Reviews: Books of General Interest


Napoleon: For and Against

By Pieter Geyl

Geyl, Pieter. Napoleon: For and Against. London: Bradford & Dickens, 1949. 477 pages. Translated from the Dutch by Olive Renier. Out of Print. Hardcover.

Coming across this work in my local library some time ago, I must admit to being a little hesitant about reading it. The book was so old that I had to request the librarian fetch it for me from the back-room depository. However, having heard great things about it, I decided it might be a welcome addition to my Napoleonic reading.

Though the theme of the book has the potential to deter would-be Napoleon enthusiasts - it is largely a historiographical look at the great man- such people should not be dissuaded by any nagging doubt. Pieter Geyl brilliantly explores the views of nineteenth & early twentieth century French historians on their nation's most famous individual. Interspersed amongst these historians' views are those of Professor Geyl himself. He is able to comment astutely on the value of each viewpoint, indicating how the attitudes of the time in which the historian was writing determined the attitude that was adopted towards Napoleon. Hence, Adolph Thiers's glowing admiration for 'L'Empreur' can be explained by the dissatisfaction felt by most of the establishment during the the reign of Louis-Phillipe (1830-48), when domestic stagnation and international pusillanimity stirred up a longing for a return to the glorious Napoleonic past. In reading it now, it is possible to appreciate how perceptive Geyl was in demonstrating how each subsequent generation of French and European historians has reconstructed Napoleon's image to reflect their own times, whether it's the romantic hero of Restoration France or the authoritarian dictator of interwar Europe.

However, far from being simply a catalogue and a commentary the author adds his own knowledge of the Napoleonic period and we therefore get insights into his thinking. Personally, I thought that his description of the incident in which Talleyrand and Fouché were summoned to the Tuileries in 1809 and became the object of Napoleon's uncontrollable fury was most enlightening. While in Spain in 1808, Napoleon had been told that the Ministers of Police and Foreign Affairs (traditionally enemies) had been seen talking, provoking suggestions of a coup d'etat. During the meeting at the Tuileries Napoleon reportedly screamed at Talleyrand, accusing him of being 'shit dressed in silk stockings'. The episode is well documented but in this particular book Geyl is able to depict it quite vividly and we really get an idea of the darker and more intriguing sides of Napoleon's complex personality.

Commendable also is the book's structure. As the title suggests the book is divided between those historians who were favourable towards Napoleon and those who weren't. Yet additional chapters move on from mere historiographical wrestling and become thematic. One example is the chapter on Napoleonic foreign policy where the arguments of Emile Bourgeois are discussed. Bourgeois argued that Napoleon's foreign policy was largely determined by his designs on the Middle East; an oriental empire his ultimate ambition. The evidence begins to convince you but once Geyl's thoughts are laid down and the other views presented, an interesting argument is left badly damaged. It is worth noting, however, that the debate on the extent of Napoleon's ambition still rages, proving that Geyl's book, though over fifty years old, contains a lot of relevant material.

Many books of this type can arguably get bogged down with heavy, academic jargon but fortunately Geyl possesses a very readable and fluent style. This is arguably the sine qua non of the book's success. However, on the negative side, Geyl chose to concentrate solely on the French historical community when he could have written about a plethora of talent in the English-speaking world. The British historian J. Holland Rose, author of a uniquely perceptive biography on Napoleon (1902), instantly springs to mind, as does the American essayist Ralph Emerson. He might also have investigated the views of those in the literary, artistic and political worlds over the same period. Writers such as Balzac, Stendhal, Hugo and Chateaubriand or poets such as Byron, Shelley and Goethe (to name but a few) were all inspired by the romantic legacy of Napoleon, producing some of the most brilliant literature on the Napoleonic age.

The exclusive French angle doesn't diminish the excellent quality of the book, however. Certainly it limits the historiographical reach but arguably anything more would have been a gargantuan effort of the sort Geyl was trying to avoid, as the introduction makes clear. Overall we are left with an invaluable contribution to Napoleonic scholarship, which is in itself a considerable intellectual achievement. Let us hope that in the near future it acquires the attention of a sensible publisher looking to reprint an underrated classic.

 

Reviewed by Tom Miller

Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2005

 

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