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Michael Broers is a specialist of eighteenth and nineteenth century French and Italian history at the University of Oxford. He’s also the author of Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny, Volume One of a comprehensive biography, the first to work from the new and unexpurgated Correspondence published by the Fondation Napoléon.
I can always talk about Napoleon—oh boy, can I talk about Napoleon—so I was very pleased when Professor Broers agreed to grant me an interview. I started, as always, with the most obvious question.
Well, he’s a central figure in the history of Europe, and I think one of the things that emerged from a lot of the new work that’s been done on Napoleon—I’ve been part of it, and a lot of other people, too, in most European countries—is how important those great reforms that were carried out in Volume One, you might say, have been for laying the foundations of modern Europe. The legal code, which is something that interests me very much, the administrative system… these things were hammered out in a template in the period that this volume covers, from 1800 to 1804-5, that exported to the rest of Europe. Really, when you look at most continental European countries—not all, but most, particularly the core states of the EU—this is the basis of their public sphere. This is the basis of their public life. And I think, just personally, that you can never exhaust Napoleon. Up to that time, Napoleon’s unique. There’s never been anybody like him before, though there have been plenty of imitators afterwards. So I think every generation should have its Lives of Napoleon, myself.
This is something I often think myself: on one hand, he is the originator of so many of the things we take for granted, yet I have the feeling that opinion about Napoleon is so often divided along national lines—the old loyalties. Do you find that, too, in the reception of your work?
Yes, very much. I think it’s probably truer in this country than almost anywhere else, if I’m honest. There is a simple school of thought that equates Napoleon with Hitler and simply says: “I hate Napoleon, he was a tyrant.” And if you go to the work of someone like Linda Colley, in that marvellous book she wrote, Britons, it’s part of the British continuum that he’s the foreigner, he’s the Other, he’s going to impose tyranny on us. And so you just mention the word, and you get vitriol. And of course there is the fact—Britain and Russia are, I think, uniquely able to say this, well, the Spanish too—that we beat him. So it enters the national consciousness in that way, too. But one of the things I think has changed enormously over most of Europe is that this period is now perceived much more objectively. There was a time, say, in the Low Countries and in the Netherlands in particular, and in Spain—still to a great extent in Spain—in Germany and Italy that it was felt: he occupied us, he subjugated us, and so that period is kind of swept under the carpet. People didn’t want to talk about it, and the great changes to the public life of those countries that were brought about by Napoleon had to be attributed to other factors. Which simply doesn’t stand up. Really, I think it’s the last thirty years or so, I suppose—the last generation, particularly since Europe has become more important—that people are beginning to look at him and his life’s work rather differently. And so you don’t get this innate prejudice against him. You do in some parts. I mean, Venetians still hate him—Venetians hate everybody—because he’s perceived as having taken away their independence. Those corners can still be there. But really, no: what you find much more nowadays is that people are more objective.
And yet—and I think this quite right—there’s no straightforward admiration for him, either. Except on modern-day Elba, of course.
Well, indeed. And in fact, on Elba, they were pretty uneasy with him being there. They didn’t like the idea of this European celebrity being there who might disturb them. No, there’s never, ever unequivocal admiration for him. The French themselves are very ambivalent. My grandmother was French, and one of my bigger childhood memories as a little boy is being on holiday with her in Rouen. Outside the cathedral at Rouen there’s a large equestrian statue of Napoleon, and she said to me: “Take a good look at it—you won’t see very many.” And, indeed, if you go around Paris you’ll see on the inner ringroad—the périphérique, they call it—that all the boulevards around there are named after Napoleon’s marshals. But the rue Bonaparte is a tiny little side street near Saint-Germain-des-Près. You won’t find too many statues of Napoleon in France. He is too controversial, because to some of the French left, in some ways, he is a man of the right who extinguished the liberties of the revolution. A lot of people see him as a warmonger. All that, to some extent, is true. But he’s not quite comme il faut for the old royalist right either, because to them he’s still the revolution; he’s a parvenu, he’s not the king. So, in a sense, real fame in France is when they’re afraid to name something after you, not when they do. But you’ll see this everywhere, and quite right, too, because he’s a very complex person who left a very complex legacy.
I wonder too whether Trotsky’s formulation of bonapartizm also had a certain sideways impact on the European left via the influence of international socialist literature?
Well, for my money, still probably the greatest Life of Napoleon—not of the man, but of the man and his times—was by the great Marxist historian Georges Lefebvre. I am not a Marxist myself, but have a tremendous respect for Marxists like Lefebvre, who says that Napoleon was the person who finally took the French Revolution by the scruff of the neck and saw it for what it was. It was about establishing property rights, which he did through the Civil Code, it was about enshrining the protection of the individual and of private property and of individual initiative through the law, and he did that. He finally saw what the French revolution was about, and turned it around and made sure that the bourgeoisie triumphed. I actually think that is something that a lot of the more, shall we say, soft-centred modern pseudo-Marxism loses sight of.
