The Return of Corporal Violet

To mark the release of the print edition of my debut Regency romance, Deflowering Daisy, I want to expand on the details of one of the flower history snippets which appears in the story. This particular snippet involved the hero’s work as a spy for the Crown after Waterloo, and is also related to last week’s article about Bonaparte’s escape from Elba. For, you see, it was Napoleon Bonaparte himself who was known by his supporters as Caporal La Violette.

The story of Napoleon and violets . . .

Napoleon seems to have liked violets from his youth. Violets are native to the Mediterranean, including his home island of Corsica, so he would have been very familiar with the small hardy flowers. He may well have picked violets for his mother as a boy. We do know that the scent of violets was the favorite fragrance of his first wife, Josephine. She also wore violets on her wedding day and Napoleon sent her a bouquet of violets every year on the anniversary of their marriage.

The Empress Josephine died less than two months after Napoleon abdicated his throne and was exiled to the island of Elba. When he heard the news of her death, he spent two days locked in his rooms, unwilling to see anyone. When he returned to France after his escape from Elba, he took the time to visit Josephine’s tomb at the Church of Saint Pierre—Saint Paul. He then went on to spend some time at her beloved country estate of Malmaison, where she had long grown violets in her gardens there. When Napoleon died, it was discovered that he was wearing a locket around his neck which contained violets he was believed to have picked at Malmaison before he embarked on his last campaign to recover the throne of France.

Though violets were an important part of French cuisine from at least the fourteenth century, there is no evidence that Napoleon had a preference for dishes made with violets. In fact, he was not a noted epicure and had little interest in food. Several different varieties of snuff were flavored with violets, a number of which were available in France. However, there are no surviving records which suggest that Napoleon had a preference for violet-flavored snuff. It would appear that he was partial to the flowers’ appearance and their fragrance, but not their taste.

Though we will never know for sure, the purple color of many species of violets was the color worn by royalty throughout the eighteenth century and that may be one of the things which made the flower so attractive to the very ambitious Napoleon. Perhaps he was also attracted by the sweet and elusive scent of the small flower. Though the violet gives off a continuous fragrance, it includes ionones, which actually dampen the ability of the human nose to distinguish the scent. That phenomenon lasts only briefly, then the violet scent becomes strong again, only to be lost then found again in a continuous magical cycle.

The notion of specifically masculine and feminine fragrances is a mid-nineteenth-century concept. Prior to that, throughout Europe, men and women felt comfortable wearing any fragrance which pleased them. In the early nineteenth century, violet was used as the base for many of the eaux de colognes worn by both men and women, though both lavender and orange blossom were also popular. It seems that Bonaparte wore an orange blossom cologne which was made for him by his favorite Parisian perfumer whenever he went into battle. At most other times, he usually wore an eau de cologne with a violet base, also specially made for him.

In April of 1814, after he had abdicated the throne of France and signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau, Bonaparte attempted suicide, using poison which had been prepared for him when he invaded Russia. The poison had lost its potency over the years, and though he was severely ill, he did ultimately survive. After that, the allied authorities believed he was a broken man and assumed he would fade into insignificance on the small island of Elba where he was to be sent into exile. However, Bonaparte seems to have had plans even before he left France to return from exile, for he told his closest friends and supporters that he would "return with the violets." By that, he meant the spring, since violets first bloomed for the season in March.

Napoleon had long been known affectionately by his troops as "The Little Corporal." After his statement that he would return in the spring, his supporters took to calling him "Caporal La Violette" (Corporal Violet). During the time he was in exile, there were hundreds of toasts made in France to the health and well-being of "Caporal La Violette" by Bonaparte supporters, with those loyal to the restored King Louis none the wiser. When wishing to converse about their former emperor, Bonapartists often used the name Caporal La Violette to conceal the true subject of their conversation when they felt they might be overheard.

Though violets actually come in several colors, the most well-known color was the blue-purple of the most common species and it carried the name of the flower. Ladies who supported Bonaparte wore purple violets in their hair or on their bonnets. Others trimmed their bonnets or even their gowns with violet-colored ribbons, or wore violet ribbons in their hair. Violets also began to appear on jewelry as well. The most common were rings which displayed a small enamel violet on the bezel. However, there were also broaches, pendants and earrings which were fashioned in the shape of the delicate violet flower for those who wished to quietly but elegantly demonstrate their loyalty to the exiled emperor. Committed male supporters of Napoleon might wear a ring with a violet, or, sometimes a stickpin with a violet blossom. Others might carry a snuff box decorated with violets, and the most dedicated supporters even filled those snuff boxes with violet-flavored snuff.

The life cycle of the violet even developed into a code by which Bonapartists could identify one another, since violets first bloomed in the early spring. Upon encountering a stranger, a loyal Bonapartists would ask the question,"Aimez vouz la violette?" (Do you like the Violet?) If the response was a simple yes or no, it was clear the person was not a member of the secret network of supporters of Napoleon. However, if they prevaricated with "Eh bien" (Well), they showed themselves to be a confederate, and would go on to say "Il reparaitra au printemps!" (He will reappear in the spring!) Thus would one Bonapartist be able to demonstrate their loyalty and commitment to another whom they had just met.

