Violets in Their Lapels

David A. Bell

  • The Legend of Napoleon by Sudhir Hazareesingh
    Granta, 336 pp, £20.00, August 2004, ISBN 1 86207 667 7
  • The Retreat by Patrick Rambaud, translated by William Hobson
    Picador, 320 pp, £7.99, June 2005, ISBN 0 330 48901 1
  • Napoleon: The Eternal Man of St Helena by Max Gallo, translated by William Hobson
    Macmillan, 320 pp, £10.99, April 2005, ISBN 0 333 90798 1
  • The Saint-Napoleon: Celebrations of Sovereignty in 19th-Century France by Sudhir Hazareesingh
    Harvard, 307 pp, £32.95, May 2004, ISBN 0 674 01341 7
  • Napoleon and the British by Stuart Semmel
    Yale, 354 pp, £25.00, September 2004, ISBN 0 300 09001 3

France, it has often been said, is a democracy with the manners of an absolute monarchy. Think of the ceremonial splendour with which French presidents surround themselves, the haughty, distant style they tend to adopt, or the way relationships within their entourages tend to mimic, with delicious self-consciousness, patterns of favouritism and intrigue developed long ago at the court of Versailles. No Western head of state in recent memory (British monarchs included) has had a more regal touch than François Mitterrand, alleged socialist. Nothing is more alien to mainstream French democracy than the American-style ‘populism’ practised by politicians from Andrew Jackson to George W. Bush. The word populiste is a deadly insult, most recently deployed by socialists and Chiraquiens alike against anyone who dares interpret the result of the referendum on the European Constitution as a vote of no confidence in the country’s political elites. The only true populist in contemporary French politics is Jean-Marie Le Pen.

This aspect of French culture helps explain why France remains so conflicted by the memory of Napoleon Bonaparte, for he was an absolute monarch with the manners of a democrat. Of course, he tried to deny it. He founded an empire, and an imperial court, buried himself under yards of ermine, and hired poets and painters by the cartload to hail him as the new Charlemagne. He turned former drummer boys and schoolteachers into dukes, made a king of Naples out of a one-time grocer’s assistant, and married the niece of Marie-Antoinette. But all this pomp entirely failed to produce the desired effect. If Napoleon inspired loyalty and affection, even in defeat, it was not because of the would-be imperial splendour, but because the French people continued to see him as they had done from the start: as the ‘little corporal’ who shared his soldiers’ risks and discomforts; as the upstart provincial with the uncouth accent who outsmarted the crowned heads of Europe; as the lover of Josephine. He remained a man of the people despite himself.

If Sudhir Hazareesingh hits a wrong note anywhere in his splendid survey of Napoleon’s ‘legend’ in 19th-century France, it is when he compares Napoleon to de Gaulle. There are of course numerous parallels between these two generals turned ‘saviours of the nation’, who each sought to rise above the compromises and corruptions of ordinary politics. But they differ not only in their relationship to the French Republic, which de Gaulle saved and Napoleon destroyed, but also in their places in the memory of the French people. De Gaulle, founder of the regal presidency of the Fifth Republic, continues to inspire respect, and a certain affection, but nothing like the powerful emotions felt even today about Napoleon.

Clearly, Napoleon satisfies deep longings in French popular culture, not simply for a lost era of French power and grandeur, but also for a leader with whom they feel an intimate, personal bond. It is the sort of connection that is hard to imagine having with the aloof and imperious de Gaulle. In another age, a figure like de Gaulle might have inspired epic poetry, but Napoleon demands the psychological intimacy of the novel, and indeed has probably featured in more of them than any other figure in Western history, as well as in hundreds of films. On Saint Helena, he himself famously remarked: ‘What a novel my life has been.’ How many novels have been written about de Gaulle? How often, for that matter, are his name and image used to sell things? (Napoleon’s image has appeared on products from brandy to chocolate to condoms, and then there is the ad for Diovol antacid showing him with his hand in its familiar place inside his vest: ‘Some say it was merely a pose. We think it was heartburn.’) Search for ‘Napoleon’ on eBay, and you find close to 4000 objects for sale: books, films, games, dolls, plates, glasses, ceramic tiles, cat cartoons, sherry decanters, brandy bottles, coffee pots, chess sets, even vintage dog food ads (many of these, admittedly, don’t come from France). Type in ‘de Gaulle’ and you find around 100 items, mainly stamps.

