Napoleon's career divided contemporaries as it still divides scholars.(1) Perhaps the first to recognise, or at least to write about conflicting Napoleon narratives was Richard Whately, an Oxford academic, later to become Archbishop of Dublin.
A defender of a literal reading of the Bible, the aim of his Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte, first published anonymously in 1819, was to demonstrate that if one applied the critical methods used by David Hume to challenge the probability of biblical miracles one would come to doubt Napoleon's very existence.
.. those on whose testimony the existence and actions of Buonaparte are generally believed, fail in ALL the most essential points on which the credibility of witnesses depends: first, we have no assurance that they have access to correct information; secondly, they have an apparent interest in propagating falsehood; and, thirdly, they palpably contradict each other in the most important points.
To Whately it was doubtful whether any history (exclusive of such as is confessedly fabulous) ever attributed to its hero such a series of wonderful achievements compressed into so small a space of time, and even the scale of his defeats stretched the bounds of improbability:
Another peculiar circumstance in the history of this extraordinary personage is, that when it Is found convenient to represent him as defeated, though he is by no means defeated by halves, but involved in much more sudden and total ruin than the personages of real history usually meet with; yet, if it is thought fit he should be restored, it is done as quickly and completely as if Merlin's rod had been employed.
As an example of the contradiction of the accounts of Napoleon's career Whately highlighted the battle of Borodino,represented as one of the greatest ever fought and unequivocally claimed as a victory by both parties:
We have official accounts on both sides, circumstantially detailed, in the names of supposed respectable persons, professing to have been present on the spot; yet totally irreconcilable. Both these accounts may be false; but since one of them must be false, that one (it is no matter which we suppose) proves incontrovertibly this important maxim: that it is possible for a narrative—however circumstantial—however steadily maintained—however public, and however important, the events it relates—however grave the authority on which it is published—to be nevertheless an entire fabrication!
Whateley then moved on to conflicting views of Napoleon himself:
According to some, he was a wise, humane, magnanimous hero; others paint him as a monster of cruelty, meanness, and perfidy: some, even of those who are most inveterate against him, speak very highly of his political and military ability: others place him on the very verge of insanity. But allowing that all this may be the colouring of party-prejudice, (which surely is allowing a great deal,) there is one point to which such a solution will hardly apply: if there be anything that can be clearly ascertained in history, one would think it must be the personal courage of a military man; yet here we are as much at a loss as ever; at the very same times, and on the same occasions, he is described by different writers as a man of undaunted intrepidity, and as an absolute poltroon.
So Whateley suggested, tongue firmly in cheek,
What, then, are we to believe? If we are disposed to credit all that is told us, we must believe in the existence not only of one, but of two or three Buonapartes; if we admit nothing but what is well authenticated, we shall be compelled to doubt of the existence of any.
1. One recent academic reviewer admitted to his loathing of the little corporal and his review brought an apt rejoinder from one of the authors he was reviewing: Every Napoleonic scholar is familiar with Geyl’s Napoleon: For and Against ... In many respects .. Geyl did the field an enormous disservice. The subtitle stuck. Ever since scholars of the period (and especially biographers of Napoleon) have been categorised as either being ‘for’ or ‘against’ the man. As a biographer of Napoleon, I struggled with this concept for a long time. I am at pains, moreover, to find another historical figure whose biographers fall so neatly into that black and white dichotomy. Personalities like Alexander, Caesar, Hitler, or Mao continue to fascinate because they are larger than life, powerful characters that resonate with modern readers. And yet biographers of those individuals are not conveniently divided into ‘for’ or ‘against’. Philip Dwyer, Reviews in History.