Diary

Andrew Roberts’s diary: Just who’s the despot here – Napoleon or Paxman?

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

To the British embassy in Paris for a colloquium on ‘Napoleon and Wellington in War and Peace’ organised by our ambassador, Sir Peter Ricketts, to mark the bicentenary of the purchase of the embassy from Pauline Borghese, Napoleon’s sister. (According to the historian of the house, Tim Knox, Pauline would warm her feet on the naked backs of her ladies-in-waiting, and be carried to her bath by a huge Egyptian slave.) William Hague opened our proceedings, boldly pointing out the other anniversarial elephant in the room: it was Trafalgar Day. The French fielded several of their senior Napoleon historians, including Jean Tulard, Thierry Lentz of the splendid Fondation Napoléon, Jacques-Olivier Boudon and Talleyrand’s biographer Emmanuel de Waresquiel, while Britain was represented by Peter Hicks (who spoke in French), Philip Mansel, John Bew, Wellington’s descendant the Marquess of Douro, and myself. If you’d like to hear the resulting avalanche of wit, charm and civilised scholarly debate, please go to this site.

Pauline Borghese

By contrast, more than a thousand people turned up to Intelligence Squared’s debate at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster to watch Adam Zamoyski and me debate the motion ‘Napoleon the Great?’, partly I suspect because it was moderated by Jeremy Paxman. As we left the Green Room for the main hall, I overheard Jeremy saying to Adam, ‘Let’s bury this maniac’, which I assumed referred to Napoleon. When Jeremy started off by making a rude reference to Napoleon, I pointed out that in his recent book Empire he’d referred to him as ‘a despot’. ‘But he was a despot!’ expostulated Jeremy. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ I said to the audience, ‘the moderator.’ Napoleon went on to win 56 per cent of the vote, despite Adam’s superb 15-minute speech with no notes.Publicising my book will involve speaking at well over a dozen literary festivals, and they are a pretty mixed bag. The big ones such as Cheltenham, Hay-on-Wye, Edinburgh and the splendid new BBC History Festival in Malmesbury guarantee large audiences, with lots of people willing to buy books. With the smaller ones, it can be pot luck. I once spoke at the Sevenoaks literary festival, where fewer people turned up than there were oaks. I suggested that we all go out to dinner at a local Indian or Chinese restaurant but they were having none of it, and insisted I deliver the speech to four people in exactly the same way as I would have if it were 400.


The editing of this book has been an extraordinary intellectual exercise, due to the omnivorous brain of my editor at Penguin, Stuart Proffitt. Among the scores of questions he asked me in the first sets of edits were: ‘How wide was the river Po in 1796?’, ‘Did Napoleon take Herodotus to Egypt?’ and ‘Was Napoleon conversant with the astronomical theories of Herschel?’ Still, that was better than in my last book, where he asked of one gag of which I was particularly proud, ‘Are you sure this joke is funny?’ At lunch at the Paris colloquium, five of us around the table realised we were all edited by Stuart, and started swapping editing stories. I won’t mentioned the name of the extremely distinguished historian who revealed that in the margin of the peroration part of the conclusion of one of his books, Stuart had written: ‘Bit cheesy.’

The only way to visit Longwood House on St Helena, where Napoleon was exiled and died, is to spend six days on the Royal Mail packet ship from Cape Town, during the course of which you don’t see a single ship, plane, fish or bird the entire time. The BBC crew I was travelling with and I took part in the ship’s quiz every evening, which I’m pleased to say we won. (First prize: a bar of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut.) It was a little disconcerting when the question was posed ‘How many valves has the heart?’ and the team that included the ship’s doctor said two, whereas the correct answer is four.

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War, the Exile and the Rock Limpet by JMW Turner (Picture: Tate)

One of the more outré theories about how Napoleon died is that he was poisoned by the arsenic in the wallpaper at Longwood, a notion that I rather pooh-pooh in my book. A few months ago I bought at auction a piece of the wallpaper that hung in the room in which he died, but, committed though I am to historical research, I’m not about to give it a lick. If any reader is prepared to, please get in touch. Another, less potentially lethal, way that Spectator readers might be able to help the cause of historical research is if anyone can explain a reference that has so far eluded scholars. Napoleon occasionally in letters referred to Josephine’s private parts as ‘the Baron de Kepen’, but who was he, and why did he provoke such a reaction in the Emperor?