This difference, as much as anything to do with the two men’s records as rulers, explains why the French elite reveres de Gaulle, but looks on Napoleon with something like embarrassed disdain. Napoleon has no grand Parisian squares named after him, only the relatively minor rue Bonaparte. In the great monument to French memory edited by Pierre Nora, Les Lieux de mémoire, the only essay on him concerns the pathos-laden return of his body to France in 1840. Which is to say that he receives roughly the same space as the abbey of Port-Royal, the Larousse dictionary or the theme of ‘visits to great writers’. Nonetheless, in the culture at large, he remains the object of enormous, even obsessive – if somewhat guilty – curiosity, and a fair share of devotion.

Two recent series of French novels illustrate these points. Patrick Rambaud’s polished trilogy, of which two volumes (The Battle, The Retreat) have so far appeared in English, treats the emperor with fascinated scorn. The three parts move from the horrific 1809 battle of Essling, in which 40,000 men died in 30 hours, to the disastrous retreat from Moscow in the autumn of 1812, to Paris in the final days of the empire in 1814. Napoleon himself appears only occasionally, through the cynical eyes of others. ‘What danger can we be in, so close to His Majesty?’ one character asks another. ‘Catching a good bout of diarrhoea, for a start,’ comes the reply. This Napoleon is a coarse, tired, flabby, flatulent monster, almost wholly indifferent to the massive suffering he causes.

Rambaud conveys the horrors and madness of each of his three set-pieces, picking details out of a mass of historical research. In The Retreat, for instance, men cut slices out of a living horse (to eat), without the horse noticing, because of the unbelievable cold. The French title of the second volume, Il neigeait, is taken from Victor Hugo’s great poem about Napoleon, ‘L’Expiation’, which has much the same place in French culture that ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ holds in British. But Rambaud, unlike Hugo, sketches a war – and a Napoleon – scoured of glory or grandeur. He gives us, in other words, a powerful version of conventional establishment wisdom, pithily expressed by de Gaulle himself: ‘Napoleon exhausted the goodwill of the French, abused their sacrifices, and covered Europe with graves, ashes and tears.’ Appropriately, The Battle won the Prix Goncourt.

Max Gallo’s million-selling quartet of novels, by contrast, gleefully embraces the myth of the ‘grand homme’ in its most lurid, overblown form. If Rambaud displaces the focus from Napoleon to the ordinary men and women drowning in his wake, Gallo places the man front and centre. Much of the novels takes the form of an endless interior monologue: the emperor recounting his own life story to himself, as it takes place. Gallo has an addiction to Napoleon’s bombast, without much sense of how to convey the power of the personality that lay behind it. One portentously delivered maxim follows another, on and on. The style even extends, hilariously, to the bedroom scenes:

I am the first male.
He enters her room.
She is mine, as I wish her to be.
He lets her sleep as dawn approaches.

In the annals of bad Napoleonic fiction, Gallo’s quartet ranks above even such classics as the 1931 Italian stage drama about the Hundred Days, Campo di Maggio, co-authored by Mussolini.

Not surprisingly, serious historians today lean much more heavily towards Rambaud’s view of Napoleon than Gallo’s. But the repulsion they tend to feel has had the unfortunate effect of leading them to underestimate Napoleon’s importance to French political life after 1815. In most accounts, Bonaparte and Bonapartism largely vanish with Waterloo, returning only to fill the vacuum left by the implosion of the Revolution of 1848 – and then, in Marx’s damning words from The 18th Brumaire, as farce rather than tragedy. Both the First and Second empires still tend to be dismissed as simple dictatorships, with popular support for Napoleon and his nephew explained away with reference to longings for post-revolutionary stability, or jingoistic pride in military conquest. For fifty years, the most popular interpretation of the Restoration has been that of Guillaume Bertier de Sauvigny, a descendant of a leading 1814 royalist, who portrayed a France exhausted and disgusted by Napoleon, and ready to re-embrace the exiled Bourbon dynasty. And it has seemed a reasonable theory, given that Napoleon threw away millions of French lives, wrecked the country economically, and left it smaller than he found it (when he took power in 1799, France’s borders enclosed modern Belgium, Luxembourg and the Rhineland). Surely his political popularity did not survive his defeat any more than Hitler’s did.

