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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > General Interest Books

Comments on Good and Bad Review Essays concerning Recent Napoleonic Historiography

By Matthew D. Zarzeczny, FINS

When considering the strengths and weakness of book reviews and historiographical essays, a fascinating method of doing such research is to look at a few essays discussing the historiography of an emperor who figured prominently in European history. The first essay to be considered concerns historians of Emperor Napoleon I, who in 1806 replaced the long ailing Holy Roman Empire with the Grand Empire just over one thousand years after Charlemagnes fateful day in Rome. This essay is followed by an analysis of a good versus a bad book review of two separate Napoleonic works. All three essays are compelling to the European historian and discuss the works of prominent Napoleonic historians who are still living. Thus, in reading these essays, the reader gains insight into the varying viewpoints of different Napoleonic historians.

The first essay is intensely pessimistic. Charles Esdaile wrote his article The Napoleonic Period: Some Thoughts on Recent Historiography for European History Quarterly in 1993. Esdailes essay reviews recent works by well-known Napoleonic enthusiasts and historians, including Owen Connolly and John R. Elting. Although Esdaile does pepper his essay with some praise here and there, overall his essay successively attacks the works of the six current Napoleonic history writers he examines. Esdaile is particularly highly critical of Paul Fregosis Dreams of Empire: Napoleon and the First World War, 1792-1815. Esdailes assessment is rather distressing, considering that Fregosis book is in actuality quite captivating and touches upon aspects of Napoleons ambitions, which many probably never learned of in school and that other books about Napoleon only briefly mention. Generally speaking, world historians when dealing with Napoleons wars, tend to focus on his efforts in Europe, centering on his failure to invade Britain in 1805 and his defeat in Russia in 1812, while American historians focus on the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the events leading up to the War of 1812. Fregosi pointedly explains how Napoleon struggled for global hegemony, thus inciting conflict all over the planet on virtually every continent. Unfortunately, Esdaile attempts to trivialize and suppress Fregosis assertions, which is quite disconcerting, because the Napoleonic Wars did influence world history and not just European or American history. Napoleons invasion of the Iberian Peninsula directly led to the revolts in South America that ended Spanish and Portuguese rule in Latin America. Moreover, the British conquered South Africa from Napoleons Dutch allies during this period, an event that set the stage for a major colonial war in Africa a century later. Clearly, both of these events profoundly affected South American and African history respectively even more so than they did European history, which makes one wonder how then Esdaile can so powerfully denounce Fregosis enticing book. Much to the readers chagrin, Esdaile does not stop there. He goes on to disparage John Eltings Swords around a Throne: Napoleons Grande Arme, calling the language in the book downright bizarre. Esdaile is accurate in pointing out that Elting is an enthusiast and not a professional historian, a fact that does decrease somewhat the scholarly merit of Eltings work, and Esdaile does at least suggest that Eltings work is not entirely devoid of value. By doing that, Esdaile redeems himself somewhat in the sense of acknowledging how even a nonprofessional work can be useful in its own right; however, as with Fregosi, overall Esdaile is despondent about Eltings efforts and about most recent attempts to capture the aura of the Napoleonic Era. Clearly, the major theme of Esdailes review of six different Napoleonic history books is that recent Napoleonic historiography is not in a good state and to a Napoleonic historian, such an opinion is not very refreshing.

John Clubbe continues the pessimistic view held by Esdaile, although Clubbes criticism of a legitimately disappointingly written work seems more justified than Esdailes hostile stance. Nevertheless, John Clubbes review of Alan Schoms Napoleon Bonaparte in Napoleonic Scholarship: The Journal of the International Napoleonic Society is an example of a bad review because it completely damns Alan Schoms stinging work. While there are historical inaccuracies in Alan Schoms work and moreover Schom is clearly biased against Napoleon, Schoms book is nonetheless useful in the sense that a historian should consider both sides of a Napoleonic argument, or any argument for that matter, to be truly balanced and fair. Personally, I have an overall favorable opinion towards Napoleon, although there are some things in which I feel displeased about in Napoleons personal character, such as his infidelities with his wife, but still, because I respect opinions I might disagree with, I took the time to read Schoms mammoth book. In general, I agree with Clubbe that Schoms book is antagonistic towards Napoleon and in some regards carelessly written, but I do not agree with the way Clubbe criticizes Schoms book in an almost mocking manner. There are some valuable ideas to be found in Schoms book in regards to Napoleons master plan for his European Empire, which some other biographies about the French emperor only glance over. While Clubbes general argument that Schoms book is not to be taken as the most esteemed biography of Napoleon ever written is most definitely a sound one, Clubbe falls victim to the literary mistake of omitting any serious concession to where Schoms work could be useful. Without a doubt, Schom is not an example of an impartial historian, but as previously stated, there are some saving graces in his work that a Napoleonic historian should not ignore.

By contrast to the last two downcast commentaries, David Markhams review of Ben Weiders Assassination at St. Helena Revisited in Napoleon Journal #1 is a good review because it looks at Weiders evidence and thesis in a tidy and efficient manner. Markham, who is overall favorable towards Weiders book, nevertheless also discusses that there are those who disagree with Weiders somewhat controversial argument that Napoleon was murdered. By including this paragraph, Markham shows some openness and concession to another opinion that clearly differs from his. Additionally, Markhams review is of a first-rate nature, because he analyzes the structural aspect of Weiders book, including the forward by David Chandler, another leading Napoleonic scholar. Markham, a prominent and well-received Napoleonic historian in his own right, thus provides the reader with a respectable review by a credible source.

By looking at these review essays, the history student and Napoleonic enthusiast alike can learn several interesting and valuable lessons. First, by discussing the work of other historians, the authors in the process of reviewing actually inform their readers about the subject that the historians the reviewers scrutinized wrote about. Second, by analyzing three different review essays, the reader is able to study the writing styles of three different authors. Third, by reading three articles focusing on different aspects of the Napoleonic Era, the reader gains insight into the different periods in this earth-shattering epoch in world history. Fourth and finally, by looking at three articles about a truly European emperor, the reader is also able to place a man who strove for a unified Europe in the context of Europes long historic effort to unify, which is relevant today, because European unification is at last occurring in the form of the European Union. With all these lessons learned, the reader is now able to advance to the next level of understanding historiographical essays and book reviews and thus moves another step forward in the long walk of becoming either a professional historian a well-informed Napoleonic enthusiast.


Clubbe, John. Schoms Napoleon: Review Essay. Napoleonic Scholarship. Montreal: The International Napoleonic Society, 1998.

Esdaile, Charles. The Napoleonic Period: Some Thoughts on Recent Historiography. European History Quarterly. London: SAGE, 23 (1993): 415-432.

Fregosi, Paul. Dreams of Empire: Napoleon and the First World War, 1792-1815. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1990.

Clubbe, John. Schoms Napoleon: Review Essay. Napoleonic Scholarship. Montreal: The International Napoleonic Society, 1998.

Markham, David. Review of Ben Weiders Assassination at St. Helena Revisited. Napoleon Journal. Grand Rapids: PrintSystems, Inc., 1995. Pgs. 36-44.

Schom, Alan. Napoleon Bonaparte. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2002