NAPOLEON: A LIFE
By Andrew Roberts
Viking, $45, 926 pages
Reviewing one of Andrew Roberts’ earlier books, an English critic wrote that “as well as being intelligent, hard-working and opinionated, he gets great fun out of his writing. His books are consequently not only genuinely important but also a pleasure to read.” This is certainly true of his massive new biography of Napoleon. For American readers unfamiliar with his work, “Napoleon: A Life” will come as a pleasant discovery, a contemporary historian writing about one of history’s true giants in a way that is accessible to an intelligent general audience without sacrificing truth to sensationalism.
Mr. Roberts is also a good storyteller and what a story he has to tell. A brilliant young Corsican soldier of modest background harnesses the whirlwind of the French Revolution, conquers most of Europe and nearly succeeds in setting up his own assortment of siblings and in-laws as a new super-dynasty. Besides fighting 60 battles and only losing seven, he presides over — and sometimes takes an active hand in — a sweeping range of administrative, legal and educational reforms that will shape modern Europe.
If there is one weakness to be found in this admirably researched and beautifully told tale it is, alas, the bottom line. In drawing up his historical balance sheet, Mr. Roberts often overlooks the negative consequences of some of his subject’s greatest achievements or credits his hero with creating trends that were already well underway. Thus, while the Napoleonic Code represented a great stride forward in standardizing and modernizing the jumble of conflicting provincial laws that had piled up in France since the Medieval period, similar efforts had already been made by enlightened rulers such as Emperor Joseph II in the Hapsburg domains.
In France itself, the Bourbon monarchy’s military reforms after the humiliating defeat of the Seven Years War (1757-1763) shaped the training of Napoleon himself as a young Royal cadet, as well as 11 of his 26 marshals who had held royal commissions before the Revolution.
Ironically, some of the “reforms” Napoleon was most personally involved in were actually retrograde. In the case of women, for example, as Christopher Herold pointed out in his magisterial “The Age of Napoleon,” the code “marked a large stride backward . Under the old regime, married women had enjoyed wide freedom, separate property rights, and an influential place in society . Napoleon imposed on French society his view that women must be treated as irresponsible minors throughout their lives.”
It’s possible that Napoleon’s views on matrimony had been tainted by the conduct of his first wife, that alluring serial adulteress, Josephine. Mr. Roberts captures Josephine’s essence succinctly, writing that she was “charming and affable — though not intelligent enough to be witty — and knew perfectly what kind of attentions successful men liked. Asked whether Josephine had intelligence, Talleyrand is said to have replied: ‘No one ever managed so brilliantly without it.’ “
Genius though he was, in his personal life and approach to government Napoleon never outgrew his Corsican childhood, treating both his intimate circle and the millions of subjects he held power over more as a semi-benevolent Godfather than an enlightened monarch.
It was all about control, with all of it in his hands, whether he was looting art treasures, imposing one-sided mercantilist policies on reluctant allies or forcing relatives into arranged royal marriages meant to further his grip over neighboring states. He also shared a Mafioso’s taste for petty revenge; in his will, he actually left money to a man who had tried to murder the Duke of Wellington, his victor at Waterloo.
While it is hard to blame Mr. Roberts for becoming a bit infatuated with Napoleon after immersing himself in such an intriguing subject and producing 925 pages of vivid history, I would cite a cautionary quote from a source Mr. Roberts would find hard to refute: himself.
In his 2001 work, “Napoleon and Wellington,” he arrived at a more balanced appraisal of the legacy of a man who would serve as the template for most of the power-hungry, self-made caudillos and dictators who have blighted the post-Napoleonic world, from Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin to Idi Amin and the “Emperor” Bokassu, not to mention countless uniformed bullies in Asia and Latin America — all fellow “Men of Destiny” in their own crazed eyes:
“In Napoleon, a man of superior intellect, undoubted military genius, great depths of knowledge, genuine artistic tastes and fine wit, History provides the ultimate proof that dictatorships cannot remain benevolent and absolute power does indeed corrupt absolutely.”
Mr. Roberts got that one right the first time.
• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.