Reviews: Books of General Interest

The Age of Napoleon

Horne, Alistair. The Age of Napoleon. New York: Modern Library Chronicles Book, 2004. ISBN# 0679642633. 240 pages. Hardcover. $21.95.


The Age of Napoleon

Prominent British author Alistair Horne has written several book on French history, including How Far from Austerlitz?: Napoleon 1805-1815 and Seven Ages of Paris. His recent publication turns to a fascinating period between 1799 and 1815, often described as the Age of Napoleon.

Unlike his previous works, Horne's new book is not a large book, with some 200 pages. However, author managed to fill it with numerous details on one of the most mesmerizing periods in European history. Narrative is written in journalistic style and is straightforward and well written. Author follows Napoleon's rise to power and, in ten chapters, covers many aspect of his epoch, focusing his attention on social and cultural legacy of Napoleon.

Horne is generally sympathetic to Napoleon and, in his opening pages, he rebuts those who compare Napoleon with Hitler. "In terms of civil, non-military accomplishments, Hitler after 12 years in power bequeathed to Germany nothing but a mountain of skulls and rubble. Napoleon, on the other hand, had he never fought a single battle, would still have to be rated one of history's great leaders for the system of administration and civil reforms he left behind him in France." ("Introduction," p. xvi.)

The book starts with a brief description of Napoleon's career from his birth to the rise to power in 1799. Author then proceeds to detail the reforms Napoleon launched to reorganize France. He highlights the difficulties facing the First Consul and his government. Napoleon's administrative, educational and legal reforms are well discussed as well as his public works projects in Paris and throughout France. Author also briefly talks about Napoleon's collaborators, Cambacérès, Fouché and Talleyrand, and their contributions to the Empire. He ably blends into narrative a few passages on Napoleon's marriage to Josephine as well as his liaisons with various mistresses. The narrative is always accompanied with various interesting quotes that add vividness to the descriptions. 

Three chapters ("The Master Builder," "Style by Decree" and "The Pleasures of Empire") from the book are particularly interesting since they provide many details on social and cultural life in France under Napoleon. Author initially outlines the efficiency of Napoleon's government. He highlights Napoleon's remarkable abilities to work for eighteen hours a day and concentrate on many issues at once. Author rightly observes that one of the extraordinary features of Napoleon's government was the fact that it could be run "from the inside of a tent, or from some Polish chateau or from wherever Napoleon happened to be." Napoleon's secretary Méneval's quote is also illustrative of this point, "Your Majesty has so well accustomed us to have recourse to his sagacity for the smallest details that, always governed by his spirit as by his decrees, we forget that he is 600 leagues from us, in the middle of his armies, having in front of him the reunited forces of the most powerful empire of the world, protecting the south and the east of Europe…" (pp. 78-79).

Following his previous book on history of Paris, Horne ably describes Napoleon's attempts to rebuild and innovate Paris. The Emperor began reorganizing the quais of the Seine and launched numerous public work projects, including Arc du Carrousel, the Vendôme Column and the Arc de Triomphe; many of Parisian streets were transformed and renamed after his conquests. Following the Infernal Machine affair in 1800, Napoleon cleared the "medieval slum areas cluttering up the approaches to the Tuileries and the Louvre." (p. 81) More importantly, he achieved one of his main goals of providing the city with clean water, constructing a sixty-mile long canal from the River Ourcq in 1802-1808. Although some of Napoleon's plans remained unfinished, his nephew Napoleon III successfully implemented his uncle's projects four decades later.

Author also details Napoleon's work in establishing one of the best museums in the world, Musée Napoleon led by Dominique Vivant Denon. He observes that many of the artifacts in the museum were obtained through conquest and loot, stating "[Denon] was in fact a looter on a scale that makes Hermann Goering look like something of an amateur." (p. 84). In the chapter "Style by Decree," a reader finds interesting passages on the style and fashion under Consulate and Empire. Decorative arts flourished during the First Empire, with manufacturers of fabrics and linens, as well as silversmiths prospering. In fashion, Napoleon, through the example of Josephine, changed the style from a see-through dresses of Directory period to more modest items of clothing.

At the same time, author mentions negative aspects to life in Paris. There were as many as 100,000 beggars in 1802. A German visitor, who was "moved by the horrible, endless begging in the streets… in bad, dirty weather, when one cannot step too far away from the houses without ending up in a sea of sludge, or when on is in danger of falling under a wheel, one has to make one's way through long rows of beggars who cannot be avoided." (p. 109). Poverty level in Paris remained high and from 1800 onward, "Napoleon had re-created the soups économiques" to feed them. He details the government's attempts to fight epidemics in Paris and curb increase of the venereal diseases. On Napoleon's accession, there were three main hospitals and by 1815, "the capital counted no fewer than eleven hospitals." (p. 112) Orphanages were created and special hospital for children established in the capital and provinces.

