I once read that there are more biographical works about Napoleon Bonaparte than any other man in history. What about Jesus? Possibly. But to quote the highly quotable Napoleon himself, “I know men, and I tell you that Jesus Christ was not a man.”
Certainly, no figure obsessed the 19th century more than this Corsican upstart. Whether you pick up Stendhal’s “The Charterhouse of Parma” or Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” whether you settle down with Conan Doyle’s thrilling stories about Brigadier Gerard — in some ways, the Napoleonic hussar’s adventures are even better than those of Sherlock Holmes — or study Marx’s most brilliant essay in historical analysis, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” you confront the long shadow of this “soldier of destiny,” as Michael Broers describes him in the subtitle of this astute and thoughtful biography.
While Napoleon believed his fortunes to be governed by destiny, his real genius lay in self-control and martial daring coupled with an indomitable will to power. Summing up the emperor’s myriad accomplishments, Broers concludes that “no other man from such relatively humble beginnings had ever risen so high.” More than anyone else, Napoleon exemplified the key principle of modernity and social change, “the career open to talent.”
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the emperor’s final defeat at Waterloo, “that desolate plain,” as Victor Hugo called it in a famous poem. Broers’s new biography, however, closes in 1805 with Napoleon still in his 30s. A future volume will continue the story through the exiled leader’s death on the island of St. Helena in 1821. Even then he was only 51.
The great strength of Broers’s book arises from its detail, empathy and even-handedness. He draws extensively on the newly edited volumes of Napoleon’s “Correspondence Generale,” as well as the thinking of numerous contemporary scholars, whom he generously acknowledges. He presents his information clearly and sometimes even lyrically, though his pages nonetheless demand close attention. This is a serious work, the product of reflection as well as research befitting a distinguished professor of Western European history at Oxford. As Broers stresses, he writes not only about how Napoleon “got power, but also about what he did with it.” More than just a conqueror and authoritarian leader, this astonishing figure was a social, educational and political reformer and visionary.
In his opening chapters, Broers traces the cultural dynamics governing Corsica in the 18th century. He makes it clear that the Bonopartes, originally from Italy’s Ligurian coast, were solidly professional townsmen, not vendetta-prone hill people. Napoleon’s father was the busiest lawyer in Ajaccio. In 1768, however, the Italianate Corsica was ceded to France, which is why the 9-year-old Napoleone Bonoparte traveled to military school in Brienne, even though he could scarcely speak French. Unlike the sons of aristocrats who aimed for a career in the cavalry, the young Corsican glimpsed the future: He studied artillery.
Broers emphasizes that Napoleon became an extremely educated man. Besides history, he read widely in literature and even wrote a sentimental novel called “Clisson.” At various times he modeled himself after such Plutarchan heroes as Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Augustus. Throughout his life, too, he instinctively practiced a Roman austerity and frugality: “Napoleon might seize the best palace in Cairo or Vienna for his headquarters, but he usually slept in his camp bed.” And he was, from childhood, a natural-born leader. When his father died in 1785, the teenager assumed responsibility for his three brothers, two sisters and mother. (For a compulsively readable, not to say gossipy, account of the whole clan and their later lives, find a copy of David Stacton’s “The Bonapartes.”)
Napoleon narrowly survived the Terror — at one point he was nearly guillotined — and almost certainly came to loathe the politicians he served as a young soldier. While Broers is always painstaking, he slows down particularly over Napoleon’s first battlefield triumphs in northern Italy and his later, disastrous invasion of Egypt. In such sections he duly acknowledges David Chandler’s magisterial “The Campaigns of Napoleon ” (noted for its all-important maps drawn by calligrapher Sheila Waters, afterward a longtime Washingtonian). Broers repeatedly emphasizes that in Italy and Egypt the young Napoleon could perfect his governing skills far from suspicious Parisian eyes.
As a result, the members of France’s Directory — the small ruling council that replaced the executed Robespierre — consistently underestimated the popular commander. Only the lynx-eyed Talleyrand, the master survivor of the age, quickly recognized his executive ability. With the Abbe Sieyès, Talleyrand and Napoleon organized the overthrow of the Directory on Nov. 9, 1799 — the 18th Brumaire, as it was called by the revolutionary calendar. Even Napoleon’s promiscuous and beautiful wife, Josephine, played a key role that day, distracting one of the five directors for hours with the possibility of steering her into bed. Without a shot being fired, the coup succeeded and a ruling triumvirate was established. Before long, Napoleon made sure that he was appointed first consul, above the others.
As a ruler, Napoleon was committed to two key policies: “ralliement” (winning over) and “amalgame” (joining up). As Broers explains, the first was simply persuading people to accept the new regime and to fall in with it. The second, however, referred to Napoleon’s gift for inducing people who often hated one another to work together. To this he added a knack for “finding, nurturing and promoting young talent, of bringing forth new men and trusting them to carry on.” As first consul and later as emperor, he listened closely to his advisers to achieve, in Broers’s phrase, “administrative centralization and modern fiscal administration.”
Consequently, this greatest of modern generals would create public parks and the Bank of France, organize his adopted country into prefectures, establish the lycee system of education, curb bureaucratic corruption and formulate the Civil Code — later called the Code Napoleon — to ensure equality before the law for all citizens. This last, he believed, was his greatest achievement. All in all, says Broers, Napoleon used his power as “a creative force for reforming first France, and then Europe, as he saw fit.” Note the caveat in that last phrase.
In his later pages, Broers looks at the French leader’s almost instinctive fear of Britain, the complicated revolt in Haiti led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, the reasons Napoleon agreed to what we Americans call the Louisiana Purchase, and finally his coronation as emperor on Dec. 2, 1804 . Jacques-Louis David’s gloriously kitsch painting of the enthroned Napoleon as a new Louis XIV or, possibly, an overdressed Zeus reflects the public grandeur of the emerging regime, more fully described in Philip Mansel’s newly reissued study of imperial court culture, “The Eagle in Splendour: Inside the Court of Napoleon.”
With the fate of Europe hanging in the balance, Broers ends “Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny” with his hero on the march, leading the Grande Armée against a vast coalition of enemies. What awaited, in December 1805, was Napoleon’s supreme triumph as a field commander, the Battle of Austerlitz.
Dirda is a regular book reviewer for Style and the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting and Living With Books.”
By Michael Broers
Pegasus. 585 pp. $35