Thanks to Hazareesingh, however, this theory is no longer tenable. In The Legend of Napoleon, the more ambitious of his two new books, he demonstrates convincingly, and with panache, the continuing power of popular Bonapartism long after Waterloo. Drawing on an impressive range of original sources, especially police archives from across France, he shows that Napoleon remained a popular political idol for much of the 19th century. After the restoration of the Bourbons, Bonapartism was outlawed as a political movement, and open signs of loyalty to the emperor were punishable with imprisonment. Yet his image remained ubiquitous. Hazareesingh has uncovered a healthy trade in Napoleonic objects of all sorts: coins, drawings, cartoons, playing cards, tobacco boxes, tiny statuettes. On one occasion, an attempt to conceal a statuette in a wine glass led to its accidental ingestion: after nearly choking on the miniature emperor, the unlucky Bonapartist ended up in jail. Hazareesingh also reveals that a peasant claimed to see Napoleon’s face in the moon, while several compatriots in the Aude insisted that his effigy was visible on the surface of a flattened egg.

Rumours of his second return to France circulated incessantly, reinforced by the regular appearance of impostors claiming the imperial purple – in the 1840s more French madmen took themselves for Napoleon than for any other figure except Jesus Christ. Others expressed hope for his return by wearing violets in their lapels – the flower comes out, as Napoleon came back, in March. His name and image remained important to underground movements and, in the immediate aftermath of the Hundred Days, attempts by the new Bourbon government to punish Bonapartist officials led to serious unrest and even violence. Napoleon’s birthday, 15 August, which had been France’s national holiday under the empire, remained celebrated as what Hazareesingh nicely calls an ‘anti-fête’: a day of raucous popular exuberance and defiance of the gouty, hugely uncharismatic Bourbon placed back on the French throne by the victorious allies.

Besides Bertier de Sauvigny, Hazareesingh has a more eminent target in mind: the late François Furet, founding father of French neo-conservatism. In his historical works, Furet largely ignored the survival of Bonapartism, while positing the survival of an untamed revolutionary tradition that flowed, like a powerful underground river, beneath empire and restored monarchy alike, to burst out into the open again in 1848 (and again in 1871, after the fall of the Second Empire). Hazareesingh sternly but persuasively argues that it is absurd for Furet, whose major work centred on the years from 1789 to 1794, to assume that revolutionary politics took on its definitive form at this time, and remained largely unchanged throughout the next two decades. Rather, he insists, it was largely subsumed into Bonapartism; after 1815 the two blended inextricably into each other. Napoleon might have brought the Republic to an end, but he nonetheless protected the revolutionary legacy of civil equality, popular sovereignty, religious toleration, confiscation of church lands and the tricolour flag. When Napoleon declared ‘I am the French Revolution,’ he was not entirely wrong.

Admittedly, by the time of his first surrender and abdication in 1814, Napoleon’s revolutionary credentials had faded to near illegibility, thanks to his ever more grandiose imperial pretensions, his creation of a new nobility and his re-establishment of slavery in France’s Caribbean colonies after its revolutionary abolition, all crowned by his marriage to a Habsburg. Had he remained in exile on Elba, he would probably never have served as such a powerful symbol of revolutionary possibility. Indeed, had that pathetic exile continued (British journalists mocked him for needing more ‘Elba room’), he might never have re-emerged as any sort of idol at all in France.

