Magazine article The Spectator

The Ogre of Lullabies

Magazine article The Spectator

The Ogre of Lullabies

Article excerpt

The ogre of lullabies

THE LEGEND OF NAPOLEON by Sudhir Hazareesingh Granta, £20, pp. 336, ISBN 18620076677 * £18 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

NAPOLEON AND THE BRITISH by Stuart Semmel Yale, £25, pp. 354, ISBN 0300090013

For six months I have been waking up on the island of St Helena. At nine o'clock I walk to my office in Bath; two hours earlier I am at work on a pile of diaries kept by Napoleon's courtiers during the six years of the emperor's captivity. The mind flies 5,000 miles across the Atlantic to an island I have never seen and a white bungalow named Longwood.

There are sublime moments. 'I who was master of the world!' Napoleon shouts as he walks up and down the narrow corridors of the wind-battered house inside which he was exiled. Then he chuckles to General Gourgaud, 'Ah, it was a pretty empire, was it not?' And it can be ridiculous. At dinner Napoleon comments on how much he has enjoyed the day's good weather. No, objects Gourgaud, the weather was poor today. Marital silence.

When Napoleon fell asleep three generals, a secretary, two valets and a changing succession of doctors and English duty officers went to their rooms to write their diaries. I hate to say it but there is something of Big Brother in the way each writer grumbles about their housemates' performance of the daily tasks set by Napoleon, whether it has been to explain the loss of the battle of Waterloo or calculate the flow of water in the Nile.

Subsequent to Napoleon's death on 5 May 1821 over 400 books and articles have discussed his final six years. More ink per square foot has been spilt on the wooden floors of Longwood than anywhere else on earth.

But one of the reasons that St Helena is addictive is that the diarists disagree. In front of me is a page of questions on which I have tried to reconcile their descriptions of events. Did the ice-making machine, the first to arrive on the tropical island, ever work? What did Napoleon say when news came of the executions of Murat and Ney? Was he attacked by a cow? It is impossible to know who is telling the truth.

Next comes the realisation that many other writers have undertaken exactly the same comparative exercise. In his classic The Last Phase (1900), Lord Rosebery talked of how there was something in the air of Longwood that put a mildew on truth (he wrote the book, he said, to expel a ghost from his own house). The great French historian Frédéric Masson could recount the conversations on any chosen day. G. L. de St Marie Watson, author of Napoleon's Death Mask (1909), befriended a cast of characters from the shop-keeper Mr Solomon to the farmer named Robinson whose daughter Napoleon dubbed 'the nymph'.

Why do I say all this? Because I am addicted to the blighted air of Longwood. And because two excellent books on the image of Napoleon in France and in Britain show that without St Helena, and without the earlier return from Elba, our view of the emperor would be utterly different. The constitution he granted during the Hundred Days presented him as a liberal. Death on a distant rock made him into a figure of sympathy.

In 1909 Philippe Gonnard responded to Lord Rosebery's depiction of the ennui of St Helena with The Last Phase in Fact and Fiction (1909), an cloquent, succinct study in which he argued that Napoleon's actions in exile were the most successful PR campaign in history. Accepting that he would never return to Europe, he took on posterity, and won. He told his disciples to circulate stories of his suffering and his last will was a masterpiece:

I am dying prematurely, murdered by the English oligarchy and its hired assassins ... I wish my ashes to rest near the banks of the Seine in the midst of the French people I have so dearly loved.

'I shall be a martyr and my son shall wear the crown,' he added to his courtiers.

The Legend of Napoleon by Sudhir Hazareesingh, a fellow of Balliol, argues that the resurrection of Napoleon was a far more spontaneous phenomenon. …

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