In chapter "The Pleasures of Empire," Horne reveals fascinating life of salons, fetes, promenades and theater in Paris under Napoleon. He notes, "Under the empire, eating time and habits, changed. Before the revolution, there was a proverb that "déjeuner was for friends, diner was for etiquette, afternoon tea for children and the souper for love." Now the old routine of diner at 4 p.m. was abandoned by the chic for the more modern time of 7 p.m. the diner would usually finish at nine." (p. 119). Almanach des Gourmands provided information on the best dishes and places to eat. In the Almanach, "you could learn how to prepare a gigot; it had to be looked forward to like a lover's first rendezvous, beaten as tender as a liar caught in the act, blonde as a German girl and bleeding like a Carib. Mutton is to lamb what the millionaire uncle is to a poverty stricken nephew… spinach is the virgin wax of cookery." 

At the same time, Imperial society was famous for its numerous celebrations and balls. Napoleon had five grand receptions following his coronation. The first of them on 16 December 1804, "caused a major traffic jam, with six thousand coaches snarled up.  Even princes and marshals had to wait four to five hours before they could get away." (p. 120). In 1806, the marriage of Stephanie de Beauharnais was attended by 2,500 guests; in 1809, following his victories against Austria, Napoleon arranged a grand reception for 4,000 guests for a staggering cost of 3,000,0000 francs.

On final pages of this chapter, the author ably describes Parisian theaters and their actors. Napoleon actively participated in theater and opera activities and often interfered in their governance. Horne reveals the struggles between theater actors as well as importance of parterre in the success of any play. "Out of six new plays produced between the summer of 1811 and December 1812, not one was allowed to succeed as a consequence of the repeated interruption and barracking." The parterre was often divided "like rival soccer fans" in support of competing actors or actresses. However, author statement that "in the world of the imaginative arts Imperial France remained a cultural desert" is a somewhat exaggerated. Chateaubriand still lived in France when his Le genie du Christianisme appeared in 1802 followed by Les Martyrs in 1809. Marie Joseph Chénier wrote interesting dramas, René de Pixérécourt was described as the "father of the melodrama", Marie-Henri Beyle made first attempts at writing, Francois Ducray-Duminil wrote numerous novels while Jacques Delille's poems were praised by many contemporary literary figures. Furthermore, Marquis de Sade, despite his confinement in the mental hospital, produced his notorious works and plays.

There are a few flaws to otherwise interesting book. Most important of them is lack of references. The book contains hundreds of interesting citations but it is difficult to verify them since there are no footnotes or endnotes. Although, the format of this book put certain limitations on the author, some kind of reference system should have been incorporated. In some cases, such references would have supported author's statements. For example, on p. 32, author refers to Bonaparte "pocketing" four millions francs extorted from the city of Hamburg in 1800 but no details are given to substantiate this point. On the following page, author alleges that Napoleon made sexual advances to Laure Junot and, having failed in this, never made Junot a marshal. There were certainly much more substantial reasons for Napoleon's decision not to make Junot a marshal. On pp. 68-69, author describes economic crisis in France during 1805-1806 campaigns and details the collapse of Banque Récamier and its potentially negative effect on French economy. However, the discussion is then abruptly ended and author briefly summarizes "after Austerlitz, miraculously the economy appeared to recover" without explaining reasons for this or Napoleon's contribution to it.

Author makes many peculiar statements throughout the book. On p. 11, he calls the battle of Marengo a "copybook classic of maneuver." On p. 33, he states that Napoleon's secretary, Bourrienne, was "brutally dumped by Napoleon," although it is known that Napoleon fired Bourrienne for embezzlement. On minor note, there are several typos and factual errors; Napoleon's coup d'etat of 9 November is dated 8 Brumaire; on p. 14 the Battle of Wagram is set in 1808; on p. 36, in discussion of Duc d'Enghien's execution, author's statement that "no other single act did Napoleon more harm" is of course arguable. On p. 42, author claims that, during expedition to Egypt, Napoleon took with him Champollion, future famous Egyptologist; however, Champollion was only 8 years old at that time and did not participate in the campaign. Page 63 contains confusing statement that years of 1805-1807 "incorporated [Napoleon's] most brilliant military feats, Austerlitz and Jena. Unfortunately for him, however, neither was decisive."

Despite a few shortcomings, Alistair Horne's new book is very interesting book to read.  It will provide general readers with a plethora of details on the French society during the First Empire and will certainly entice them to deepen their knowledge in this period. It will serve as a good brief introduction to the age of Napoleon.


Reviewed by Alexander Mikaberidze, FINS
Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2004


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