Sunday, 24 January 2016

Napoleon The Great - Andrew Roberts - book review

I recently finished reading Andrew Roberts' monumental "Napoleon The Great", which was first published in 2014. I had read and heard great things about it.

Unlike some Napoleon-related works which tend to focus on one or other aspect of his life or rule, this one feels like an effort to write a comprehensive biography. It is put together in a very fluent, accessible and readable form and style, and it is marked by a distinct spirit and exuberance.

The author makes extensive use of quotes from correspondence and memoirs, but he stresses the unreliability of some sources, and he highlights instances where firm evidence is scanty. Where there are conflicting or contradictory versions of events, he carefully weighs the credibility or veracity of each one.

There is a good deal of comment about Napoleon's education, and his early precocity in reading and mathematics. His choice of reading matter is examined for clues to the direction of his life. As with many sections of the story, Roberts does not speculate unnecessarily, and a "less is more" approach is adopted to some elements of the story.

From early on, details are revealed which tell us that not all areas of Napoleon world-view were particularly "progressive", and it is one of the strengths of the book that we are given an honest, open and balanced portrayal of the man, his views and his actions. He had the energy, drive, ambition and brains to make some enlightened and rational changes, whereas others just theorized impotently. Also, it wasn't just what he did which was significant, but who he was.

There are lots of anecdotes about events and influences which shaped his outlook, on religion, politics, leadership and so forth. I was intrigued to read that during his early military career, he economized stringently so that he could buy books and also support his family.  A man after my own heart...

His relationship to Corsica and its politics is also afforded plenty of attention, with some emphasis on how the vagaries of the French Revolution affected the island and the status and fortunes of the wider Bonaparte family. As the tale unfolds, it is also illustrated how, in addition to his prodigious qualities, Napoleon also benefited from the Revolution on more than one level, through the principle of meritocracy, the exodus of officers, and the general administrative chaos in France at that time. When considering the latter, the apparently spasmodic nature of his early army career is well documented here.

Accounts of Napoleon's exploits in Italy and Egypt help to explain how he capitalized on circumstances, through his work ethic and man-management.  His outlook began to crystallize, and he almost imperceptibly became important and indispensable to France.

The excerpts from Napoleon's writings and correspondence are fascinating and revealing, especially those from his younger days. They are often emotional and contradictory, but if nothing else they depict an ambitious, thrusting and inquisitive young man. The "romanticism" of some of Napoleon's literary outpourings, when set against his image as a product of the Enlightenment, is another illuminating thread.

Sometimes the text mixes affairs of the state with the intricacies of Napoleon's private life. To some this might be confusing, but to me it serves to make the story more rounded, less "academic" and less onerous to read.

When working my way through "Napoleon The Great" I was struck by the author's sound and confident grasp of the issues and the realities when pivotal events arose.  This is true of his account of the 1799 coup, for example. My discomfort at Napoleon riding roughshod over constitutions and institutions was matched by my admiration at his activist energy, and awareness of what needed to be done. The vitality of Roberts' writing evokes the drama, tension and moral ambiguity of that episode.

Some of the less enlightened (by our measurements) initiatives on freedom of expression, and the centralizing zeal, may strike a discordant note, but the author seeks to place in perspective these things, by pointing out what was occurring in other countries at the time. He does point out where measures were excessive even by the standards of the early 19th century.

The descriptions of battles are kept relatively snappy, but are also informative, and not over-burdened with military and technical jargon. In all honesty, I was more enthused by the chronicling of diplomatic manoeuvres, and the implementation and impact of Napoleon's domestic programs.

Chapters which cover the 1812 campaign in Russia amply convey the horrors of those months, and they highlight the sheer magnitude of the undertaking, and of the disaster which happened. Efforts are also made to clarify what Napoleon's strategic intentions were beforehand, and to counter accusations that he was afflicted by megalomania concerning Russia.  This is all in keeping with the balanced and reasonable nature of this work.

The Continental System, and its repercussions, are gone into in a little depth, as are Napoleon's endeavours to balance out Russia, Austria and Prussia. When defending some of the Emperor's contentious decisions or moves, the author offers sound reasoning, as with his return to Paris in 1812.

The later stages of this book I found quite moving, such as the parts where he said final goodbyes to family and friends before going into his final exile. His dignity at this time often seemed to contrast sharply with the pettiness and arrogance of his captors.

I found this to be an honest, warts-and-all telling of the tale, highlighting his failings and deficiencies as well as his positive and traits and his praiseworthy achievements. The author does not dwell unduly on some "obvious" areas which excite the popular imagination, but goes his own way.

I loved one phrase employed to describe Napoleon - "he was the Enlightenment on horseback". His lustre endures, and this biography strengthened my understanding of, and admiration for, the man.

In summary, "Napoleon The Great" is endlessly readable and absorbing, a compelling look at one of the most remarkable figures in European history.

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