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Thursday, February 26, 2015

“Napoleon and Josephine: An Improbable Marriage”, by Evangeline Bruce



555 pages, Charles Scribner’s Sons, ISBN-13: 978-0025178106

Napoleon and Josephine, the self-crowned emperor and empress of France, exerts a certain timeless fascination. Married two years after both had been imprisoned in the upheaval of 1794 – she as an aristocrat, he as a Robespierren – they rose to the well-known dizzying heights. Carried on frequently by letter, their marriage was accentuated by volatile swings of endearment and hate. In Napoleon and Josephine: An Improbable Marriage, Evangeline Bruce attempts to delve into Josephine and Napoleon’s lesser-known private relations. Alas, if you are seeking a disinterested chronicle of a most interesting couple you must look elsewhere, as Bruce’s book could have been written during the Bourbon Restoration, being, as it is, a compendium of all kinds of Royalist gossip and slander ever written against Napoleon and his Italian family, whereas Josephine and her French family are always treated fairly and sympathetically.

Bruce sees Napoleon as a natural born monster: cynical, unscrupulous, ambitious, calculating, tyrannical and a bloodthirsty warmonger – in short, the Corsican Ogre, that famous boogeyman invented by French and English Royalists to extinguish all trace of the Revolution which, according to them, was embodied by that single man. She denies him any patriotism, idealism, or real merit, attributing his military successes to his marshals and his political ones to his “incredible luck”. Josephine, on the other hand, is the destitute brave mother of two children who survived the Revolution’s Terror, caught the eye of the Ogre and, thanks to her sweetness, delicacy and femininity that only a lady of noble stock can provide, succeeded to make something of a human being of that Ogre, but ended up as martyr when he put her aside to marry another woman (and a foreign one at that).

There is hardly one paragraph in this whole lampoon without some unpleasant remark on any of Napoleon’s acts. Everything he does is distorted by a maligned bias. No word he ever utters is sincere. Even his most generous attitudes are not to be trusted. For Bruce, it seems, everything Napoleon’s enemies tell is true, like when Talleyrand – you know, whom Napoleon said was “shit in a silk stocking” – says that that the Emperor was “fascinated by himself”, or when Metternich declared that Napoleon said that he would “drag down the whole of society in his fall”. All the guilty ones of betrayal towards him are acquitted, like treacherous Bernadotte, depicted by Bruce as opposing his benefactor out of true republican feeling and as “elected” for the Swedish throne, although even the rocks in Sweden know that this French marshal owed that throne exclusively to Napoleon.

It is far from surprising the author’s deliberate omission of everything that could account for Napoleon’s well-deserved fame of administrative genius as well as a military one. Considering him nothing but an usurper, out of sheer intellectual dishonesty Bruce simply omits the fact that the immense majority of the French elected Napoleon their Consul, as well as their Emperor through a referendum, which made him, in the democratic sense, the only legitimate monarch of his time in all Europe. Bruce doesn't mention that First Consul Bonaparte found the country bankrupt by the Directory and that he put finances in order. She wouldn’t dream on mentioning his improvements in the education system, his protection of the labor classes, or that salaries in France were high as never before, limit. Bruce ignores Napoleon’s sane and balanced financial policy to say, rather deliriously, “War became France’s almost sole industry”. And, of course, she blames him for all the wars, although the whole world knows that the English government, which ultimately benefited from them, pushed for war relentlessly.

Bruce does describe in a lively manner a few aspects of Revolutionary France, as well as some picturesque episodes concerning French salons, people’s clothes and house decorations. But for that she seldom quotes her sources, and, given her general untrustworthiness and incredible prejudices against the main character and his family, there’s no way to know if any description comes from historical fact or her own fanciful imagination. Even when she does indicate her sources at the end of the book, she won't give the chapter, making it difficult for us to go check the quotations for ourselves. There is only one recommendable thing in this whole 555 page book, which are its 32 pages of black and white pictures, untouched by the author’s fantasy and prejudices. That’s not saying much.

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