A clandestine, if thriving business was developed by a small group of printers who produced a small card on the face of which was displayed a violet blossom. With care, the petals of the violet blossom could be lifted to reveal a portrait of Napoleon. Less clandestine, but with its own secret, was a color engraving published in 1815 by Jean-Dominique Etienne Canu, which he entitled Le Secret du Caporal La Violette. Hidden in the bouquet of violets in the print are the silhouettes of Napoleon Bonaparte, his wife Marie Louise and their young son, Charles. If you look closely, you will be able to find them, too. Later that same year, in England, George Cruickshank engraved a print entitled The Peddigree of Corporal Violet. This print is a cariacture of the artist’s view of the origins of the Corsican corporal from a dung heap, topped by a bunch of violets based on Canu’s print.

Though the main body of Bonapartist supporters was centered in Paris, there were pockets of supporters in several locations throughout France. When Napoleon escaped his exile on Elba and arrived in France, at Frejus, he was greeted by a large crowd of women, all wearing and carrying violets in his honor. Similar scenes were enacted at several other towns and villages he entered as he marched towards Paris. But there were not enough violets in all of Europe to give the erstwhile French Emperor a victory at Waterloo. After that defeat, he was sent into exile again, this time on a very remote island in the Atlantic Ocean.

Naploleon never lost his fondness for violets and he grew them in his garden on St. Helena when he was sent into his final exile there. Upon his death, in the spring of 1821, in addition to being buried with the locket which contained the violets he had picked from Josephine’s garden at Malmaison, records suggest that violets from his own garden were placed in his coffin before he was buried on St. Helena.

David, the hero of my romance, Deflowering Daisy, has learned the importance of violets to supporters of Napoleon. He uses that information to foil an attempt to free Bonaparte from English custody before the defeated emperor could be sent into exile. Unfortunately for David, though he is succesful in preventing Bonaparte’s escape, the event ends in a tragedy which haunts him for nearly a year. It is only after he meets the heroine, Daisy, that he is able to come to terms with what happened and forgive himself for the outcome.

There are many ways in which a Regency author could make use of all of the lore about violets which surrounds Napoleon Bonaparte and his followers. One or more characters in a Regency novel might be able to infiltrate a band of Bonapartists to gather intelligence on Napoleon’s plans by learning the special code with which Bonapartists greeted one another. They may identify themselves to others by wearing violet-colored ribbons or jewelry, or offering violet-scented snuff. However, in the face of the French government’s serious underestimation of Napoleon, such characters might have great difficulty in convincing the authorities that the exiled emperor posed any kind of a threat. Or, a lady who loves violets might wear jewelry which is decorated with them and find herself mistakenly identified as a Bonapartist. How might that play out in the course of the story?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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6 Responses to The Return of Corporal Violet

  1. helenajust says:

    If George Cruickshank knew enough about Napoleon’s link with violets to mock it with a cartoon bearing his nickname (and his audience knew how to interpret it), the secret must have been out by then (late 1815). How did it become known? And were any supporters accused on the basis of their violet jewellery etc. alone?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Cruikshank’s caricature was released late in 1815, long after Napoleon was back in power in France. The secret was well and truly out by then. From what I can tell, soon after Bonaparte’s return, his supporters came out of the closet, if you will, and let it be known the violet was a sign of support for the returned emperor. The secret got out, and many who feared not being seen as a Bonapartist after his return also took to wearing violets.

      The “Corporal Violet” secret was only in effect for about a year, from the spring of 1814, when Napoleon went into exile, to the spring of 1815, when he returned to Paris. I suspect that one of the reasons it worked at all was because the French authorities were certain that Bonaparte was finished and his supporters were just cranks. They wised up too late, and, once they were back in power, it was made illegal to publish images of violets in France for almost fifty years. Definitely a case of closing the barn door long after the horses had all gotten out!

      There are no records that anyone was accused or taken into custody as a Bonaparte supporter for wearing either jewelry with violets or violet ribbons or even violet garments. Probably because by the time anyone took the violet symbols seriously, Bonaparte was back and it was much too late.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. This is an extraordinarily interesting post. Thank you very much for sharing. I enjoyed looking for the hidden faces in the engraving.
    …and imagine all the plot bunnies about violets being rightly or wrongly interpreted as secret signs and codes – inspiring!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you liked the article. It was fun researching and writing it, too.

      I actually came upon the information while I was in the middle of writing Daisy and it worked perfectly for David’s mission to prevent Napoleon’s release. By that time, the “secret” would have been out, but even that helps show the daftness of the plan used by the culprit.

      You are quite right, I think there are plenty of violet plot bunnies still out there, just waiting for a clever Regency author.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. Fascinating post. I’ll never look at violets the same again, especially when I see them blooming in the spring. Thanks!

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