Hi everyone, first time poster here. I used to lurk on the Napoleon series forum a lot but never posted as I did not feeI I had anything to contribute; I'm not a historian but merely a hobby fiction writer.
I fear I still don't have anything to contribute but I do have a question that maybe somebody here could kindly help me with. It's about the book »Avec Bonaparte en Égypte et en Syrie«, containing 19 letters detailing the adventures of François Bernoyer during the years 1798 to 1800, edited by Christian Tortel. I had seen quotes in Juan Cole's and Paul Strathern's books and got myself a copy from our state library.
Now on first skimming through it I'm a little confused. Is this really a credible source? Because frankly, my first impresson was: These are not letters, these are not even memoirs who have been given the form of letters – this is a novel.
Also, the edition contains the facsmile of one original manuscript page, and while both my French and my ability to decipher handwritings are admittedly bad, even I can see that these letters are indeed not »inédites« but have been tampered with (in the original, the dates are given according to the Republican calendar, for example; they have been replaced in the printed version, and I noticed minor changes in the wording, too).
Does anybody know more about the history of this manuscript and its publication? Is the original manuscript somewhere to be found? Who is the editor of this publication? What's known about the author and about when and why he wrote the text? Has any historian ever verified the manuscript's authenticity and/or evaluated its credibility?
Sorry if I sound so sceptical, particularly as, again, I am no historian and have no academic background at all. It's probably rather preposterous of me to question a source on nothing but a feeling. I guess I just don't want to waste too much time in studying an aging Monsieur Bernoyer's imaginary harem adventures if indeed some of it has already been suspected of being fictionary ^_^.
The edition I got from the library has the title:
François Bernoyer, »Chef de l'atelier d'habillement de l'Armée d'Orient«: Avec Bonaparte en Égypte et en Syrie 1798 – 1800. Dix-neuf lettres inédites retrouvées, transcrites et présentées par Christian Tortel. Les Presses Françaises, Imprimérie F. Paillart, 1976
Thanks in advance for every help!
Welcome to the world we inhabit! The first thing to say is that it is often the new or general enthusiasts, who ask the most intelligent questions, which can upend some supposedly solid "facts". So everyone can contribute.
Our era is most interesting, because it is a time between the previous paucity of material (see the endless recycling of a few Tudor documents on British TV) and the mass of material we see from the Crimea and ACW onwards, where the debate is actually about interpretation. We have plenty of whoppers and agendas, not to mention primary material where an author is being less than truthful and trying to big himself up. It is a minefield, but fun to jump around in and the real stories are so much better than the fiction.
Well, thank you all so much for your welcome and for giving your opinions already! Maybe I've really been overly sceptical. Just to explain myself, I had expected some "real" letters, which these letters in my opinion clearly are not. And now I would like to know how much of this work was "composed", and by who (the author or the editor/publisher). And why, if not for publication? And if indeed it was intended for publication, how much of it was "embellished" in order to to meet readers' expectations? What made me so suspicious in the first place:
- The fact neither recipient, both wife and cousin, seem to have a name. Why are there two recipients in the first place?
- From what I have seen, there seem to be no questions, no good wishes, no "How's mom, how are the kids?", etc.
- The regularity with which the frivolous anecdotes are mixed in between the military stuff - even in a letter supposedly adressed to Bernoyer's wife! -, and their overall tone.
- Some rather weird phrases like "as we French always do" etc.
- The fact the letters end as soon as Bonaparte has left the country.
Together with all the minor differences between the facsimile and the printed version of the text I thought I'd muster up the courage to ask if somebody here can tell me more about this text ^_^.
I'll have to check my copy of "Bibliographie raisonnée des témoignages oculaires imprimés de l'expédition d'Egypte" and see what it says about it.
Welcome to the forum. I'll let better placed people comment on the letters, but just to say that you are very welcome, feel free to simply lurk, but equally if you have any more queries, however small they may be, or even if you feel that they are basic, by all means post - we are a broad church here!
Tulard references the book in his "Napoléon, ou le mythe du saveur," and I'd trust his judgement. (It's not mentioned in his "Nouvelle bibliographie critique des memoires..." however.)
Bernoyer seems pretty credible to me, he was used as reference in works like de la Jonquiere, I cannot see where the text should have been tempered with, there is only one page shown and what seemed to be tempered is the ink showing through from the other side of the page.
In case you trouble to read - A L'Intention du Lecteur - Tortrel explains about the source and why he did publish it.
Of course all memoires have to be, as all other sources as well, in context.
I've had a quick look online and can't find much out about this book, but it is cited as a source in several other books, which implies at least some historians saw it as credible. But you are right to be sceptical. Even if you are reading an original letter you can't be sure the writer wasn't playing up their role in events, allaying a parent's fear of the danger they faced, or just relaying the facts as they saw them, which could well differ from someone else's opinion. Some of the best memoirs from the Napoleonic Wars are very well written and entertaining, which always makes me worry they've been spiced up a bit. Here's an little example I wrote up for my blog: