Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts

It's hard to think of a historical work that I've enjoyed as much as this 2014 biography of Napoleon by Andrew Roberts. It helped that my ignorance of the details of the great Corsican's life made it more like a thriller than a history book. It's well-wrtten too and not burdened by academic up-its-arseness. It's clear that Roberts is an admirer but it never strays into hagiography and he casts a beady eye on such incidents as the massacre at Jaffa and the precipitous execution of the Duc d'Enghien. There's a tad too much detail about his many battles for my taste but the book is excellent on the manoeuvres of the various players on the European stage and the shifting alliances. Russia is in Prussia is out. Prussia is in Russia is out. The Brits are consistently out and worried mainly by Napoleon's trade embargoes. The rot for Napoleon started with his badly managed Russian campaign and culminated at Waterloo when they all ganged up on him. Unlike 20th century dictators Napoleon brought order, civic codes and processes, and civilisation to the areas he conquered and was a generous supporter of architecture and all the arts (and a looter of other's treasures it should be said). He was an indefatigable letter writer and Roberts is the first historian to have had complete access to his entire output. The result is a lot of intimate detail. His romantic interests were never confined to Josephine (and her bad teeth) and throughout his life he enjoyed the attentions of actresses and singers as well as those of his wife. Josephine was eventually dumped for a strategic marriage with a Prussian princess. Even in the midst of battle he liked to enjoy the company of his latest lady friend. He is portrayed as a man who worked hard, encouraged promotion based on merit, and was extremely courageous. His troops loved him for the way he moved amongst them easily. His ruthlessness isn't ignored either and the way he supplanted the post-revolutionary leaders was a masterclass in political manoeuvring. The dying fall of his life on St. Helena is covered in all its poignant detail as he pottered amiably about his remote prison - charming most of those with whom he came into contact. It's a riveting read really. France could do with him today.