Books interview with Michael Broers: “You don’t have to make up myths about Napoleon’s youth – just look at his letters to see evidence that he was a great leader”

Michael Broers talks to Matt Elton about the first part of his new biography of Napoleon, which covers the years from 1769 to 1805 and draws upon a newly published set of his correspondence

A portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, c1796. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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You’ve written about Napoleon before. What inspired this new book?

The main thing was the publication of a new edition of his correspondence by the Fondation Napoléon in Paris, which offers us a completely new source for the man’s life. The first edition of Napoleon’s correspondence was produced in the 1850s and 1860s by his nephew, Napoleon III. So that was an official version, a bit as if Teddy Kennedy had edited the memoirs of John Kennedy: the word ‘Monroe’ wouldn’t crop up once.

There’s a real irony here: Napoleon was master of the universe, emperor of the western world, and so obviously had scribes and secretaries working for him around the clock. He was also a prodigious correspondent himself. And yet, because of the ‘official’ nature of the material we’ve had access to, we have had to treat it with great circumspection – so historians have often used memoirs instead. This correspondence seemed to offer the first chance to write a proper, conventional life of this great statesman,  using both memoirs and his own words.

In your book, you consider Napoleon’s life in light of these letters. What impression do we get of his early life?

I think that coming from a certain kind of Corsican family, had a permanent influence on him – but not in the way the stereotypical vision would have it. Corsica’s a complicated place in the sense that it’s actually two places. There’s the Corsica of the mountains, of the interior, that was very much a poor land of isolated villages, shepherds, and a vendetta culture. Too readily Napoleon and his family are associated with that world when they were nothing to do with it: they came from Ajaccio, which is one of four middle-sized towns that cling to the coast of Corsica and were founded mostly by the Genoese in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. They were civilised town dwellers, proud of having a Renaissance, humanist education.

Napoleon had a happy childhood. He loved his parents very much: one of the great myths is that he hated his father because his father collaborated with the French. The correspondence shows no trace of that.

What forces were particularly influential on the young Napoleon?

One influence – because he was a remarkably intelligent man – was the material that he read. He was very widely read in the culture of his times, and up to date with scientific discoveries and technology. If Napoleon was alive today he’d be he saying “you want to move on from the iPhone, you want to get the Samsung. Josephine and I both have it”.

But the largest single influence was the French army. He started military academy very young and, almost in spite of himself, took to military discipline and the collective barracks life. Nobody had to beat it into him: it was the most natural thing in the world.

How did other people regard Napoleon early on in his career?

It was a bit of a rollercoaster. His first big posting was at the siege of Toulon during the French Revolution. Toulon was, at the time, held by the British navy and a collection of French rebels. Napoleon was given charge of the artillery batteries and deeply impressed everyone. But then he refused a posting to put down a peasant rebellion in the west of France. He didn’t want to do it: he was in the artillery, which was the elite arm. They were the intelligentsia of the army – the bright boys, the geeks – and he didn’t want to be taken away from that. So his career went into the doldrums.

He didn’t really come out of it until 1796  when – still in his late twenties – he was given command of the army of Italy. At that point many people were saying, “who on earth is this skinny, scruffy kid with the funny accent, and where did you get him from?” Napoleon was a political appointment and he knew it. He had to impress many of the older generals – and he did.

But he also had a great publicity machine. He built up his victories in Italy, which were spectacular – he basically defeated the Austrians in the north of the country and kicked them out – but he almost lost some of his battles. So although he had a huge reputation within France, inside the Austrian high command there was a sense they had lost their nerve: they didn’t go away thinking that Napoleon was this military genius they had to be afraid of. And, again, his 1798–99 campaign in Egypt and Syria was played up in France as a great success, but the French government, Napoleon, and the men who served with him knew that it was a complete disaster. In my opinion, in many ways it was a less excusable defeat than Russia in 1812.

So there are three perceptions of Napoleon. Firstly, that he’s the military genius who conquered Italy. Secondly, from his major opponents – the Russians and the Austrians – that he’s the chap who got lucky in Italy, made a mess of Egypt and who can be beaten. And, thirdly and most importantly, there’s the impression of him among his colleagues, his subordinate commanders, and most of all his men, that he is a good general.

What new impression do we get from these letters that you hope readers will take away from the book?

That he was very good at delegating. He wasn’t a micromanager, like the Duke of Wellington; he had the ability of saying very clearly: “These are my orders, and I trust you to carry them out.” What also emerges, which I think is rather new, is an ability to apologise.

Overall, we get a sense of a highly intelligent man, who balanced very strong emotions with iron self-discipline and prudence. He was, particularly in the period that we’re dealing with, a man with no delusions of grandeur. He knew that he was living on the edge and behaved accordingly, steering a course through very dangerous waters and doing it very well.

The last thing I would like readers to take away is something that the new correspondence has given us. When he was a teenager his father died, and Napoleon took the family’s affairs in hand. He wrote to the controller general of France, asking about his father’s pension, and then went to Paris to demand an audience with him. You don’t have to make up the mythological tales that have been told about Napoleon’s youth – about him organising schoolyard snowball fights and so on, which are hokum. You only have to read these letters to see that he was a great leader.

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Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny by Michael Broers (Faber and Faber, 608 pages, £30).