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Response to Review of Napoleon Review Article

I would like to thank Charles Esdaile for his very kind treatment of my book, Citizen Emperor. It is obvious that we see eye-to-eye on a number of issues surrounding Napoleon and that my book appealed to him on a number of levels. There is no greater flattery than to be told by a peer that the work they have spent so many years putting together will remain the ‘standard’ text of the day. For how long, however, is another question. There are more ‘Napoleons’ in the pipeline, although one wonders how much the market can take. Charles is right, of course, in opening his review with the assertion that Napoleon fascinates, and that he will continue to do so for a very long time. That is no doubt why so many biographies have appeared over the last ten years, the bicentenaries of the wars notwithstanding. And, yes, there will be a third volume, although much, much shorter than the preceding two, covering the exile on Saint Helena, his death and the cult. His exile, death and metaphorical resurrection in the French and European political landscape are just as fascinating for what they say about the man, as for what they say about his followers, or ‘fans’, however you want to put it.

I am also grateful to Charles for focussing on what the book is, and not what it is not. Too often reviewers have a tendency to present an alternative version of the book they are reviewing, and they generally do so as a not very subtle way of saying, ‘Well, it is a good book, but it could have been much better if only such-and-such had been taken into account’. Sometimes the criticism is fair, while other times the reviewer is missing the point. There are, after all, good and bad reviews, just as there are good and bad books, so it is always interesting when the author gets the chance (oh, so rare) to respond to the reviewer. As far is Napoleon is concerned, not all reviewers necessarily understand or appreciate biography.

Of course, all good biographers take for granted that the subject is but one player in the larger drama that is history. The subject may have an enormous influence on the unfolding drama, but ultimately that person can only be understood in relation to other players in the play. One of the reasons I set out to write a ‘Napoleon’ so many years ago was because I felt that the man and his personality were missing from what were then the standard texts of the day. Books called ‘Napoleon’ were essentially histories of the empire, at worst military histories that described battles in great detail, at best institutional and economic histories that explained the workings of the empire. Reviewers today often still get caught up in that old mindset, and expect a biography of Napoleon to be a history of the empire, and are disappointed when it is not.

You can’t have your Napoleonic cake and eat it too. Biography necessarily constrains the author to adopt a particular approach by focussing on issues of character and personality, on the personal and the private as well as the public figure. Because biographers place character in a larger historical context – how else are we to understand what is driving the subject? – choices have to be made about what to include and what to leave out. It is not necessary, for example, to explain the prefect system at length in order to understand Napoleon, nor would you necessarily go into the wars in Spain in any great detail, since Napoleon wasn’t there in person for most of the time. Every author/biographer has to make those kinds of decisions, but they all the more difficult with a complex and dynamic personality like Napoleon, whose work ethic would make today’s CEO seem like a slacker.

The one thing in Charles’ review that I do not entirely agree with are the remarks concerning the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl. Every Napoleonic scholar is familiar with Geyl’s Napoleon: For and Against, first translated into English in 1964. It has become a classic in the literature, a work that masterfully critiqued the major French works on Napoleon from Chateaubriand through to Georges Lefebvre. In many respects, however, Geyl did the field an enormous disservice. The subtitle stuck. Ever since scholars of the period (and especially biographers of Napoleon) have been categorised as either being ‘for’ or ‘against’ the man. As a biographer of Napoleon, I struggled with this concept for a long time. I am at pains, moreover, to find another historical figure whose biographers fall so neatly into that black and white dichotomy. Personalities like Alexander, Caesar, Hitler, or Mao continue to fascinate because they are larger than life, powerful characters that resonate with modern readers. And yet biographers of those individuals are not conveniently divided into ‘for’ or ‘against’.

In other words, I don’t find that dichotomy particularly helpful. When approaching their subjects, historians and biographers necessarily attempt to be fair-minded, to examine character, decisions and behaviours in context (or at least to try to), and to make informed assessments based on the available knowledge. But was we can see from the array of Napoleon biographies available in this review alone, a reading of the same material can lead to entirely different conclusions, as the biographies reviewed by Charles demonstrate. It is much more useful, I would argue, to admit that Napoleon’s legacy, and the memory of Napoleon, are contested, just as he was in his own day. That is one of the reasons why Napoleon, with an eye to history that few of his contemporaries possessed, tried to control his image, both in and out of power. The Memorial of St Helena was fundamental to shaping his image in 19th-century Europe.

Just as interesting, and again one that is underlined by the number of new Napoleon biographies that have recently appeared, is the question why Napoleon still attracts, not detractors, but so many ‘fans’? The answer, I fear, lies in the continued romanticisation of the wars. Historians of the period, with some exceptions, have been for far too long blind to the suffering caused by the wars, not just among the military, but also among Europe’s civilian populations. It is impossible to know the number of civilian deaths that occurred as a result of disease, starvation, murder and massacre, but the numbers probably run into the millions. I thought it important, therefore, to highlight the dark side of empire, to underline that while French reforms may have dragged Europe kicking and screaming into the modern era, countless people suffered and died as a consequence. This is not to make a moral judgement about Napoleon and his regime. It is, however, to offer a different interpretation to the reading public.

Of course no historian today worth his salt would have any truck with the legend, and of course Charles is perfectly right in stating that we desperately need more in-depth archival studies of the sort presented by Hughes and Price. While I only dabble in the archives, books like mine are dependent on the archival research of others. Archival studies allow for more subtle interpretations than those that had existed before, and not simply, as Charles puts it, a ‘more-or-less clever restatement of positions and arguments’. Certainly it is a question of hues rather than of colour, but I would argue that the biographies available today in English, and certainly those by Patrice Gueniffey in French, offer the reader far more complex and nuanced portraits than any that have come before. This, surely, is the purpose of the historian – to question our assumptions and what we thought we knew about a character or an epoch.