There have been more than a thousand books on the French leader but a new biography is the most authoritativeby Charles Williams / May 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
There should be no doubt about the provenance. Patrice Gueniffey is one of the few historians recognised both in France and in the wider academic world for his work on the Napoleonic era. The author of several books on the period and an editor of Napoleon’s letters, he was persuaded in 2004 to abandon a more limited project to undertake a full biography of his subject. Nine years later the first volume, which ends in 1802, was published in Paris and immediately won all the available plaudits. A second volume will follow in due course. When the work is complete there is little doubt that it will be accepted as the most authoritative biography of Napoleon that we have or are likely to have in the foreseeable future.
For now, we now have only the first volume but this is enough, and sometimes a little more than enough, to see where we are headed. Gueniffey sets out his stall in the introduction, a fairly long essay which acts as apéritif to an admittedly long book. He addresses first the question of overload: there have been well over a thousand books of one sort or another devoted to his subject so, he asks, why should there be any more? His response is that far from being surprised at the number we should be surprised that there is any surprise at all. After all, in a short span of 25 years the whole known world was changed. It is right that it should be analysed over and over again. He then goes on to review previous interpretations of Napoleon’s life before setting out his own approach: “to understand… his personality; to describe the… circumstances; to gauge the consent of public opinion…; finally, we have to determine the decisive moment, the one that can, as [Jorge Luis] Borges said, sum up ‘every destiny, no matter how long and complicated it might be’; ‘the [moment] in which the man knows once and for all who he is.’”
Nevertheless, there was no single Napoleonic Damascene “moment” but a succession of events over the years which revealed, one by one, his abilities and, as a by-product, fuelled his ambition. At the outset, the story was unpromising. Born in 1769, the year of battles in Corsica as the French established control, he was brought up in the complex but heady atmosphere of anti-French Corsican nationalism. Equally complicated was the family life of the Buonapartes (the original Genoese spelling of the name)—not least because his mother, Letizia, was having a flagrant affair with the French governor of the island, Count Louis de Marbeuf, giving rise to the suggestion that Napoleon’s younger brother, Louis, was a product of the liaison and even causing Napoleon himself to worry from time to time about his own legitimacy.
Convention had it that the eldest son of the family would go into the army and the next in line into the Church, which meant that by rights Napoleon’s elder brother Joseph would become the soldier and Napoleon himself the priest. Fortunately for the future story, Joseph was considered too much of a weakling for military service and his parents reluctantly reversed the order. The decision made, they sent the nine-year-old Napoleon to school on the French mainland, first to learn French at Autun (conveniently arranged by Marbeuf through his nephew, the Bishop of Autun) and then to military school at Brienne and the École militaire in Paris.
Gueniffey takes us through the events that brought Napoleon to what many would regard as the summit of his achievement: the period of his consulate. It was at Toulon in 1793 that he made his first mark, as a young artillery officer persuading his superior to locate his guns so as to free the harbour and allow a frontal assault. Back in Paris, as a Jacobin supporter and an admirer of Maximilien Robespierre, whom he genuinely believed to be trying to put a brake on the excesses of the Terror, he made a second mark. Robespierre’s execution was followed by frequent clashes between moderates and Jacobins, culminating in the assault of 13 Vendémiaire (5th October 1795). Napoleon happened to be in Paris at the time and was drafted into a force hastily put together to defend the city centre. He showed his ruthlessness by insisting with the force’s commander that the musketeers should be ordered to fire live ammunition (not “grapeshot” as legend subsequently had it).
Rewarded first with the command of the Army of the Interior and then, by the newly established Directoire, of the Army of Italy, Napoleon in the campaign of 1796-1797 showed his genius as a field commander. In his mastery of tactics, movement, logistics and the morale of his men, he outfought his Austrian opponents and set his sights on a march across the Alps to Vienna. Unable to count on support from Paris in April 1797, he settled for a ceasefire at Leoben, only four days march from Vienna, and a peace treaty with Austria which he negotiated himself from his palatial, almost regal, villa at Mombello just outside Milan. As he said himself (at the age of 28), he was “no longer a… simple general but… a man called upon to influence the fate of nations.” The next matter was how to deal with France’s main enemy, Britain. A cross-channel expedition was impractical, as he himself pointed out. The Egyptian campaign of 1798-1799 was designed to cut off Britain’s access to her empire. It was both “a crime and a folly” (Gueniffey’s judgement). It was also a disaster when Napoleon lost his fleet to Horatio Nelson in the Battle of Aboukir. Escaping from Egypt, aided and abetted by the British naval commander Sidney Smith, he landed at Fréjus on 9th October 1799 and set out for Paris. The coup d’état of 18th Brumaire was under way.
