The bicentenary of his great imperial adventure is currently in full swing and the commemorations will reach a crescendo in a few years’ time at Waterloo. So do we really need another life of Napoleon? There is certainly no shortage of biographies in English because, despite the enmity he provoked during the course of his momentous career, Boney (to employ that somewhat affectionate sobriquet) still commands a great deal of interest this side of the channel.
However, Alan Forrest’s single volume constitutes a most welcome addition to the corpus, for it is written by a specialist of revolution and empire, who has distilled his own scholarship and recent work by other historians into a comprehensive, yet always thoroughly accessible account. It is necessarily critical, for this age of constant warfare exacted a dreadful human toll, but the transformation of France and those regions of western Europe that fell under Napoleonic sway is positively acknowledged.
Forrest sets out to write for a broad audience and succeeds admirably. He places Napoleon firmly in the context of his era, as a ‘Son of the Revolution’, rather than regarding him as a heroic individual pursuing a personal agenda. Bonaparte, the obscure Corsican, owed his meteoric rise to the upheaval of 1789, which opened careers to talent and created boundless opportunities.
As consul, then emperor, Napoleon achieved most when he worked with the grain of revolutionary change, consolidating its administrative, legal and social projects, albeit at the expense of liberty. Moreover, he dismantled the old regime abroad, implementing rational and secular changes, enshrined in code and concordat, to leave an enduring mark on annexed departments and allied kingdoms alike.
Accommodation as well as resistance occurred within the expanding empire and its satellite states, though the absence of maps to accompany this well-told story of shifting borders and endless battles is to be regretted.
Conversely, within France, the re-establishment of court and nobility associated with the hereditary empire struck an increasingly conservative note, creating a system conducive to monarchical restoration. Josephine was duly divorced, but marriage to a Habsburg princess, in search of a male heir, smacked of desperation, while abroad the tide of war inexorably turned and abdication ensued.
Yet the erstwhile emperor was ill-suited to retirement and Forrest might have accorded more weight to the Hundred Days, that astounding episode in 1815 when the Napoleonic eagle again soared into the skies. The experiment with a liberal empire was inevitably short-lived, but it resurrected Napoleon’s reputation as a revolutionary general, combating the forces of reaction, a crucial facet of his appeal during the following century.
Forrest is fully aware of the great man’s significant ‘afterlife’, opening his biography with a narrative of the return of Napoleon’s remains from Saint Helena to their last resting place at Les Invalides in 1840.
The emperor’s final, perhaps most successful, campaign was waged on that barren rock in the south Atlantic, as the legend took shape, above all in the influential journal of his time there, Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène. Forrest reprises this vital subject in his conclusion, to reflect on the enduring image of ‘the little corporal’.
Indeed, Bonapartism, that alluring compound of authority and democracy, remained a potent political force in 20th-century France and not the least of this book’s virtues is to help us understand why, 200 years on, Napoleon still matters.
Malcolm Crook is professor of French history at Keele University See also…