Napoleon in 100 Objects
Pen & Sword Books (2019)
ISBN 978 1 52673 136 4
291 pages, illustrations, hardback
This book is one of two planned to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of two of the greatest generals in world history. This, published in 2019, will be followed in 2020 with the companion title Wellington in 100 Objects. It is written by a knowledgeable and prolific author.
Napoleon in 100 Objects is a unique way of examining the story of Napoleon Bonaparte, by looking at one hundred items associated with the great man and using these to examine a variety of events he influenced and that influenced him, from his birth until his death. These topics are purely the choice of the author and he leaves it to the reader to decide how significant they are in the history of Napoleon’s life.
While the reader may be familiar with many of the events and items described in this book, the detailed stories makes this a fascinating and novel way of telling the story of the Napoleonic era. Each object is illustrated, and the story woven around that. The statue of Paoli is used to tell the story of Napoleon’s early life on Corsica, and this is followed by the statue of a young Napoleon to relate his education at the military school in Brienne. The choice of objects is very eclectic and makes for a varied read. The Métre étalon relates the introduction of metrification into France, while Napoleon’s chess set gives us an insight into his character, in that he was an inveterate cheat when it came to playing chess or cards!
The objects tell the story of his family, his wives, and the palaces they lived in, and even the clothes and jewellery they wore. French voyages to Australia, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, Napoleon’s attitude to slavery, the story of Toussaint Louverture, the Louisiana Purchase tell the story of not just the man himself but the events that shaped his world.
While you may think you have read all there is about Napoleon and his life, the author demonstrates that there are still topics that can be covered afresh. Napoleon encouraged the growth of sugar beet in response to the loss of the sugar cane producing French colonies. The sections on the Russian Grenadier’s Mitre Hat with Two Bullet Holes, and Napoleon’s Sledge tell the story of the ill-fated invasion of Russia, while Napoleon’s Hat from the Russian Campaign looks at the clothes he wore.
Napoleon in 100 Objects is a refreshing way of looking at the period, and I would imagine this book was an enjoyable project to undertake. It is an extremely easy read, and one that will appeal to new students of the period as well as experienced historians. You will learn something from this book, I guarantee it! My only criticism is that while it is generously illustrated with images of each object under discussion, and other pictures that add to the stories, there is no indication of where the objects exist. Some may be known to the reader but a list of credits and perhaps a bibliography would have been useful additions to what is a detailed study of Napoleon’s life and times. I enjoyed reading this book and would highly recommend it. I look forward to the companion volume Wellington in 100 Objects.