Some 40 kilometres northwest of Lyon lies the village of St Julien, nestling amongst vine-covered hills in France's Beaujolais region. Claude was born here on 12th July 1813, in a cottage in Chatenay, a hamlet perched on a hill above the village. Together with several hectares of vines, the cottage was the dowry that Jeanne Saunier received from her father Etienne when she married her first cousin, Jean-François Bernard in 1807. Their son Claude had two older sisters who died in early childhood: a third, Antoinette-Caroline was born sixteen years after Claude, in 1829.
Jean-François Bernard came from a farming family in the neighbouring village of Arnas, of which his father was the mayor. After his marriage, he tried to establish a business exporting his wine to Paris. Like many businesses of that time, it collapsed after the 'fall' of Napoleon. Jean-François incurred major debts, which his father immediately settled. Whether he ever fully repaid his father is not clear. Certainly, his earnings were meagre: profits from the vineyards, with a supplementary income from tutoring a handful of local children in his cottage.
Claude started his schooling in the church school of St Julien, but the curé referred him for his later education to the Jesuit College in Villefranche-sur-Saone, the regional town a few kilometres to the east. He showed little promise academically but he made many friends, particularly Pierre (Benoit) Blanc with whom he would remain in close contact. Claude's parents were disappointed with his school performance and arranged for him to spend a further year in the Collège Royal of Thoissey in the district of Ain, some forty kilometres to the north.
Things were little better there. Claude was little interested in the principal subjects of the curriculum, although he developed a passion for Romanticism, in art as well as in literature. Victor Hugo's play Hernani was one of his favourites, and he became interested in the paintings of Delacroix: a print of his Dante and Virgil would accompany him during his many residential moves. From an essay Bernard wrote, it was clear that he had also studied the theories of colour and light. One of Claude's idols was the mathematician and physicist Fresnel, whose principles of light refraction were incorporated into the design of lighthouses.
In Thoissey he also became interested in philosophy, and particularly in the works of René Descartes. The Cartesian emphasis on the importance of doubt and the quest for 'truth' were almost certainly imprinted on him at that time. Perhaps because of his reluctance to confine himself to the curriculum, he failed his baccalaureat, so that when he left Thoissey at the age of eighteen he had neither a qualification nor a concept of his future. He certainly enjoyed writing and apparently had a good imagination: the idea of writing a play was always on his mind. However, his parents certainly did not see this as a promising career.
In the same year that Claude transferred his education to Thoissey, his friend Benoit Blanc left Villefranche for a pharmacy apprenticeship in Lyon with a certain Monsieur Millet. Benoit now wrote to Claude with great enthusiasm about his new career. Claude's parents were keen on him pursuing a 'proper' profession, and perhaps motivated more by his friendship with Benoit than any specific interest in pharmacy, he managed to join his friend in January 1832 as a fellow apprentice in Millet's pharmacy (at that time a baccalaureat was fortunately not a necessary qualification for that study).
Life in Lyon......