INS: Journal Of Napoleonic Scholarship 1998

Review Essay: Schom's Napoleon


John Clubbe
University of Kentucky

One cannot but be initially impressed by the scope of Schom's undertaking. This is a massive tome: nearly 800 pages of text, two appendices, fifty pages of notes, a twenty-page bibliography. In his preface Schom boasts of his accomplishment: of the 200,000 books on Napoleon no previous one-volume biography fully and properly has covered "all aspects of his life" (xvii). Schom claims to have met the challenge, "employing all the new research and archival documents" (xviii). Schom tells us this, virtually in the same words, twice more in his brief preface. We learn early that Schom is not a modest man and that he writes badly and repetitively. The book does cover (as a biography should) most of the main events of Napoleon's life. Indeed, Schom's pages may well contain as many or more "facts" as any other single-volume life of Napoleon, though (as we shall see) his facts are too often wrong or skewed. More skewed than the facts, however, is Schom's self-praise for "provid[ing] a balanced insight" (xix), for balanced insight is the most glaring instance of what he does not provide.

Schom's Napoleon may be the most hostile book ever written on the French Emperor. He has turned out neither a "balanced" nor a credible portrait but a hatchet job. If your hatred for Napoleon is pure and simple, possibly this is the book for you. But even the most ardent Napoleon-hater may find himself repulsed by the constant flow of bile. Samuel Johnson liked "a good hater," but he liked human charity even more, and of charity Schom possesses not a speck. One senses that because Schom hates so many things himself, he has to make Napoleon hateful too. His animus against Napoleon extends to "the entire detestable Bonaparte clan" (212). With the partial exception of Joseph, Schom savages all the Bonaparte brothers, particularly Jérôme, to whom in Napoleon's Satellite Kingdoms Owen Connelly awarded high marks both as ruler of his Westphalian kingdom and as military leader. Only the all-wise biographer --Schom himself-- truly understands the brutal reality of Napoleon and his siblings. There is only one prophet, and his name is Schom. Ironically, Schom emerges not as the sage he wishes to be taken for, the man who has finally revealed the "truth" about Napoleon, the writer of a "balanced" biography for today, but as something of a fool. The Napoleon of these pages is Schom's size. Schom appears to have drawn Napoleon after himself, in his own image. Inevitably, this life reveals more about the biographer than about his subject. If Napoleon had been as petty, cruel, vicious, and unloving as he is depicted here, Schom would be his ideal biographer. But from the sum of all accounts Napoleon was not at all like Schom.

Unfortunately, reviews I have seen in the popular press (Gregor Dallas in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 14, 1997; Robert Gildea in the New York Times Book Review, November 23, 1997; Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, November 24, 1997) have not subjected Schom's biography to careful scholarly scrutiny. Mostly the reviewers have used the biography to voice their thoughts on Napoleonic or contemporary France. This is unfortunate, for by not sufficiently bringing out how insistently Schom's bias distorts his material they have poorly served prospective readers.

Schom's previous studies of the Napoleonic era focus on Trafalgar and Waterloo, Napoleon's two greatest setbacks. Fixed on Napoleonic defeat, Schom seems to have dedicated his life to chronicling it. Indeed, he revels in Napoleonic failure. If only for this reason, a full-length biography from Schom was inevitable for, as he sees it, Napoleonıs whole career was a failure. He couldnıt do anything right. He was the biggest loser of all time, short-term and long-term, a disaster in his personal relationships, a disaster for France, a disaster for Europe. Whatever the merits of this argument, one has to wonder a little what motivates Schom, what in his mental make-up draws him again and again to write about a figure he truly detests. Schom rails at Napoleon's "psycopathic [sic] persistence" (594). One might question his own.

One would never know from reading Schom's Napoleon why the French Emperor has had so much written about him, or why so many people have found (and find) him such a fascinating subject of study. How could the cold-blooded, cruel, incompetent tyrant of Schom's pages, a man who constantly manipulated and fooled his contemporaries, interest anyone except a devotee of abnormal psychology? If you know something about Napoleonıs life and career already, Schom can only muddy the waters. If you don't, let it be said that the figure drawn here is unrecognizable as the historical Napoleon.

The main problem is that Schom is not a serious historian. He doesn't understand or value scholarly procedure. History for him is polemic. For Schom, locked in imagined mortal combat with Napoleon, any slander, any low blow, is acceptable. Thus this biography, parading as a "balanced" study and disguised by the appearance of a full scholarly apparatus, is in reality a diatribe. Bias and partisanship that reveal commitment to and passion for a subject can be a good thing in historical writing, but a historian who professes to value ³balanced insight" should make an effort to consider fairly positions opposed to his. Schom makes no effort at all. Instead, he substitutes name-calling for analysis. Words can hardly express Schom's rage at Napoleon, this "parvenu Bonaparte" (543), soon to become "a bull-headed Bonaparte," then "a bloodsucker" (570), subsequently "a locust" and an "unhinged" one at that (588).