But as Hazareesingh notes perceptively, the Hundred Days changed everything. During this famous episode in which Napoleon returned from Elba, rallied France behind him once again, lost to Wellington at Waterloo and sailed off to final exile on the British warship Bellerophon, he adopted a new, liberal constitution and openly abjured his old projects of conquest. He seduced Benjamin Constant, his keenest and sharpest liberal critic, into becoming a collaborator. And on Saint Helena, enduring the petty humiliations inflicted by his British jailer, Sir Hudson Lowe, the vaguely comic turned intensely tragic; a man mocked as pathetic emerged as a figure of vast and genuine pathos. The record of his reminiscences compiled by Emmanuel de Las Cases under the title Memorial of Saint Helena, and published in 1822 to enormous popular acclaim, sealed this transformation, and gave Napoleon a posthumous triumph more durable than any of his military victories. In truth, the liberal turn of the Hundred Days was little more than a desperate political ploy (even Dominique de Villepin, author of a Galloesque history of the episode, admits as much). But for the French public, it served to associate the name of Bonaparte firmly with the Revolution – at least until Louis-Napoleon’s coup, which again associated it, for good this time, with tyranny.

Not the least of the accomplishments of The Legend of Napoleon is to make the rise of Louis-Napoleon more comprehensible. How could this unimpressive echo of his domineering uncle, the author of two ludicrously bungled coups, rise to power and found a Second Empire more durable than the First? If Bonapartism mattered as little after 1815 as Bertier de Sauvigny or Furet believed, then the rise of Louis-Napoleon can only be read as a sign of popular desperation, gullibility or weakness. Hazareesingh shows instead that Louis-Napoleon built on a strong existing base of support, exploiting the association of the name Bonaparte with liberal principles. Indeed, his canny exploitation of the Bonapartist heritage not only brought him to power but kept him there until the catastrophe of the Franco-Prussian War, despite the widely detested coup of 1851 and a series of foreign adventures that ranged from dubious (the Crimea) to disastrous (an absurd attempt to turn Mexico into a client state).

Hazareesingh pursues these themes further in his second, more narrowly focused, but equally instructive new book, The Saint-Napoléon. Readers may initially wonder if they have missed a Napoleon among the pantheon of Catholic saints, but no one had heard of him until 1805, when Napoleon asked the pope to canonise a new saint for his birthday. With Rome under the control of the French army, the pope conveniently ‘discovered’ a Roman martyr named Neopolis who had allegedly refused to pledge allegiance to Emperor Maximilian (he almost certainly never existed). Named the patron saint of warriors, Neopolis-Napoleon became the pretext for the most shameless propaganda ever produced by a regime that was anything but reticent in this department (think of the Vendôme column), in the form of icons of a haloed ‘Saint Napoleon’ who bore a suspiciously exact resemblance to his modern homonym. From 1806 to 1813, the emperor’s birthday and saint’s day replaced 14 July as the French national holiday, and did so again after the foundation of the Second Empire in 1852, accompanied by festivals, parades and fireworks.

In studying this holiday, Hazareesingh takes on an even more eminent target than Furet: Alexis de Tocqueville, who excoriated the Second Empire as a crass despotism, deprived of any trace of true civic spirit. While historians have long acknowledged that the Second Empire took a liberal turn in its final years, they have nonetheless largely accepted Tocqueville’s view of the regime, along with Victor Hugo’s scathing assessment of the emperor he dubbed ‘Napoléon le Petit’. Only the Third Republic, it is generally argued, really managed to establish a viable civic culture in France, and to forge its diverse provinces and populations (where half the population still spoke local languages or dialects in preference to standard French) into a nation. In the famous phrase of Eugen Weber, only after 1871 did the Third Republic, and economic modernisation, turn ‘peasants into Frenchmen’.

