976 pages, Viking, ISBN-13: 978-0670025329
Thomas Carlyle, the great Scottish philosopher, satirical writer, essayist, historian and teacher, published On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History in 1841, notable for being one of the first histories to bring forth the “Great Man” tradition of history – that is, the view that certain individuals are driving forces of history, and simply knowing about such individuals would give one a good command of a particular era. Writing in a similar vein in the modern era, we have Andrew Roberts and his latest book Napoleon: A Life – that an English historian would write and publish a biography of Napoleon that is certainly apologetic and positive on the eve of the bicentennial of the over mythologized Battle of Waterloo (where British Nationalists have long wanted to assert that this event, rather than the terrible campaigns of 1813-1814 where Britain played a minimal role) as the Götterdämmerung of Napoleon’s life and empire makes the timing of this work all the more extraordinary.
Another extraordinary aspect of Roberts’ work is that he relies heavily on Napoleon’s own words; as he explains: “[t]he biographer of Napoleon writing in 2014 has one tremendous advantage over those of all earlier generations: since 2004, the Fondation Napoléon in Paris has been superbly editing and publishing Napoleon’s 33,000 extant letters, as many as a third of which have not been published before or which were cut or bowdlerized in one way or another in the previous edition that appeared in the 1850s and 1860s. This titanic new edition allows a true re-evaluation of Napoleon, and it has been the bedrock of my book.” This is in marked contrast to previous biographers of Napoleon, who relied heavily on memoirs by the Emperor’s contemporaries and on a redacted and incomplete version of his correspondence. The problem with this approach is that such memoirs are often unreliable, as Roberts explains: “[a]lmost all the contemporary accounts are heavily slanted according to the situation their authors had occupied during Napoleon’s lifetime or afterwards. For those writing immediately after his abdication, the lure of employment or a pension, or merely the right to publish under the Bourbons, wrecked objectivity in dozens of cases…contemporary ‘sources’ which need to be treated with caution are everywhere in the Napoleonic canon.”
Napoleon: A Life is impeccably researched, well-written and balanced. Roberts not only consulted all major Napoleonic archival troves searching for primary sources, he also visited almost every place Napoleon set foot in: Corsica, Egypt, Israel, Europe, Elba, Saint Helena, as well as the fifty-three battlefields where the French Emperor commanded his troops and been repeatedly “astounded by his instinctive feeling for topography, his acuity in judging distance and choosing ground, his sense of timing”. Roberts has a beautiful prose, is never boring, and has a great sense of humor, often using anecdotes to liven-up his tale (such as: “Seeing that Macdonald needed further support, Napoleon released [Karl Philipp Josef] Wrede’s 5,500-strong Bavarian Division and some of the Young Guard. Lightly wounded in this attack, Wrede melodramatically cried out, ‘Tell the Emperor I die for him!’ only to receive the robust reply from Macdonald: ‘You’ll live; tell him yourself.’ Such gallows humor could only come from soldiers). While Roberts certainly presents a positive case for Napoleon, he is not short of his criticism of the French emperor. Roberts highlights some of the battlefield brutality that Napoleon was capable of committing, and he has no apologetic defense for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the fallout that ensued, making it perfectly clear that many Europeans, but especially Frenchmen, died in Napoleon’s gambit to wrangle Europe under his boot.
Inaccuracies abound, to be sure: Roberts states that Josephine’s children were present at her wedding to Bonaparte in 1796 (when they were not) and the King of Rome went with his parents to Dresden in 1812 (when he did not), and I’m more than a little concerned with Roberts mixing up Martinique and Saint-Domingue or with the mention to an nonexistent daughter of Robespierre (the “Mademoiselle Robespierre” in the correspondence is in fact Charlotte, the Incorruptible’s sister). But leaving aside these little flaws, this is a very readable biography – despite its length it’s extremely hard to put down – that takes advantage of the new sources mentioned above and that gives a refreshing view of Napoleon even for those who, like me, have read dozens of titles about him. Napoleon was a great man, a rare genius, but one feels that he could have been a greater (and better) man than he was if he had embraced more humility, more simplicity, and less obsession with wealth and worldly status and glory - but then, had he done so, he wouldn’t have been Napoleon.