In a biography that proceeds by sarcasm, sneer, and slander, Schom delights to point out Napoleon's physical weaknesses. He gloatingly asserts that Napoleon "could not even ride a horse" (504), but omits to mention that over the course of his campaigns Napoleon rode many a horse, often for hours at a stretch, and had nineteen shot out from under him. For John Elting Napoleon "was an able, daring, reckless horseman." Schom's vitriolic jabs (and the mean-spirited omission of the positive) are not only directed at Napoleon but also at anyone else or at any concept Schom doesnıt like or understand. Nearly incandescent with rage, Schom takes pride in flailing away, as with a verbal chain saw, at the great Napoleonic forest. But in the end it remains where and what it was.

All who would write Napoleonic biography must grapple with the idea of greatness, greatness both in terms of Napoleon's self- imaging and in terms of myths fostered by others. Schom can't conceive of or understand Napoleon's greatness --that far from being only a superb general, Napoleon was an extraordinarily able and complex man. Military buffs like Schom tend to simplify Napoleon's psychology. Even David Chandler, to whom Napoleonic scholarship owes so much, misses the boat badly when he repeatedly describes Napoleon (echoing Clarendon on Cromwell) as "a great, bad man." That's too easy, and doesnıt explain a thing. Schom's contribution to the discussion is to drop "great."

From Schom's pages we won't learn why many contemporaries considered Napoleon a great man, why Byron, not known for his modesty, thought himself "an insect compared to this man," why Goethe used Napoleon (along with Byron) to embody his complex concept of the daimonic. Byron, Carlyle, and Wagner assumed that greatness existed and was palpable in humanity past and present, indeed that heroes could still walk the earth. Today the idea of human greatness finds fewer adherents. But the obverse--that we are all little folk, what Carlyle terms "smalls," full of spite and malice as we strut our hour upon the stage&#$5;&#$5;may be equally limiting. No man is a hero to his valet, it is said, though ironically, Napoleon's own valets--Constant and Marchand, who knew him as intimately as anyone--would write admiringly of him. Schom's small-souled perspective on humanity cannot deal with the adulation accorded Napoleon both in his lifetime or since. He lacks the broadness of human understanding or the breadth of historical perspective to grasp the complex nature of Napoleon's being and achievement.

This is early evident in Schom's misjudgment of Napoleon's current reputation: "To the French he is almost universally a national hero, his excesses overlooked and unmentioned. By most other Europeans...he is, understandably, hated" (xviii-xix). Not so--in fact, not at all. In today's France Napoleon elicits a mixed response--or indifference. Those politically on the right tend to respond to him more positively than those on the left. In Italy he is much admired, as participants in the first International Napoleon Congress at Alessandria in 1997 can attest. Milan's Museo del risorgimento has Napoleon inaugurating the movement that led to Italian independence. Germany has a huge Napoleon Society. In England Napoleon arouses far more interest than any other figure of the age, including the man who brought him down, Wellington.


Schom's lack of "balance" is even more evident in the skewed sense of proportion with which he presents Napoleon's career. By page 14 we have reached 1792. Napoleon is twenty-three and has lived more than two-fifths of his life. If he were the monster Schom makes him out to be, why not go into the circumstances that made him a monster? This would require Schom to delve into Napoleon's Corsican background, the character of his parents, and the nature of their relationship to their second son.

That Schom does not do any of these things is ironic because his favorite appellation for Napoleon, his term of utmost opprobrium, is "the Corsican." He uses it dozens of times. Napoleon was "always to speak with a jarring Corsican accent"(4). He is, and remains, "the Corsican outsider²(199); later he becomes "the Corsican general," even "the blasé Corsican general" (200, 371). After Jena Marshal Lannes "warned the Corsican to mind his manners" (432). Alongside Tzar Alexander I, Napoleon becomes "the almost dwarflike Corsican" who responds to others "by dour Corsican brusqueness" (448, 449). Next he is "that ruthless Corsican ogre," a "forty-year-old rogue with at least two bastards tucked away well out of sight" (549, 550). And so it goes: Napoleon remains "the little Corsican" right to the end (714). (Should Schom turn his attention to American subjects, one wonders whether hyphenated Americans, decades after assimilation into American society, would still be "the dwarflike Jew," "the dour Cuban," "the little Italian.")