From this point of view, one would expect the Second Empire’s celebrations of the Saint-Napoléon holiday to have been sad affairs: dreary propaganda pageants performed by flunkies before a passive and resentful population. Hazareesingh, again drawing on a mass of little-known archival material from the French provinces, shows that nothing could be further from the case. For the most part, the French celebrated 15 August with genuine enthusiasm, and in large numbers. Individuals and local governments frequently took the initiative, and appropriated the holiday to their own purposes, devising all manner of illuminations, fireworks, parades and even, in one town, ‘nautical jousts’. The Saint-Napoléon became the principal occasion for demonstrations of French patriotism, and also gave the French state a way of asserting its spiritual authority over the Roman Catholic Church. Napoleon’s birthday was also the Feast of the Assumption, and the coincidence allowed imperial officials to fold the religious celebrations into the national holiday, or, when the church resisted, aggressively to enforce the primacy of the secular observances.

If Hazareesingh’s pathbreaking books have a fault, it is their sometimes uncritical reliance on state records. Restoration police officials, all too aware of the regime’s dubious legitimacy, were hypersensitive to any hint of resurgent Bonapartism, especially after the Hundred Days. Their meticulous records of minor and even absurd examples of support for Napoleon may testify more to this sensitivity than to anything else. In the absence of reliable statistics as to the overall state of French public opinion, it remains difficult to say for sure how typical Hazareesingh’s Bonapartists really were. Similarly, in his account of the Saint-Napoléon holiday, he tends to underestimate the extent to which local officials, journalists and the police might have found it in their interest to put on a good show each 15 August, and to inflate the extent of public participation and enthusiasm in their reports.

More broadly, it is not always clear how well his evidence of popular interest and enthusiasm for the two Napoleons necessarily correlated with political sympathy for them, or, in the latter case, with the health of the regime. A great deal of the market for Napoleonic collectibles and artefacts in the 1820s was surely driven by the same simple curiosity and fascination which now drive sales of Napoleoniana on eBay. As for the Second Empire, apolitical concern for French forces abroad may have driven liberals to take part in patriotic celebrations in much the way that some Bush-hating Americans plaster ‘Support Our Troops’ stickers onto their cars. And what does the existence of popular enthusiasm really say about the nature of a regime? Many recent examples (the Nazis, the Chinese Cultural Revolution) suggest caution here.

While Hazareesingh finds unexpected evidence of admiration for Napoleon in 19th-century France, Stuart Semmel finds the same, more surprisingly, in 19th-century Britain. He demonstrates that even at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, when most Britons were reviling the emperor as the ‘Corsican Ogre’, a significant minority remained admirers. This is not the only way in which Semmel’s and Hazareesingh’s work overlap, even though Semmel concentrates on Napoleon’s lifetime, rather than his posthumous image. Semmel, too, singles out the Hundred Days as the crucial moment in determining Napoleon’s reputation: in Britain almost as much as France, the episode turned him into a figure of genuine pathos and a liberal icon. The British authorities were so concerned about this shift that they ordered the Bellerophon, en route to Saint Helena in 1815, to leave British territorial waters, probably out of concern that a sympathetic magistrate might issue a writ of habeas corpus to keep Napoleon in Britain. After his safe arrival on Saint Helena, radicals lambasted the British government for its petty treatment of him there. In the words of the Black Dwarf, Britain spent vast sums ‘to torture one man abroad, while tens of thousands are starving at home to furnish the expense’.

At first glance, the strain of British admiration for Napoleon seems the principal novelty of Semmel’s book. His broader contention that representations of the man served mainly as mirrors in which the British saw themselves is not particularly surprising. Nor is his tracing of a broad shift from early enthusiasm, through a period of intense vilification in 1808-15 (when British soldiers were fighting the French in Iberia), to the final phase of widely shared sympathy. Semmel makes a good case for the fractured and anxious nature of early 19th-century British political society, but historians of the period have been travelling in this direction for some time: it is a predictable corrective to Linda Colley’s argument for Georgian Britain’s cohesion and dynamism. What sets Semmel’s book apart, however, is the extraordinary richness of his analysis, and the wealth of material he has uncovered.

