One of my stated goals with this blog is to discuss why I plan to read a book before I actually read it. I’ve deviated from that stated goal with this book because, to put it simply, I’m lazy. Each morning I wake up, stumble to my computer, read my tasks for the day, and casually click “Postpone until tomorrow” on the task labeled “Napoleon Blog”.
Laziness is about as un-Napoleonic as it gets. I know it’s un-Napoleonic because I’ve just finished a wonderful biography of the man. Yes, after a month of postponing my “Why I’m going to read this Napoleon book” blog post, I’ve finished reading the Napoleon book, which means I had better get moving on the blog post. We’ll see if I can sum up my thoughts without devolving into something as icky as a review.
Upon first glance, “Napoleon: A Life” by Andrew Roberts is an intimidating read. Late eighteenth century France, if you can believe it, was populated by people with unapologetically French names. Bernadotte, Lefebvre, Augereau, Oudinot, etc. The French pronunciations in the audiobook can get confusing during battle for non-French-listening ears, especially when you throw location names into the mix. This is obviously to be expected, but it added to the intimidation factor.
The European map of the day is a bit tricky as well, filled with states that no longer exist and lacking nations like Germany that would play a rather significant role in Europe a century later. Where, after all, do Austrian borders lie when Poland has been carved into pieces? What’s the difference between Prussia and the Russian Empire? Why is there a King of Bavaria, and is it possible he’s a mascot for a creamy donut company? It’s challenging to follow the political and war maneuvering without a historical atlas always on hand.
From Napoleon’s childhood in Corsica to meager university days to early battle success, a coup d’état, imperial governance, defeat, abdication, resurrection, banishment, and a miserable death on a small igneous rock in the south Atlantic, the tale is filled with French cities, French families, French generals, policy discussions, marital relations, and a detailed accounting of military movements and battle tactics spanning half a century. 800 pages of such detail could easily become a chore to read. Andrew Roberts instead turns it into the fascinating tale of an intelligent, tireless, ambitious, self-aware man who knew he could be great and proved it.
I had no informed opinion of Napoleon before reading the book. I remembered him from history classes and early U.S. History books as the short-statured, hand-in-jacket, caricatured Emperor of France who was a brilliant General but wanted to rule the entire world. I knew he had ended life banished to some island (I thought it was Elba, which wasn’t entirely inaccurate), but I didn’t know the details of his rise to power or the policies he employed while governing. Recently I read The Third Reich at War by Richard Evans, in which the subject of similarities (and differences) between Hitler and Napoleon had come up, and I realized I knew far too little about post-Revolutionary France. Thus, upon seeing this book on the New Releases shelf at the bookstore, I chose to abandon my abundance of ignorance. It sat on my shelf for roughly nine months, intimidating me to no end, but curiosity finally won out.
So what then did I take away?
A better understanding of the europolitical climate at the end of the eighteenth century, for sure. We always hear about England and France battling it out for global domination, but so many other factions were involved.
I now have a better understanding of how Napoleon governed. As far as Emperors go, he wasn’t so bad. Sure, he touted revolutionary republican values with no plans to relinquish power once he had acquired it, but he enacted strong Enlightenment legislation in terms of education reform, religious tolerance, and meritocracy. Yes, he spent his entire reign at war, which cost France dearly, but he did so in an effort to extend the power and influence of France against not-insignificant neighbors. In the end, he left his adopted nation smaller and weaker than when he acquired it, which makes it difficult to judge his effort as anything but a failure. Many of his education and tax reforms lasted a hundred years beyond his death, and his military reforms changed how all of Europe organized its armies, so his legacy is important. But was he good or bad for Europe? Was he good or bad for France? I don’t know.
He was certainly good for history. Intelligent, innovative, and thoughtful, he makes for intriguing and sympathetic subject matter, which is probably why so many books have been written about him. I enjoyed almost every minute of this book (some of the battle detail felt a bit excessive, but it probably wasn’t). At the end of the day, I walk away knowing far more than when I picked it off a shelf. My brain has since busied itself contemplating the ambition necessary to rise so quickly in the world, the luck and timing essential to success, the tireless energy needed to govern a nation, and the force of character imperative to change history. I couldn’t do it. Nor would I be qualified to try.
Consider yourselves lucky, but feel free to shout, “Vive l’Empereur” whenever I pass by.