If for the early years of Napoleon's life Schom has no compelling interpretation to offer, one biographer who does is Dorothy Carrington, who in two brilliant studies--Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica, on Corsica and the Corsican mentality, and Napoleon and His Parents: On the Threshold of History, on the all-important family relationships--deals convincingly with the early Napoleon and his background. Her books are not in the bibliography of the man who claims to have read and absorbed "all the new research" (xviii). Schom seems unaware that in recent decades historians have totally rewritten the Corsican period. It is a bad beginning, and things go downhill from here.

For Schom, Napoleon achieves no glory during his first Italian campaign. He defeats the Sardinians chiefly because they had "inferior numbers, poor leadership, and even poorer state of morale" (46). Military historians will have a field day pointing out inadequacies in Schom's treatment of this and other Napoleonic campaigns. Except for a representative sampling, I shall leave to them the dubious pleasure of chronicling Schom's many errors of fact on military matters. His usual method of procedure is to detail the scene--who's where, how many men each commander had--then attempt to describe what happened. (In passing, Schom's maps usually show only places and boundaries, rarely routes or military positions. To recreate battles from them is impossible. A military atlas--and several good ones exist for Napoleonic Europe--is a necessary complement to this book.) Except for Napoleonic defeats (which he relishes), Schom's accounts of battlefield action are skimpy and usually confused. His account of Lodi makes that battle unrecognizable. There is no mention of anyone crossing a bridge, only that the "brave Austrians...achieved their objective of delaying the French" (48). That the battle led to Napoleon's entry into Milan five days later and launched him into the European imagination goes unmentioned.

Egypt fares no better. The biographer's ignorance of Egyptian topography must surely rival Napoleon's in 1798: the Nile delta is not, as Schom thinks, a "vast desert" (115). Despite facing the "formidable Egyptian cavalry" and "Murad's imposing army" (122, 128), the completely unprepared Napoleon (so Schom) manages to defeat both handily. Nevertheless, for Schom Napoleon's "crackpot expedition" to Egypt was a "total failure" (154, 179).

Unbalanced proportion also characterizes Schom's inability to maintain a firm narrative line. He jumps awkwardly back and forth in time. The worst narrative collapse occurs after Napoleon assumes power on 18 Brumaire [9 November] 1799. For nearly a hundred pages Schom stops the narrative to give us potted biographies of Napoleon's brothers Joseph and Lucien, Talleyrand, Fouché's police, finally Fouché the man. Then comes a chapter "The Christmas Eve Plot and Others" in which Schom narrates--in reverse chronological order--the attempts against Napoleon's life. All of this occurs before Schom's main narrative has even reached the Consulate (1799-1804) and Empire (1804-1815) in which these figures lived and worked and the plots occurred.

Schom's account of Napoleon's coronation (sacre) on December 2, 1804, constantly interrupted by digressions, is more than usually disjointed. The evening before the sacre took place hundreds of cannon went off. "Ears and heads ached, conversations and chamber music were drowned out, and medieval buildings that had withstood the catastrophes of the ages shook to their deep stone foundations" (333). That Napoleon--he was an aural no less than a military menace! Even the buildings of Paris suffer from his presence. One wonders if this could be Schom's idea of humor until the biography convinces us that Schom has no sense of humor and that the only humor it provides is unintentional. After Napoleon and Josephine arrive and are seated inside Notre Dame, Schom stops to insert ten pages on the fratricidal conflicts among the brothers. He then details what everything at the sacre cost--history from the tradesman's perspective.

Unbalance pervades as well Schom's pronouncements on Napoleon's military strategies. Why did Napoleon want to invade England? Schom tells us: "Just to bring off the colorful publicity coup of repeating William the Conqueror's unique feat" (355). Napoleon "never did understand the English--nor did he ever try" (356). Schom knows. Itıs good that he has told us. The subject is now closed. No one will have to think about it again. Schom writes like a man who has never had a self-doubt in his life. He knows too, many previous historians to the contrary, that Napoleon had no desire for peace at any time. Instead, he left a "neatly edited paper trail of...peaceful overtures" (389). The war of 1805 against Austria and Russia was "utterly unnecessary, provoked by him alone" (400). The victory at Austerlitz occurred despite Napoleon and despite even more than usual quarreling among the marshals. It was apparently needed to resolve a financial crisis in Paris. If you're wondering at this point how Napoleon ever won a battle, any battle, Schom can tell you: "Napoleon's famous luck was holding, saving him from almost inevitable destruction" (409). Austerlitz was of course a fluke. In 1807 Napoleon "limped away" after Eylau along with the Russian commander (444), whereas in reality he remained on the battlefield a week.

The uprising in Madrid on May 2, 1808, produced "well over a thousand French and Spanish killed--some put the estimate to close to twenty-five thousand" (467). No source I'm familiar with credits even the lower of Schom's two figures--Robert Hughes speaks of forty. Schom does not mention Goya's depiction of the uprising, the famous Tres de Mayo, the most moving of all war paintings, but then throughout his book he remains impervious to art, music, literature.