Take the ‘emperor of Garrat’. In the 18th century, the community of Garrat, south of London, regularly ‘elected’ a labourer or artisan to the position of mayor or MP. The ritual was what Hazareesingh would call an anti-fête: a raucous, symbolic challenge to constituted authority. As far as anyone knew, it died out in the 1790s. But Semmel has discovered that the electors convened again in 1804, this time to name a muffin-seller called Harry Dimsdale as emperor, with a punchbowl as his crown. The ceremony still carried a whiff of challenge to authority in general, but its principal target was Napoleon, who, in December 1804 would take part in a rather more splendid version of it in Notre-Dame.

Semmel has also uncovered the banquet held in Yarmouth to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat, which featured a table three-quarters of a mile long groaning under the iconic English dishes of roast beef and plum pudding, accompanied by strong beer. While the townspeople gobbled and guzzled, an effigy of the Corsican Ogre blazed away on top of a pyramid of tar barrels. There is also the loony millenarian who tried desperately to expose Napoleon as the Beast of the Book of Revelation by writing down the Latin abbreviations for the Napoleonic titles of general, consul and emperor – DVX, CL, I – and triumphantly explained that the numerals added up to 666. Semmel tells, too, the story of the journalist Lewis Goldsmith, who worked for Napoleon in Paris and published an English-language propaganda journal as a sort of Lord Haw Haw avant la lettre. Once back in Britain, Goldsmith published a sensational exposé of Napoleon and became the emperor’s fiercest vilifier. Somewhere in the course of this ideological journey, incidentally, he passed William Cobbett travelling in the opposite direction, from his original Napoleon-hating conservatism to an endpoint of Napoleon-loving radicalism. By September 1815, Cobbett was publishing odes in the exiled emperor’s honour: ‘Yet how resplendent is thy setting sun;/ Transported to a living tomb . . . Thy fame still lives in every Freeman’s heart.’

Cultural historians today often fall into the trap of treating the texts they study as elaborate and spirited word games, neglecting the emotions these texts expressed and inspired. Semmel occasionally slips in this direction, but mostly does an excellent job of recapturing the fears and hopes of this period of perilous, total war. Admittedly, it is now hard to take seriously some of the anxieties he documents as to how Britain would fare under French occupation – English porter and cheese banned in favour of soupe-maigre and ‘sour rat-gut Liquor’; London renamed ‘Bonapartopolis’. Compared to what Hitler might have done, this seems pretty mild. But Semmel insists, rightly, that having witnessed Napoleon extend his empire across all of Europe, threatening British trade and possibly the islands themselves, many Britons thought their way of life was under threat. And during the long years in which they seemed incapable of stopping him, they genuinely doubted if they would ever be up to the task.

Given the intensity of these anxieties and doubts, the survival of a strain of Napoleonophilia throughout the wars seems all the more astonishing. Semmel sticks so closely to the texts that he does not really pay enough attention to this point, or do enough to investigate the threats and harassment that writers like Cobbett and Leigh Hunt must have incurred for supporting the leader of an enemy power in wartime. But the evidence he presents serves as a vivid and depressing reminder that, in some ways, Britain in the era of Napoleon was more open to genuine, vigorous political debate than it, or any other Western nation, is today. When did any writer in the US openly sympathetic to the nation’s enemies last have anything like the influence that Cobbett or Hunt had during the Napoleonic Wars?

Taken together, the works of Semmel and Hazareesingh raise another troubling point. Although the British people obviously were far more hostile to Napoleon than the French, the range of opinions in the two countries was remarkably similar, especially after the Hundred Days. Nearly every British writer had a close French equivalent, and this testifies eloquently to the cosmopolitanism of European elites in the immediate aftermath of the Enlightenment. In this period, the best-educated classes of Britain and France (and Germany and Italy and America) had a better knowledge of each other’s cultures than their successors do today, in the supposed age of globalisation. They read more of the same books, developed parallel literary and artistic movements, and participated in more of the same debates. Even war – and even Napoleon’s internment of thousands of Britons caught on French soil after the Peace of Amiens broke down in 1803 – did not break off these contacts, or destroy this sympathy. Napoleon might be emperor of the French, but he was the cultural property of the entire Western world.