Following Napoleon: my exile in St Helena

St Helena In an attempt to escape from the world, I have come with friends to St Helena. It is quite a good place for the exercise. Until a few years ago the only way to get to the island was a five-day boat voyage from Cape Town. Shortly before Covid, an airport for this British overseas territory was finally completed at UK taxpayer expense. To protect some local insects the runway was put at a slightly wrong angle, making it difficult – sometimes impossible – to land. The weekly flight from Johannesburg therefore refuels in Namibia in case landing is impossible and the plane has to about-turn. A lifesize statue

Harry Mount, Lara Prendergast, Catriona Olding, Owen Matthews and Jeremy Hildreth

29 min listen

On this week’s Spectator Out Loud, Harry Mount reads his diary, in which he recounts a legendary face-off between Barry Humphries and John Lennon (00:45); Lara Prendergast gives her tips for male beauty (06:15); Owen Matthews reports from Kyiv about the Ukrainians’ unbroken spirit (12:40); Catriona Olding writes on the importance of choosing how to spend one’s final days (18:40); and Jeremy Hildreth reads his Notes On Napoleon’s coffee. Produced by Cindy Yu, Margaret Mitchell, Max Jeffery and Natasha Feroze.

A bit too short: Napoleon reviewed

Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, starring Joaquin Phoenix, has a running time of two hours and 40 minutes, which is scant by today’s standards, but don’t worry: a four hour-plus director’s cut is on its way. So this is Scott’s Napoleon Abridged, you could say, and it does have the feel of a film that’s been scissored to death. The battle sequences are spectacular but the jackhammer cutting-style – hang on, how did he get from there to here? – means the storytelling is hurried and confusing. I’m not too sure about this Napoleon either. Did you know one of the greatest military leaders in world history was essentially a man-child? Phoenix,

The best of this year’s gardening books

What makes a garden is an increasingly pressing question, in the light of what Jinny Blom, in her witty and wise What Makes a Garden: A Considered Approach to Garden Design (Frances Lincoln, £35), calls ‘hairshirt hubris’. By that she means the refusal of some gardeners to call any native plant a weed or any slug or aphid a pest. She wishes to inject a little sense into what has become an ill-tempered dialogue between ‘traditional gardeners’ and the self-deniers who cannot see gardens as anything but parcels of sacrosanct earth, in which any major intervention by a human is to be regretted. But to Blom, garden-making is one antidote

Graham Robb deserves to be a French national treasure

This is a ceaselessly interesting, knowledgeable and evocative book about France over thousands of years. Is it at all likely to have been produced by a French writer? Though it’s about some deeply serious subjects, it’s very amusing; it makes no attempt to constrain itself within an overarching theoretical framework; it would be impossible to extract from it a grand statement beginning ‘The French are all…’; it is pragmatic, full of enterprising scholarly initiative and a gift for observation without intruding. Most strikingly, it’s a book about France in which the author has profitably spent a good deal of time outside Paris. Perhaps my experience of French students of their

New tactics are needed for the wars of the future

The strategic bankruptcy of the West has twice so far this century demanded that our brave soldiers risk their bodies and minds to fight unwinnable wars. The lessons to be learnt from Iraq and Afghanistan, and indeed from Libya, Syria and the Sahel, are many; but the original sin was hubris, born of post-Cold War military preponderance and successes in Sierra Leone, Ulster and Kosovo. The consequence of our arrogance, when 9/11 demanded action, was that we failed properly to interrogate, and so to grasp, either the character of the specific conflicts into which we jumped, or the fundamental nature of war itself. Lack of understanding of the particular dynamics

Don’t ask a historian what history is

E.H. Carr’s 1961 book What is History? has cast a long shadow over the discipline. I recall being assigned to read it as a teen-ager, and it has prompted multiple reconsiderations over the years — as acknowledged by the editors in their introduction to this book. Reappraisals and conferences on ‘What is History?’ are launched with regularity. (One of the editors of this volume is Carr’s great-granddaughter.) Aside from the reappraisal of Carr’s original work, the fact that books like this continue to be produced in academic history says something about the slipperiness of defining it in the first place — and the discipline’s own anxieties. Over the past century