Napoleon's Iberian adventure also allows Schom full exercise of his talent for sarcasm. Napoleon is the "military genius" who fails everywhere--Egypt, England, Trafalgar--and will fail here (469). Shortly after the British land in Portugal, "the great warrior Junot,...already a legend in the French army, [is] defeated and expelled from Portugal!" (469). Lots of exclamation marks in Schom. They're there to make his dimmer readers (you and me) aware of the enormity of Napoleonic failure--or to clue us in that Napoleon has been particularly bad! Napoleon's war in Spain? -- for Schom "it was hardly the act of a mature, balanced humanitarian" (478). Neither was the writing of this book.

Schom's account of the Russian campaign is also unbalanced and inept in its narrative line. He dismisses out-of-hand Napoleon's several efforts to resolve the conflict peacefully. Then he interrupts his narrative in midstream to give a chapter on the Malet conspiracy. (Earlier he alludes only briefly in passing to the far more important murder of the Duc d'Enghien. No one would guess from this biography that this murder--grist to Schom's mill, one would think--was a defining moment for Napoleonic Europe.) Schom laments, when the French have only reached Borodino, the fate of the wounded Napoleon was forced to leave behind in Moscow. During the retreat from Moscow Schom appears to cite Napoleon's famous 29th Bulletin in which he candidly announced failure. But check Schom's note, and you discover him quoting, not Napoleon's words, but his stepdaughter Hortense's ("What a blow to our national pride!" [645]) from her Mémoires.

Schom's garbled account of the 100 Days also lacks solid historicity and cohesion. His insistence that the French hated Napoleon leaves unexplained how the exiled Emperor, leaving Elba with only a thousand men, traversed France in twenty days virtually unopposed and without a shot being fired. Schom does no better with Waterloo. His confused narrative undoubtedly reflects the confusion on the battlefield, but the historian has a responsibility to render events with at least an illusion of coherence. This Schom does not do and, on the basis of this book, cannot do.

Schom's account of Napoleonıs exile on bleak St. Helena is like no other I have ever read. In Schom's deluded eyes, the island is a paradise, far better than a monster like Napoleon deserved. Schom speaks of "the spaciousness of Longwood and its pleasant gardens;" to get there one traversed "refreshingly cooler slopes" (768). He omits the rats, the rotting floors, the fetid air. He derides as "blatant defamation" Napoleonıs poor opinion of the irascible and psychologically unstable Sir Hudson Lowe (770), whom even Wellington thought a fool, lacking education and judgment. Schom sounds almost envious when he says "the British government could not have selected a more qualified man for the disagreeable job" (771). He dismisses out-of-hand the memoirs by Napoleon and those loyal to him who shared his exile as "carefully concocted for the gullible back in the old country" (761).

And so it continues: Schom presenting as "fact" a by-now all too predictable parody of actuality. As at the beginning, so at the end: no attempt to understand, to suggest possible interpretations, to depict setting or personages fairly. Distortion is Schom's norm and his joy. Tristan de Montholon (he is usually known as "Charles") was a "boundless bounder" (787), but in his life he did one thing right: he murdered Napoleon. Schom accepts the hypothesis advanced by Sten Forshufvud, Ben Weider, and others that Napoleon, instead of dying from stomach cancer was poisoned and, following Forshufvud and Weider, he fingers Montholon.

In a one-page epilogue Schom congratulates himself on giving Napoleon "his rightful due" (789). He blames Napoleon for Prussia's "successful invasion and occupation of France" in 1870, for Schom apparently the only lasting effect of his reign. Napoleon's administrative, legal, agricultural, and educational reforms--too complex for Schom to understand or discuss--have, he asserts, laid a heavy burden on today's France. In fact, Napoleon's negative impact on French society has "in some instances lasted to this very day. The memory of Genghis Khan pale[s] in comparison" (789). Poor France!

Nary a word by Schom on the Napoleonic legend and the powerful response it evoked in nineteenth-century Europe. Las Cases's influential Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, published in 1822-1823 and in print from that day to this, Schom sails by without comment. A whole generation, the "children of the century," brought up on the bulletins of the Grande Armée, found in theMémorial solace and sustenance in a reactionary age. One would never guess from Schom why so many contemporaries--from Goethe to the ordinary grognard--found Napoleon an awesome figure: intellectually brilliant with a mind ranging from mathematics to foreign policy, a greatly able administrator, physically a very attractive man. Schom must be the only biographer to leave unmentioned Napoleon's much admired looks and capacity (when he wished) for immense charm. Most portraits Schom includes as illustrations do not flatter. The dust jacket illustration of a thoughtful Napoleon is belied by the text's venom.

