Sunday, June 28, 2015
Napoleon The Great : Andrew Roberts
First let me begin by saying this blog is written by an amateur. My knowledge of Napoleonic history was limited to a couple of years of study in and around A-Level history. Back then I read Pieter Geyl's book about Napoleon (of which I remember next to nothing.) So I'm reviewing this book with almost minimal context. So forgive me.
Roberts sets out to justify the title of his book. He wants us to see Napoleon as deserving of the title 'Great', which as he points out in his conclusion isn't a word that many rulers get given (or keep). And I think he manages to do that. For me though the justification for 'The Great' probably isn't because of his abilities as a soldier but as an administrator.
As a General his abilities can hardly be called insignificant. After all, as Roberts points out, he fought sixty battles and sieges in his career and lost only seven. The problem is that it doesn't matter how many battles you win if your last battle is the one that matters. And you lose it. In the end he over-reached himself, created too many enemies on too many fronts. As the stakes got bigger, the armies got bigger and the more he had to rely on others to do his work for him. The fighting went on a long time and you get the impression that by the time of Waterloo he wasn't thinking as sharply as he had before. Roberts points out that at Waterloo the French made a series of unforced errors that ignored Napoleon's own maxims.
But all that I already knew. Sort of. If we think of Napoleon, we think of the soldier. He's an ancestral British bogeyman.
However what Roberts's book does well is cover the other parts of his life. His codification of French law is pretty much still French law. He took what the French revolution had given him, but which floundered in the face of violence, and solidified it. Then the Bourbons came back and screwed it all up again.* Roberts is rightly impressed with Napoleon's energy, the breadth of his interests and his ability to compartmentalize his mind. Napoleon was a man of the Enlightenment.
The book also deals with Napoleon as lover, husband and brother. Indeed I'd argue that the strength of this book isn't that it makes you realise that Napoleon was a Great Man but that he was a fully-rounded human being. He was capable of great things and he made terrible mistakes. He could be cruel, although rarely vindictive (which actually may have cost him in the end). He could also be generous and loving.
Roberts does try and contextualise Napoleon's worst acts by comparing them with contemporaries actions and justifications. He also does a fine job of giving alternate accounts where available, although he tends to err in Napoleon's favour. But not always. This isn't a hagiography by any stretch of the imagination. There are warts and all in here. However** I would now love to read a really anti-Napoleon biography in order to compare and contrast.
So to prevent this turning into pages of waffle let me say that I enjoyed this book. It's well-written, smart and fascinating. It does what a good biography or history book should do, which is make you want to find out more about the person and the period.
I recommend it.
I'm now off to read Paul O'Keefe's, Waterloo - The Aftermath, which I won via Vintage Books. Seems to be the perfect follow-up. Then I'm going to find a biography of Napoleon to compare and contrast this one with.
*One thing this book also did was to remind me of the idiotic nature of the Bourbons in and around Napoleon's time and their magnificent ability to screw things up by failing to realise that things had changed irreversibly since 1789.
**That's one for Michael Gove.