I was born in Eastbourne on the south coast of England, which is the location of a Napoleonic fortifcation called the Redoubt. When I was growing up it was the home of an exceptionally kitsch model village and a rather charming aquarium called the Blue Grotto. This was an eccentric use for an historic monument, and the council decided to turn into something more appropriate. There was, as there always is in small towns, an outcry about the change to a much loved local amenity. The argument went on until some vandals broke in one night and smashed the model village up.
This led to some mutterings that it was inside job. After all, the walls protecting it had been designed to keep out the French army led by a military genius. The conspiracy theorists had a good point. The Redoubt has enormously thick walls and a very wide trench surrounding it. The construction was no trivial matter and was undertaken by a nation that was terrified of the threat posed to it by the man who has continued to fascinate succeeding generations.
And it is easy to see why he generates so much interest. The south of England – from where the camp fires of his Grand Armee assembled at Boulogne could be seen burning across the Channel – was of a part with many other places in Europe and beyond affected by his military activities. From Lisbon to Moscow, from Copenhagen to Alexandria the effects were felt. So it isn’t surprising the man generates so much interest, and in fact the career of Napoleon is a small industry. Eastbourne Council’s methods might be suspect, but you can’t fault them for spotting an asset with the potential to draw people into the town.
Another consequence of the fame of Napoleon is that a lot has been written about him. A huge amount of paper from the seriously scholarly through to the seriously trivial with every shade in between. This means if you set out to write a popular biography of the man there are some very easy traps to fall into. I think Philip Dwyer has fallen into all of them, but none of them so badly as to stop this being a great book.
1. Every major event of Napoleon’s career has been talked about a lot.
Was Trafalger a major blow to Napoleon’s ambition or an indecisive engagement where a British admiral was killed? Was Austerlitz a piece of strategic genius or a lucky break? There are a hundred questions like this. The temptation for the historian is to discuss the history of the history and to make a case for a particular interpretation. The first person to mess with the way his actions would be seen was Napoleon himself. He was if nothing else a spin doctor of genius avant la lettre.
For the reader who just wants to know what happened lengthy discussions of what other people think happened are simply tiresome. Dwyer avoids this most of the time, but there are times when you can faintly discern the sound of an axe grinding.
2. What was Napoleon really like?
Napoleon isn’t so far back in history that his politics can be ignored. There are also matters of national pride for many of us. Being English I can’t help but regard him as a national enemy even now. I suspect the Dwyer has at least some of that prejudice and is on the whole anti-Napoleon. He does however usually balance criticism by comparing Napoleon to his contemporaries. This usually mitigates things a bit. But the book is neither a hatchet job nor an apology. The reader might well have an opinion already but he wants to be able to make up his own mind.
3. Assuming everyone knows it all already.
Napoleon’s exploits were on the grand scale. He often appears as a character in novels and films. There are monuments, place names, pop songs and even menu items recording his battles. It is easy to assume that everyone already knows the outline of his biography. He has many fans, a lot of whom will be reading this book, of whom this is true. But I think the general reader who simply wants to know what all the fuss about cannot be assumed to know more than the name, the rough time period, and that he was defeated at Waterloo.
Here I think Dwyer has got it almost spot on. He pares the detail down to that which is strictly necessary for the story. You can pick this book up and read it without having read any other on the subject. (Though I did spot one slip – anyone who doesn’t know about the career of Marshall Bernadotte will need to refer to Wikipedia for a few key facts.)
But having said all that, what this book does really well is to reveal Napoleon as a human being. He isn’t a particularly likeable one. In fact you begin to find him rather repellant rather quickly. But he does come across as real. It is a long book, but it doesn’t feel long because it is covering a remarkable life that is full of events. It is a real page turner.
It is well written throughout and I don’t think you’ll have any trouble getting into it. But the best bit by far is the last chapter. I don’t want to talk about it in any detail as it would be a bit of a spoiler. Suffice to say, that it is as satisfying an ending as you might expect from a novel.
I was given a review copy of this book in an inconvenient electronic format. I am told this is something that I should declare when publishing. I don’t know whether this is true or not. In any case, if you want to purchase my opinion it will cost a lot more than a gift worth at most a couple of quid. It is the second volume of a two part book and I haven’t read the first half.