Reviews: Books of General Interest



Napoleon for Dummies

By J. David Markham

Markham, J. David. Napoleon for Dummies. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley, 2005. 364 pages. ISBN# 0764597981. $19.99 US/$25.99 CAN. Paperback.

J. David Markham, president of the Napoleonic Alliance and author of Napoleon's Road to Glory, adds his contribution to the popular Dummies genre. Following the characteristic format, the book is laid out in easy to read chapters with references to other chapters and information throughout. A helpful 'Cheat Sheet' delineates Napoleon's military career and legacy. Then a foray into the French Revolution explains the chaos that gave a young Corsican officer the opportunity to rise in rank, while Napoleon's genius and ambition drove him to eventually dominate half of Europe.

Early chapters feature Napoleon's youth and family life on the island of Corsica. An overview of Napoleon's career follows, concentrating on his battles. Each battle is told with enough detail to interest the military-minded, but not so complex that others will feel intimidated. This section ends with his final exile on the remote island of St. Helena. Napoleon's possible death by poisoning and the surrounding controversy is discussed.

Special chapters describe Napoleon's innovations in warfare and contributions to France:  his legal reforms, balancing France's budget, establishing the Bank of France, and, of course, his civil code. Known as the Code Napoléon, this system is the basis of French (and other European countries) law today. Napoleon also instituted equal-opportunity education and religious freedom. After liberating the Jews, he even suggested a Jewish homeland in Palestine in 1799!  Napoleon was also a talented spin doctor. Through censorship and slanted media he promoted his grand empire to his subjects. Decorative arts and paintings showcased his glory.

Unfortunately, what goes up must come down. Napoleon's constant antagonism with Great Britain—except for the brief respite of the Peace of Amiens—weakened his rule. His disastrous Continental System, an effort to bring England to her knees economically, resulted in his allies rebelling against him and in part led to his fatal march into Russia. His wars in Spain further helped to drain his resources. 

Napoleon's effort to unite Europe under himself had unexpected results. The independent German states rose together to defy his rule. Italy, however, credits Napoleon with its unification. A museum in Milan, the Museo de la Risorgimento, celebrates this with a collection of artifacts from Napoleon's two Italian campaigns as well as his coronation as King of Italy. Markham puts blame on the coalitions constantly rising against Napoleon—monarchs fearing the revolutionary reforms—for the continuation of the so-called Napoleonic Wars. He clarifies Napoleon's reasons for making himself Emperor of the French, from the more democratic First Consul.

Napoleon's love life is given a quick run-thru; only his relationship with Josephine is allotted any fair amount of space. His second marriage to the arch duchess Marie Louise of Austria, and subsequent son, is told in brief. When the author talks of Marie Louise's poignant letters to Napoleon after their forced separation, an excerpt from those letters would have been apt. The emperor's numerous mistresses aren't even mentioned, except for Marie Waleska of Poland.

The work wraps up with 'The Tens': ten interesting battlefields to visit (the fact the author has visited them himself makes this part perfect); ten pieces of advice for Napoleon—get rid of Tallyrand and Fouché among them. A 'Napoleonic Timeline' is also included. As well as two maps: one of Napoleonic Europe and one a diagram of his battles.

Chatty and informal in style, Markham's account is often tongue-in-cheek, which keeps the reader amused and engaged. An example is the 'Biggest Bone-head of the Battle' award (page 232) going to Marshal Ney for his not using the infantry or spiking cannon at the Battle of Waterloo. Markham debunks tales told in other histories, such as Marbeuf, the French royal governor of Corsica, being Napoleon's real father.

Engravings, snuff boxes and other items from the author's amazing private collection are pictured throughout the book. I would have liked to have seen a few paintings by David and Gros, especially as they're mentioned in the text.

I found a few mistakes: page 41 states that Augustine Robespierre tried to commit suicide before his execution, when it was his brother Maximilien. And on page 120 Lucien Bonaparte is referred to as Napoleon's youngest brother; Jerome held that position.

Anti-Napoleonists will have much to argue about in Markham's very sympathetic portrayal. An overview of such a varied and controversial career as Napoleon's is a monumental task, and Markham does an excellent job.

 

 

Reviewed by Diane Parkinson
Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2006

 

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