Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny

Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny 
Michael Broers    Faber & Faber   585pp   £30 

Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799-1815 
Philip Dwyer    Bloomsbury   799pp   £30

British publishers possess an infinite capacity for sponsoring big biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte, evidently assuming the existence of a ready market. Two more blockbusters have now appeared, together weighing in at over 1,300 pages. They are respectively the first and second instalments of two-volume works. Broers ends his initial tome in the autumn of 1805, with the Emperor Napoleon about to engage with the superior forces of the Third Coalition; Dwyer begins his second volume where he finished the first (published in 2007), with General Bonaparte completing his ‘Path to Power’, following the coup d’état of Brumaire (November 1799). There is thus some significant chronological overlap and several similarities between the books. Both authors are academic historians, as opposed to the ‘professional biographers’ who regularly try their hand at Napoleon. Broers, like Dwyer, draws on current research, notably a new, enlarged edition of Napoleon’s letters. So what distinguishes them?

In his introduction, Broers states  that the fresh epistolary material ‘makes a new biography imperative’ and he puts the recently collected correspondence to good use, frequently citing Napoleon in his own words. Indeed he devotes a fair amount of space to the Buonaparte family, from their Corsican origins to their sibling rivalry, not least after Napoleon made good and excluded two of his brothers from the imperial succession. Broers draws on his own research to emphasise the importance of Bonaparte’s political, as well as military, apprenticeship in northern Italy, before he went on to grasp power in France. He also describes the repressive, as well as reconciliatory side, of the Bonapartist system under the Consulate, down to 1804, especially the way its gendarmerie and special courts dealt with those who refused to be won over by ‘great reforms’ in administration, religion and the law. Closely focused on Napoleon’s fortunes, this biography takes a more thematic approach. It is written with some verve, albeit with the odd slip when referring to the rebellions in Provence in 1793 (when Bonaparte was first brought into the limelight), or the plebiscites used to seal Napoleonic rule with popular approval as he consolidated his authority. 

Broers is not uncritical of Napoleon, but Dwyer is keener to stress his shortcomings. He highlights weaknesses during the creative Consular period, suggesting that, while ending the revolutionary schism, the Concordat with the Pope simultaneously inaugurated a century of conflict between Church and State in France. Later, under the heading ‘Hubris’, he deals with the declining years of the Empire, when Napoleon overreached himself in the East and was unwilling to make peace. Nemesis came hard on its heels, yet Dwyer also emphasises the revolutionary dimension that made it so difficult to take the measure of Napoleon. The ‘Citizen Emperor’ turned into a despot, before further complicating his identity during the final fling of the Hundred Days in 1815, when he briefly reinvented himself as the returning people’s ruler. Dwyer exploits a series of visual images of Napoleon to trace his protean character and offer insight into the ways he sought to present himself and was perceived by others. His is the more detailed account, with 200 pages of endnotes and bibliography. It contains many fascinating nuggets of information, such as the tale of the hot air balloon that lofted a giant crown above Paris to celebrate the imperial coronation in 1804, but severed its moorings and ended up in Italy. While both Dwyer’s volumes are now out, Broers has paused for the moment, with Napoleon facing a mighty military challenge, his destiny once more in the balance.                                                

Malcolm Crook is Professor of French History at Keele.

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