Napoleonology

Douglas Johnson

  • Napoleon: Master of Europe 1805-1807 by Alistair Horne
    Weidenfeld, 232 pp, £6.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 297 77678 9
  • Napoleon’s Diplomatic Service by Edward Whitcomb
    Duke, 15/5/81 pp, June 1981, ISBN 0 8223 0421 X
  • Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars by David Chandler
    Arms and Armour, 576 pp, £12.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 85368 353 0
  • Napoleon, the Jews and the Sanhedrin by Simon Schwarzfuchs
    Routledge, 200 pp, £5.50, March 1979, ISBN 0 7100 8955 4
  • Auguste de Colbert: Aristocratic Survival in an Era of Upheaval, 1793-1809 by Jeanne Ojala
    Utah, $15.00, February 1979, ISBN 0 685 95370 X

It would appear to be difficult to write a book about Napoleon without apologising for it. Alistair Horne talks about the three hundred thousand which have already been devoted to this one man, but Edward Whitcomb brings about a substantial (and welcome) reduction by referring only to some two hundred thousand. David Chandler explains that ever since he wrote his excellent book on the campaigns of Napoleon ten years ago, he has been inundated by requests for further information coming from the widest possible variety of people, all of whom are, as he puts it, ‘caught up by the awesome range of Napoleon’s attributes and talents’, while Simon Schwarzfuchs, in his more specialised study of Napoleon and the Jews, refers to a change in Napoleon’s reputation and to his recent loss of repute among historians.

Perhaps there is a significance in the public modesty which precedes such acts of writing. One would not expect an author to apologise when he sets out to tell a romantic rags-to-riches epic which ends up with defeat, exile, loneliness and an early death. A biographer such as Emil Ludwig revelled in the symmetry of a life which began on a small island, overran the whole continent of Europe, and ended on another small island. No writer is normally hesitant when he has to write about the drama and glory of past battles, even when the subject loses its glamour and war has to be seen as a sorry tale of marching, waiting, freezing, starving, dying. The problem is only to decide which moment of Napoleon’s career is the most attractive to describe. Was it the young general of the Italian campaigns? Or was it the First Consul who provided France with institutions which had an unexpected longevity? Was it the almighty Emperor who met the Czar at Tilsit? When he abdicated in 1814, he reviewed his guard at Fontainebleau and set out for the humiliation of Elba. He had, in Chateaubriand’s words, struck his tent, his tent which had covered the world. But then there was the adventure of the Hundred Days and what Michelet called ‘the towering stage of St Helena’. Surely no writer should be embarrassed by having to choose a moment from within this compact legend?

Since historians nowadays are concerned with the trivia of the past, and believe that it is through them that they may find deeper understanding, they ought to be interested in Napoleon, because we must know more details about his daily life than about anyone’s. We know what he liked to eat and when and how he ate; we know about his dreams and superstitions, how he behaved when angry, how he could be flattered, what he played on the piano with one finger. And we could well build up a new interpretation of Napoleon by asking linguists to comment upon a man who governed by talking and dictating, and who thus endeavoured to escape from the tyranny of the written word and revelled in the freedom and magic of the spoken word.

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