Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review: Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts (2014)

Cover of Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts, 2014.

First Consul Bonaparte, painting by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1802.

Historian and author Andrew Roberts.
Napoleon Bonaparte died on May 5, 1821. More than 70,500 days have passed since his death, and yet more than 70,500 books have been published with Napoleon’s name in the title. What is it about Napoleon that future generations have continued to find so fascinating? In his 2014 book Napoleon: A Life, Andrew Roberts chronicles Napoleon’s life from cradle to grave and gives us lots of insight as to what made Napoleon such an interesting figure. Roberts’ epic biography is an amazing piece of work. By the end of the book you come to feel as though you know Napoleon. Roberts is the first biographer of Napoleon’s to use his 33,000 surviving letters, which have been published over the last few years for the first time. Roberts does an excellent job of showing how compartmentalized Napoleon’s mind was, and how he was able to focus on so many different things. The term “micromanager” might well have been coined to describe Napoleon, as he penned letters on topics ranging from military strategy to settling disputes between stage-hands of the Paris Opera. 

Roberts peels away the layers of myth attached to Napoleon’s life, so he becomes more than just the stiff figure from historical paintings, he actually feels like a real person. Napoleon must have had an extraordinary charisma in person, as it seems as though everyone who met him was greatly charmed by him. Even Frederick Maitland, the British captain who accepted Napoleon’s surrender and who ferried him to exile on St. Helena, had kind words to say about him, writing of him: “…to such an extent did he possess the power of pleasing that there are few people who could have sat at the same table as him for nearly a month, as I did, without feeling a sensation of pity, allied perhaps to regret, that a man possessed of so many fascinating qualities, and who had held so high a station in life, should be reduced to the situation in which I saw him.” (Roberts, p.777) 

In Napoleon: A Life, we get to see all the different sides of Napoleon. We see the egotistical conqueror, but we also glimpse Napoleon’s sarcastic sense of humor and his indefatigable work ethic. Roberts has crafted a book that is a pleasure to read, and all 810 pages are gripping. Every military campaign that Napoleon embarked upon could easily fill an entire book by itself, but Roberts does an excellent job of bringing us the essentials. Roberts has visited nearly every battlefield that Napoleon fought on, and this depth of research makes the book rich and vibrant. 

If you want to read a biography about a truly fascinating man, pick up Napoleon: A Life.

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