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Author: Paul Johnson
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London 2002


Paul Johnson is not an author who entertains any moral doubts about Napoleon. Had the events of his life occurred in the 21st century he writes that "Bonaparte would have been obliged to face a war crimes tribunal, with inevitable verdict of 'guilty' and a sentence of death or life imprisonment. The evidence then produced would have determined, for ever, in the minds of reasonable people, the degree of responsibility he bore for events that has cost four or five million lives and immense loss of property".

The revisionist, romantic, myth-making that became the Napoleonic legend would not have gathered near irreversible momentum in the age of electronic communication. The truth would out.

The book is billed as a biography and Paul Johnson as a historian but it is neither a true biography nor a history, if only because of manifest errors that can be found in stating well known facts. It is a polemical critique that relentlessly debunks the myth and which offers incisive, and frequently original, criticism in nearly every paragraph. It is the better for it. It is more like polemical journalism, which many consider Johnson's real métier, where a number of errors are acceptable in putting across a point of view. The wonder is that the publishers, in what purports to be a factual series, did not pick up the errors as a matter of course, given that there is no lack of Napoleonic source material to check against.

It is evident that Johnson has thought long and hard for years about what he detests about Bonapartism. The book flows with all the verve of a diatribe that has already been committed to memory. It is not really a biography, even a hostile one. Perhaps it is better that it is not because all biographies, even censorious ones, glamourize their subjects by placing them at the centre of attention. So why did he write it? He himself says "publishers regard a book on Napoleon as more likely to sell, by virtue of its subject alone, than any other biography". Or perhaps dream factory tales of Napoleonic gloire need rebuttal.

For Johnson, Bonaparte was a progenitor of totalitarianism and authoritarian centralisation. If Johnson is morally correct in viewing Bonaparte as a late18th century Milosevic, why did the Napoleonic legend take irrepressible hold? Surely the long perspectives of time are not devoid of corrective moral sensibility?

The conventional view, which Johnson reiterates, is that history was reshaped and reprofiled by what Napoleon and his few courtiers on St Helena conspired to tell the world about his life. Johnson's further view that it suited French politics to fashion a legend is original in its succinctness.

Chips Channon wrote in his Diaries "Reformers will always finally be neglected, while the memoirs of the frivolous will always be eagerly read". In this there is the hint that reformers are ultimately boring and heavy weather.

Back-handedly, Johnson concedes Bonaparte to be a reformer: "Like many people - most people probably - who are radical and 'progressive' in general, he tended to be conservative in particular, especially on matters he thought he knew a lot about".

If the early biographies of Bonaparte, whether fashioned on St Helena or elsewhere, had merely chronicled his military exploits and his reforms, it is doubtful his legend would have grown. Looked upon in a certain light - because he did ultimately lose battles - he might be said to have had military success on a equivalent level to Marlborough. His reforming effect - principally in terms of the Code Civile and the propagation of ideas - perhaps on a par with Wilberforce. Yet no real legend has built up around either Marlborough or Wilberforce.

It is probably because biographies by close associates like Bourrienne and Constant covered the trivia as well as the great events that the legend had soil to grow in. Most of the references to Josephine clearly have a tangent to the frivolous. Napoleon is shown to be personally kind, though not financially generous, to those close to him in his household. His human qualities and intelligence are allowed to shine, displacing the elements that make him an apprenti sorcier for Johnson.

He becomes a study about how a man gains vast power through an understanding of human nature and in this there is always something for the reader to learn and to wonder at.

What of the factual errors? They are of the type that would discourage you from recommending the book to children because they would get lower marks at school if they were repeated. They range from the small - that Napoleon left Elba on a frigate and landed at Antibes or that he never returned to Corsica after 1793 - to some howlers such as the twice repeated assertion that Lucien was made King of Holland. For adults, there is not much wrong with the book at all.