Schom misses totally what made Napoleon-watching so enthralling an activity during the years of gloire, the passion that Napoleon aroused throughout the nineteenth century, the enthusiasm for matters Napoleonic that continues to this day. In England, Napoleon obsessed, for good or for ill, Byron and Hazlitt, Scott, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. "I am in the Louvre once more," writes Hazlitt, an admirer of Napoleon to his dying day. "The sun of Austerlitz has not set. It still shines here--in my heart; the sun of glory is not dead nor ever shall be to me...." In France, although Chateau-briand and Madame de Staël both became bitter opponents of Napoleon, it was in opposition that they forged themselves as writers. Despite their hostility, Napoleon awed them as he awed Goethe and Stendhal. Schom scants Chateaubriand presumably because for all the resentment he cultivated during Napoleon's lifetime, Chateaubriand after Napoleonıs death evoked in his Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe better than anyone else a sense of Napoleon's greatness. Napoleon once said of himself that his life was like a novel. Certainly it has inspired a number of novels, poems, paintings, and, in this century, films as well. In the course of time, the French Emperor mesmerized, among others, Hugo, Balzac, Béranger, Dostoyeski, Thomas Hardy, and Abel Gance. But no one of these figures--all unmentioned by Schom--would recognize the parody that is Schom's Napoleon. Napoleon for Schom is an object, not a human being. His violent and fixed animus against Napoleon precludes imaginative empathy.

Despite the hoopla about comprehensiveness and balance, this book provides almost no sense of context, no awareness that the decades on either side of 1800 were among the most idea- and event-filled in history. The movement we call (for lack of a better word) Romanticism has shaped the modern world. England, France, Germany, later Italy and Russia, experienced a creative outburst in art, music, philosophy, literature. The style empire inspired by the cultural resonance of the Egyptian campaign and adopted by Napoleon's court exercised a sway over Europe comparable to the style Louis XIV. Intellectual and cultural history Schom sweeps past. Ideas in general and the ideas of other scholars in particular do not interest him. He also gives short shrift to, or omits discussion of, most matters of internal policy, particularly lasting French institutions like the Concordat, the Code Civil, the Bank of France, and the Legion of Honor. So much for his claim in the preface that he will consider "every" aspect of Napoleon's career. Why Herold and others have called this period "the age of Napoleon" simply does not concern him.


"Facts are facts" says Schom (786), and it's a pity he gets so many of his wrong. His book perpetrates an enormous amount of misinformation about Napoleon. Almost every page has its howlers and glaring inconsistencies. Historians will be surprised to learn, for example, that Kléber died in 1801 (instead of 1800) and that Marmont, the betrayer of Napoleon in 1814, remained "completely loyal throughout" his career (303, 156). Schom has Napoleon "loathing Josephine's English gardeners and gardens" at Malmaison, but not long afterwards we find him ³ the gardens of Malmaison" (296, 375). In Schom's Napoleon Josephine dies twice. She dies first on April 28, 1814, the day Napoleon sailed for Elba (703). She dies again in June 1815. (The index, helpful for once, lists both deaths.) Napoleon, upon his return from Waterloo, learns on June 25th of the revived Josephine's second death at Malmaison, where "a devoted Hortense² breaks the sad news (761). Schom has Napoleon walking about Malmaison "seeking Josephine's ghost." "That poor Josephine," he murmured. "I cannot get used to living here without her." Actually, he had over a year to get used to her departure, for, as is often the case with a Schom "fact," neither date is accurate. The historical Josephine (as opposed to Schom's Josephine) died on May 29, 1814.

Other instances. Schom tells us that Jérôme Bonaparte "had given up his unsuccessful naval career for the army" (436) but three pages later refers to him as "Adm[iral] Jérôme Bonaparte." Before Eylau, the Russians draw up a plan "unknown to Napoleon," who nevertheless, Schom tells us, "quickly drew up a counterplan" (440). We learn that the "comte de Lille" (later Louis XVIII) "was the eldest brother of the late Louis XVI" (695). If he were, he, not Louis XVI, would have perished on the guillotine in 1793; for what it's worth, his correct title was the "comte de Provence." Schom describes Louis Bonaparte in one sentence as "a competent, well-qualified officer, who could have substantially aided Napoleon;" in the next, his "mental problems had, if anything increased over the years" (498). Napoleon is in Valladolid from January 8 to 18, but two pages later, hearing on December 31st of an Austrian threat, he returns immediately to Paris (486, 488).

