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  • Napoleonic Friendship: Military Fraternity, Intimacy and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century France
  • Marilyn Yalom
Martin, Brian Joseph . Napoleonic Friendship: Military Fraternity, Intimacy and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century France. Durham, NH: New Hampshire University Press, 2011. Pp. 379. ISBN: 978-1-58465-923-5

Napoleonic Friendship makes a strong case for an enduring homoerotic tradition within the French military corps, beginning with the Napoleonic period and extending into World War I. Using as his primary sources both memoirs and novels, the author lays out convincing evidence for the importance of intimate same-sex relationships in the French army, whether they were actively sexual or not. At a time when Americans are changing their attitudes and policies toward gays openly serving in the military, this book offers a valuable overview of the French system, which has been less punitive to gays than our own.

Martin starts with the example of Napoleon himself, who encouraged strong emotional bonds among his soldiers, be they generals, colonels, captains, sergeants, corporals, or infantrymen. His own copious tears at the death of his longtime friend, Marshal Jean Lannes, during the Austrian campaign of 1809 set a model of public grief considered appropriate when one lost a beloved comrade-in-arms.

Napoleon was loved by a great many men who served under him, and none more so that General Junot. Martin writes that Junot's "passionate devotion to Napoleon bordered on obsession" (p. 49.) Much of his youthful intimacy with Napoleon and their twenty-year friendship can be gleaned from the memoirs of Junot's wife, the Duchesse d'Abrantès, as well as from those few letters that were spared at the time of his death, when his correspondence with Napoleon was destroyed by express command of the Emperor. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

Of the fifteen hundred titles listed in Jean Tulard's bibliography of Napoleonic memoirs, almost all were, of course, written by men. A small number of female-authored texts (I list eighty-seven in my book, Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in [End Page 166] Women's Memory) offer insights into private life outside the exclusively male world of the barracks—for example, the memoirs of Madame de Chastenay, Madame de Coigy, Madame Ducrest, and Hortense de Beauharnais, as well as the eighteen volumes published in 1831-35 by Laure Junot Abrantès.

The men's memoirs are rife with tales of intimate friendships formed on the battlefield, where soldiers fought side by side against a common enemy and risked their lives to save wounded comrades. Others recall the narrow bunks in which conscripts slept two to a bed, or trenches in which soldiers huddled together for bodily warmth. Martin's research into the memoirs of men from every military rank provides moving, and disturbing, accounts of fraternal bonds created through shared suffering. To share one's blanket or last bite of food during the Russian campaign or, literally, to be buried alive in a mass grave under a pile of bodies that left just enough breathing space for an individual to survive until some passerby heard his muffled cry and pulled him out, could lead to a life-long attachment.

For the post-Napoleonic period, Martin turns from memoirs to novels. From Balzac's Les Chouans in 1829 to Hugo's Les Misérables in 1862, French literature is permeated with the memory of Napoleon, his battles, his soldiers, and the veterans who survived his accursed wars. Stendhal, who had served in Napoleon's Grande Armée during the Italian campaign of 1800 and the Russian campaign of 1812-13, presented the two faces of a Napoleonic soldier: one showing admiration for the great Emperor, as in Le Rouge et le noir (1830); the other expressing disillusion with Napoleon's catastrophic wars, as exemplified by the inglorious Waterloo battle scene in La Chartreuse de Parme (1839).

The works of Balzac, more than any other novelist, present Napoleon as an ever-present figure in the literary imagination. He wrote not only about the period of Napoleon's reign, but also about the Restoration when Napoleonic veterans were generally treated very badly. Many old soldiers, who had sometimes shared their beds as...


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