Book Review: Andrew Robert’s “Napoleon: A Life”

I have always been fascinated by Napoleon, the age that he lived in, and his impact on so many aspects of the modern world. Yet, I had never taken the time to sit down and read a dedicated biography on the man. And there are tons to choose from; Napoleon’s own memoirs were the best seller of the 19th century. While I had always wanted to read a biography on Napoleon, it had never been pressing and I’m trying to play catch up on my existing library (thank you law school) so it was a backburner item. Until I had a gift card to Barnes and Noble from Christmas that I needed to spend. I knew I wanted to get the Chernow biography on Alexander Hamilton that has been adapted into the musical (because I’ve been reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson and wanted to balance the Federalist perspective…I am a nerd, sue me) but had left over money on the card and figured I’d search “Napoleon” and see what I found.

The result of that whim was my purchase of Andrew Robert’s Napoleon: A Life. Highly rated, fairly recent, within my price range…let’s do it.

A few days later 1,600 words arrive at my house in the form of the Hamilton book and the 900-tome that Robert’s wrote on Napoleon (only ~100 of which were notes). I’m not a sadist but the fact that I’ve been almost exclusively on a “biographies the size of case books” kick might speak more about me than I realize.

Eight hundred pages be damned I finished this thing in under three weeks. I give credit to Roberts and Napoleon for completely capturing my attention. Robert’s writing style is sharp, he constantly refers to Napoleon’s writings and correspondence (but not in a jarring way where you are constantly being shuffled from Robert’s narrative to 18th century style over and over again) and allows himself to give context to the age and politics. The book focuses 90 percent on Napoleon but 10 percent on the age in general so you walk away with a good understanding of contemporaries such as Alexander I of Russia, the Hapsburg family of Austria, Napoleon’s family, Napoleon’s marshals, Horatio Nelson, Talleyrand, Metternich and especially Josephine and Marie Louise (Napoleon’s wives).

We start with Napoleon’s humble beginnings in Corsica and watch his determined rise as an obscure member of the minor nobility in a newly acquired foreign province. Devouring books, writing short stories and taking constant sick leaves which allow him to take advantage of shifting situations in revolutionary France, eventually Napoleon distinguishes himself at the Battle of Toulon. He rises through (and narrowly survives) the Reign of Terror to save the revolution against a royalist uprising in Paris, landing him command of forces in Italy. Riding luck and youthful innovation against octogenarian Austrian generals, Napoleon secures northern Italy for France and becomes one of the leading men of France by his late-20’s. His star having risen, Napoleon leads what can only be described as a foreign adventure in Egypt before sneaking back to France just in time to join the coup attempt that eventually lands him the position of First Consul. Robert’s does an excellent job describing the military skill, social charisma, curious mind, and political calculations that allow Napoleon to rise from nobody to commander of France. Roberts also makes sure to capture the many moment of pure dumb luck Napoleon so frequently found in the first half of his life.

As First Consul, Napoleon quickly secured his power, won a brief peace and then won his greatest victory at Austerlitz, which he then followed up with victories at Jena and Friedland. Robert’s balances the successes of Napoleon, on and off the battlefield, with the looming failures. The enlightenment France of his reign is juxtaposed with the constant acquisition of power, controversial censorship decisions, and attempts by the exiled Bourbons and still present Jacobins to assassinate Bonaparte. His brilliance at Austerlitz and Jena is contrasted with the brutal campaign in Prussia beyond Berlin where the bitter cold of Poland the bloody battle of Eylau foreshadow the coming disaster in Russia. Robert’s depiction of the critical battles of Napoleon’s life, from Marengo to Waterloo, is well done and clearly illustrates how the scope and size of the battles changed over the age. Napoleon’s command of several thousand troops in Italy where “major battles” with several hundred casualties at the start of his career morphs into the mammoth battles of Borodino, Leipzig and the 1814 allied invasion of France where fronts span miles, hundreds of thousands of soldiers participate and casualties number into the tens of thousands. Napoleon’s bloody “victories” at Eylau and Wagram demonstrate how the scale of the age was moving beyond even its leading person and foreshadow the great battles that led to his eventual downfall. All the while, the coalition allies themselves slowly adopt Napoleon’s own innovations and adapt to his tactics. The reader can’t help but wonder how France isn’t exhausting itself culminating in the disastrous invasion of Russia when those questions are answered with the realization that France has exhausted itself and Napoleon’s time is limited. It’s a testament to his energy and brilliance that he held on as long as he did after the fateful decision to push all the way to Moscow and even managed to return from Elba and take command of France for another 100 days.

