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Napoleon Bonaparte, gardener? Yes, says a new book, the dictator found solace in the natural world

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Of the making of books about Napoleon Bonaparte, there seems to be no end. Two hundred years after the emperor’s death in 1821 on the island of St. Helena, he continues to be the subject of new biographies and speculations. His name and iconic image — the bicorne hat worn sideways, the army greatcoat, the hand inserted in the vest — are instantly recognizable the world over.

Even though ours is an age of billionaire boy wonders, Napoleon’s sheer precocity still dazzles: On Nov. 9, 1799, shortly after his 30th birthday, the former artillery officer from Corsica assumed dictatorial powers over all of France. Five years later, he crowned himself Emperor of the French. At 40, “the man on horseback”— Edmund Burke’s prophetic phrase — had conquered all of Western Europe. When Napoleon’s armies fought and lost the make-or-break Battle of Waterloo, he was all of 45. Imprisoned afterward on St. Helena, the deposed emperor eventually died of stomach cancer — or, possibly, arsenic poisoning if you’re conspiracy-minded — at a still-young 51.

‘Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny’ sheds new light on the storied emperor

What did Napoleon do during his six-year confinement on that tiny South Atlantic island? He grew flowers (the roses died), planted trees, constructed an aviary and harvested peas and beans. An engraving shows him wearing a straw peasant’s hat and leaning on a spade. In fact, contends Ruth Scurr in “Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows,” this world-shaking military genius had always turned to the natural world — and to two- or three-hour long baths — for succor from the ills of the spirit or the burdens of power.

In her book, Scurr tracks Napoleon’s rise and fall with hardly a glance at his battles, political maneuverings and mistresses (there were at least 21). Instead, we learn about the vegetable patch young Bonaparte kept while at school, his later attention to green spaces when undertaking urban renewal in Egypt, Italy and France, his enjoyment of reflective walks in the woods and his penchant for neoclassical landscape design. Straight lines, notes Scurr, along with “precision and order were central to his aesthetic.” In contrast, Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine, insisted on natural, parklike surroundings — the English style — for Malmaison, their private residence. As empress, she obsessively collected plants and animals from around the world and was apparently the first person to breed black swans in captivity.

Most accounts of Napoleon’s inner circle usually concentrate on that slippery diplomat Talleyrand or the scheming minister of police Joseph Fouché, two masters of Realpolitk: Each has been credited with the classic Machiavellian comment: “It was worse than a crime. It was a blunder.” Scurr, though, prefers to devote greater attention to André Thouin, head gardener at the Jardin des Plantes. Thouin was among the 167 members of the Commission for Arts and Sciences that accompanied Napoleon’s army during his largely unsuccessful Egyptian campaign. Stationed in Cairo, the group soon created a 30-acre walled garden and research center, eventually producing an encyclopedic record of their labors in the landmark catalogue “Description of Egypt.” Later, many of the botanical and zoological specimens brought back from France’s scientific expeditions ended up in Thouin’s care.

Throughout this unusual biography, Scurr — hitherto best known for a delightful, quotation-rich account of the 17th-century antiquary and gossip John Aubrey — elegantly explores Napoleon’s inner Rousseau, the 18th-century philosopher who extolled nature and the simple life. Among the vast acreage of Napoleonic studies, it’s good to have at least one book that emphasizes flower beds instead of battlefields.

There’s just one battle in Thomas E. Crocker’s “Empire’s Eagles: The Fate of the Napoleonic Elite in America” and that’s Waterloo. After Napoleon’s defeat — “a near-run thing,” as his adversary Wellington admitted — the emperor’s family and his generals all realized they would soon be facing prison sentences or firing squads. Where should they flee? To many of them, America seemed a land of refuge and, perhaps, of renewed opportunity.

A scholar of early American history, Crocker opens with a riveting day-by-day account of Napoleon in the port city of Rochefort, waiting to escape from France, perhaps to Baltimore, where his younger brother Jerome had once been married to a local belle named Elizabeth Patterson. Revealing an uncharacteristic lack of decision, the emperor dillydallied, then trusted the English to be honorable and soon found himself en route to St. Helena. More fortunate, his elder brother Joseph made it to our shores, where he established himself in regal comfort at a vast estate near Philadelphia.

More reviews and essays by Michael Dirda

After other Napoleonic loyalists reached the United States they founded clubs and support groups, tried to establish a Utopian community devoted to viniculture in Alabama swampland and even planned a military operation to install Joseph as emperor of Mexico. All these activities Crocker relates in meticulous detail before devoting the second half of his book to a long-standing legend — that Marshal Ney, Napoleon’s “Bravest of the Brave,” faked his death before a French firing squad, then escaped to South Carolina, where he resurfaced as a schoolteacher named P.S. Ney. Could this possibly be true? Crocker, trained as a lawyer, lays out the evidence both for and against.

In the end, the most tantalizing question about Napoleon remains open: Would the world have been better off had the man never been born (or born at a different time, as in Stephen Vincent Benét’s little classic of alternative history, “The Curfew Tolls”)? It’s a hard call. Napoleon led millions to their deaths, yet he also instituted laws and reforms comparable in importance to those of the U.S. Constitution. He had few illusions about people: “Look at my virtuous republicans: all I have to do is hang gold braid on their clothes and they are mine.” Yet he could also exhibit Trumplike bombast: “The French can be governed only by me.”

Whatever your opinion of the upstart Corsican, one thing is certain: A hundred years from now, publishers will still be bringing out books about Napoleon Bonaparte.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows

By Ruth Scurr

W.W. Norton. 416 pp. $28.95

Empire’s Eagles: The Fate of the Napoleonic Elite in America

By Thomas E. Crocker

Prometheus. 456 pp. $29.95

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