Fiction’s most famous Rifleman returns — and it’s miraculous he’s still alive

It has been 15 years since the last Richard Sharpe novel, and it’s a pleasure to report that fiction’s most famous Rifleman is still thriving, miraculous as that may seem after his long and suicidally dangerous career. Sharpe, a foundling child from the East End of London, brings street fighting skills to the business of soldiering. He has risen slowly and painfully through the ranks, campaigning in India during the 1790s and in Spain during the Peninsular war. At the start of this book, he has just saved the day at Waterloo with a typical combination of tactical skill, reckless courage and unorthodox thinking (in this case shooting the Prince

How Macron was outfoxed by a dead Napoleonic general

Skeletons don’t always lurk in cupboards, some of them hide under dance floors waiting for a particularly rousing party to dislodge them. Such is the story of one of Napoleon’s favourite generals, César Charles Étienne Gudin de La Sablonnière, whose missing remains were discovered under a dance floor in Smolensk in 2019, over 200 years after his death from a cannonball during the French invasion of Russia in 1812. Yesterday, his one-legged skeleton was repatriated to France via a private jet chartered by the Russian oligarch, Andrei Kozitsyn. Not a bad way to travel for a Napoleonic soldier. The discovery of Gudin’s remains and their passage home unearths some complicated

How Napoleon changed the world

Two hundred years ago today, Napoleon Bonaparte closed his eyes for the final time. A man born to relative obscurity in Corsica, he was lifted by merit to become Emperor of the French and conqueror of Europe. But the fault of his ambition and the might of his enemies ultimately led to his defeat at Waterloo. Napoleon died in British captivity on St Helena. Even in death, though, it is hard to doubt that Napoleon not only shaped the modern world, but still influences it today. France’s current president Emmanuel Macron is often compared to Napoleon. As John Keiger has pointed out on Coffee House, Macron appears to share Napoleon’s

Kubrick’s Napoleon – the greatest movie never made

Two centuries ago — on 5 May 1821 — Napoleon Bonaparte died in a rat-infested house. The fallen Emperor had spent his final years exiled on the British outpost of St Helena. Yet Napoleon’s ignominious last act was only the beginning of his legend. A recent data-driven study, published by Cambridge University Press, crowned him the second most significant figure in history, after Jesus no less. Stanley Kubrick, the virtuoso director of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, considered Napoleon the most interesting individual who ever lived. Kubrick’s passion project — never produced — was a biopic of the conqueror. He predicted it would be the ‘best movie ever

Macron’s Napoleon complex

May 5th this year will be the two hundredth anniversary of Napoleon’s death on Saint Helena, the tiny island in the south Atlantic where the British confined the Emperor to Longwood House after defeat at Waterloo in 1815. After much hesitation, Emmanuel Macron has decided that France will commemorate the Emperor’s place in French history. Though the most recognisable historical figure in all surveys of the French, almost no public spaces or institutions bear his name. Monarchy and Republic cancelled him. Bonaparte divides. He is at once the figure who tamed the Revolution, drastically reformed France and yet the dictator who overran Europe and reinstated slavery. President Jacques Chirac abhorred

Toussaint Louverture: the true hero of Haiti

In Haiti you have to be careful which founding father you admire. The average Haitian will think first of Toussaint Louverture when talking about their island’s revolt against France in the late 18th century, and about the original idea of a full-fledged Black republic: Toussaint the stable, the intense, the military genius, courageous, careful. But for others, the real hero of the revolution is Jean-Jacques Dessalines, or Papa Dessalines, who is said to have connived with the French to remove Toussaint from power. Once France had exiled Toussaint, Dessalines turned on the French, rejecting their ‘peace’ and authority. He prosecuted the revolution to its bloody end, but without the restraint