Andrew Roberts, just published Napoleon the Great. His other biographical subjects include Lord Halifax, Lord Salisbury, Hitler and Churchill.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • Neal

    Astounding. Absolutely astounding. Roberts is just so staggeringly consistent at being incredibly insufferable. I truly do wonder how he maintains this high standard. It is inexplicable in many ways but I will admit that he certainly has made an art form of it.

    • Daniel Pi

      Ridiculous comment. Roberts is an astoundingly good historian.

      • Neal

        I am not doubting his scholarship but rather stating my opinion that he is insufferable–an opinion that I am not alone in harboring. It is often like an accident from which one cannot avert the gaze.

        • David Hollins MBA

          I would – it is a pretty appalling book, designed simply to sell to the pro-N camp in 2015. the guy has no grasp of the period nor its literature – I am greatly enjoying “spot where that piece of mythology came from”. The Fond Nap collection is an invaluable resource, but it must necessarily lack context and so, quoting bits from it, merely shows that Roberts didn’t actually do any background reading.

  • willshome

    Baronne subs!

  • Rupert Williams

    The Baron de Kepen – I suspect it was because he was a c*nt.

    Anyway, Napoleon was a despot on a grand scale. His men routinely beggared the populations they were foisted upon, stealing everything they could lay their hands on (no girly stuff like proper commissariat for the great man). His noble behaviour after defeat at the gates of Moscow (scarper for PAris and leave his army to starve) is notable for being shocking even for a Frenchman.

    And his boast about spending 50000 men per month – is callous beyond belief.

    I am not joking when I say that having a bust of Napoleon on one’s desk would be morally equivalent to being a fan of Chairman Mao (oh sorry I forgot the outgoing president of the EU commission is a Maoist – that explains a lot).

    • MikeF

      It seems that the Baron de Kepen was exactly what you say and was nothing or rather nobody else. Here is a letter from Napoleon to Josephine that seems to indicate that:

      Willenberg, l February 1807.
      A Empress
      My friend, the letter of 20 January pained me; it’s too sad. That evil not to be a little devotee! You tell me that your happiness is your glory – it is not generous; I must say, the happiness of others is my glory; this is not marriage; I must say, the happiness of my husband is my glory; this is not feeding; we should say, the happiness of my children is my glory; gold, like people, your husband, your children may not be happy with a bit of glory, do not so much ignore. Josephine, your heart is excellent, and your weak reason; you feel wonderfully, but you argue less.
      Enough quarrel; I want you to be happy, happy with your lot, and you to obey, not growling and crying, but with a light heart, and with a bit of happiness. Your nights are long; this little Baron Kepen speaks loudly, fuck him for me (Ed. idem)
      Adieu, my friend, I’m going tonight to browse my outposts.

      Still either way a bit odd that he should refer to his wife’s most intimate anatmoy by a male rather than female soubriquet.

    • Daniel Pi

      As one who has a bust of Napoleon on my desk, I couldn’t disagree with your howlingly ignorant comments more. First, you ignore the opportunity cost — if not for Napoleon’s consolidation of the gains of the French Revolution, how many more people would have died? How much worse would the world be if liberal, enlightenment ideals were squashed by stuffy royalists? In the absence of Napoleon, no doubt the propagandists would have declared the ideals of the Revolution a “failed experiment.” Second, you seem to cherry pick facts without context (and more than a hint of anti-French nationalism). If Britain had the benefit of enlightenment reforms earlier (and done away with its repulsive, inbred monarchs), then perhaps the feudal class divisions would not be so great, and there wouldn’t be quite so many uneducated, lower class, football obsessed, pub crawling hoodlums like Rupert Williams typing ignorant rubbish on the internet.

  • Mrs.JosephineHydeHartley

    Perhaps the baron was some thorn in his side.

  • wamr

    Context is the key issue when debating Napoleon’s legacy as a reformer, a despot or great Emperor. His success in quelling the turmoil that arose in the years after 1789 and Brumaire remains to be one the more positive impacts he had upon Europe and France. He had an aptitude for politics and rightly or wrongly centralised much of French administration. His preoccupation in trying to surpass the British as Europe’s superpower lead to his inability to stabilise the continent. Whilst Andrew Roberts provides a great insight into the mind of the celebrated general, he rather loses focus on the key issue on whether or not the Emperor’s reputation was so great that we should forget the events that tarnish his name. Politically there is no doubt that Napoleon was a ‘great’ leader, you merely have to visit the Invalides to see why.

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