Throughout the book Robert’s dispels the propaganda and myths behind the perception of Napoleon and he handles this with fair precision. Anti-Napoleonic propaganda from the British and the Bourbons is clearly laid out and evaluated. The mountain of post-Napoleonic biographies and memoirs about the man from his contemporaries are evaluated fairly, taking into account the possible motivations behind the authors.  Slowly we see the personality of the man take shape and one can clearly identify the three main periods of Napoleon’s own life: his angsty revolutionary youth, his pragmatic 20’s between Toulon and Austerlitz, and lastly the imperial end where the ego, failed luck, and scope of ambitions all combine to undermine his rule.

One of the more interesting revelations in the narrative occurred about the time that Napoleon was crowned emperor. Always seen as an egotistical act by egotistical man and betryal of the revolution, it was interesting to see the republican logic to Napoleons coronation. In a way, the revolution and the people saw Napoleon’s coronation as almost a necessity to saving the revolution by establishing a line of succession and preventing The constant coups and governmental overthrows that plagued 1790’s France.

Yet, while the coronation itself had surprisingly republican overtones, if marks a turn in the Napoleon’s psyche that ultimately cost him everything he had work to achieve. From that point on he increasingly lost his innovator spirit and instead became increasingly intertwined with the sclerotic Imperial trappings and conflicts he opposed in his youth. So much of Napoleon’s struggle stems from his loyalty to his family and some of his commanders upon whom he continuously bestowed positions of leadership, and royal titles, despite continued evidence that they were not up to the job. So much of his dynastic struggles and attempts to balance the revolutionary with the traditional led to clashes with the Pope that only further undermined his position. All of this alienated the existing dynasties of Europe, which perpetuated the war and certainly created all of his problems in Spain. Had Napoleon been willing to embrace the long-standing tradition of a balance of power in Europe and not always justified pushing French hegemony just a little bit further, he likely could have preserved his dynasty and created an extremely progressive state for time. Instead, he alienated the powers that be, failed to give good leadership to his vassals/allies, and -exhausted the French state to the point that it could not support him. Over the last ten years of his rule, coinciding with his coronation as emperor, French finances took a turn for the worse, military innovation lag, and Napoleon’s enemies caught up.

While the coronation marks the turn towards his downfall, Roberts paints a picture of a man of boundless energy and unceasing activity up until his exile on Saint Helena. Even on distant fronts he constantly dispatched letters to France on all kinds of subjects whether they be science, his incessant meddling in the Parisian theater, and even micromanagement of family affairs and the affairs of his subordinate officers. It is remarkable that Napoleon could lose so much during his Russia campaign, yet still manage to escape back to France and perpetuate a campaign on all fronts for another two years and come close to actually defeating the coalition both in Germany and in France. Even when he returned from Elba, and engaged Wellington at Waterloo, we can see just how close Napoleon was to defeating the British. Only a series of justified tactical decisions from the invasion of Russia until his final exile prevented continued French hegemony of Europe. Even then, his sheer energy almost overcame those failures.