Persistent copy-editing might have caught a few of these errors and inconsistencies, but faced with so many--and the accompanying deluge of bad writing--the most stony-faced copy-editor (if the breed still exists) must have thrown up his or her hands in despair. It's too bad that HarperCollins did not scrutinize Schom's work more closely or solicit outside readers for comment. From the paucity of acknowledgments to the Napoleonic scholarly community, Schom, an independent scholar, seems to have worked virtually in isolation. His book can only embarrass its publisher.

Schom's hatred of Napoleon drives him repeatedly to alter evidence to support his thesis that Napoleon was a historical and personal disaster. For example, he presents a Napoleon increasingly withdrawn from others. With the death of his closest friend Duroc in 1814, ³he was now all alone in the world, a vast chasm separating him from the rest of the living" (665). Duroc's death (by a ricocheting cannonball) Schom blames, inevitably, on Napoleon: "He had killed his best friend." Eighteen pages later the man "now all alone in the world" expresses joy at seeing his wife Marie Louise. Needless to say, Napoleon remained a sociable being to the end of his days, as the many chronicles from St. Helena testify. Schom's detestation of all the Bonapartes leads him to seriously misjudge the achievement of Louis, king of Holland from 1806 to 1810. Actually, Louis introduced governmental reforms that have lasted to the present. The Code Civil is still the basis of Dutch law, and Dutch historians date the emergence of the modern Dutch state to his brief reign.


Schom may have created a new sub genre: caricature biography. He renders us Napoleon as Gillray caricature. One way he makes Napoleon into a cartoon figure is to slip in a vast amount of undocumented speculation. He imagines the responses of Napoleon and his associates not on the basis of hard evidence but after his own sense of what they might have said or felt. That Schom never once attempts a physical description of Napoleon's appearance does not prevent him from constantly visualizing the Emperor. He knows when Napoleon is "heavily perspiring" (206), that Napoleon "just laughed" (334), that he had "lightly quipped" (468). This is Schom's idea of immediacy, and he must think such details enliven his narrative. The problem is that there is no evidence for them. Whether Napoleon "quipped," whether he quipped lightly or heavily, is not known. Schom has imagined the scene. He is writing history the way he would like it to have been. On several occasions he has his caricature Napoleon "clenching his little fists" in frustration (492, 594). (Presumably Schom was there to observe him.) When he describes "Napoleon facetiously rejecting the idea with a dismissive smile" (475), we have a right to ask, Did he? How would Schom know? Was he there to note the "dismissive smile?" One might even ask, Is this a novel or a biography?

Similarly, Schom tells us that Caulaincourt, returning from Russia in 1812 in Napoleon's carriage, "may have regretted being one of the survivors during the two-week ride from Smorgoni to Paris" (644). No evidence exists for this statement. Caulaincourt says nothing about wishing to die and remained intensely loyal to Napoleon. Schom finds Marshal Soult--by general consensus one of Napoleonıs more able commanders--slothful, incompetent, evasive, crafty, ingratiating. He frequently excoriates the immensely competent organizer of Napoleon's thoughts, Marshal Berthier. In 1815, to watch allied troops go off to fight Napoleon, Berthier climbs "the tower of his castle in Bamberg, about to leap to his death" (732). Other commentators leave open whether Berthier was pushed or accidentally fell to his death. Not Schom. He knows it was suicide. In sum, Schom writes what he wants to believe, and he presents wish as fact. His lack of honesty in what purports to be a work of scholarship is inexcusable. Such unwanted and unnecessary speculation is as arbitrary as it is dishonest, and it marks every page of this biography.

It becomes increasingly clear that Schom has no interest in Napoleon loyalists. He prefers the inept Bourbons to anything Napoleonic. He speaks of plans to restore "Louis XVIII to his rightful throne" (64) and laments the "once splendid Royal Navy, built up so painstakingly by Louis XVI" (133). For this modern Ultraroyalist, Napoleonıs new aristocracy was "a pack of working-class oafs" (454). So much for the marshallate! When the younger Pitt, prime minister until 1804, spoke of Napoleon as "the child and champion of the Revolution," he did not intend a compliment. But many others--Byron and Hazlitt, among them--valued Napoleon as the heir of the French Revolution. Although not all English liberals supported Napoleon, he was in contrast to the legitimist kings a beacon of hope. Schom, who detests the Revolution and cannot admit that any good came from it, omits discussion, during Napoleon's lifetime or afterward, of his impact upon revolutionary Europe.

