Man of destiny: Napoleon was always convinced he was the chosen one

Patrice Gueniffey’s 1,000-page biography of Napoleon may exhaust even the most ardent enthusiast, says Conrad Black —who counts himself as one. And there are another three volumes to come.

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

Bonaparte Patrice Gueniffey, translated by Steven Rendall

Belknap Press, pp.1008, £29.95, ISBN: 9780674368354

It is almost inconceivable that there could be a more densely detailed book about Napoleon than this — 800 crowded pages to get him from his birth in 1769 to his acclamation as First Consul for life in 1802. When completed in three or more further volumes, this will be an extremely comprehensive study.

As only French biographers can do, every conceivable motive and alternative scenario is presented at every stage in the astonishing rise of the subject from the petty and parvenu and rather impecunious nobility of Corsica to a greater position of power than anyone had exercised in Europe since Charlemagne, if not the greater Roman emperors. The endless squabbles and shifting alliances within Napoleon’s family, and in the tangled, unforgiving, almost Sicilian politics of Corsica, get a fuller airing than all but the most insatiable Napoleonic devotee would aspire to read. Though the intense politics even in his bedroom is interesting: Josephine wanted nothing to do with Napoleon as monarch, as she saw she would be disembarked because of her inability to produce an heir. The author does as well as anyone can to describe where Napoleon’s astounding sense of destiny and fierce motivation to achieve it originated, and how, although he was not religious, he believed in a deity of destiny which was fickle, and impossible to propitiate.

No matter how much anyone may have read on the subject, this book will provide some new insights into how Napoleon became convinced of, and clung to, his belief in his exalted and exceptional destiny through many years of obscurity and indifference or even mockery at the hands of his young French peers. He could not possibly have had the opportunity to advance so quickly without the chaos of the revolution, which opened up immense horizons for those who showed daring and brilliance in defence of the young and endangered French republic.

Once the French state was in the hands of a gang of swiftly changing schemers and adventurers, and no one had any purchase on the fury of events, opportunities for one so brilliant, energetic and unconstrained by conventional limits of imagination as the young Napoleon were endless, and he saw it as soon as the Bourbon monarchy started to wobble.

In the primitive, family-based, blood-and-retribution manner of Corsica, Napoleon had no loyalties to anyone except his family (treacherous ingrates though many of them were) and devoted supporters, and never seems to have believed in anything except himself. But from early years he saw the attachment of most other people to their region, nationality, culture, occupation or religion — none of which counted for much with him — as a handicap restraining their ability to advance their careers as opportunistically as he could by exploiting these attachments. Thus he pofacedly told the Egyptians and Turks he was converting to Islam when he was in Cairo. In a stable political system like Britain’s, or in a conservatively structured society, he would doubtless have got on, but would not have been able to persevere so vehemently and make himself master of a vast sweep of Europe with such electrifying suddenness.

And if he were not a soldier, his talents would not have brought him the power it so quickly did in this fluid era where everything had broken loose and only the army could restore the coherence and prosperity that France came to view with nostalgia after ten years of revolutionary violence and corruption.

Patrice Gueniffey, like some of Napoleon’s other French biographers, sees and explains more clearly than foreign biographers usually do the fluctuation of the political constituencies within revolutionary France. Even before he returned from Egypt in 1799, and it was the principal reason he did return, Napoleon recognised that the people yearned for a return to tranquil life, as long as the egalitarianism of the Revolution could be preserved and France was secure in expanded frontiers. He realised, as few others did, that he could be both the champion of the royalists, who saw him as a General Monck who would restore the Bourbons, and of the Jacobins, who thought of him as a true revolutionary who would bring the revolution to orderly fruition. Although the author doesn’t use the example, he was a forerunner of de Gaulle, who was acclaimed both by the tenacious advocates of Algerie Française and by the seekers of Algerian independence (‘Je vous ai compris,’ he told a huge, evenly divided crowd in the Forum of Algiers in 1958).

This book debunks the standard British theory of Napoleon as evil, and implicitly rejects the opposite theory of Napoleon’s innate goodness, while asserting his genius. He is presented as relatively principled for the times, though cynical and almost amoral by British standards, but Gueniffey somewhat whitewashes the massacre of the Turkish prisoners at Jaffa and the reimposition of slavery in Haiti (supposedly because of the energetic slave trade conducted by the British). Too many fantastic theories are opened up with a grandiloquent rhetorical question, such as whether Sidney Smith deliberately facilitated his escape from Egypt to France.

There is a little more on Napoleon’s romantic life than we need, although Gueniffey fails to hazard a guess as to what Josephine’s famous ‘zig-zag’s in bed were that so captivated Napoleon. There could have been more on his military tactics, though his insights as a grand strategist are explained, and his military inspiration, as artistic rather than scientific, is very well and interestingly laid out.

The author gets carried away at the end, justifying why 1802 was the decisive turning point in Napoleon’s life, and claims the empire was inevitable because the country wanted a monarchy. Napoleon could have sold anything that was sensible to the French, and he should have kept faith with the republican ideal. Here again he presaged de Gaulle by creating a monarchy and calling it a republic; in fact he did for a time, as he was originally ‘Emperor of the French Republic’.

This is a very good and thorough book, but will overwhelm all but the most fervent Napoleonic enthusiasts.

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Show comments
  • Ian Malcolm

    There will only be one more volume, as indicated by the jacket copy for the book.

  • Malus Pudor

    The old windbag gets another airing… time for another stretch or a yawn ….,

  • Ed  

    “But from early years he saw the attachment of most other people to their
    region, nationality, culture, occupation or religion — none of which
    counted for much with him — as a handicap restraining their ability to
    advance their careers as opportunistically as he could by exploiting
    these attachments.”

    That’s a pretty good working definition of psychopathy.

  • Gerschwin

    One for the crapper.

  • JohnC

    It is often said that history is written by the victor. That rule does not apply, unfortunately, to Napoleon. History will be properly balanced when writers refer to Napoleon in the same sentence as Stalin, Mao and Hitler.

  • knocke

    Does this biography mention Napoleon’s romantic short novel “Clisson and Eugénie” from 1795? Still in print!