Through this history, Roberts successfully paints a picture of Napoleon’s personality. Drawing heavily from his correspondence, his writings, and taking into careful account the writings of his contemporaries, Roberts successfully shows us who Napoleon actually was. Often painted as a warmonger, or short egotist, Roberts displays Napoleon as a man of the enlightenment, a superb commanding officer and leader who shared jokes with his troops, a relatively devoted family man, but someone who also had his flaws. The more his successes piled up the more he took risks and forewent advice believing that he was the commander of his own destiny. It did not help that his incessant wars led to the continuous death of so many close confidants and commanders on the battlefield (often the victims of cannonballs that barely missed Napoléon himself). He cared deeply for the arts and sciences, was well read, became a member of the prominent scientific “Institut de France”, made efforts to correspond and meet with scientists and literary giants of the age, and constantly compared himself and drew inspiration from the classical age. His pragmatic and enlightenment mindset allowed him to successfully navigate royalist France, Revolutionary France, and perpetuate his rise and the rise of the empire. So influential and knowledgeable he charmed many diplomats, royals, politicians and, for a time, Alexander of Russia. Of course his temper and ambition made just as many enemies, including several prominent French ministers which hastened his downfall.

Despite harsh correspondence between himself and his brothers, no one can question his loyalty to his family given that he entrusted so much of his rule into their hands with disastrous results. His love life was fraught and complex, especially initially in his marriage to Josephine. Drawing from his personal letters, his vast endowments to various mistresses, and painfully depicting the cruelty of his divorce from Josephine, Roberts does not shy away from the Emperor’s private life. Roberts even goes as far as to make the reader blush when they learn that Napoleon was “efficient” in his lovemaking and that it is possible that Napoleon wrote occasional correspondence to Josephine…or rather a part of Josephine’s body. Like his other depictions of Napoleon on the battle field or on the throne, Roberts makes sure to highlight Napoleon’s love towards his son, his continued friendship with Josephine, and devotion to his Hapsburg wife, Marie Louise. As with all aspects of his life, even Napoleon’s love life cannot be broken into black and white and often comes across as larger than life. This is especially true given political context with Josephine straining French finances, his Polish mistresses intersection with questions of Polish nationalism that troubled his relations with Russia, Prussia and Austria, and the reality that his marriage to Marie Louise did not cement Austria as a French ally. The Hapsburg betrayal of France that likely cemented his fate is painted as a sort of emblem of Napoleon’s psyche. Despite all of his attempts to become the monarch of the age and all his work to understand the nobility of Europe, he never truly gained the inclusion he so desired. For all of his innovation, ultimately, he saw the dynasties of Europe with an eye for the past rather than realizing how his own actions were fundamentally changing Europe at its core. Despite his own heroic efforts, Napoleon simply could not overcome the sheer numbers against him resulting in his exile. Even on Elba, he spent nearly a year reforming and micromanaging many aspects of that island’s life.

A final, larger than life, comeback cements his legacy but Roberts is fair in showing how stacked the odds were against Napoleon and how so many poor decision combined to ultimately cost him Waterloo. His lone battle against the British, whom he often scapegoated as the underlying reason for France’s troubles, proved his worst, and last, defeat. Despite contemplating a fourth bold attempt to outmaneuver the Royal Navy and escape to the United States, Napoleon opted to end his role in history and surrendered himself to the British. Roberts ends with the final chapter, simply titled “Saint Helena” where he concludes the final years of Napoleon’s life, humorously depicting Napoleon sauntering around the island, quarreling in a petty war against the island’s governor (and his jailer), working to control his legacy and dispelling the myth that Napoleon was poisoned to death. The stomach cancer that killed Napoleon’s father ultimately took Napoleon less than a decade after Waterloo.

This is a long read, but it’s an excellent read. You’ll walk away with a much more comprehensive knowledge of this age which acts as a foundation for the modern era. And if you’re like me you’ll walk away inspired at the sheer energy and ambition of the man. In a letter to one of his marshals, Napoleon stresses constant energy ending the letter with “activity, activity, activity!” as the way to give one the edge on the battlefield. If Napoleon can conquer Egypt, Europe and twice come to rule France all while micromanaging his family, Parisian culture and writing thousands of letters per year in 50 years what’s a mere 800 pages. Activity, activity, activity!

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