The Lives of Napoleon

The erstwhile emperor continues to attract biographers and readers alike. Laura O’Brien assesses recent work on his life and legacy. 

The Gardener of St Helena, French, 19th century © Bridgeman Images.

Two hundred years after his death, what more is there to say about Napoleon Bonaparte? He remains a perennially popular subject for works of history aimed at the general reader, whether conventional biographies or more specialised studies on aspects of his life, regime and cultural legacy. If, as the Napoleonic historian Philip Dwyer suggests, writing a biography is like holding up a mirror for a contemporary readership, who is the Napoleon that is reflected back at us in 2021?

The work of Napoleonic biographers has been made somewhat easier in the past two decades thanks to the publication, with the support of the Fondation Napoléon, of 15 volumes of Napoleon’s correspondence (the final volume appeared in 2018). This material underpins many of the biographies published in recent years. Chief among these are the multi-volume works by Philip Dwyer, whose final volume in his trilogy, Napoleon: Passion, Death and Resurrection 1815-1840 (Bloomsbury), was published in 2018, and Michael Broers, whose Napoleon: Spirit of the Age: 1805-1810 (Pegasus) appeared in the same year. This, the second in Broers’ three-part biography, covers only five years of Napoleon’s life. But, Broers argues, they mark the zenith of his career, particularly as a military leader. This period saw transformations in his private life, too, as he divorced Joséphine and married Marie-Louise, daughter of the Emperor of Austria, in a bid to secure his dynasty. 

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that the chronological span of Philip Dwyer’s Napoleon continues for almost 20 years after the death of his central subject on Saint Helena. This reflects Dwyer’s interest in Napoleon’s afterlife and the emerging legend, which Bonaparte shaped during his final exile. With nothing better to do, the fallen emperor spoke at length to his companions about his life. In 1823 Emmanuel de Las Cases published the Memorial of Saint Helena, based on his conversations with Napoleon. The rediscovery of the original manuscript and the publication of a new version of the Memorial in 2017 has revealed just how much of the legend was based not on Napoleon’s own words, but on Las Cases’ embellishments. No matter: as Dwyer shows, the Memorial became the foundation text for the 19th-century Napoleonic legend and for political Bonapartism. As the debate around the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death rages in the present, Dwyer also offers salient reminders of the political uses of his memory in the past; above all, the decision by King Louis-Philippe to repatriate Napoleon’s remains to France amid great pomp and ceremony in 1840. 

The desire to discover the ‘real’ Napoleon that drove sales of the Memorial of Saint Helena in the 1820s continues to underpin contemporary work on him. Adam Zamoyski’s 2018 biography Napoleon: A Life (William Collins) sets out to uncover, as the book’s subtitle states, ‘the man behind the myth’. The nature of that myth varies, depending on your national or cultural context. In Britain, for example, despite a persistent interest in him, Napoleon tends to be presented, in Zamoyski’s words, as an ‘evil monster or just a nasty little dictator’. Tim Clayton’s This Dark Business: The Secret War Against Napoleon (Little, Brown, 2018) turns this vision on its head, arguing that the popular British image of a diminutive, evil ‘Boney’ was to a large extent the product of a government-funded army of propagandists and cartoonists, who worked to ‘invent an evil enemy’ for the British public from the very beginning of Napoleon’s rise to power. This ‘secret war’, which included British-funded conspiracies in France and assassination attempts on Napoleon’s life, began even before the most notorious acts of his career, such as the massacre of prisoners during the Egyptian campaign and the brutal violence meted out in the Caribbean, culminating in the reimposition of slavery in French territories in 1802. Clayton’s book shows that these attacks on Napoleon, both physical and symbolic, marked a new departure in Anglo-French relations because they were so personal. Accounts of Napoleon’s childhood claimed that, as a schoolboy, he had killed a dog and nailed it to his door, and that he had poisoned his lover. Here was a man with ‘a heart black with crimes of the deepest dye’, in the words of the Anti-Jacobin Review.

Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, by Job (Jacques Onfroy de Bréville), 1893.
Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, by Job (Jacques Onfroy de Bréville), 1893 © Bridgeman Images.

