The History of Napoleon Buonaparte by John Gibson Lockhart

‘Better luck next time!’ – British sailors to Napoleon as he was transferred to the ship taking him to exile in St Helena.

I don’t know how well the humour in that line comes across to non-British readers, but I burst out laughing when I read it.  The humour still works 200 years later because the British view of Napoleon is still that of the disturber of the World.  This book was one of the first popular accounts of the story of Napoleon to appear in English, and it is still worth reading as a straight history. Being written not that long after the events it also gives quite an incite into the views and attitudes of the time itself.  It has a point of view about Napoleon but it is also a fair account, leaving no doubt that we are talking about a great man and balancing praise and blame.

The most amazing thing about it though is how good an account it is and how readable it remains even though it is very nearly contemporary with the events it describes.  You do lose a little by it being so close.  For example there is a very full discussion of the criticisms of the British government’s handling of Napoleon’s captivity.  Lockhart gives his country a spirited defence.  The most intriguing bit is an elaborate discussion justifying why he was referred to as “General” rather than as “Emperor”.  In a more class conscious world than the one we live in these things mattered a lot, and it is good to be reminded about that. But while this is interesting for its own sake, as an indication of what people at the time were talking about and what they thought about it, it isn’t really the reason to be reading a book on Napoleon.  We also get a defence of Wellington’s conduct of the battle of Waterloo which again isn’t a live issue any more.

But leaving aside those it is a very lively and well written account of the remarkable career of a remarkable man.  We get the young gifted by detached prodigy growing up to become the autocrat of his adopted country.  Napoleon is a strange mixture of the radical, the reformer and the conservative and this is just how he is portrayed.  The man who could both codify French law one minute, assassinate members of the Bourbon royal family the next and most amazingly of all attempt to reform a version of the Roman Empire centred on Paris.  He is a man who much has been written about, but for a quick and easy to read introduction to his life this one is hard to beat.

As I say, it is written by a patriotic Englishman. Although the triumphs of Napoleon’s military genius are acknowledged and praised, there is no doubt that the ultimate defeat of the Corsican is regarded as a good thing and few tears are shed over him.  Even so, the tragedy of his final throw of the dice in his doomed invasion of Belgium which led to his biggest defeat in a set piece battle is still apparent.

This is an easy text to find online, and an easy one to read once you’ve found it.  If you are looking for something light to fill your Kindle I don’t think you can beat it.

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17579/17579-h/17579-h.htm

Leave a Comment

Filed under Napoleon

Leave a Reply