Napoleon: Life and Legacy

Napoleon: Life and Legacy
© 2011 Alan Forrest
403 pages

Napoleon is an unavoidable figure of European history, and enjoys no shortage of admirers even today. For years he dominated a continent, using native talents given abundant opportunities opened by the revolution to make himself and his family into Europe’s leading royal family — for a time. Napoleon is a highly accessible survey of his his life and work, with a focus more on politics than military matters, which also examines (in brief) his enduring legacy, as l’empeurer continues to fascinate us.

Much of Bonaparte’s origins are well known to educated readers: his family upbringing on a small island named Corsica, linked to Italy by culture by annexed by France only a few years before Bonaparte’s birth. Between masters Corsica was an independent Republic, and the Bonapartes established themselves as prominent members thereof. That exercise in republican government had been crushed by the time Napoleon came of age, but it left its mark — and when he began working for his and Corsica’s future, it was through the new French Republic, in service as an artillery officer. The French revolution overthrew the nobility and church, and gave French society the chance to recreate itself. although it mostly committed itself to a prolonged spat of self-destruction. Napoleon’s rise to power through his proven talents on the battlefield during the early Wars of the Coalition is fairly boilerplate, but Forrest also introduces readers to Napoleon as a young man, a pseudo-intellectual, writing revolutionary tracts. Napoleon’s pretensions would grow once he’d become First Consul and Emperor, having himself included in the ranks of the French academy.

Napoleon is only a brief survey, so military campaigns are not considered in depth; battles like Abukir, Jena, Austerlitz, etc are dispatched in a sentence or two. Waterloo proves an exception, earning a few paragraphs. Forrest keeps context in view, providing commentary on the ever-evolving Empire, beginning as it did with a militant republic and taking on another form altogether. Forrest notes with surprise that the French people weren’t fussed in the least about the last vestiges of the Republic being scrapped and a new monarchy imposed. Possibly this owes to Napoleon’s new creature in the Empire, which mixed revolutionary ideas with some nods to the past. One example of this would be the Concordant with Rome, which ended the revolutionary efforts to destroy every aspect of Christian culture and Catholic influence from France, but at a price: the Church would henceforth be markedly subordinate to the State, and those bishops who had actively resisted the revolution were barred. Only quisling clericals were allowed to remain in their offices. Although Napoleon was not a friend of republican government or Enlightenment-era liberalism, his status as a usurper meant that he had to obtain legitimacy through compentency, and his commitment to staffing the Empire with the most able men he could find (so long as they were loyal) created the buzz of a meritocracy in Napoleonic Europe. As Forrest notes, during Napoleon’s hundred day comeback tour, l’empereur acknowledged his imperial abuses and pledged himself to the straight and narrow, resuming the good fight against the resurrected abuses of the Bourbon restoration. This, Forrest argues, is part of the Corsican’s enduring popularity in France: he was reinvented as a standard bearer of republicanism against the heavy weight of inefficient and arbitrary traditional authority in Europe.

Although I hadn’t expected to read this book (a patron ordered it via ILL and it caught my eye before I sent it back), and although I’m not a fan of Napoleon, I rather enjoyed this survey. I especially appreciated Forrest’ efforts to deliver a full picture of Napoleon, his times, and the nature of the empire he and so many others forged, rather than being bogged down with countless reviews of military maneuvers.

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19 Responses to Napoleon: Life and Legacy

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    Coincidentally, the next book I’m reading is a biography of the Duke of Wellington as part of my Prime Ministers series….. [grin]

    • And I’m reading a book on government, not far from the neighborhood of your most recent review! (DIctator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics). We’re syncing more than usual..

      • Cyberkitten says:

        Must be the times we’re living through… [grin] Two more on Democracy coming next.

      • I was playing with the idea of doing a civic interest run — books on city development, energy, infrastructure, natural resources, that sort of thing. I’m back to a day job now, though, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to produce much before the election. 😉

  2. Cyberkitten says:

    Did you pick up on my posting – Trans-Europe Express – Tours of a Lost Continent by Owen Hatherley…? It’s about the European city. I posted it on Thursday, October 01, 2020.

  3. RT says:

    Brief survey of diminutive fellow sounds perfect for me and my short attention span reading abilities.

  4. Mudpuddle says:

    i’ve found N to be sort of repellant but i should probably actually read something besides the Waterloo engagement to achieve a more balanced attitude…

    • Oh, sure! He did dominate France for well over a decade…..arguably he guided France out of the chaos of the revolution and its messy aftermath, though I don’t know if the wars he unleashed on Europe were that much of an improvement.

      • Cyberkitten says:

        Boney was, without doubt, one of the greatest military commanders in human history. He had a profound – arguably positive as much as negative – impact on both French and European history long after he was defeated and died in exile. For those facts alone he is worthy of study. Is he worthy of reverence? Well, that’s definitely arguable! He is, again without doubt, someone who cannot be ignored.

  5. Sharon Barrow Wilfong says:

    This is a book I’ll eventually pick up because I love reading biographies of significant historical leaders. I’m reminded when Josh and I visited Paris and the church where Napoleon’s remains were house. Wow. You could fit an elephant in that crypt.

  6. Marian says:

    This sounds quite interesting! Like R.T. said, “brief survey” is my kind of biography (although 400 pages is still an undertaking for me 😀 ).

    I remember a fellow student at uni who was going to write a paper on Napoleon, essentially an apologist essay. It’s fascinating that when enough time passes we can view such figures in an “epic” or “heroic” light. Contrast that with the story of Beethoven tearing up the title page of his Eroica symphony, dedicated to Bonaparte, after learning Napoleon made himself emperor. I tend to think of him as a precursor to 20th-century autocrats.

    • College students will write apologist essays for ANYTHING! It’s an interesting age where people have learned just enough to be dangerous. I used to write sociology papers on the virtues of the Frankfurt school & neo-marxist thought! That was before Emma Goldman and Ed Abbey….

      • You’re right about being linked to the 20th century figures, but I think he was also on a line between men like Louis XIV and Hitler, of the nation-state being made into a subject of quasi-religious fixation, with the king/emperor/fuehrer at the head.

  7. I try and try and try to read about him but I just can’t get interested. Probably less to do with him than the fact that my interest wanes in general once Europe stumbles into the 1600s.

  8. I like the feature that the author keeps the context of Napoleon’s life in mind for this biography. Sounds like a worthy entry into a crowded field of books about this larger than life figure.

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