Reviews: Books

In the Words of Napoleon: The Emperor Day by Day

Johnston, R.M. (Editor). In the Words of Napoleon: The Emperor Day by Day With new material by Philip J. Haythornthwaite. (London : Greenhill; 2002.)  416 p. ISBN# 1853674834. $49.95. Hardcover.

In the Words of Napoleon

As far as we know, Napoleon never wrote an autobiography.  This book comes the closest to a life of Napoleon in his own words.  It was first published in 1910 under the title The Corsican and has been long out of print.  Greenhill Books has recently re-published it with an introduction by Philip J. Haythornthwaite, who also added new material.  Johnston drew heavily on Napoleon’s Correspondence for much of the material, however he also used the memoirs of many who worked with him on a daily basis, such as Bourrienne, Fain, and Méneval. Hence, the book is not just based on what Napoleon wrote, but also on what he said to some of his closest confidants. 

The table of contents for In the Words states that it is “A Diary of Napoleon’s Life” and it's organized as one.  It is divided into twenty-two chapters.  The first chapter covers the years 1769 – 1795.  The next twenty chapters are devoted to a single year of his life, from 1796 – 1815.  The last chapter is the Saint Helena years.  Each chapter begins with a one to two page summary of the major events of the year(s) covered.  Then, like a diary, it has dated entries.  Some are short – only one or two lines – while others are several paragraphs. These entries are arranged in chronological order, but there is not an entry for every date.  The chapters vary length, with a typical year averaging 10 – 15 pages. The chapters for the years 1813 and 1814 were the longest, while 1801, 1810, and 1811 the shortest. There is a sixty-five-page appendix providing biographical information on many of the individuals mentioned in the text.  This is quite useful and is in itself a mini-biographical dictionary.  There is also a two and a half page bibliography. 

As I quickly thumbed through the book, I found the following:

-- The oath Napoleon made at his coronation in 1804.

-- The speech to his troops on the eve of Austerlitz in 1805.

-- A love note Countess Marie Walewska.

-- His description of the birth of his son, the King of Rome.  (The baby nearly died at birth due to the incompetence of those attending the mother.  The infant was actually lying on the carpet not breathing when Napoleon entered the room.)

-- The farewell speech to the Old Guard in 1814.

-- The speech he made to his troops when he returned from Elba and landed in France in 1815.

-- The last words he spoke on his deathbed.

In the Words presents a powerful portrait of a complex individual.  It uses his own words to show his genius, arrogance, insecurities, and frustrations.  The reader will be amazed by Napoleon’s attention to detail, from those of pressing national interests to the mundane (such as the problem of heartbroken soldiers in his guard.) Unfortunately In the Words does not contain an index.  Therefore if you want to know what Napoleon said or thought about any given topic, you will have to dig it out yourself. However, the strength of the volume lies in its chronological organization.  If you know the approximate date of an event, you quickly will be able to find Napoleon’s thoughts on that event or the words that he spoke there.  This makes it an invaluable reference book that should be on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the period.

Reviewed by Robert Burnham, FINS

Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2002

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