If you value the English language, Schom's will appall you. English speakers outside the United States may have trouble figuring out his colloquialisms. Napoleon "made a hash" of the Egyptian campaign (153), a hash that soon became "a colossal hash" (186). Treilhard in Egypt subjects Napoleon to "a scathing dig" (170). Before 18 Brumaire Schom has Napoleon forced to "eat humble pie" (207). (One might recommend a generous slice to Schom.) "Left-wingers" are scorned, but this Bourbon toady finds no "right-wingers" to complain about. Napoleon's Empire, in an odd gastronomical image, "leaked like Swiss cheese" (435). Dealing with the Spanish Bourbons, Napoleon "polished off the lot of them" (465). "The Godfather had spoken" (570) presumably refers to the Emperor. We read of a "prestigious confab" (590) and that Louis XVIII was "in a bind" (716). Phrases like "the master of disaster [Villeneuve]" and "hapless Hapsburg" (362, 416) belong in a Bob Hope skit. Someone should tell Schom that decimated has a specific meaning (187, etc.). In the course of his ill-written pages he must violate every rule of English syntax. One might wish that a biographer so critical of his subject could have looked a little harder at the language of his own manuscript.


In addition to its built-in and ultimately self-defeating anti-Napoleonic bias, Schom's Napoleon is as irresponsible with historical sources as it is unreliable in its facts and unbalanced as a portrait of Napoleon.

Schom's claim to have done original research is deceptive. Though he asserts in his preface that he has examined manuscript collections extensively, the evidence of his own endnotes belies this statement. No manuscript sources are listed in the bibliography, and with evident reason: virtually everything in this book comes from a very few published sources. Schom documents some quotations; many others he does not. This book provides no evidence that Schom can read any foreign language besides French. Even a number of the French memoirs listed--that of the Duchesse d'Abrantès (Laure Junot), for example--are cited from an English edition, one that in this case reproduces in less-than-accurate nineteenth-century English only a tiny fraction of the French original. For someone who sets himself up as the Napoleonic biographer for our time, this slothfulness is inexcusable.

Schom uses a number of dubious sources (Barras, Thiebault, and Talleyrand), but the one whom he finds especially congenial and draws upon constantly is Louis-Etienne Bourrienne. Bourrienne, a fellow student with Napoleon at the military academy at Brienne and subsequently Napoleon's private secretary until 1802, published in 1829 a ten-volume Mémoires...sur Napoléon, le Directoire, le Consulat, l'Empire et la Restauration. Written in part as an extended riposte to Las Cases's Mémorial, theMémoires caused a sensation when they appeared. Students of Napoleonic Europe generally use Bourrienne with extreme caution, and with good reason. Jean Tulard, the dean of French Napoleon scholars, cites Arthur Chuquet: "Can one believe Bourrienneıs Mémoires? No." Tulard himself finds the Mémoires lively reading, but untrustworthy.

Unlike virtually all previous writers on Napoleon, Schom adopts Bourrienne's slurs and dubious statements without question and without reservation. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that a person in power might say things to his secretary, particularly one who was an old school friend, that he might not say publicly. Schom gives no indication that Bourrienne is a suspect source, a shaky reed on which to rest any hypothesis without confirmation elsewhere, or that he may not even have written himself the Mémoires published under his name.

Schom's bibliography is as deceptive as his use of sources. Preferring to rely on favorites like Bourrienne, Schom gives little evidence that he has actually drawn upon most of the books he lists. Mundane details must bother Schom, for he records many books incorrectly. For example, he has an "H. Christopher Herold" and a "Christopher Herold" (806, 856). Neither is correct. A small point? Certainly. But reliable scholarly research builds on detail. Schom's indifference to accuracy further undermines trust on larger matters. Often the edition cited in the notes--e.g., Bourrienne--is not that listed in the bibliography; for Gourgaud, Schom cites two editions in notes and lists a third in the bibliography. Schom rarely indicates the number of volumes a work has and, when he does, often indicates them incorrectly. On the evidence of its cavalier references and bibliography and the equally slovenly index, no reputable historian can take seriously this book's scholarship. Without independent corroboration elsewhere, readers would be ill-advised to take Schom's word about anything.

One often learns much from books with which one disagrees. They force one to formulate, at least in the mind, one's own interpretation of the subject. But this is not the case here. My quarrel with Schom is not that his Napoleon differs from mine but that in presenting his virulently anti-Napoleonic perspective he is so unreliable a guide.


A biographer does not have to be sympathetic to his subject to write a good biography, but it helps. Few great biographies have been written by individuals hostile to their subject. Most good biographies are good because the author responded strongly to, and wished to understand, his chosen subject.

Between biographer and reader there should exist ideally a relationship of trust. The reader trusts the biographer to tell him the truth as best he knows it. Through his deliberate and incessant bias against Napoleon and through his indifference to scholarly accuracy Schom blatantly betrays that trust. For a biographer to lose, and to lose early, the trust of his readers is fatal: they no longer believe what he has to tell them. Readers of Schom's Napoleon may not know what actually happened, but they quickly sense that his version of things is invariably skewed against Napoleon. How aware they will be of Schom's deceptions will depend on how much knowledge about Napoleon and his age they have already. This lack of trust leads readers to draw conclusions opposite from those Schom wishes them to draw. Soon enough, they come to question--and discount--virtually every statement Schom makes.

