It is some time since I mentioned that I had received my Folio Society edition of George Lefebvre's masterly study of Napoleon.
I have now had time to read and reflect on it. It is almost 600 pages long, and not a book for the casual reader. As indicated previously, it is not strictly a biography but a study of France under Napoleon's leadership from 1799 until 1815.
As one would expect of a founder member of the Annales School, Lefebvre places Napoleon's career in an historical context: the clash of social classes; the fear of and reaction against the revolution by the established order; the waning of democracy in the French revolution and the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie; the development of industrial capitalism; rationalism and challenges to the authority of the Catholic church; romanticism and the awakening of nationalism; the expansion of French territory; the challenge to England's naval supremacy; the struggle for European hegemony and empire.
Lefebvre sees the emergence of autocratic rule by an army general as no accident; it was driven there by inner necessity. As for Napoleon himself, he was a man whose temperament, even more than his genius, was unable to adapt to peace and moderation. (1)
Within the wider context Napoleon was seen by the ruling order as an upstart:
in the eyes of Wellington and other noble lords Napoleon was never anything else but 'Bony', and the king of Rome was his bastard. The kings too were full of the same haughty pride. Deep down in their hearts they could not admit the legitimacy of a man who had unceremoniously unseated so many of royal line. (2)So, somewhat paradoxically given his counter revolutionary role in France, whatever Napoleon might do: in the eyes of Europe, he was still the soldier of the Revolution.
England, although it had a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary system was not much different; its rulers shared the fear of and hostility towards the ideas of 1789 with the rulers of the absolute monarchies on the continent.
England remained antiquated, encumbered by sinecures and inclined to corruption. .. England's ruling oligarchy did not abound in talent, but it regarded the nation as its patrimony and defended it with tenacity and discipline. .. England began to impress sailors and recruit soldiers for the war effort, both drawn from the poorer classes of society. These men were led by volunteers from the aristocracy, who purchased their commissions.(3)
Napoleon the Man
Overall the book is highly critical of Napoleon, but the most fascinating part perhaps is the short section in which Lefebvre reflects on Napoleon's character. Only 5 or so pages in length, this part was closely analysed by Pieter Geyl in his classic study of French historians and Napoleon. (4) Not for Lefebvre the trite amateur psychology and the facile and ahistorical analogies so beloved of many who now write about Napoleon.
For Lefebvre, Napoleon was the last and most illustrious enlightened despot a man steeped in the classics, and above all a man of great complexity: his personality evolved in so singular a manner that it defies portrayal, and Beneath the soldier's uniform, however, there dwelled in him several personalities, and it is this diversity, as much as the variety and brilliance of his gifts which makes him so fascinating.
- he longed to equal the semi-legendary heroes of Plutarch and Corneille. His greatest ambition was glory.
- His eyes were fixed on the world's great leaders: Alexander, Caesar, Augustus, Charlemagne ..
- He was an artist, a poet of action, for whom France and mankind were but instruments.
- a passionate desire to know and understand everything.
- an over-tender care for his family
- a certain pleasure in stepping on those who had once snubbed him
- a taste for ostentatious splendour
- natural propensity for dictatorship
- pride in himself and contempt for others
- he could have become a man of letters
- Having entered into a life of action, he still remained a thinker
- The warrior was never happier than in the silence of his own study, surrounded by papers and documents
- A typical man of the eighteenth century, a rationalist a philosophe
- firm and strong intellect
- romantic melancholia
- the ability to stand off from himself and take a detached look at his own life, and to reflect wistfully on his fate
- something of the uprooted person remained in him, something of the declassé as well
- neither entirely a gentleman, nor entirely common (5)
Then in the famous passage quoted extensively by Geyl:
His mind was one of the most perfect that has ever been: his unflagging attention tirelessly swept in facts and ideas which his memory registered and classified; his imagination played with them freely, and being in a permanent state of concealed tension, it never wearied of inventing political and strategic motifs which manifested themselves in unexpected flashes of intuition like those experienced by poets and mathematicians. .. He rendered a fair account of himself when he said, 'I consider myself a good man at heart,' and indeed he showed generosity, and even kindness to those who were close to him. .. He knew himself well: ' It is said that I am an ambitious man but that is not so; or at least my ambition is so closely bound to my being that they are both one and the same.' How very true! Napoleon was more than anything else a temperament. (6)
1. Georges Lefebvre, Napoleon , London, The Folio Society 2009, p. 57.
2. Lefebvre p. 493
3. Lefebvre p.31
4. Pieter Geyl, Napoleon For and Against first published in English in 1949.
5. Lefebvre pp 59-64
6 Lefebvre p. 60