This month I have been mostly reading about Napoleon, for reasons of my own that may one day be shared with the world.
It’s very inconvenient to have your preconceptions overthrown by facts, though that is what was achieved by Vincent Cronin’s Napoleon. This was only slightly offset by a more traditional / prejudice matching view of the man in Christopher Hibbert’sNapoleon: His Wives and Women. My view had always been: fine while he stayed at home in France, stabilising the country after the madness of the Revolution; batty but forgivable that he became Emperor; bad when he decided to export the benefits of his rule to the rest of Europe, mostly against their will. Either way, a lesser man than, say, Cromwell, another successful revolutionary general who ended up assuming supreme power but did have the humility not to accept the crown when it was offered to him; and a mere shade of, say, Washington, a successful revolutionary general who served two elected terms as the first president of his new republic and then quietly retired.
Hibbert’s is the more accessible book because it is mostly about the personalities involved and just assumes that you know the gist of the history. Thus he can make throwaway lines like “the Russian campaign was a disaster” or “Napoleon had decided to escape from Elba”. But Cronin’s book actually looks at the whys, not just the whats, and it suddenly gets more complex.
Why had Napoleon decided to escape from Elba? After all, he was happy there. He was a strong believer in fate; he was quite ready to accept that it was no longer his time to be Emperor of the French. The Treaty of Fontainebleau set him up as King of Elba and he was quietly, happily modernising the island under relatively enlightened rule. But he was slowly going bankrupt, because even though the new French regime had undertaken to pay him a pension for the rest of his life, not a single franc of it ever emerged. It was a bit of petty parsimonious spite on behalf of the restored ancien regime that could so easily have been rectified and spared everyone so much trouble.
The Russian campaign was indeed a disaster and he made a lot of bad decisions – but why did it happen in the first place? Because like almost every war Napoleon got involved in after becoming Emperor, he was attacked first. Napoleon badly wanted peace, but of course he wanted it on his terms and allies kept turning against him. The best form of defence is attack. Problem was, the other European powers loathed him. He was showing that you can overthrow your divinely constituted hereditary monarchy and still have strong, stable government. This was not a message they wanted to see spread about.
Napoleon made his reputation as a general in a series of European campaigns – which were technically conquests, but very often he was throwing out another occupying European power and got greeted by the locals as a liberator. He would then set up a buffer state which, yes, would be a French satellite but would still be a republic based on egalitarian revolutionary principles which were a lot better than what had gone before.
Hibbert says Napoleon returned from the Egyptian campaign, his last outing as mere General Bonaparte, determined to take power in France. Again, Cronin goes a little deeper. When Napoleon left France for Egypt (to cut Britain off from India: perfectly understandable tactic) France was at war with Britain only. Then there was a long period of several months when he was cut off from home with no news; and then he learned that the revolutionary government had brilliantly managed to get itself into a war with five other powers besides. What was he supposed to do?
And so he went home, and overthrew the government, and got himself set up as First Consul. And he did manage to make peace, at the Treaty of Amiens. It broke down after a year with fault on both sides.
He may have been a little to eager too accept the offer of becoming Emperor when it was made: but the fact is, it was made, by the Senate, which had been elected by the people in as fair an election as you were going to get anywhere in the Europe of the day. Who elected King Louis? Napoleon made peace with the church, he let the exiled emigres return without having their heads cut off, and for the next ten years (if you overlook the ongoing European wars) France flourished socially, culturally and scientifically as a meritocratic republic.
Before going into exile, he remarked that if the returning Bourbons had any sense, they would change nothing but the sheets on his bed. They didn’t, of course, they tried to roll back the clock as if the last 30 years hadn’t happened. And look how well that turned out.
But, before you start wondering who has kidnapped Ben and hacked his blog to start writing all this francophile bilge, let’s look at a few other harsh facts. I’ve been talking about Napoleon the Emperor. Napoleon the man was without doubt a git: infantile sense of humour, socially inept, coarse, quite astonishingly vulgar, chauvinist and hypocritical in his philandering while expecting his wives to be unerringly faithful to him (though he’s not unique here …) and unable to trust or share power to anyone other than his own family. He was a brilliant general, at first – but his enemies learned off him and adapted to his tactics, while he just kept using the same tactics over and over again.
I’m, prepared to forgive him a lot, though, for the sheer entertainment value of his remaining years on St Helena, taking childish delight in winding up the po-faced British governor. The poor man had to be able to guarantee at any time of the day or night that General Bonaparte was still on the island. Napoleon would hide behind closed shutters so that no one outside the house could be quite sure.
One thing neither book mentions is that the principle medical officer on St Helena, and one of the men who signed Napoleon’s death certificate, was Dr Thomas Shortt, whose descendants include yours truly. A minor oversight in two very absorbing and complementary insights into Napoleon’s life.
My favourite anecdote is from Cronin’s book and does not actually involve Napoleon. After the restoration, an aristo wandered into the navy office one day in Paris and announced that he wanted to be a Rear Admiral. His reasoning was that he had been a cadet officer before the Revolution, and had he stayed in the navy he would have enjoyed a glittering career and would be a Rear Admiral by now. So, kindly see to it.
The navy officials thought about it, and came back with a pretty good answer: yes, in the parallel universe where there was no Revolution, he did indeed enjoy a glittering naval career … right up until the time he tragically died at Trafalgar. So, no promotion, sorry.