The Golden Bees: The Story of the Bonapartes
Napoleon and Josephine
The Empress Eugenie
One day, a gifted French director will film a new life of Bonaparte. Emperor of the underworld in a provincial city, Napoleon will marry, in an overblown suburban church, a blonde Breton girl of superior family and subnormal will-power; he will cow her with gigantic, orchidaceous presents and bewilder her with a sexuality in which violence and greed fail to compensate for premature ejaculation and prudishness. Madame Mère will be installed as concierge of the university hostel, and continue to regard her son as a contemptible failure although the King of Holland has been installed in the best “bureau de tabac,” the King of Spain has been intruded into the public prosecutor’s office, the King of Württemburg runs the city hall department concerned with building tenders, and the Princess Borghese has the best stretch of sidewalk on the Rue de la République. The career of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, was a huge prefiguration of ten thousand small Corsican careers to come.
All three of these books are concerned with Bonaparte personality, rather than policy. Mr. Kurtz’s life of the Empress Eugénie is a serious biography, attempting an objective estimate of the subject’s influence on public affairs and to distinguish fact from legend. The other two works are volumes of more or less absorbing gossip, and had much legend been winnowed from fact, they would be pretty thin volumes too. None the less, the reading of seven or eight hundred Napoleonic anecdotes skimpily pinned to a screen of conventional political history conveys eventually some powerful general impressions of the two Empires and the family’s behavior between the “whiff of grapeshot” and the death of the Prince Imperial in the Zulu War.
Miss Mossiker, avoiding dangerously exposed areas of political episode, sticks to her topic of one Imperial marriage, and has written a book which is long, jovial, fairer to Josephine than to Napoleon, but seldom dull and never prudish. She has used every diary and letter she could find, avoiding the need to cook up fictionalized thoughts. Mr. Aronson, on the other hand, has overstepped himself. To produce a study of the whole Bonaparte dynasty considered primarily as family, without much regard to political Bonapartism itself, to what this golden swarm really thought it was at, is to miss the way the Bonapartes became dominated by their own myth. Like Miss Mossiker, Mr. Aronson has read libraries, taken notes for years, but his approach is too light to bear the huge weight he has chosen to present. Chattiness is all right, perhaps, for a single Bonaparte; not for the whole dynasty, which blackened Europe, killed her children, and poisoned the tradition of authority in France.
Clearly, the first Napoleon did have many of the characteristics of the gangster. Raving under the burden of obligation to his mother and yet lacking the moral courage to cut his dreadful family adrift, all his close human relationships partook of a quality of hysteria. Nothing went easily. If he …
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.