Napoleon: A Life
By Andrew Roberts
When a biographer produces some new work on one of the most-studied figures in history, it’s a commonplace for them to at least nod in the direction of their own derivativeness. Biographies of figures like Queen Elizabeth I or President Kennedy often open with outright apologies from their authors – insincere apologies, of course, since those authors then immediately proceed to thump a thousand new pages of recapitulation and hearsay onto our reading dockets. Excuses are made involving lifelong fascination, or synchronicity with current events, or tenuous personal connection; as far as anyone can determine, nobody has ever thought twice, laid down his pen, and said, “You know, the world really doesn’t need a new biography of Julius Caesar! Thank God I caught myself in time!”
One favorite authorial wheeze in justifying the redundancy of their labors is to trumpet “new material.” This can range from the impossibly meager – a new Shakespeare biography, for instance, generated by the discovery of the signature of somebody who once owed him money – to the impossibly abundant, as in the case of Stephen Kotkin’s new multi-volume biography of Stalin, which takes advantage of huge tranches of recently-opened Soviet archives but which nevertheless covers 95% of the same ground as, say, Robert Service’s magnificent 2004 biography of the man, or Robert Conquest’s from 1991, or, for that matter, Isaac Deutscher’s from 1969.
Along these same lines, veteran biographer Andrew Roberts this book season has produced an 800-page biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the mere thought of such a thing, let alone the brick-solid reality of it, is an extravagant, almost insulting imposition on the carefully-rationed spare time of his readers. Bonaparte is one of the most exhaustively-studied people in history; in less than a decade, we’ve had gigantic one-volume biographies, gigantic two-volume biographies, gigantic reprints of earlier biographies, studies of the Russian campaign, the Egyptian campaign and dozens of other studies large and small. Bonaparte’s every move has been scrutinized, his every utterance parsed, his locks of hair CT-scanned as often as any Egyptian mummy; no matter how galling it might be for professional historians to admit, there are no substantial secrets remaining in his life.
But there will always been new doorstop biographies, and Roberts, cavalierly declining to apologize, reaches immediately for his own meager justification: the opening of the storehouse of the Fondation Napoleon in paris, which since 2004 has been publishing every one of its collected letters by Bonaparte, more than 33,000 missives, many of which haven’t been available to earlier biographers. According to Roberts, these letters show “a charm, humour and capacity for candid self-appraisal” that, apparently, warrants getting the whole Napoleon apparatus clanging and bassooning again.
Certainly the apparatus allows for a certain amount of swanning on Roberts’ part. In his Acknowledgements, he thanks French President Nicolas Sarkozy “for his insights into the state of thinking about Napoleon in France today” (Sarkozy knows perhaps four French people well enough to know their musings on Napoleon), UK Prime Minister David Cameron “for allowing me to research the Napoleon correspondence at Chequers” (the prime minister’s permission isn’t required for a researcher to consult the Chequers archives), the late Archduke Otto von Hapsburg “for his views on Marie Louise’s ‘declasse‘ marriage to Napoleon” (a Hapsburg, I ask you), the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon “for showing me Napoleon’s chair from Fontainbleau and desk from the Tuileries” (highly-detailed photos of the chair and desk are available to all online), and Dr. Henry Kissinger “for his thoughts on the Congress of Vienna.” It’s just faintly possible that these people are name-checked for reasons other than their trenchant historical contributions.
Napoleon Bonaparte was the founder of modern France and one of the great conquerors of history. He came to power through a military coup only six years after entering the country as a penniless political refugee. As First Consul and later Emperor, he almost won hegemony in Europe, but for a series of coalitions specifically designed to bring him down. Although his conquests ended in defeat and ignominious imprisonment, over the course of his short but eventful life he fought sixty battles and lost only seven. For any general, of any age, this was an extraordinary record.
“Yet his greatest and most lasting victories,” Roberts goes on, “were those of his institutions, which put an end to the chaos of the French Revolution and cemented its guiding principle of equality before the law.” And just as the jaw is beginning to drop at such a characterization of a ruthless tyrant who censored the press, ran the law courts by personal whim, arrested innocent citizens out of angry pique, demanded a level of prostration not seen since the height of Byzantium, and dragged his country into disastrous wars it had no hope of winning, Roberts decides to increase the tempo:
The ideas that underpin our modern world – meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances and so on – were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them, he added rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire.
And even on the disgrace for which Bonaparte is more guilty than any other, Roberts is almost ravingly adulatory:
He convinced his followers they were taking part in an adventure, a pageant, an experiment and a story whose sheer splendour would draw the attention of posterity for centuries … It is untrue that he cared nothing for his men and was careless with their lives. He lost a friend in almost every major battle … yet he could not allow that to deflect him from his main purpose of pursuing victory …
That certainly puts a new spin on his abandonment of his own troops in Egypt in 1799 and in Russia in 1812: some of his best friends were casualties!
