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Should Niceness or Charm be Distinguished

from Goodness or Virtue? Why?

All of us admire people we don’t like and like people we don’t admire.

Hesketh Pearson

[There are some people who are both nice and good—from everything we know about her from the five volume historical record, Joan of Arc seems to fall into this category. There are others who are neither nice nor good—presumably Josef Stalin. These people are not problematic for us. The people who cause us all the trouble, intellectual and emotional, are the ones who are quite good but not very nice, or, conversely, quite nice but not very good. Napoleon is a perfect example of the latter. Few would claim that Napoleon was a good man, but he was a hard man to dislike once you got to know him. Estimates of the number of books written about Napoleon run from 200,000 (Britannica) to 400,000, and the fascination can’t be attributed to military genius alone. There never was such a charming egomaniac. The fact that three million French soldiers and millions of foreigners died as a result of his various military campaigns affects us less than the epic success and tragedy of his career. After a three months’ sea voyage in a British warship following his defeat by Wellington at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon arrived at St Helena. A mass of bare volcanic granite rising steeply out of the South Atlantic, barely twenty-eight miles in circumference and over 1000 miles from any mainland, the first sight of it depressed him. The excerpts below deal with Napoleon’s final captivity and are taken from Napoleon, 1963, by Felix Markham.]

After looking at Longwood [the summer seat of the Lieutenant-Governor] with Admiral Cockburn, Napoleon observed with pleasure the fine garden of a house called ‘The Briars,’ the residence of William Balcombe, the East India Company agent. Napoleon was determined not to spend another night in Jamestown, and arranged on the spot with the Admiral and the Balcombes to settle into the pavilion in ‘The Briars’ garden. It was often used as a rest-house for travellers, and Wellington had in fact occupied it on his way back from India. In 1816 Wellington wrote (not in the best of taste) to Admiral Malcolm, Cockburn’s successor, ‘Tell Boney that I find his apartments at the Elysée-Bourbon very comfortable and I hope he has enjoyed mine at the Balcombes.’

No writer would dare to invent a situation in which the first stage of Napoleon’s captivity at St Helena was to expose him to the ragging of two English teenage girls. Yet such was his fate. It is one of the most bizarre encounters in history. The two Balcombe daughters, Jane, aged sixteen, and Betsy, aged fourteen, were suddenly faced with the ‘Corsican ogre,’ dressed, as they had often seen in pictures, in his cocked hat and the green uniform of the Guard. Betsy was learning French and was promptly given a viva voce examination by Napoleon.

“What is the capital of France?”

“Paris.”

“Of Italy?”

“Rome.”

“Of Russia?”

“Petersburg now, and Moscow formerly.”

“Who burnt it?”

“I do not know, Sir.”

“Yes, yes. It was I who burnt it.”

“I believe, Sir, the Russians burnt it to get rid of the French.”

Napoleon shook with laughter, and the ice was broken. Betsy, whom Glover, Cockburn’s secretary, describes as ‘a pretty girl and a complete romp when out of sight of her father,’ proceeded to adopt Napoleon as a favourite uncle, and her capacity for crude practical jokes was a match for Napoleon’s. Having been brought up in a large, noisy and hard-hitting family, Napoleon was completely natural and at ease with children.

The two months which Napoleon spent at ‘The Briars’ were one of Napoleon’s rare holidays, and as there was only room at the pavilion for his valet and the two Las Cases, Napoleon was free of his tiresome ‘Court.’ Las Cases was outraged by the liberties taken by the Balcombe children, but Napoleon was enjoying himself.

It was a rare experience for Napoleon to have a completely disinterested friend. He helped Betsy with her French lessons, showed her pictures of the King of Rome [his son by his second wife, Marie Louise of Austria], and the magnificent Sévres porcelain dinner-service depicting his victories. When he teased her about English roast beef, she retaliated by producing a caricature of a Frenchman with a frog jumping down his throat. He incautiously allowed her to handle one of his ceremonial swords, and she pinned him in a corner with it, while Las Cases gibbered in the background. But she went too far when she produced a new toy which made Boney climb up a ladder and then fall down to St Helena. Napoleon played with it, and sighed “Ah well!” Her mother was extremely angry, and shut her in a cellar; Napoleon fed her with sweets through the bars. Betsy talked about her friend who was terrified of meeting the ‘ogre’; when she called at ‘The Briars’ Napoleon made a horrible face and growled at her. When Betsy accused him of cheating at whist, he went off with her new ball-dress, and refused to return it until the carriage was at the door. “Enjoy yourself and don’t forget to dance with Gourgaud.” This was a sore point as Gourgaud was paying court to the Governor’s daughter and ignored the Balcombe girls as mere children.

When Napoleon moved to Longwood in December 1815, the Balcombe family were frequent visitors, until they left the island in 1818. By this time Betsy had grown from a wild tomboy into a beautiful young debutante, made self-conscious by the ridiculous gossip which circulated on the island and even in England about her relationship with Napoleon. This gossip emanated from the French Commissioner, Marquis de Montchenu, an absurd relic of the ancien régime, who rapidly acquired the nickname of ‘Monsieur Montez-chez-nous’ as he became notorious as a social bore. Napoleon suggested to Betsy that she should teach him a lesson by cutting off his pigtail . . . she never lost her affection for Napoleon, and he gave her a lock of his hair as a memento . . .

Even in 1821, in the last six months of his life, he hoped that a change of Government in England would release him. The arrival of every ship brought wild rumours. In moments of disillusionment Napoleon said: “We are behaving like grown-up children, and I, who should be giving an example of good sense, am as bad as any of you. We build castles in Spain.”

