Magazine article The Spectator

Definitely Not a Fool

Magazine article The Spectator

Definitely Not a Fool

Article excerpt


by Robert Asprey

Little, Brown and Co, L25, pp. 580

Naoleon Bonaparte has too often been the victim of biographical and historical exuberance. He has too often been treated either as a demigod (mainly by French authors) or as the devil incarnate (mainly by British authors).

Mr Robert Asprey begins his biography with this statement and announces that he intends to avoid these excesses (is this a hint of American neutrality?). `As with all of us, Napoleon was a sum of his parts, which is why I have treated him, warts and all, as a human being.' This is an appropriate introduction to a level-headed and serious account of Napoleon's life, which is clear, objective and informative.

Needless to say, the wilder beliefs are ignored - there is no mention of the Scottish origins of the Bonaparte family. Some rumours are repeated, but with consideration of the evidence. Thus it was said that the Comte de Marbeuf, the French governor of Corsica, was the true father of Napoleon, and on St Helena Napoleon did wonder about the identity of his father, but we are shown that there is no relevant evidence. More important is Asprey's refusal to repeat the many legends that surround Napoleon's life. Thus he tells the story of Letitia Bonaparte attending mass in Ajaccio on 15 August 1769 when birth pains forced her to make a hurried exit from the church. She reached home, flung herself on to a couch and gave birth to Nabolione. There is no mention of the story that the child was born on a carpet, and that the carpet was decorated with a picture of Alexander the Great.

When we are told about the life of the young Napoleon in the royal military college at Brienne, we are told the story of the snowball fights, and how he made a snow fort in the school courtyard and created artillery by covering stones with snow. But it is not suggested that these efforts constituted a sort of apprenticeship for Napoleon's acquaintance with tactics and strategy and that in his early battles he thought back to these early lessons.

Asprey does not agree with the definition of 'Bonaparte' that was put forward by Pierre Larousse in his famous Dictionnaire Universel, devoted to the 19th century. There he describes Bonaparte as a general of the Republic, born in Ajaccio in August 1769, died at the chateau of Saint-Cloud, near to Paris, on 18 Brumaire Year VIII of the Republic (9 November 1799). In other words, Bonaparte the Jacobin disappeared, and was succeeded by the future Emperor Napoleon. Asprey emphasises the continuity of the life and always calls him Napoleon. The coup d'etat of Brumaire falls a little over half way in this first volume of the biography, which concludes with Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz, and with his sending 45 captured enemy standards to the Archbishop of Paris so that he could display them in the cathedral of Notre Dame.

The treatment of the coup d'etat gives us another example of Asprey's avoidance of the unreliable anecdote. He describes how Napoleon is given a hostile reception by the deputies who make up the Council of the Five Hundred meeting in the chateau of Saint Cloud. His speech is a complete failure and he is harassed and assaulted. …

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