Reviews: Biographical Books


Napoleon Bonaparte: An Intimate Biography

Cronin, Vincent. Napoleon Bonaparte: An Intimate Biography. NY: Morrow/London, UK: Collins, 1971. 480 pages. ISBN# 0002115603. Hardback.

In his Preface the writer explains that this is a study of Napoleon's character, an attempt to "picture a living, breathing man." The military campaigns are only outlined, although civil matters are dealt with in more depth; it is the author's declared intention to concentrate on events that throw light on Napoleon's character. He has taken an interesting line in pursuing the romantic, imaginative aspect of Napoleon's personality, one which is often neglected.  Napoleon's reading material is described, as are his early writings; an essay on happiness, a ghost story and a romantic, tragic novel.  There is much on the development of 'Corsican attitudes and values'— notably the sense of justice and its 'dark side,' revenge; also thrift, honour and courage. It is the author's argument that these traits were persistent throughout Napoleon's life and that "he guided his life by two principles: Republicanism and honour." This is the distinctive feature of this biography, so I will look at this aspect, and the author's presentation of it, rather than the handling of the major historical events.

In the first few chapters an attractive picture of Napoleon is created which is easily maintained through the early military career. In this light the relationship with Josephine appears more convincing than in some other versions.  Up to the Consulate the book follows chronological order; after that each chapter covers a separate aspect of Napoleonic rule, reverting to chronological order with the 1812 campaign. The personal aspect is stressed throughout, and there are interesting character points still to make in the final chapters, such as a rather fine account of the prolonged game Napoleon played on St Helena with Sir Hudson Lowe, "Napoleon, in short, liked to pose as a victim of injustice, knowing full well that he was the master, Lowe the victim."  In contrast we are shown the phenomenon of unpleasant accusations about the women in his life as fantasy due to loneliness and humiliation and the Corsican influence appearing again in the accusation of assassination against the 'English oligarchy' in his will.

One of the author's key points is the rebuttal of the Bourrienne quote: "Friendship is only a word." He discusses the number and quality of Napoleon's friendships and his reluctance to break with a friend. The chapters on the 1812 campaign place much emphasis on Napoleon's relationship with Alexander of Russia, the friendship theme is played very strongly here with the suggestion that Napoleon "felt keen personal disappointment" when Alexander kept letting him down. In Moscow we learn that Napoleon "was convinced that he and Alexander could be close friends again," but that his failure to appreciate the situation was due to "a certain insensitivity in human relationships."  That last remark is, considering the circumstances, a fine example of the author's capacity for understatement.  Napoleon's belief that his marriage relationship to the Austrian Emperor would secure the support of Austria in 1813 was to end in yet more disappointment; "Napoleon was just not enough of a cynic— or of a psychologist."

The chapters describing Napoleon's achievements as ruler and lawgiver may well be correct in substance, but the style gives cause for concern. Over controversial matters Napoleon is given the benefit of the doubt every time, his motives are always presented as benign, although a few character defects, such as impatience, dislike of criticism and in later life, over-optimism, are admitted. For instance, Napoleon's use of censorship and press control was "a mark of weakness… Napoleon would be more attractive if he had been able to rise above that weakness." And again: "Napoleon's guiding purpose in the Empire was to export liberty, equality, justice and sovereignty of the people," is qualified a little later by "It is true there were blots on the imperial picture. Too often Napoleon acted brusquely, while Jerome overspent…" There is much about the benefits of the Empire, the Code Napoleon, tax reform, hospitals, liberalisation of trade etc. and doubtless much of it is true. However, because of the continued wars, which are accepted as being defensive in nature, "Napoleon was obliged to impose heavy taxes and, in Germany, conscription. He was obliged to cut off imports of overseas goods…"

Cronin's system is to produce a rose-tinted picture of events by missing out anything unpleasant. Censorship is deplored, yet the extent of control is understated and no mention is made of the interception of private letters. During Napoleon's quarrel with the Pope (Chapter 14) we learn that the pope was 'removed' to Savona, and later, 'transferred' to Fontainebleau; words such as 'prisoner' and 'captivity' just do not occur.  In Chapter 6 it is said, admiringly, that "the Buonapartes believed in love" and the example is given of Lucien marrying for love "at the cost of his political career." The omission is that Lucien's career was wrecked because Napoleon ordered him to put aside his wife so that he could make a dynastic marriage, and he refused, this shows the true value Napoleon placed on love and honour.

