Magazine article The Spectator

Best Stick to His Egyptology

Magazine article The Spectator

Best Stick to His Egyptology

Article excerpt

'NAPOLEON is the idol of the uneducated.' So wrote Michelet, who never hid his hostility to the Emperor. But the historian is more interesting when he is more explicit. The French Revolution was forced to defend itself against internal and external enemies. This led to the emergence of an outstanding leader, Napoleon. But the consequences for France were disastrous and went well beyond his lifetime. It produced in the French people the grave and deep-seated evil that was the worship of strong men, 'adoration de la force'. And this, we can argue, has never ceased to exist. Whenever France has been in danger, or whenever the French people have felt insecure, uncertain of themselves, morose, pessimistic, then the dream of the saviour has reappeared.

This malady is called 'napoleonite'. And it is about to strike again. France will undergo a longish period of napoleonite, firstly, and most obviously, because next year will be the bicentenary of Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt, and it is already planned that President Chirac will go there and celebrate with the Egyptian President France's discovery of a great civilisation. The following year will see the bicentenary of Bonaparte's seizure of power, the 18 and 19 Brumaire. Then a series of bicentennials will present themselves over the next few years, from the foundation of the Empire, through great victories, to the adventure of the Hundred Days, the defeat at Waterloo and the banishment to St Helena. Even if the programme is rigorously pared down, the French must brace themselves for a long Imperial presence.

But there are other reasons for napoleonite. The Napoleonic myth is powerful, and it is useful. A man has become the incarnation of the achievement of the Revolution. Thanks to him the Revolution is not a terrorist free-for-all or a bourgeois triumph. A soldier brings together the power of the state and the nation. A leader makes France the great power of Europe. As today's France, with all its problems and uncertainties, enters the next century, it will be equipped with a vision of a determined, ambitious and victorious France asserting herself in Europe and beyond. This prospect appears to be confirmed by the success of Patrick Rambaud's novel La Bataille, which depicts Napoleon in battle. This book has just been awarded the Prix Goncourt and has also won the Prix de l'Academie Franqaise. Not for the first time, literature is apparently in the forefront of national celebrations. So, make way for the small man in the green chasseur uniform, with the black twohorned hat and his right hand carefully tucked into his coat.

But not after we've read the book. La Bataille is the battle of Essling (sometimes called the battle of Aspern-Essling), which was fought mainly on 22 May 1809. It was not a victory. It was a setback that was relieved by the subsequent victory at Wagram. But it was a premonitory sign of decline and defeat.

Essling was part of the campaign that began when Napoleon left the Tuileries for Germany, at 4.20 in the morning of 13 April 1809. He had dismissed Talleyrand, he had been obliged to leave the country in the hands of Fouche whom he had every reason to distrust, he was quarrelling with his brother Louis and he was pre-occupied by Josephine's failure to provide him with an heir. His main objective was to defeat the Austrian Archduke Charles's army before it could link up with other forces. He fought his way to Vienna and found himself facing the Archduke on the other side of the Danube.

The novel begins as Napoleon orders a bridge to be built from the southern bank of the river to the island of Lobau. …

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