In an age of specialization scholars may lack the time or incentive or energy to go for the big book or the big picture. To write a new life of Napoleon, utilizing new sources and new research, would have been a task well worth attempting. Schom had an opportunity to write such a life--and muffed it. His fiasco makes such a goal even more desirable than before. The main value of his biography may well be to stimulate others to attempt a competent full-scale life. In the interval until it appears, to which studies of Napoleon is someone seeking a reliable biography to turn?

Biographies reflect the era in which they are written, yet the best of them often age less quickly than other kinds of historical writing. Despite more modern lives, we still read Boswell on Johnson and Froude on Carlyle, Churchill on Marlborough and Plumb on Walpole, Ellmann on Joyce and Edel on James. We read older biographies because we respond to the author's vision, his passion, the quality of his mind, the depth of insight he offers into his subject's being. If we disregard (as we must) Schomıs Napoleon, we need to assess a few of the other biographies and biographical studies.

In English, older lives of Napoleon by J. Holland Rose (1913) and J. M. Thompson (1952) offer the reader a more incisive and balanced portrayal of Napoleon than Schom does. Each is by the leading English Napoleonist of his generation, and each has aged well. More recently, J. Christopher Herold (1963) and Vincent Cronin (1971) have written excellent one-volume lives of Napoleon. Herold, a Czech who studied at Geneva and emigrated to the United States, brought to Napoleon an international perspective. No Napoleon-worshipper, Herold adopted a skeptical attitude toward the Emperor. Yet he gives us a sense of why Napoleon awed his contemporaries, why he felt the need to entitle his study The Age of Napoleon. In its Horizon picturebook format it comes with excellent photographs. Cronin, son of the popular novelist A. J. Cronin, brings to his life of Napoleon intimate knowledge of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century European history and a novelist's skill in recreating situation. (Compare his account of Lodi to Schom's. From Schom we would never know why the battle captured Byron's--and Europe's--imagination.) Concise lives by Albert Guérard (1956) and Felix Markham (1963), the former a personal favorite, are also worthy of note.

Nor should we neglect classic nineteenth-century biographies. Often written by individuals who themselves lived through the Napoleonic era, they give a vivid sense of Napoleon's presence few twentieth-century lives can match. Walter Scott was violently opposed to Napoleon, William Hazlitt violently partisan: the massive biography each published (Scott in 1827, Hazlitt in 1828 and 1830) leaves the reader with an awareness of the immediacy of Napoleonıs impact upon his contemporaries. Multi-volume lives of Napoleon by the Americans Abbott and Sloane, like those by Scott and Hazlitt, appealed to a more leisurely age than ours. Though modern taste will find them very long, they have lasted well.

In France, along with numerous popular biographies--Aubry, Castelot, Gallo (in progress), two of the works that have best stood the test of time, though neither is altogether a biography, are Georges Lefebvre's Napoléon (1936) and Jean Tulard's Napoléon ou le mythe du sauveur (1974). Both have been translated into English. Both scant the early years and the Italian campaign of 1796-1797; both really get going in 1799 with 18 Brumaire. Thus neither gives much sense of Napoleon before he became Napoleonic. Much admired by Pieter Geyl in his invaluable Napoleon For and Against, Lefebvre's influential--perhaps overly influential--study originally appeared in the collection "Peuples et civilisations." Whereas Lefebvre sets Napoleon within the wider context of European history and society, Tulard presents him rescuing a French middle-class needing--a perennial need, it seems--its "savior." Both rank among the most probing and thoughtful studies of Napoleon written in this century.

But the biography of Napoleon I would recommend in closing is Jacques Bainville's of 1931. Also translated, his Napoléon has remained in print through many editions, in France at least, since publication. Bainville, like many other Napoleon biographers, had strong reservations about his subject. He finds Napoleon both sympathetic and unsympathetic--in fact, is at times decidedly ambivalent toward his subject. Military historians will regret that instead of recounting battles and battlefield strategy Bainville analyzes what the battles achieved or didnıt achieve. The biography also lacks notes. But what makes it outstanding--in my view, the finest overall interpretation of Napoleon--is the brilliance with which it probes Napoleon's motives and being. It regularly comes up with insights so penetrating that they bring one up short. Beautifully written (I recommend reading it in French), the book unobtrusively reveals the biographer's own intellectual distinction. It leaves us with a sense of Napoleonıs tragic grandeur. Bainville can say more about Napoleon in a sentence than Schom in a chapter. Students of Napoleonic biography will find in his pages much to delight in and much to ponder.


1. Alan Schom, Napoleon Bonaparte. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

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