For a century and a half now, Napoleon Bonaparte has been a projective test and a convenient symbol. Politicians rode to power by using his name and borrowing his charisma, patriots nostalgically invoked his image, royalists fed their resentments against the modern world by despising him. In this century, the dictators with their popular support, their grandiloquent lies, their manipulated plebiscites and quick appeal to violence, have driven many to find in Napoleon an object lesson; during the Second World War, the British kept up their morale against Hitler by recalling Napoleon’s failure to invade their island. Historians have been as tempted to project their own prejudices on Napoleon as everyone else, although, confronted with mountains of documents and the rigorous demands of their discipline, they have tried to make Napoleon an object of cool scientific inquiry instead of political passion. They have not fully succeeded: twenty years ago, Pieter Geyl concluded his Napoleon, For and Against, a masterly survey of what French historians have made of Napoleon, with a half-patient, half-exasperated shrug of the shoulders. “The argument,” he wrote, “goes on.”
For all its lucid reasonableness, Felix Markham’s new biography will do little to advance, and little to settle, that argument. It is a most useful book, and a most attractive one, both physically, with its unhackneyed illustrations, and intellectually, with its clarity of outline. It employs the latest research and the most recently discovered documents, and it makes deft use of both. Its narrative is accurate and its verdicts are judicious and often shrewd; clearly, Mr. Markham has no stake in turning Napoleon into a symbol, or making him into a stalking horse for his private fancies; he has wisely and explicitly refrained from drawing unhistorical comparisons. His is a professional historian’s biography: sober, fair, and responsible.
Yet its very real merits are compromised by the fact that the book is much too short, a serious error in judgment. In consequence, Georges Lefebvre’s Napoléon (a great work unfortunately still unavailable in English), and J. M. Thompson’s Napoleon Bonaparte: His Rise and Fall (an orderly and vigorous analysis) will remain the definitive works on the subject. In his Preface, Mr. Markham suggests that his is a “full-length” biography, but the adjective is misapplied. How long should a biography be to be full-length? Surely long enough to tell its story with reasonable completeness. Napoleon defies brevity: his career ranged too widely, touched too many men, issues, and events, to be recounted, as it is recounted here, in fewer than three hundred pages. Mr. Markham notes, accurately enough, that “for nearly twenty years the career of Napoleon and the history of Europe were almost synonymous.” this does not mean, to be sure, that Napoleon’s biographer must try to give that history in full (although Lefebvre attempted to do just that), but that he should paint a mural, not a miniature. As a result…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.