Napoleon: A Life by Adam Zamoyski

January 6, 2020

Historian Adam Zamoyski has written a wonderfully detailed biography of Napoleon that is especially strong on his character and his personal life.  His view of Napoleon is a balanced one: not a hero, but not a villain, either.  Zamoyski says Napoleon was rather an ordinary man in extraordinary times.  Unlike other historians, Zamoyski does not think Napoleon was a genius.  If he had been a genius, according to Zamoyski, he would not have presided over the worst military disaster of the time, the Russian campaign of 1812.  But Zamoyski has no doubt that Napoleon was a brilliant tactician.  He was less successful as a strategist, which is why he eventually lost his empire.

Zamoyski's biography is excellent on Napoleon's family background and early years.  He was born Napoleone Buonaparte, one of many children of a Corsican family that had vague claims to nobility and, while not exactly poor, was certainly not rich.  He did not adopt the spelling Napoleon Bonaparte until 1796, around the time of his marriage to his first wife, Josephine.  Napoleon grew up speaking Corsican, an Italian dialect, and he never did learn to speak French very well.  He was never a very good public speaker.  At the age of ten, Napoleon was sent to the military academy, where he was bullied because he was so short, and because his French was so bad.  He was rather an indifferent student, finishing forty-second in a class of fifty-eight.  At first he wanted to be a sailor, but eventually he chose the artillery, because he was excellent at mathematics.  He was also a big reader, which continued throughout his life.  In fact, the young Napoleon wrote novels and poetry, which still survive, even though, as Zamoyski says, they were not very good.

Another strength of Zamoyski's biography is what he says about Napoleon's personal life and relations with women.  The young Napoleon was very awkward with women, and was ill at ease in society.  He never completely lost this awkwardness.  As a young officer, he became engaged to Désirée Clary, the daughter of a Marseille merchant, but Zamoyski suggests he did not truly love her.  He thought she would make a good wife, at that point in his career.  His letters to her have the tone of a lecturing schoolmaster.  Then, after his first victory at the siege of Toulon, he was made a general at the age of twenty-four.  As a general, he wanted connections to Parisian high society and the political world, and, in a Parisian salon, he met the beautiful widow Josephine and fell in love with her at first sight.  Josephine did not feel the same way about him, but she wanted money, after her first husband had been guillotined during the Terror and his property confiscated, and she also wanted a father figure for her two children.  Napoleon and Josephine were married in 1796.  Désirée, who really did love Napoleon, was heartbroken at first.  Eventually she married one of Napoleon's marshals, Bernadotte, and the couple became King and Queen of Sweden.

According to Zamoyski, Napoleon never stopped loving Josephine, in spite of his frequent infidelity, which began during his Egyptian campaign of 1798-9.  Josephine began to care for him as well, even though she never did love him as much as he loved her.  Zamoyski believes the rumors that she was unfaithful to him when he was off on his various campaigns.  Napoleon certainly believed she was unfaithful and was deeply hurt by it, even though he never seemed to think his own infidelity would hurt her.  But Sandra Gulland, in her excellent trilogy of novels about Josephine, says there was no truth to these rumors, and they were spread by Napoleon's enemies.  No matter what the truth was, Napoleon loved Josephine even after he divorced her because she could not give him a child, and, as emperor, he needed an heir.  They remained close and frequently corresponded, and he visited her when he could.  He also stayed close to her two children by her first marriage.  He was heartbroken by the news of her death, and, when he went to exile on St. Helena, he took a lock of her hair with him.  Josephine was also very popular with the people of France and with the army, who thought she brought him good luck.  It is an interesting coincidence that Napoleon's worst defeats happened after his divorce from Josephine.  Of course, by that time he was older and in poor health, which likely contributed to his defeats on the battlefield.

Napoleon's second marriage, to the Austrian princess Marie-Louise, produced the longed-for son and heir.  Of course, this was a political marriage, but Napoleon was very affectionate towards his young wife.  But the marriage was unpopular with the people of France.  Napoleon wanted Marie-Louise and their son to join him in exile on Elba, and eventually on St. Helena, but her father, the Austrian emperor, took his daughter and grandson back to Austria with him.  It did not take Marie-Louise very long to take a lover, whom she eventually married after Napoleon's death.

Zamoyski is also strong on the formation of Napoleon's political beliefs.  As a young officer, Napoleon supported the ideals of the French Revolution.  He also believed in independence for Corsica, and for a while he was torn between his loyalty to Corsica and his service to France.  But when the Corsican leader Pasquale Paoli refused any support to him and his family, Napoleon threw in his lot with France.  Napoleon wrote a treatise as a young man, where he said France should be a republic, but with a strong leader at the head of it.  According to Zamoyski, Napleon's political beliefs were always authoritarian, even as a young man.  Later, as First Consul and then as emperor, of course, they became even more so.

Zamoyski does not go into as much detail about Napoleon's battles as other biographies do.  I have heard that Andrew Roberts' biography is much stronger on the battles and military campaigns.  But Zamoyski does give detailed accounts of some of the most important battles of Napoleon's career, especially the Italian campaign, the Egyptian expedition, the Battle of Austerlitz, and, of course, the disastrous Russian campaign.  What he says about the Egyptian expedition is especially interesting.  Napoleon took many artists and scientists with him in order to learn about ancient Egyptian civilization, and much of what we know about ancient Egypt goes back to this expedition, where of course, the Rosetta Stone was found.  But, at the same time, Napoleon went to Egypt with the typical colonialist attitude of wanting to bring "civilization" to the people of Egypt.  He also underestimated the Egyptians as fighters, which contributed to the disaster there.

Also, Zamoyski is strong when writing about Napoleon as a propagandist.  Throughout his career, he manipulated his reports from the battlefield to show himself in the best possible light, frequently exaggerating the number of enemy dead and wounded, and diminishing the number of dead and wounded on his own side.  The people of France believed his reports, since there was no way of verifying the numbers at the time, and that contributed to their belief in him as a victorious hero.  Napoleon never stopped believing in his destiny, his "star," as he called it.

Zamoyski thinks there were several reasons for Napoleon's downfall, beginning with the Russian campaign.  He made some very poor decisions there, including staying in Moscow too long and taking the wounded with him when the army retreated.  The wounded were receiving good care where they were, and only slowed the army down during the retreat, where most of them died.  One interesting point that Zamoyski makes is that the character of Napoleon's army changed in the last years.  At the beginning, they were all French, and they thought they were spreading liberty to Europe.  But, as more and more men were killed, the army came to consist of men of many different nationalities, many of them raw recruits, who did not really want to fight and did not know what they were fighting for.  Napoleon's enemies, such as the Russians, were fighting for their countries, and that made a difference.

The account of Napoleon's exile on St. Helena, where he was badly treated by the governor there, brings this biography to a heartbreaking close.  I would have liked to see a little more about what happened to various members of Napoleon's family after his exile, but that information is easily found elsewhere.  Zamoyski's biography reads well, in spite of its length of over 700 pages (670 pages of text).  Since Zamoyski is Polish, he had access to Polish and Russian sources that were unavailable to other historians.  I highly recommend this biography to anyone interested in Napoleon and his times, even though people whose main interest is the battles will have to look elsewhere.

Napoleon: A Life is available, under the British title Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth, from the Hatcher Graduate Library.