Death at the top

Agatha Christie’s spirit must be loving this poisonous new historical entertainment. Eleanor Herman has already enjoyed the success of Sex with Kings and Sex with the Queen, thoroughly researched, gossipy revelations of promiscuity among monarchs and their noble retainers during the Renaissance. She is an American author and broadcaster, born in Baltimore, now living in Virginia, but, at 58, she still concentrates her professional attention on the historic immorality and disastrous vulnerability of western European royalty. In the Middle Ages, when monarchs commanded virtually absolute power, rivalry for every top job was sufficiently intense to motivate assassination, and the least difficult way to commit it was with poison. As viewed

Baron of the boulevards

Rupert Christiansen’s City of Light opens on the evening of 5 January 1875, with the inauguration of Paris’s new opera house, designed by Charles Garnier ‘in a style of unabashed grandeur’, with its gilded and mirrored salons, shimmering candelabra and marbled colonnades, mosaics, statues, frescoes and ‘flaming gas torches enhancing a central stairwell that turned the ascending and descending audience into an impressive spiralling spectacle’. The building had been under construction for almost 15 years at vast cost and symbolised the extravagance of the Second Empire, a period in French history which lasted for 18 years, from Napoleon III’s coup in 1852 to the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. A week

Books of the year – part one

Andrew Motion Short stories seem to fare better in the US than the UK, and among this year’s rich crop, Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck is My Duck (Ecco, £20.70) is outstanding. Everything about Eisenberg’s writing is highly controlled — watchful, well-made — and everything it describes teeters on the verge of chaos or collapse. It makes for a brilliant mixture of a book — at once compact and capacious, eerily familiar and extremely strange. Roger Lewis One of my favourite authors is Laura Thompson. Her biographies of sundry Mitfords, of Agatha Christie and Lord Lucan (recently revised in the light of the unpleasant Countess’s demise) are brilliant and forensic. This

Saviour of the world

Churchill must be the most written-about figure in public life since Napoleon Bonaparte (a subject, incidentally, to which Andrew Roberts has already contributed a substantial and prize-winning biography). As the publisher obligingly warns us, there have been over 1,000 previous studies of Churchill’s life, including some dross, but many works of serious importance. To add anything worthwhile to this mountain requires that the author should be determined, courageous and have something new to say. No one has ever doubted Roberts’s determination and courage; the question remains whether he has anything new to say. Rather to my surprise, the answer has to be ‘yes’. Roberts has been assiduous in his research.

On the run from Corunna

There is only one Andrew Miller. In the 20 years since his debut novel Ingenious Pain won both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, he has written a series of books which have captured the imaginations of readers and critics alike. Oxygen (2001) was shortlisted for the Booker, while in 2011 Pure, the tale of a young engineer in pre-revolutionary Paris clearing the notoriously overstuffed Holy Innocents’ Cemetery, won the Costa Book of the Year award. Miller is read around the world; as a British author of (mostly) historical fiction that is both popular and literary, his peers are Hilary Mantel and, perhaps, Sarah

Napoleon dynamite | 14 June 2018

The Musée de l’Armée at Les Invalides in Paris has a new exhibition that I believe to be the best and most extensive on the Emperor in three decades. Anyone interested in Napoleon Bonaparte, early 19th-century military history and strategy, the Grande Armée’s campaigns from 1796 to 1815, monumental battle paintings, First Empire beaux-arts, uniforms, weaponry or cartography, has only until 22 July to visit the truly breathtaking Napoleon: Strategist. On entering, you walk past the large busts of six of the seven great captains of history that Napoleon said he admired and wished to emulate: Alexander, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, Marshal de Saxe and Frederick

London calling | 26 October 2017

Madame Monet was bored. Wouldn’t you have been? Exiled to London in the bad, cold winter of 1870–71. In rented rooms above Shaftesbury Avenue, with a three-year-old son in tow, a husband who couldn’t speak English, and no money coming in. Every day roast beef and potatoes and fog, fog, fog choking the city. ‘Brouillardopolis’, French writers called it. Camille Monet had offered to give language lessons, but when she hadn’t a pupil — and Claude hadn’t a commission — she let him paint her, listless on a chaise-longue, book unread on her lap. Her malaise was ‘l’exilité’ — the low, homesick spirits of the French in England. ‘Meditation, Mrs