Cronin's version of the overthrow of the Spanish monarchy (Chapter 17) is very brief, "...a popular rising against Godoy sent the royal family scurrying into exile in France. Napoleon accepted Charles' abdication in 1808 and made Spain a kingdom within the French Empire." There is no mention of the French armies already occupying Spain nor of the pressures exerted to get the Spanish royal family into French territory, much less of the violent repression of Spanish objections. It is not explained why a convinced republican should have chosen to impose a king on the people of Spain.

The statement that republicanism and honour were the guiding principles of Napoleon's life is repeated throughout the book in various forms; this raises obvious questions about the Imperial crown. It is said that it was possible to be emperor of a Republic because the ancient Romans used this form; but we are told that it was at his own insistence that Napoleon had a religious consecration, and adopted the symbols of the Frankish kings. He also took the crown of Italy, put monarchs of his own family in charge of Holland, Naples, Spain and Westphalia and named his infant son 'King of Rome'. This is all in the book, the demise of the existing Republics being left unexplained. One may believe that Napoleon had republican principles as a young man; but it seems evident that he discarded them once in power.

Honour is here defined as 'the love of glory in pursuit of virtue', but it is not clear exactly what either Napoleon or the author mean by it.  Napoleon clearly believed in the concept of honour, talked about it a lot and used it as an argument, but it is hard to find an instance where he allowed it to interfere with his aims. It is shown that in 1795 to avoid serving with the Army of the West he took sick leave, then a desk job, and made attempts to go to Russia or Turkey. This does not suggest the 'love of honour and love of the French Republic' upon which the author insists. Cronin also writes of Marie Waleska: "Honour and republicanism had mingled with passion to make this one of the most important relationships of his life." Given Napoleon's views on the importance of marriage and of virtue in women, what honour is there in seducing a previously virtuous married woman from her husband by exploiting her patriotism? 

Cronin's version of events, he states, is based on "a critical evaluation of sources." Appendix A discusses the reliability of Napoleonic memoirs, explaining why some frequently used sources are of little value. The source of his explanations is not given, so it is difficult to assess them. It is poor logic though, to say that because Marmont betrayed Napoleon his reasons for the betrayal must be invalid, this prejudges both parties.  Cronin says: 'the above nine writers are, I believe, unreliable sources, and I have treated them with extreme caution. Normally I have drawn on them only for statements which they had no reason to distort and which are backed up by more impartial evidence.' There is a risk here that the material used is selected because it agrees with the author's viewpoint; why not just use the 'more impartial evidence'?  One source used in the boyhood section is the Notebooks of Alexandre de Mazis, but we are not told the origin of this text nor why we should consider it reliable; those who claim to have been at school with the subsequently famous are not always the most truthful.

There are no footnotes with the text but each chapter has notes and sources in the back of the book. Sometimes the source of a statement is linked to the paragraph in the text, but often it cannot be identified. In Chapter 2 it is stated that "We have three authentic incidents from the Brienne years." Turning to the notes, it would appear that the source for the 'Brienne years' is Masson's Napoleon Inconnu, no primary source for the incidents related is given. More seriously, in Chapter 16 the arrest of the duc d'Enghien is described and the statements of d'Enghien, which implicate him in the plot, are given in direct speech, which would lead us to expect a primary source, but a check with the notes gives: A. Boulay de la Meurthe, Les dernieres annees du duc d'Enghien, 1886. This gives us no idea where Boulay de la Meurthe got his information. A wide variety of sources are quoted, many of them are secondary, including other biographies. The only chapter which seems to be largely based on primary sources is Chapter 15, on the Treaty of Amiens and its rupture.

The use of the primary sources is very selective: I can find passages in Caulaincourt, Gourgaud and Bertrand  which contradict the author's views, yet he includes these as his reliable sources. He also includes Lecestre's Lettres inedites de Napoleon I— omitted from the original Correspondance because they show the Imperial rule at its worst. One wonders if Cronin actually read them, since they are incompatible with his picture of Napoleon as idealistic and honourable, a heroic figure with just enough flaws to make him human. To talk of "blots on the imperial picture" is the most feeble of understatements when the picture is completely wiped out by reading Napoleon's own words.

 

Reviewed by Susan Howard.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2005

 

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