In The Invisible Emperor: Napoleon on Elba from Exile to Escape (Profile, 2018), Mark Braude shows how even while rendered ‘invisible’ in his new, tiny dominion, Bonaparte remained a figure of fascination for locals and visitors alike. He even became a kind of tourist attraction, with people travelling from around Europe (and Britain, too) in a bid to catch a glimpse of or even to meet the ‘Corsican ogre’. Some were invited in by Napoleon: the British politician John Macnamara, visiting Elba out of curiosity, had a long conversation with him, during which he could not stop rubbing his eyes in amazement. Napoleon’s time on Elba allows Braude to approach his subject with what he describes as ‘unprecedented intimacy’. Even as he plots his return to France, the Napoleon who emerges in this book is human: as communications broke down with Marie-Louise, he found solace in singing Corsican songs to himself, by candlelight, in the early hours of the morning. 

On Elba, Napoleon returned to an early passion established in his formative years as a pupil at the military academy of Brienne: gardening. With his gardener Claude Hollard, the deposed emperor laid out new gardens at his two residences on the island, planting citrus trees and Mediterranean flowers. Hollard even created themed floral displays to spell out the names of Napoleon’s family members. In her new biography, Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows (Chatto & Windus, 2021), Ruth Scurr uses the garden as a unique framing device to approach and understand Bonaparte’s life. Beginning with the lonely Corsican boy cultivating a tiny plot at Brienne and moving through ever-grander gardens and green spaces at Malmaison, Fontainebleau and Saint-Cloud, the book argues for the centrality of nature in Napoleon’s life, culminating in a final garden on Saint Helena. Indeed, Scurr’s book might alternatively have been titled Napoleon and the Natural World. Fascinated by botany, geography and exploration from a young age, Napoleon developed close connections with the botanists and naturalists at the Jardin des Plantes and Museum of Natural History in Paris. In 1800, as First Consul, he authorised a French scientific expedition to Australia. The scientists claimed the areas they explored as Terre Napoléon. The gardens of his life were often the gardens of others, too, particularly Joséphine, who cultivated rare plants at Malmaison. Her gardens, Scurr argues, were ‘her antidote to the Terror’ and a way of ‘healing political trauma through … the natural world’.

Scurr came to the subject of Napoleon via Charlotte Brontë. In 1843, holding a fragment of his original coffin, Brontë mused that ‘we all have only the idea of Napoleon we are capable of having’. Exploring that idea and its impact on his contemporaries and the generations that followed may be arguably more interesting than repeatedly revisiting well-established biographical details. In Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020) David A. Bell reassesses Napoleon – as a ruler and as an idea – through the lens of charismatic leadership. In one sense, this is ‘great man’ history, but Bell examines his case studies not as lone geniuses, but as manifestations of the same phenomenon over the course of the global ‘age of revolutions’. These men were very different, as Bell shows, moving from Napoleon to Toussaint Louverture, whose career he describes as ‘the most astonishing of the age of revolution’. But their models of leadership were intrinsically connected, as ‘each figure in turn provided a model for the others’. Without charisma, Bell argues, we cannot understand the rise of democracy in this period. Leaders like Napoleon, Louverture, Washington, Bolivár and the Corsican leader Paoli redrew the nature of political authority. Through a careful balance of familiarity, intimacy and heroic exceptionalism – cultivated and marketed through newspapers, pamphlets and, above all, visual depictions of the leader – the relationship was no longer one of monarch and subject, but something much closer to a kind of fandom. 

At the end of his biography, Dwyer reflects that Napoleon remains fascinating because he embodies the ambitions of the ‘modern western individual … he conquered … he acquired lasting power … he unashamedly pursued lasting fame’. The continued proliferation of books on Napoleon is testament to the potency of his story. But we must ask hard questions about who gets to contribute to the conversation. Despite the work of female scholars, Napoleonic history, particularly when it comes to trade books, remains a rather male and overwhelmingly white field. If Ruth Scurr’s claim that ‘there is always something new to say’ is to truly resonate in the 21st century, a greater diversity of voices are needed to tell the story. 


Laura O’Brien is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at Northumbria University.