Napoleon: For and Against

By Pieter Geyl; Olive Renier | Go to book overview

CHAPTER III
THE NAPOLEONIC LEGEND

THE first to provide a portrait in which there was nought but unblemished beauty, endearing humanity, greatness and virtue, was Napoleon himself. On St. Helena he set about the task of shaping his reputation for posterity. The Mémorial, in which the Marquis Las Cases noted his conversations,1 a book which had an immeasurable influence in France, and which was the first and foremost source of what is called the Napoleonic legend, was peculiarly suited to become a popular classic. Anecdotes and reminiscences chosen at random from the whole miraculous life are interwoven with speculations, the whole within the framework of the Longwood tragedy and the bitter struggle with Sir Hudson Lowe, which Las Cases describes from day to day. This plan gives the book its human note. It catches the emotions as well as the interest of innumerable readers. It presents Napoleon not just as the aloof, mighty Emperor, but as somebody who, for all his incomparable cleverness, greatness and luck, is nevertheless accessible, one of ourselves.

From this living, variegated backcloth emerges the political Napoleon. He is before everything else the son of the Revolution, the man who consolidated the possession of equality, and made good his country's escape from feudalism by restoring order, by ridding France of those factions which had practically dissipated the fruits of the Revolution, and by wresting peace from the monarchs who hated France and the Revolution. That peace (Lunéville, 1801, Amiens, 1802, when Bonaparte had only just become First Consul) was a breathing space, which brought sudden over- whelming popularity to the victorious young hero. There was nothing Napoleon liked better to recall after his downfall, and the fact could hardly be denied, but how brief was that respite! How endless, bitter and bloody were the campaigns which followed, up to the disasters and the final collapse! It was all the fault, so the Napoleon of the Mémorial would have us believe, of those self-same monarchs, and of envious Britain. His conquests had adorned the

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1
Le Mémorial de Sainte Hélène; some editions carry the title Mémoires de Napoléon, which properly belongs to the Mémoires dictated by Napoleon and dealing mainly with his campaigns.

-23-

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