The Age of Napoleonby Alistair HorneWeidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99, pp. 182, ISBN 029760791X
More words have been written about Napoleon than about any other historical figure, even Abraham Lincoln. Whether he betrayed, or carried on, the French Revolution is a question that agitates historians. Certainly the seeds of the French urge to mastery over Europe were sown before Napoleon swept the Directory aside and installed himself as the autocrat of France. By 1807, having routed the Austrians and Prussians at Jena and Austerlitz and made peace with Alexander I of Russia at Tilsit, he commanded the Continent. One enemy remained, but after the destruction of the French navy at Trafalgar the ambition to conquer Great Britain lay in ruins. Did Napoleon seriously contemplate absorbing the Ottoman empire, thereby opening up a route to prise India from Great Britain? The failed campaign in Egypt in 1798 suggested that he did. After Trafalgar it was the care of British governments to make sure that he did not.
Tom Pocock, no stranger to the subject, informs us in a nicely understated way about the nature of warfare and the conduct of diplomacy in the Napoleonic era: the brutish life of naval ratings (boredom, followed by drunkenness and floggings), the unedifying jealousies and scrambling for advancement among the admirals and generals, and the tenuous control over strategic operations exercised by His Majesty’s government in London and, in the case of a disastrous expedition from Sicily to Egypt, of the near-treacherous intelligence from the British ambassador on the spot. Military buffs will be delighted with the compendiously detailed, expert analysis of military and naval operations which Pocock provides and there are plenty of bonbons along the way. The battlefield of Maida, in Italy, in 1807, the site of the first British victory on land in the Napoleonic wars, was described by Captain Charles Boothby as ‘smoking with recent carnage, peopled with prostrate warriors distorted with the death agony, harnessed for battle in gay colours, feathers and gold but stained and bathed in their own life-blood’. That evening, the victorious commanders, Vice-Admiral Sir Sidney Smith and General Sir John Stuart, had dinner on the Pompée, where ‘Sir Sidney closed the evening by taking one of the many shawls with which his cabin was hung and instructing Sir John in the art of wreathing it and putting on the turban in the fashion of the most refined Turkish ladies’. Not many people know that the victory gave the London suburb of Maida Vale its name. No detail escapes Mr Pocock. General Murat, the dashing heart-throb and hero of Marengo, Jena, Auerstadt and Eylau whom Napoleon made king of Naples, learned to speak Italian ‘with a fashionable Tuscan accent’. Landscape and architecture are given such loving attention that at times Stopping Napoleon reads like a travel book.
Alistair Horne’s The Age of Napoleon is a race through Napoleon’s career, not so much as military leader as the maker of modern France (though the focus is chiefly on Paris). At times the speed gets in the way of understanding. Napoleon’s murder of the Duc d’Enghein in 1804 is said, rightly, to have cast a shadow over the rest of his career, but the matter is left there, without any explanation of why, in the famous phrase of Boulay de la Merthe, it was ‘worse than a crime, it was a blunder’, or of how its enduring power tugged away at Napoleon’s standing. Horne gets the essentials of Napoleon right — his contempt for other people (except his adoring soldiers), and his stupendous capacity for work and for giving over his mind, while engaged in his great imperialist adventure, to the details of a bewildering array of projects: not just the reform of the law, the central government and the education system which laid the foundations of French administrative efficiency, but also the improvement of manners (ladies at court were made to cover themselves up), the establishment of the Légion d’Honneur to restore social rank in republican guise, and the refurbishment, physical and cultural, of the capital.
Horne calls Napoleon the most ‘hands-on’ leader in history. Probably so. The use of current jargon is a matter of taste. But his book is marred by strained efforts to draw modern parallels. It may be harmless to historical understanding to describe Napoleon as ‘no less sensitive to the popular mood than any spin-driven 21st-century politician’, but it is stretching it to say that he sympathised with Robespierre’s Terror ‘like a 21st-century terrorist’, and it is plain silly to call him, because of his toleration of the Jews, a ‘Balfour before his time’ and to speculate whether, had he gained sway over the eastern Mediterranean, he might have brought into being a Jewish state of Israel. The age of Napoleon had its limits.