Napoleon’s Near Miss

Linda Colley

  • Napoleon: The Myth of the Saviour by Jean Tulard, translated by Teresa Waugh
    Weidenfeld, 470 pp, £14.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 297 78439 0
  • Alexis: Tsar of All the Russias by Philip Longworth
    Secker, 319 pp, £15.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 436 25688 6

The English have never been unduly admiring of their own great men. All of Thomas Carlyle’s efforts failed to establish Oliver Cromwell securely in the Victorian pantheon. The names of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington summon up public houses rather than heroes. Winston Churchill in this century, like the Elder Pitt in the 18th and the Younger Pitt in the 19th, was buried with ceremony then swiftly consigned to history: which means that for the bulk of the population he became irrelevant. Forced to choose last year between cattle and Sam Johnson as a subject for commemorative stamps, the Post Office opted for rumination rather than reputation. Even our soap operas dwell on the working classes and the drab, not – as in the United States – on the rich, the gorgeous and the powerful. It would be nice if this national indifference to glamour and achievement derived from a sturdy and egalitarian refusal to be impressed. But since our only national cult is the Royal Family, James Agate’s less flattering verdict may also be more appropriate: ‘The English instinctively admire any man who has no talent and is modest about it.’

Other nations’ great men, however, are a different matter. Perhaps because Napoleon was born on one small island and died on another, many of his literary devotees (and he has inspired more books than there have been days since his death) have been English. Writers as diverse as Byron and Belloc, Disraeli and Conan Doyle, Hardy and Hazlitt, have joined composers from Beethoven to Schoenberg, film-makers like Grune and Gance, and umpteen philosophers – especially German ones – in fêting and feasting on the legend. ‘I have beheld the Weltgeist upon a white horse’: thus Hegel. One may be able to take a white horse anywhere: how far Napoleon can still be taken – even in France – is less clear. Up to the First World War, the strength or weakness of Bonapartism was usually a potent indicator of how French men and women responded to their nation. Thus Napoleon’s improved reputation in the 1830s (his body was brought back in triumph from St Helena in 1840) pointed towards the success of Louis Napoleon in 1848. As the latter waned in popularity in the 1860s so did the cult of Napoleon I, only to be revived as a salve to national humiliation after the Franco-Prussian War. The Napoleonic industry in France reached its height between 1885 and 1914 – a period when every European nation was frantically refurbishing old ideologies and inventing new ones. By contrast, post-Gaullist France has carried the torch diffidently if at all. Mitterrand has made a few celebratory gestures, but parts of the Invalides are visibly crumbling and it will be interesting to see what the French do with Napoleon when they commemorate the Revolution in 1989.

What current French historians do with the Napoleonic Empire is either to leave it strictly alone, or turn it upside down. Thus Louis Bergeron and Alan Forrest look at the Grande Armée only incidentally, and only to point out the injustices of conscription and the high rates of desertion. Jean Tulard is less alienated – predictably so, since his appeal spans the Sorbonne where he teaches, the French Academy which awarded him the Grand Prix d’Or for this book, and the coffee-tables where he is often read. Nonetheless, it is indicative that even in this glossy biography the hero is not so much Napoleon and the military as the civilian bourgeoisie. For it was mainly they, Tulard argues, especially the Notables, who backed Napoleon in 1799 as the only saviour on offer from the political instability of the Directorate. This suited Napoleon, who needed a wider and more malleable power base than the Army: the plebiscite of 1802 which made him consul for life elicited more negatives from soldiers than from any other group. The Concordat catered to bourgeois religious conservatism and the Civil Code of 1804 cherished bourgeois property, though more in the shape of land than stocks and shares. Until the Spanish and Russian campaigns, Napoleon’s wars paid for themselves and since the affluent were able to purchase their sons’ immunity from conscription, they could experience the fulfilments of chauvinism at a bargain rate – but only up to 1808. After that, Napoleon’s acceptability was eroded by chance and miscalculation. Despite his blockade, Britain refused either to succumb or go broke (though Tulard follows François Crouzet in thinking that this was a close-run thing). Napoleon was diverted into Spain and Russia; the booty stopped and the death-rate escalated: 380,000 French soldiers failed to return from Moscow. Such mortality enforced increasingly ruthless conscription which alienated the peasantry and bit into the bourgeoisie’s tolerance. They were further antagonised by Napoleon’s creation of a noblesse de I’Empire and his marriage in 1810 to an Austrian princess. This reversion to old élitisms was a double error. It made Napoleon enemies while winning him few real friends: the new nobility, which was in large part the same as the old, paid only ‘lip service to the usurper’.

So Tulard’s Napoleon is essentially an amalgam of two familiar interpretations: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s agent and attorney of the new middle classes and Thomas Carlyle’s great innovator who was led astray by the ‘fatal charlatan-element’ of old dynastic pomps and hereditary honours. I am not sure whether this is entirely right. The reasons which Napoleon in exile advanced for his reconstruction of the nobility were cogent ones. He wanted to reconcile Bonapartist France with aristocratic Europe; he wanted to integrate the old French élite with the new; and he wanted to create an imperial nobility which would demonstrate the interdependence of social rank and service to the state – which was just what contemporary rulers in Austria, Germany, Russia and Britain were endeavouring to do with their upper classes. It is always tempting to advance long-term structural reasons for the fall of dynasts, but since France ended the war with reasonable gold reserves and since Britain by 1810 was arguably on the verge of bankruptcy and mercantile rebellion, one wonders whether a few more victories and a little more good luck might not have secured Napoleon – at least for his lifetime.