The sixth part of the book is devoted to the years of Napoleon’s consulate 1799-1802. Apart from settling the royalist uprising in the Vendée and success in a renewed war with Austria in 1800, culminating in the doubtful outcome of the Battle of Marengo, Napoleon’s great achievement was the establishment of a working republic with a constitution and credible laws to support it. Furthermore, he negotiated the concordat with the Vatican which gave France the guarantee of religious freedom. By that time he had succeeded, where Robespierre had failed, in bringing the revolution to a peaceful end. There were few opponents when the Council of State in May 1802 proposed a question to be put to the French people in a plebiscite: “Shall Napoleon Bonaparte be consul for life?” The turnout was almost 60 per cent and approval was overwhelming. As Madame de Staël wrote, “there is now only one man in France.”
Interspersed in the narrative of Napoleon’s career are descriptions of the mores of the day and the main characters. Joséphine, his first wife, is given extensive and sometimes hilarious treatment as a hyperbolic and faithless liar who regarded marriage as a convenience while she took her pleasure elsewhere. Napoleon, on the other hand, believed that love was an essential ingredient of marriage, although he certainly was not averse to extra-marital entertainment while on campaign. They were married in March 1796 as Napoleon was preparing to command the Army of Italy. Both of them lied about their ages and the ceremony was conducted by an unqualified official. In honour of the event Napoleon gallicised his name to Bonaparte and renamed Rose, as she had been up until then, Joséphine. To modern ears it sounds more than dubious but custom and practice during the period of the Directoire was such that it passed without undue comment.
Napoleon’s developing addiction to acting like a monarch is well documented in a passage describing his residence at Mombello after the end of the Italian campaign. A large villa was guarded by 300 Polish volunteers who escorted privileged visitors to an elevated gallery from where they were allowed to watch Napoleon have his dinner. In addition, since the villa was not large enough to accommodate the number of those wishing to pay court, a vast tent was erected in the garden. But this was only a prelude to the grandeur that surrounded him when he became consul for life. On his 33rd birthday an orchestra of 300 performed, the Tuileries and Notre Dame were illuminated, a statue dedicated to peace was erected at the Pont Neuf and there were receptions and a formal dinner. There were, apparently, no complaints or dissenting voices.
As for the content of the book, there can only be full marks. As for the presentation, there are quibbles. First, the book could have done with judicious editing. The various essays on context, such as the discursus on the social history of Corsica early on and the later narrations of the political manoeuvres of post-revolution Paris, could have been cut, since they tend to distract from the main thrust of the narrative. Second, although the distinguished translator Steven Rendell has made a good fist at his task, there are occasions where he has run up against problems, some of which might have been avoided. To be sure, it is difficult to translate from French into English. For instance, when Napoleon in St Helena described his life as a “roman” he was looking back to the etymology of the French word, as something of romance (in the medieval, pre-sexual sense). He was not describing it as a “novel,” which is the only one-word English translation. Equally, the double negative sits easily in French but uncomfortably in English. Setting that to one side, it does—alas—come as something of a shock to read that somebody on receiving news “was staggered” or that somebody else “ate humble pie.” In the French version there is no slang. At least, then, two cheers for the presentation of the book in its (American) English version. It is a pity that the US publisher was unable to reproduce the striking image on the cover of the Gallimard edition of the young Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David but the other images are faithfully reproduced in their glory. At least two further cheers, however, and perhaps another half, for the excellent index (why do French publishers refuse to commission a proper index?) and the scholarly notes.
Nothing can detract from the quality of the book and the research that has gone into its creation. On top of giving us all that, Gueniffey has left us with an enticing idea of what may be to come. Having skilfully drawn the developing portrait of the young man, from the naive patriot of an imagined Corsica through the lavish proconsulate of Mombello to the uncrowned king of Paris, he leaves us with an arresting image of the Napoleon of April 1802. At a reception, he caught sight of Chateaubriand and immediately brushed aside the crowds to go to speak to him. Without any questions or preliminary remarks, as the diplomat later wrote, he started to talk about Egypt “as if I had been one of his closest friends and as if he were merely continuing a conversation we had already begun.” Napoleon went on to talk of Islam and Christianity and then, just as suddenly, moved away. Later, two of Chateaubriand’s friends told him “about the satisfaction the consul had had from my conversation: I hadn’t opened my mouth; that meant that Bonaparte was content with himself.” The still youthful Napoleon was by then talking to himself and only listening to himself. The second volume will no doubt tell us whether the Napoleon of the Empire was any different.