Roberts’ exonerations even extend, almost comically, to the Napoleonic cultural imprint. He can’t help but note the icy effect the dictator had on the once (and future) glorious French literary culture, but he views as a kind of compensation the visual arts:
But any period that can boast painters as talented as Jacques-Louis David … Francois Gerard, Theodore Gericault, Anne-Louis Girodet … Antoine-Jean Gros, Jean Urbain Guerin, Jean-Auguste Ingres, Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, Carle Vernet and his son Horace, and Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, as well as the miniaturists Augustin and Isabey, must be entitled to the overused soubriquet ‘golden age.’
That a ‘golden age’ should boast so many cringing lickspittle court artists slapping out appalling imperialistic propaganda (typified by one or another of the many revoltingly fawning David portraits that will accompany virtually all the longer reviews this book will generate in the American and European press) either speaks poorly of itself or of its chronicler, and characterizations like these might prompt a reader to despair of Napoleon: A Life. And Roberts’ recurring pronouncements about those damn Fondation letters don’t help any, promising “the intimate thoughts of a protean multitasker, a profound thinker and talented wordsmith whose intellect impressed Goethe. They reveal the leadership secrets of the most interesting personality to have sat on a European throne since Elizabeth I.”
But in the end, this utterly redundant fat biography is salvaged by the only thing that ever salvages such books: the sheer writing skill of the author. In a long career of active publishing, Roberts has never written a dull sentence, and in Napoleon: A Life (tellingly titled Napoleon the Great in the UK) he’s at the height of his narrative powers, joyfully digging into his story for all the world as though it had never been told before. We get Bonaparte’s early life, his rise through the ranks of the old French Republic, his seizure of power and wars of conquest, his defeat and exile to Elba, his storied return, his second defeat and final exile to Saint Helena, and his death (Roberts dispenses rather handily with “imaginative conspiracy theories” alleging that Bonaparte was poisoned by his jailors), and once Roberts settles himself into the actual rushing courses of his story, he sparkles as a narrative historian. He relates dozens of great little moments, like the scene at the Battle of Wagram in 1809 when Bonaparte urged on his men:
He watched as 4,000 heavy cavalrymen rode past him crying ‘Vive l’Empereur!’, to which he replied, ‘Ne sabrez pas: pointez, pointez‘ (Don’t slash, use the points of your swords, use the points)[.]
And in the thick of the narrative, Roberts sometimes even remembers to assess his jovial, knee-pattingly funny subject, sometimes going so far as to criticize the man’s unhesitating egomania, as when the Sultan Mahmud II signed the Treaty of Bucharest with Tsar Alexander in 1812. “The Turks will pay dearly for this mistake!” Bonaparte raged, commenting that “It is so stupid that I couldn’t foresee it.” To which Roberts responds:
But the stupidity in this instance was in fact his – he had counted too complacently on Ottoman support. In turning back Napoleon at Acre in 1799, and by allowing Russia to redeploy her Balkan forces against him in 1812, the supposed ‘sick man of Europe’ was in fact instrumental in two of Napoleon’s major reverses.
Likewise Roberts’ assessment of the larger questions of psychology are always invigorating, especially once the stakes are as high as they can be, with powerful European coalitions banding together to fight Bonaparte. When writing about the climactic events of 1812 and 1813, Roberts not only skillfully analyzes the key mind-frames involved but also counters the broader swatches with little details that snap the attention back to how thoroughly unpleasant his constantly-jovial hero unfailingly was to his underlings:
Napoleon’s victories early in his career had quickly led to peace by negotiation; his central mistake now was to assume that peace would still be found in that way. He now faced an enemy with as firm a resolve as his own, and a newfound determination to force him to yield. ‘You bore me continually about the necessity of peace,’ he wrote on June 13 to [General Desaix’s aide-de-camp] Savary, who had told him again how much Parisians yearned for it. ‘No one is more interested in concluding peace than me, but I will not make a dishonourable peace or one that would see us at war again in six months. Don’t reply to this; these matters do not concern you, don’t get mixed up in them.’
When asked who was the greatest captain of the age, the Duke of Wellington replied: “In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.” And even the Iron Duke’s biggest fans couldn’t help but make the little extra leap Wellington intended by his comment: that if Bonaparte was the greatest captain of this or any age, then the man who defeated him …
That’s the particular aspect of Bonaparte: the allure that, as Roberts insightfully points out, can make everyone connected with it feel like they’re part of a pageant. Biographers are as susceptible as anybody else, alas, and although Napoleon: A Life engages more than it enrages (or stupefies), readers could certainly use a ten-year moratorium on any more lengthy tomes about this vulgar little tyrant.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.