One wonders, too, whether the temptation to say that the Emperor’s clothes existed only in the imagination of some of his subjects is a particularly fruitful one to succumb to. Of course propaganda paintings like David’s Napoléon franchissant les Alpes are epic lies: Napoleon in fact crossed the Alps astride a mule. And of course Napoleon was neither the personification of Mars nor the favourite of Venus. As the Duke of Wellington complained at Waterloo, some of Napoleon’s generals were good at charging and little else. Napoleon’s own military strategy placed an absolute premium on mobility and consequently became uncertain whenever his campaigns bogged down. Sexually, too, Napoleon was better at the lightning sortie than at grand conquest after a prolonged siege. There were myriad affairs, but Josephine was also unfaithful and the most celebrated high society beauties of the Empire, such as Madame Récamier, turned him down. Not tonight, Napoleon.

Tulard obviously has an exhaustive knowledge of Napoleon and consequently can embarrass his reputation very easily. His book offers a rich re-creation of its subject’s French context, probes his legend with enormous authority, and supplies an invaluable hundred-page bibliographical essay on the sources and open questions surrounding the French Consulate and Empire. But as an evocation of an unusually complex, energetic, ruthless and vivid man, a man who – when all the debunking is over – succeeded in dominating Europe militarily and politically for some dozen years, this biography is less perceptive and convincing than the one Felix Markham published back in 1963. Teresa Waugh’s translation is uneven but improves as it goes along; whoever was responsible for the final proof-reading should be sent back in time and made to march on Moscow.

Philip Longworth’s elegant account of Alexis Romanov, Tsar of Russia from 1645 to 1676, claims to be ‘the first full biography ... in any language for 150 years’. This is misleading as another study of the same monarch was published four years ago. Still, this is a pleasant, well researched and deliberately chilling book. Chilling in its presentation of almost absolute power; deliberately so, because the author evidently wishes to draw parallels between his hero/anti-hero and the present occupants of the Kremlin. Not that Longworth is unsympathetic to Alexis. Indeed he claims, somewhat desperately perhaps, that he was ‘the most attractive of Russian monarchs’. Alexis was well-educated and reflective, responsive (up to a point) to the dilemmas of his supporters, faithful to his wives, and devoted to the rituals and religiosity which the Tsardom involved.

But it is not clear whether Longworth’s avowed aim to reveal ‘the real man behind the icon’ has been or can be achieved, or is even desirable when writing about a political culture where the king’s ‘two bodies’ were so inextricably linked. Alexis himself evidently accepted that schizophrenia was an obligation of his office: ‘By the grace of God ... I am called the true Christian Tsar, though because of my own evil, worldly actions, I am not worthy to be called a dog.’ Longworth’s relaxed and humanistic approach cannot always make sense of this Tsarist world-view, nor of the indulgences which Alexis’s power permitted and sometimes enjoined. So we get Alexis pouring mercury into a guest’s wine glass to see how he will react, or visiting the torture chambers whenever a serious interrogation was under way. Then there are the scenes which could have come out of a film by Eisenstein: the 200 young girls paraded in front of Alexis in 1647 so that he might select a bride, or the 23-year-old Tsar taking his wife and sisters along to contemplate the putrefying body of the Patriarch of Moscow. Unless one approaches such episodes by way of an analysis of royal ritual, they seem fascinating, perhaps, but also alien and inexplicable.

Why Alexis has been neglected by historians is, however, easy to explain. Saintly and backward-looking obscurity was almost forced on him by the inaccessibility of his papers until the mid-19th century, and by Peter the Great’s traditional status as the first architect of modern Russia. Yet, as Longworth argues, Alexis doubled the size of the army, crushed three peasant rebellions, won territory from Poland and subjugated Patriarch Nikon – so preparing the way for Peter’s abolition of the Patriarchate. He relished Western artifacts and specialists, but always chose to be portrayed as a traditional Russian Tsar: bearded, robed and wearing a pectoral cross, as against Peter the Great’s penchant for posing cleanshaven and in Western armour. Alexis’s socio-economic initiatives were also crucial, and Longworth, who sometimes divorces the man from his society, does not always spell this out. Alexis refused to call the gentry-based Assembly of the Land after 1653. But he did agree to the Assembly’s request that there should no longer be any limits on the forcible reclamation of serfs. When his successor Feodor burned the books of aristocratic precedence in 1682, and so tried to gloss over some of the distinctions between boyars and gentry, the ideals of Tsarist policy in the 17th century as in the 18th were confirmed: there was to be as much centralisation of government under the Tsar as possible; on the other hand, an integrated landed élite was to be kept happy in its perks and preferably tied to the state by self-interest.

So even without winter and Tchaikovsky, it would have been hard for Napoleon in 1812 to have conquered this sort of state machine. There was no strong Russian middle class to identify with him; the serfs had been instructed to regard him as Antichrist marching against Holy Russia; and the aristocracy had no reason to defect: they’d been given too much to lose. The bourgeois Emperor of the French must have been consumed with envy. ‘If I were to announce I was the Son of the Eternal Father,’ he once lamented, ‘there is not a single fishwife who would not hiss as I passed. People are too enlightened today.’ This wasn’t a problem for Russian Tsars.