Sunday, February 15, 2015

Book Review: Napoleon: A Biography, by Frank McLynn (1997)

Book cover of Napoleon: A Biography, by Frank McLynn, 1997. The painting is Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by Napoleon's favorite painter, Jacques-Louis David.

While I was reading Andrew Roberts’ excellent 2014 biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon: A Life, I was also reading Frank McLynn’s 1997 book Napoleon: A Biography on my Kindle. So I’ve been a little immersed in the Napoleonic era as of late, and I might be suffering from Napoleon overload. McLynn’s book isn’t as good as Roberts’, but it’s still an excellent treatment of a fascinating figure.

McLynn is a psychological biographer who published a biography of Carl Jung the same year Napoleon: A Biography came out. McLynn’s constant psychoanalyzing of Napoleon became tiring as the book went on, and I could have used a little less psychoanalytic theory. The book starts slowly, as McLynn spends a lot of time on Napoleon’s childhood. But the pace picks up once Napoleon’s life becomes more interesting. McLynn is not as strong a military historian as Roberts, but McLynn focuses more on Spain and the Peninsular War, and those chapters are excellent. McLynn sees the “Spanish ulcer” as being the moment when things began to go wrong for Napoleon. I agree with McLynn, Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808 was a classic example of overreaching. Napoleon should have realized that just because you can do something doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea. Spain had a weak monarch, and it was easy for Napoleon to invade and claim Spain for his own, but it proved to be a foolish idea, as the Spanish began a fierce guerilla war that sapped money and soldiers from France at the same time that Russia was rearming and preparing to fight Napoleon again.

The strongest part of the book might be the chapters about Napoleon’s slow downfall. McLynn writes of Napoleon in 1807, “Until Eylau Napoleon had rarely put a foot wrong on a battlefield. After it, with some rare and brilliant exceptions, his touch was much less sure.” The 1812 Russian campaign was a slow descent into hell, and it is clear that Napoleon did not adequately plan for anything going wrong. McLynn writes, “But the worst mistake was the failure to think through logistical problems, admittedly almost insurmountable in an army of 600,000. Everything was underestimated: the speed at which armies could march, the amount of food that could be obtained en route, the poor state of the roads.” Incredibly, the French lost more men on the way to Moscow than on the retreat. 

Napoleon’s time in exile on St. Helena is covered in detail, and those passages show us a man who still had his dignity, although everything else had been taken from him. Napoleon was peevish over the insistence of the British that he be addressed in exile as “General Bonaparte,” rather than “Emperor.” He once said, “They may as well call me Archbishop, for I was head of the Church as well as the army.” McLynn has some excellent quotes from Napoleon on St. Helena. Napoleon once said to one of his retinue, “Don’t you think that when I wake in the night I don’t have dark moments, when I remember what I was and what I am now?” When he was suffering from his final illness, showing his usual stoicism, he said, “I am quite happy not to have religion. I do not suffer from chimerical fears.” Although the official explanation for Napoleon’s death was stomach cancer, many historians have argued with this over the years. McLynn puts forward a theory that Napoleon was slowly poisoned by arsenic. 

McLynn ably defends Bonaparte from charges of being a dictator, as he writes, “His sensibility was light years away from that of a Hitler or a Stalin, and indeed he can be faulted for not being ruthless enough at times. His indulgence of his worthless family and his repeated pardoning of the treacherous Bernadotte, the duplicitous Talleyrand and the treasonable Fouché are only the most obvious examples. Napoleon had the temperament of an old-style autocrat but not that of a modern totalitarian dictator.” 

Napoleon: A Biography is full of insightful quotes and anecdotes. Three of my favorite quotes from the book are the following: (I don’t have page numbers because my Kindle only tells me what location I’m on in the book, and it seems somewhat silly to write, “Location 10245 of 15527.”)

When Jean-Andoche Junot’s father asked him, “Who is this unknown General Bonaparte?” Junot had replied: “He is the sort of man of whom Nature is sparing and who only appears on earth at intervals of centuries.”

“He was clearly the most extraordinary man I ever saw, and I believe the most extraordinary that has lived in our age, or for many ages.”-Charles Maurice Talleyrand, who ironically enough, was one of the most duplicitous members of Napoleon’s government.

Describing Emperor Francis of Austria, Napoleon’s future father-in-law, McLynn writes, “The Emperor Francis was a pathetic figure who spent his time making toffee or endlessly stamping blank sheets of parchment with specimens from his huge collection of seals.” Reading this quote really makes me want to learn more about Francis.

If you’re looking for a good one-volume cradle to grave study of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon: A Biography, is a very good place to start.

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