A regular Bookworm visitor has insisted that we dedicate a Word column to his hero, Napoleon, particularly because he has been lamenting Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo — 200 years earlier on Jun. 15.
Our visitor’s obsession started when he was young. He fell in love with Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Napoleon Crossing the Alps and became a fervent Bonaparte-phile. So when he found a collection of David’s works, Empire to Exile, in our art section, a beautifully illustrated book focusing on a selection of later paintings and drawings by the artist, he was beside himself.
Napoleon was a grand master of spin and David was his most illustrious image making maestro. Yet spin could not stop the self-proclaimed Emperor’s defeat on the battlefield in present day Belgium by the Army of the Seventh Coalition led by Generals Blucher and Wellington. Neither could it allay his banishment to the remote St Helena in the South Atlantic. And nor could it prevent David fleeing from Paris for a life of exile in Brussels when France restored the Bourbon kings.
If you love art in the style of the Flemish masters, then you’ll really appreciate the exquisite plates in the book.
Napoleon’s Rise to Power
Our visitor loaned us a recent, thick and detailed book by a leading French historian of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, Patrice Gueniffey. This epic biography, Bonaparte: 1769-1802, traces Napoleon from his obscure boyhood on Corsica, through his surly but determined career as a young officer in the French revolutionary army, and outlines his meteoric rise through the ranks during the Italian and Egyptian campaigns. It ends with his proclamation as Consul for Life in Paris.
We see Napoleon as the wily politician and military genius, a man besotted with Josephine, at continual loggerheads with his own family, but able to engage and dominate his political elders. All of this is set against a backdrop of violent upheavals and rivalries throughout Europe and the Americas that allowed Napoleon to cunningly plan a strategy for French domination.
The author will elaborate upon visions and realities of domination in his next volume in which we see why Napoleon’s contemporary critic, Madame de Stael, describe him as the man who “made the rest of the human race anonymous”.
The Non-French Perspective
For many Napoleonic followers it’s a relief to come across a biography written from a French perspective. However, for Napoleonic fans who may get overwhelmed by Geuniffey’s wealth of detail and facts, then another recently released biography may suit them instead. Australian Francophile, Andrew Roberts — who also had an adolescent crush on Napoleon — has a shorter, though similarly well-researched tome that praises the man but takes pains to present him warts and all.
Roberts describes Napoleon as “the Enlightenment on horseback” because he bestowed law and liberty on all he conquered with his reasoned and harmonious body of laws, the Code Napoleon. Although Napoleon used authoritarian means (often at the point of a bayonet) to achieve liberal ends, Roberts believes that the replacement of political and legal chaos throughout much of Europe with uniformity and rationalism allows us to appreciate Napoleon as a benign and civilizing entity whose legacy is still felt around the world.
Roberts indulges his readers with the necessary “whiffs of grapeshot”, turbulent battles and massacres, and explains that a lot of Napoleon’s success as a General was because he paid his soldiers hard cash, always on time.
But history is all about luck, and Napoleon had more than his fair share of that in his escapades and conquests — except when he finally met his downfall at Waterloo.
Not everyone appreciates cold fact, non-fiction. So for those who want a racy Napoleonic read, then it’s hard to go past the re-released Desiree by Annemarie Selinko, a story about the real life of Eugenie Desiree Clary who, at 14, was Napoleon’s first love and was briefly engaged to him. She married one of his generals, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, and became Queen Desideria of Sweden.
The Swedish royal line was in danger of extinction and the Swedes invited Bernadotte to become the adopted son of their senile king, mainly because, they reasoned, Napoleon was bound to conquer them someday soon and they’d prefer to have someone they could trust as their king rather than a nepotistic member of the Bonaparte family. Thus he became King Charles XIV John. His lineage continues to this day.
The tale, told in the first person in diary format, follows the fortunes of the Bonaparte family from rags to riches as they grabbed for power and finally lost it.
Desiree is an eccentric, headstrong woman who never overcomes her infatuation with Napoleon. After she becomes Queen of Sweden she scandalously abandons her husband and son for 12 years and returns to Paris until after Napoleon’s final defeat.
Lovers of historical romance will be swept off their feet by the lush and detailed scope of it all, and many will become Napoleon camp followers and may, like our Bookworm friend, hang a print of Napoleon Crossing the Alps on their bedroom wall.
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