Thursday, 23 November 2017

Napoleon and British Song 1797-1822 - by Oskar Cox Jensen

Napoleon and British Song 1797-1822

This is an important and fascinating book which is packed with new insights into popular culture during the wars against France after 1797.

Early in the book Jensen makes a striking claim that is worth reproducing

The historical reality is that across the British Isles, both during and especially after the Napoleonic Wars, the eponymous Bonaparte was better loved and respected by the general populace than Wellington, Pitt or the Prince Regent

Castlereagh and Sidmouth might have been added to this pantheon of anti-heroes, and some might wonder at the inclusion of Wellington. His creation as a national rather than a partisan hero was in fact some decades away. In the years after Waterloo he was rarely represented in song as "purely good", and he remained a target of many of the populace through the Reform bill period and even into the times of the Chartists. The New Hunting song in praise of Fergus O'Connor singled out Wellington for attack but praised "brave Bonaparte ", "a man of sense". Napoleon was seen as representing social mobility, whereas Wellington was seen as the ungrateful persecutor of his own soldiers.

The book supports the view that despite its place in the western and especially the British imagination, because of the scale of the casualties Waterloo received muted celebration in 1815 amongst all classes. Napoleon's escape from Elba, his proclamations of peace and his association with liberal politics had tempered radical doubts about him and reinforced a negative view of the battle. Despite the triumphalist Loyalist propaganda, Waterloo was often represented as a tragedy, a slaughter, and even a crime.

The endurance of British songs about Napoleon has been well known for some time, and Jensen confirms that not a single song collected from either a broadside or an oral source after 1815 speaks ill of Napoleon. This suggests the ultimate failure of all the Loyalist propaganda in demonising Napoleon in the popular imagination, and a failure in inculcating a sense of identity with the state and against the French.

In this respect Jensen is clearly at odds with the work of Linda Colley and others who have portrayed the wars as uniting the British people against the Corsican Ogre and Catholic France. Jensen reminds us of the reality of the relationship of the mass of the people to the British state: the press gang, enclosure, transportation and Pitt's "terror".

The book also stresses the importance of localism, which has been a neglected aspect of our national story. Britain in 1815 as for many decades later, consisted of a myriad of highly localised cultures. In conservative areas in Ireland, Napoleon was "the latest incarnation of the saviour across the water", in many areas there was great hostility to the militia, in some areas, especially the North East, the press gang was a major source of disaffection, in other areas Luddism was strong, in some areas there was an identification with smugglers, in Newcastle and perhaps elsewhere there was an anti authoritarian, pre-enlightenment popular song culture into which songs about Napoleon were readily incorporated, and everywhere there was little enthusiasm for volunteering for the wars.

The book analyses the changing dialectic between Loyalist propaganda and oppositional songs, and suggests that propaganda helped to build Napoleon up as a fabulous, folkloric figure. The Napoleon of the "black legend" though was never assimilated into popular culture, and his exile and separation from his wife and child made him a figure with which people could readily sympathise and identify. In the nineteenth century attention was focussed not on Josephine but on Marie Louise. So Napoleon on St. Helena became the victim of the British state, a flawed but attractive figure.

My only very minor quibble with the book concerns its opening sentence - "It is no coincidence that they named the Wars after him". This might give the impression that people at the time used the term, "Napoleonic Wars", but in fact that term did not come into use until the middle of the nineteenth century, and was certainly not a product of popular culture. The author redeems himself in the final sentence of the book, describing them as, "the Wars that took his name."

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