If a woman could get away with masquerading as a male sailor or soldier, why not as a monk?
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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Sun January 16th, 2011, 9:17 pm

I'm pretty sure that LOTS of women masqueraded as men. For one thing, it was sometimes necessary for safety, not to mention preserving an appearance of propriety, when traveling. Particularly for younger women who could pass as youths. Unless one is in a place where undress is required, who's to know?

As a woman gets older, it becomes harder to hide the lack of stubble. Less of a problem in genetic stock where men do not have beards (Chinese, Japanese, American Indigenous and some African peoples).

But Pope Joan, I can't quite swallow. Now you're talking about a woman who was able to hide her gender for more than thirty years, surrounded by men who would have revealed her gender the minute they found out. Too far a stretch for me. Do you really think that she could have lived in a communal setting without anybody noticing that she didn't EVER have to shave? And how about those messy monthly events that the female sex is saddled with -- did she claim it was recurrent bleeding hemorrhoids?
Last edited by MLE (Emily Cotton) on Sun January 16th, 2011, 9:22 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Sun January 16th, 2011, 10:20 pm

But Pope Joan, I can't quite swallow. Now you're talking about a woman who was able to hide her gender for more than thirty years, surrounded by men who would have revealed her gender the minute they found out. Too far a stretch for me. Do you really think that she could have lived in a communal setting without anybody noticing that she didn't EVER have to shave? And how about those messy monthly events that the female sex is saddled with -- did she claim it was recurrent bleeding hemorrhoids?
It would be possible, I think, if not necessarily in every monastery. A woman who was naturally small-breasted would, of course, have less difficulty. Monks were trained to focus on the religious rituals, and not to be particularly observant about the others in their community. It was frowned on for them to develop friendships with other monks. They did have private cells. Giordano Bruno used to read heretical books in the outhouse, so in at least some monasteries it was possible to be private while eliminating. In many monasteries, the monks ate a very restricted diet, to the extent that a woman may have stopped menstruating because she wasn't eating enough. For a medieval nun, it was considered a sign of particular holiness if her fasting practices led her to stop menstruating. There are numerous legends of women saints who passed themselves off male monks, including those of St. Pelagia and St. Hildegund. And there is a documented case of a woman who masqueraded as a monk and was found out sometime in the late medieval period, I think, in Germany or Poland - this is driving me nuts, because I'm sure I copied the journal article about this and saved it, but I can't find it now.
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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Mon January 17th, 2011, 12:27 am

Found the reference. She was not a monk, but a university student, which would have made it considerably easier for her to blend in, because boys in the Middle Ages typically started a university education at the age of 14 or 15, when many of them would not necessarily have facial hair. Also, she was found out. For anyone interested in looking up her story, it's in an article by Michael H. Shank, "A Female University Student in Late Medieval Krakow," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12 (1987), 373-80.
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Post by annis » Mon January 17th, 2011, 4:57 am

Although Henriette's uniform was only a token gesture- everyone knew who and what she really was- quite a few women did take part in wars of the nineteenth century disguised as male soldiers, usually but not always as companions to husbands.

Some are listed here
http://www.lothene.org/others/women19.html

Elizabeth Hatzler was one- a remarkable Frenchwoman who went to war with her husband and took part in and survived Napoleon's disastrous Russian campaign, at one stage dragging her injured husband by sledge over frozen ground for nine weeks.
Her obituary makes fascinating reading:
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-fr ... 5B8284F0D3
Last edited by annis on Mon January 17th, 2011, 5:00 am, edited 1 time in total.

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