Sunday, 13 January 2019

À la recherche du temps perdu

A school exercise book temporarily reprieved from the tip

I had always assumed that I had never studied Napoleon nor been the slightest bit interested in him until being lent a book by a friend less than 20 years ago. I was surprised therefore when clearing out clutter to find a long forgotten school exercise book which revealed that the last ever school essay I wrote on European history was on the question of whether Napoleon betrayed the French Revolution.

My essay seems to have pleased my teacher who described it as well written and gave it an alpha plus (80%)! I now find it rather less satisfactory! Nevertheless it provides an interesting insight into the views and prejudices of a 17 year old being educated in a conservative school in the UK half a century or so ago.

The final page

Amongst the gems I picked out was the “singularly French love of a dictator” and my judgement that Napoleon's success “transformed and sterilized the politics of Modern France.” My teacher liked that. It was of course written in the time of De Gaulle, although he had not yet made the first of his two vetoes of Britain's application to join the European Economic Community that were to make him so unpopular. At that time we were all very convinced of the superiority of our political system, and were busy exporting it to various former colonies.

When writing about Napoleon I talked about his " efficiency”, the “practical realism of the soldier ” and judged him "unoriginal but well organized". The career “open to talent” I opined injected “an element of equality into what was otherwise little more than a military dictatorship.” A more mature view would see it as intrinsic to the system and to Napoleon's post-Enlightement view of the world. My judgement was that his whole system depended “upon a policy of successful belligerency, and as such was bound eventually to collapse. ” There was no mention of course of the attempts by Britain to assassinate him and to restore the Bourbons to power, nor any awareness of the total lack of equality and justice for the lower orders in the UK at the time. Britain as everyone knew was on the path of moderation which led ineluctably to our almost perfect democracy!

My rather pompous opinion apparently was that “Napoleon’s crime is not that he pursued the war to the best of his ability, but that he lost sight of the true interests of France and allowed his own ambition to sway his judgement” and that he was "far more in love with France than with the Revolution.” But somewhat mysteriously I also decided that it was “he alone that safeguarded it” (the Revolution) and that “his work has outlasted numerous Revolutions.

I was of course totally convinced as many still are that Napoleon was solely to blame for the succession of wars that were later to bear his name.

“Napoleon’s faults were amplified by the importance of the part that he was called upon to play, and his false sense of values frustrated the greatness in his character, and condemned France to an era of war as disastrous as that of Louis XIV.”

If Napoleon's values were "false", then I wonder what true values were. I also wonder where all that came from, my teacher or the book(s) that I read!

At least though I recognised Napoleon's greatness and there was no nonsense about the Corsican Ogre or the invasion of Britain. Even at that age I could stick to a logical argument.

It does though make me wonder how my blog would read to me in another half century. One thing I can say with certainty is that I shall never know! Perhaps it is just as well.

Let the decluttering continue.