Friday, 20 August 2010

Sir Walter Scott's Life of Napoleon

Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet (1771 – 1832)

Novelist, poet and author of the first major life of Napoleon - and the first to be allowed to consult the Hudson Lowe Papers, which have since become a staple of historians of the captivity.

Sir Walter also visited Paris and interviewed Napoleon's colleagues.

The Duke of Wellington assisted him with his account of the Russian campaign.

The artist J.M.W. Turner also produced some illustrations.

The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte finally appeared in 1827 - in no fewer than 9 volumes.

Few would now regard Scott's work as an important source for the life of Napoleon, but it represented a milestone in the development of British attitudes. Here for the first time, only six years after his death but more importantly over a decade after his final battle, we have a Napoleon who is neither romantic hero nor total villain.

This balanced approach - "on the one hand .. on the other hand .." - and the search for the Aristotelian golden mean was once a mainstay of much British historiography and public discourse. It still holds true of the BBC but definitely not the tabloid press!
In practice, his government was brilliant abroad, and, with few exceptions, liberal and moderate at home
but the execution of the Duc d'Enghien showed the vindictive spirit of a savage, and
If, instead of asserting that he never committed a crime, he had limited his self-eulogy to asserting, that in attaining and wielding supreme power, he had resisted the temptation to commit many, he could not have been contradicted. And this is no small praise.

Thus although ultimately very critical of Napoleon, and a defense of the British Government in its long struggle against him and the French Revolution, The Life .. was nevertheless far more balanced than some Whigs had expected, and certainly far too even handed for many Tories, for whom Napoleon would always remain the "Corsican Ogre".

It also upset Sir Hudson Lowe, whose esteem was at a level befitting his name, and still vainly sought the colonial governorship which he felt he had been promised and certainly deserved. He could not however find anything in The Life .. that would give him any chance of a successful court case.

Gaspard Gourgaud was also displeased about his treatment.

His former colleagues on St Helena buried their once considerable differences and came to his defence.

Excitable as ever, Gourgaud was all for challenging Scott to a duel, but the latter's location in Edinburgh made that rather impractical.

Napoleon's brother, Louis Bonaparte was also displeased and wrote a defense of his brother.

My focus has been on volume 9, dealing with Napoleon's fall and the captivity.

Clearly whilst trying to maintain a balanced view, Scott was keen to defend the British Government against the criticisms that had been levelled against it for the treatment of Napoleon. This presumably is why he had been given access to the public records.

General Napoleon or The Emperor?

On this, one of the main controversies of the captivity which was taken to ridiculous lengths by Hudson Lowe, Scott defended the Government:
.. there could be no reason why Britain, in compassionate courtesy, should give to her prisoner a title which she had refused to him de jure, even while he wielded the empire de facto ;

This legalistic justification was rather spoiled by the suggestion that Napoleon's refusal to answer to the title General Buonaparte was indicative of his backround:
not the feelings of a man of conscious dignity of mind, but of an upstart, who conceives the honour of preferment not to consist in having enjoyed, or in still possessing, a high situation, gained by superiority of talents, so much as in wearing the robes, or listening to the sounding titles, which are attached to it.

Scott was not the first nor last Englishmen to criticise Napoleon for not being a gentleman! Indeed few of England's enemies and perhaps even its allies have been considered as such by the rulers of Perfidious Albion! (1)

Longwood or Plantation House?

Scott was however, critical of the British Government's choice of Longwood rather than Plantation House
for the residence of the late Imperial captive. We differ from their opinion in this particular, because the very best accommodation was due to fallen greatness; and, in his circumstances, Napoleon, with every respect to the authority of the governor, ought to have been the last person on the island subjected to inconvenience.

But even here and somewhat disingenuously he tempered his criticism of the British Government by claiming that it was all Napoleon's fault. The British Government would have come round to this view anyway,
but for the disposition of the late French Emperor and his followers to use every point of deference, or complaisance, exercised towards them, as an argument for pushing their pretensions farther.

Further in the Government's defense Scott noted that
Some circumstances about the locality, it is believed, had excited doubts about whether the house could be completely guarded.

Then, in an ironic swipe at Napoleon, he observed that Longwood
was approved of by Napoleon, who visited it personally, and expressed himself so much satisfied, that it was difficult to prevail on him to leave the place.