Many appeals were made on behalf of Napoleon, one of the strongest from Pope Pius VII, the successor of Pius VI, who the French had kidnapped in 1798 and held until his death a year later: ‘The pious and courageous initiative of 1801 moves us to forget and pardon the subsequent wrongs. Savona and Fontainebleau were errors of judgment or the excesses of human ambition: the Concordat was a Christian and heroic act of healing. It would bring the greatest joy to our heart if we could help to diminish Napoleon’s torture. He cannot be a danger to anyone; we desire that he should not be a cause for remorse.’ None of these letters was answered.



[At the other end of the charm spectrum we have Mollie Hartley-Milburn. The following excerpts are from the authorized biography, Alec Guinness, 2003, by Piers Paul Read.]

‘She used to be an actress (no talent)’, Alec wrote to [his nun friend] Dame Felicitas:

. . . and she was largely responsible for my getting my drama-school scholarship at age of 19 or 20 as she was one of the ‘Judges.’ Didn’t know me. But she was good to me as a student. She fell on evil times and some 11 years ago I offered her a temporary part-time job and a flat at the top of our house in London. That lasted a couple of years. Then 4 years ago I offered her a job again—as secretary—with only a 2 year guarantee. She is a hopeless secretary and I’m afraid horribly bossy to anyone else we employ, putting their backs up, and like all lonely people she talks and talks and talks, and is very jealous of some of our friends and her CATHOLICISM is really ST. JUDISM [St Jude is traditionally the patron saint of hopeless causes] and sends us up the wall. She is tactless (in front of Protestant or atheist friends) and often uncharitable and is off to Mass & Communion almost every day. She is also, I may say, devoted to us—though perhaps a little frightened of me. Matthew [his son] can’t stand her gush . . . Well, that’s poor Molly Milburn, an ornament of the Church, a battle-axe for every rumour of the improbably miraculous.

It was particularly hard for Merula [Guinness’s wife] that she was left to deal with the staff chosen by Alec during his long absences abroad, and in time her patience gave out—first with Alec’s secretary, Mollie Hartley-Milburn, then with his chauffeur, Rob. Mollie was hard to sack because of the long history of her friendship with Alec, but Merula found her increasingly irritating and suspected that she was one of the chief reasons why Matthew [her son] was losing his Catholic faith. She wrote to Dame Felicitas:

It’s very worrying that about the only people I don’t like are pious Catholics—what do you do about people you don’t like?—there’s one in my life and for years I’ve been telling myself that she’s really good and really I like her and I get more irritable and strung up, and then suddenly two days ago I said to myself—I am a liar and I HATE her and she’s a bore and not even good-hearted and I felt MUCH better and more relaxed in her presence. And she’s a VERY pious lady and goes to Mass every day and it seems to me it means nothing at all. I know it is partly or mostly her piety which has turned Matthew. She makes one hate everything one loves, and I automatically use bad language in front of her, though it’s not one of my usual faults, and I am sick to death of going to confession on her account—I can’t believe it’s my fault any more. I don’t know why I am writing this except it must be a problem which crops up in convents . . .

[Mollie was eventually told to go. Matthew, whose conversion to Catholicism preceded his parents, did lose his faith—permanently—and Mollie was undoubtedly a contributing factor. Was Guinness foolish and inconsiderate to try to help his old benefactress by hiring her twice, the second time imposing her on his wife (whose family was strongly atheist) and son? What could he have done instead to repay his debt to her?]




[The first two years at St Helena went smoothly for Napoleon and his English jailers. But with the arrival of the new Governor, the decidedly uncharming Sir Hudson Lowe, armed with new instructions from the Colonial Secretary and horrified by the free and friendly relations which the French had established with the English residents, all that changed. A state of cold war ensued between Plantation House (the Governor’s residence), and Longwood, which the French were making the centre of island society. After Waterloo there were plenty of distinguished Admirals available who would not have refused a Governor’s post carrying a salary of £12,000 a year. But perhaps the Admirals had already shown themselves too liable to succumb to Napoleon’s charm.]

It was not only the French who found Lowe exasperating. Admiral Malcolm tried to mediate between Lowe and Napoleon, and ended by quarrelling with Lowe. The Austrian and Russian Commissioners, Balmain and Sturmer, were furious at Lowe’s rudeness and the odious system of espionage which he organized throughout the island. Sturmer thought that ‘it would have been impossible to make a worse choice. It would be difficult to find a man more awkward, extravagant and despicable . . . everyone agrees that he is touched in the head.’ Wellington, who had got rid of Lowe from his staff just before Waterloo, thought that ‘he was a damned fool.’ Lowe was fundamentally well-meaning in a fussy, unimaginative way, but he was morbidly anxious and suspicious, and lacked the assurance even to exercise the discretion given to him by his instructions from Whitehall . . . Lowe made a clumsy attempt at conciliation by inviting ‘General Bonaparte’ to dine at Plantation House to meet the Countess of Loudon: he was surprised and annoyed when he received no reply. Napoleon told Admiral Malcolm that Lowe was “a disagreeable man in everything, even when he wished to oblige. Everything is offered with such a bad grace that if he came to announce an order to take me back to Toulon to return to the throne, he would manage to make that disagreeable.”



[Born in Beirut and fluent in Arabic, American interrogator George Piro spent five to seven hours a day with Saddam Hussein over seven months of interviews lasting until July, 2004.]

He was charming, he was charismatic, he was polite, he had a great sense of humour—and yeah, he was likable.

George Piro

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