I read this morning about Benjamin Haydon’s 23 pictures of Napoleon on St Helena, and I immediately found one on my phone. Looking at the picture on my phone on a rainy Friday morning I found it filled with sadness: Napoleon on a cliff top, perhaps contemplating suicide, a thousand miles from anywhere looking out at what seemed on my phone a jet black sea. I’ve always found the thought of Napoleon imprisoned on St Helena sad: a man of unequalled and still present powers with nothing to do. He should have died at Waterloo–or better, like Nelson, at one of his victories.
Now I look at the picture on my computer I see that it’s clichéd. Napoleon, who is clumsily painted and surely would not have been dressed in full uniform, is watching the sun set–as, yawn, yawn, it has set on his reign and will soon set on his life. What I do see in the larger picture, however, is the loneliness of the seagulls, tiny and white below Napoleon; but, of course, the seagulls won’t be lonely–but Napoleon was.
Seeing the picture prompted me to pull out of Goodreads my review of a biography of Napoleon.
Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon: A Life is a huge achievement. Roberts visited 51 of the sites of the 60 battles Napoleon fought; he won 53 of them but lost some catastrophically. The book is a huge read and not to be undertaken lightly, but my main impression was that Napoleon was a very extraordinary man–great, as Roberts argues, ranking alongside Julius Caesar and ahead of Alexander, the two great heroes of Napoleon.
De Gaulle came close to being as remarkable, but I can’t think of any Brit who is quite as extraordinary as Napoleon and De Gaulle as a leader. Can you? Churchill was a deeply flawed man who was in the right place at the right time. The Duke of Wellington conceded that he was an inferior general to Napoleon and was a poor prime minister.
Roberts argues that Napoleon was great in three ways, and I add a fourth.
Firstly, he was a great army commander, one of the very best of any time by universal agreement. He was innovative, bold, brave, and always willing to take risks. He did, however, make terrible mistakes, not least pursuing the Russians to Moscow and then delaying his army’s retreat.
Secondly, he was a great civil leader of unequalled energy. He introduced reforms in laws, governance, education, architecture, and much else; and many of those reforms persist to this day–and not just in France.
Thirdly, he was an intellectual and writer interested in history, science, the arts, everything. He was a true man of the Enlightenment and much admired as such by many intellectual Britons.
I’d add–and Roberts gives many examples–that he was a charming, engaging human being with great charisma and a sense of humour. (De Gaulle, in contrast, had no sense of humour.) This humanity was illustrated best for me by his friendship on St Helena with Betsy, the young daughter of one of the British officials.
The book is no hagiography. Roberts shows clearly how Napoleon was careless with the truth, ruthless when necessary, and prone to error.