The friendship began when Napoleon tested Betsy on the capitals of Europe. When he asked her the capital of Russia she replied, ‘Petersburg now; Moscow formerly’, upon which ‘He turned abruptly round, and, fixing his piercing eyes full in my face, he demanded sternly, “Who burnt it?”’ She was dumbstruck, until he laughed and said: ‘Oui, oui. You know very well that it was I who burnt it!’ Upon which the teenager corrected him: ‘I believe, sir, the Russians burnt it to get rid of the French.’ Whereupon Napoleon laughed and friendship with ‘Mademoiselle Betsee’, ‘leetle monkee’, ‘bambina’ and ‘little scatterbrain’ was born. (p. 783)Sent by the British to St Helena following the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon remained himself, here making friends with his hosts’ 14-year-old daughter while he waited for his own house to be made ready. He is frequently a disarming presence in this biography, which has no truck with the idea of the Napoleonic Complex, and excuses or explains almost all of his behaviour, give or take a massacre (at Jaffa) or an execution (of the Duc d’Enghien). It refutes, too, the suggestion that the British poisoned Napoleon on St Helena, going into detail about the stomach cancer which killed him and a number of his relatives. It clarifies that he wasn’t really all that short. Coming to it without a great deal of context it’s difficult to know what to make of Roberts’ defensive writing on occasion. His book is one long argument in its subject’s favour, but what an argument it is.
The context I did have was entirely from fiction: War and Peace, The Count of Monte Cristo and Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard stories all make use of the cult of Napoleon (from safely after his reign), though he is only fleetingly present in those books. His reputation rather than his person is the point: he has dominated Europe and inspires awe, fear and… something else. Respect is part of it, and it’s something to do with the way he fused monarchy with republicanism. Roberts notes that ‘Emperor of the French Republic’ ought to be a contradiction in terms, and makes much of the durability of Napoleon’s reforms, saying that he was able to make them stick because of his autocracy, so that the Bourbons, when restored to the throne in 1815, found France changed in an irreversible way:
During his sixteen years in power, many of the best ideas that underpin and actuate modern democratic politics – meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, secular education, sound finances, efficient administration, and so on – were rescued from the Revolutionary maelstrom and protected, codified and consolidated. […] The Napoleonic Code forms the basis of much European law today […] His bridges span the Seine and his reservoirs, canals and sewers are still in use […] The lycées continue to provide excellent education, and the Conseil d’Etat still meets every Wednesday to review the proposed laws of France. (pp. 809-10)Yet Napoleon’s own position was fragile, which is also part of the appeal. He tried to mitigate against this using every means at his disposal:
Napoleon’s strategy was to ensure that, although he could always count on British hostility, there would be no moment when all three continental powers of Russia, Austria and Prussia would be ranged against him at the same time. He thus needed to play each off against the others, and as much as possible against Britain too. He used Prussia’s desire for Hanover, Russia’s inability to fight on after Friedland, a marriage alliance with Austria, the differences between Russia and Austria over the Ottoman Empire and the fears of Polish resurgence that all three powers felt to avoid having to fight the four powers simultaneously. (pp. 459-60)Although the 1812 campaign in Russia is identified in the turning point in Napoleon’s fortunes, the reason he invaded was to protect his Continental System, which was designed to prevent trade with Britain. Russia initially signed up to this, but Tsar Alexander became progressively less keen as the blockade hurt the Russian economy. The Royal Navy was a constant thorn in Napoleon’s side, and the reason his plans to invade Britain never came to fruition. Blocking trade with France and her allies was the only way he could hurt Britain – and it did hurt us, helping to ‘spur the Luddite protest movement against unemployment in England’ according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Which gives us a link to Charlotte Brontë, whose Shirley is set during the Luddite protests, and whose hero, as we know, was the Duke of Wellington, victor at Waterloo. I wonder if this is part of the reason she’s so incredibly ill-disposed to Belgians?
‘Napoleon is a torrent,’ Kutusov said in deciding to surrender the city, ‘but Moscow is the sponge that will soak him up.’ (pp. 609-10)War and Peace, where he – as in real life – gave Napoleon the run around while he wore himself out. The map showing the brutal reality of the half-a-million French losses during the campaign (above) is chilling, and a reminder that war is more than political action. Which is the rub, I guess, with Napoleon. Roberts puts the figure of French military and civilian losses during ‘the Empire period’ as 916,000, ‘of whom fewer than 90,000 were killed in action’ (p. 811 – the remainder are casualties of the campaigns caused in other ways than direct conflict, like disease, starvation or suicide). For the whole of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, across all nations, the figure is four million, but that predates Napoleon’s ascent, going back to 1792. Is any great man worth 916,000 deaths? Don’t the deaths mean he wasn’t great after all? In as far as it is possible to make the contrary case, Roberts makes it.
There’s so much in this book I haven’t touched on at all, but two more quotations to finish, the first showing Napoleon’s pragmatic approach to religion:
In religion, I do not see the mystery of the Incantation, but the mystery of the social order. It associates with Heaven an idea of equality that keeps rich men from being massacred by the poor… Society is impossible without inequality; inequality intolerable without a code of morality, and a code of morality unacceptable without religion. (p. 272)He was a very thoughtful, and a very well-read man, in Roberts’ telling, frequently drawing on the examples of his heroes Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. He was also a compulsive liar, always manipulating battle (and plebiscite) statistics in his own favour. His first wife, Josephine, showed an ‘almost psychotic extravagance’ (p. 155), which led to this:
Josephine also kept there [at Malmaison] a menagerie of kangaroos, emus, flying squirrels, gazelles, ostriches, llamas and a cockatoo that had only one word (‘Bonaparte’) which it repeated incessantly. She would occasionally invite a female orang-utan dressed in a white chemise to eat turnips among her guests at table. (p. 468)Those nouveau riche, eh?