Tuesday, 13 December 2011

New books: Napoléon, his age and his ideas

Given that there are literally hundreds of thousands of books on Napoléon I, I generally wonder each time a new one appears what is its purpose. Many of them are obviously superfluous, but Alan Forrest’s recent book Napoleon, published by Quercus, stands out as one which is worth reading.
Forrest is professor of modern history at the University of York and may be considered one of the leading British scholars on the revolutionary and Napoleonic epochs in French history. He repeatedly states his initial reluctance to make the transition from writing social history of the revolution to a biography of Napoléon and this also influences the book, but in a good way.
If there are individuals who defined their age in such a way that their biography and the history of their era are virtually the same thing, Napoléon is obviously one of the best examples. Forrest’s book thus combines the story of Napoléon’s life with the history of France and Europe during that half-century.
The story is framed by chapters on the late Emperor’s reburial in Paris in 1840 at the beginning and his “life after death” at the end. There is less about his personal life than in many other biographies and Forrest generally avoids the lengthy accounts of campaigns and battles with which some of Napoléon’s biographers try their readers’ patience.
On the other hand Professor Forrest is particularly strong on the ideas that shaped Napoléon and his age and on the system which Napoléon created. The book is mercifully not part of the propaganda war which many of Napoléon’s biographers, perhaps in particular the British ones, still seem to be fighting. Indeed Forrest’s book is neither laudatory nor vindictive, but rather critical in the best meaning of that word and the author gives credit where he thinks credit is due and criticises what he thinks deserves to be criticised.
The book is entirely based on secondary sources and there are no new revelations to be found in this book (indeed it is by now hardly possible to find unknown primary sources), but Alan Forrest’s interpretation of the man and the age and his clear analyses make for one of the most interesting books on Napoléon to be published in recent years.

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