Longwood when completed, was nevertheless
far inferior in accommodation to that which every Englishman would have desired that the distinguished prisoner should have enjoyed whilst in English custody.

But again he could not prevent himself from suggesting that Napoleon might have been worse treated. Whilst the completed Longwood was
a strange contrast with the palaces which Napoleon had lately inhabited .. it was preferable, in the same proportion, to the Tower of the Temple, and the dungeons of Vincennes.

He also pointed out that in his efforts to make Longwood ready for Napoleon, Admiral Cockburn frequently arrived on site very early in the morning. This was apparently necessary to stimulate the St Helena workmen, who, in general are lazy and indolent ..

Sir Hudson Lowe and Napoleon

Scott's judgement on Hudson Lowe was carefully couched so as to prevent any legal redress:
it would require a strong defence on the part of Sir Hudson Lowe himself .. to induce us to consider him as the very rare and highly exalted species of character, to whom, as we have already stated, this important charge ought to have been intrusted.

He also noted that Lowe revealed traces of a warm and irritable temper when he ought, if possible, to have remained cool and unruffled and that his over anxiety led to frequent changes of his regulations, and to the adoption of measures which were afterwards abandoned, and perhaps again resumed. Napoleon himself was of course not spared of blame for the feud with Hudson Lowe. He
became the prey of petty spleen which racked him also to frenzy, and induced him to hazard his health, or perhaps even to throw away his life, rather than submit with dignified patience to that which his misfortunes had rendered unavoidable.
In discussing the fear that Napoleon would escape, which clearly haunted Lowe, Scott interestingly mentioned the Government's concern about the state of England and in particular the discontent and sufferings of the manufacturing districts as well as the revolutionary spirit in Italy and the doubtful state of France.

Scott's Judgement on Napoleon's Character and Achievements

Napoleon was, said Scott, decidedly amiable but his temper, when he received, or thought he received, provocation .. was warm and vindictive, no one was a more liberal rewarder of his friends. He was an excellent husband, a kind relation, and, unless when state policy intervened, a most affectionate brother.
There was gentleness, and even softness, in his character. He was affected when he rode over the fields of battle, which his ambition had strewed with the dead and dying, and seemed not only desirous to relieve the victims .. showed himself subject to the influence of that more acute and imaginative species of sympathy which is termed sensibility.
He gave France regular government, schools, institutions, courts of justice, and a court of laws. In Italy, his rule was equally splendid and beneficial, and he was commended for his opening a full career to talent of every kind. To balance this there were the usual negative comments: he destroyed public liberty and freedom of press, built new prisons and established a police force responsible to him.
And finally the book concluded,
In closing the life of NAPOLEON BUONAPARTE, we are called upon to observe, that he was a man tried in the two extremities, of the most exalted power and the most ineffable calamity; and if he occasionally appeared presumptuous when supported by the armed forces of half a world, or unreasonably querulous when imprisoned within the narrow limits of St Helena, it is scarcely within the capacity of those whose steps have never led them beyond the middle path of life, to estimate either the strength of the temptations to which he yielded, or the force of mind which he opposed to those he was able to resist.

1. Scott was of course not an Englishman, but a Scottish Tory. Unlike modern Scots, but like many Englishmen, he did not appear uncomfortable in using the term English as being synonymous with British.


albertuk said...

Excellent review, John.

It seems to me that "The Life" had essentially the purpose to vindicate the policy of the conservative govt during Napoleon's captivity. It came out after "the Voice", then the "Memorial" and then "The Last Moments" did so much to antagonise such policy towards the fallen leader. And, at the time, Liverpool govt was in bad shape. A bit of publicity would be most welcome.
So Scott may have been somehow "hired" by the British Govt for this task, at a time when his own financial situation was in bad shape. This may explain why he alone had access to so much undisclosed govt material (the now called "Lowe Papers"). Before "The Life", Scott had not worked on historical bios. But his ability to write well, and above all his popularity, may have made him the best choice for the task.
It would be worth trying to find out if the above has substance.

John Tyrrell said...

Interesting comment. I suspect you are right about the origind of "the Life". Will give it some further thought.
Clearly it suited the Government to leave Sir Hudson Lowe dangling in the wind!

Michel Dancoisne-Martineau said...

Very sharp resume, John.. Bravo !