That’s something I find myself bemoaning (being a bit of an old-school Marxist myself): the lack of that rigour, of that sense for the big historical factors, the big movements.
To a certain extent. Lefebvre—although as I say I’m not a Marxist in the slightest—is very much an intellectual hero of mine in that he had the courage of his Marxist convictions and said that what the French Revolution is about is one band of brothers taking over from another. This is not about liberty, equality and fraternity: this is about the triumph of a bourgeoisie that is ready, willing and able to seize control of the public sphere because it already controls the means of production. And he carries this through in his Life of Napoleon, as I say, in that this is the person who finally, who absolutely saw what it was really all about; and that is why his principal reform was about the law, about protecting the individual. I think this writes an awful lot of complexities out of it, but it does show a rigour, a clear-sightedness. And to people who start going on about “oh well, you know, he extinguished an awful lot of the liberties of the revolution, he emasculated parliamentary government, he was a warmonger,” Lefebvre is the one who stands up and says: “Well, if that’s what you think the French Revolution was about, you’re not a Marxist.” I think that Life of Napoleon gave us enormous insight into an incredibly powerful mind. As to what, in Lefebvre’s mind at least, Napoleon was all about: I think a great deal of Napoleon is about that, although I wouldn’t put it myself in these rigid class terms, simply because I don’t think that that kind of definition of class really fits the realities of the period. But I do think that Lefebvre really hit the nail on the head when he said: look, this is about creating a state which may not be free and liberal in the way that the French revolutionaries wanted, but guarantees the material rights and protection of the individual to a greater extent than anything else, and he knows that that’s the key to his popularity, the key to his success.
I suppose a single biography cannot address everything; if it handles one aspect very well, then it’s done something invaluable.
Well, I hope so [laughs]. It is an enormous task; this has been brought home to me again and again, and of course I’m in the midst of writing Volume Two. One of the things that a recent biographer of Napoleon, my friend Stephen Englund, said was that Napoleon was not a complex person, but he was multifaceted. I would dispute that—I think he is a very complex man—but I would never dispute the fact that he is multifaceted. There is so much going on in that dynamic life. I have this problem with my editor all the time: what do we leave out? Two volumes at two hundred thousand words. Neil, my editor at Faber, whom I think the world of, said that what enrages him about me is that I’m always looking for something to cut, and I don’t really want to cut anything if there’s still something else to go. Because Napoleon was like that: the new correspondence the Fondation Napoléon is producing is voluminous, practically none of it’s wasted. He was a very hard-working chap who could dictate to four or five secretaries at the same time and fire off letters of his own. He was involved in everything, and at the head of everything, so it’s a real challenge to try and write a well-rounded definitive Life. It’s a discussion many of us in the field often have: how do you approach it? To just say, as Lefebvre did, “I’m writing about the life and the times and I’m not as worried about the private life”; or, as Geoffrey Ellis has done, to write more for a British student audience; you can do it very well. If, like Stephen Englund, you say: “I’m writing a political life, I’m not worried about the soldier, I’m not over-worried about the personal life,” you can manage it pretty well. But if you sit down and say: “I’m going to try to write a well-rounded life,” as I’m trying to do, it’s not that you’re short of material—quite the opposite—it’s what do I prioritise, what do I simply leave out? It’s not an easy task.
That’s something that struck me on a visit to Elba: just how productive Napoleon was. There was no time wasted.
None. Unless his health breaks down. He doesn’t waste time. I can only find one moment in his active life when he does seem to be dragging his feet and genuinely timewasting, and that is a period in the mid-1790s when he has refused a military appointment he was offered in the Vendée. And so he’s put in the Topographic Bureau, which is like being told to sweep out the office. So he’s on half pay in Paris, trying to support his family; he has no career prospects; he’s in a very boring job. Even though, it has to be said, he does a lot of good work in the Topographic Bureau; particularly on the Italian front, which will stand him in great stead later, but he can’t know that. And for the first time, he admits this in correspondence: I’m not waking up in the morning, I’m just moping around. He was scruffy, you know, he’s depressed. And I think that’s the only time in his life, that nine months or so, when really you begin to think that he’s wasting his time. It just doesn’t happen for him; you’re quite right. He’s working all the time. When you consider that certainly from his forties he’s probably suffering from pretty acute stomach cancer, it’s remarkable.
Join us here for Part II, when we talk biography and narrative, source material and Saint-Domingue.
Snuggling down with books in the chilly mornings is advised, and then the warm afternoons can draw you out onto the park benches. Let us offer you some absorbing reading suggestions to get you down to the library.
Monday 18th: the personal is political is … procedural? Guest Fox Margaret Kirk discusses crime writing and current events.
Wednesday 20th: Colin is off to the wars and is charmed by Anthony Rhodes’ Sword of Bone and impressed by a 1920s forgotten bestseller, W F Morris’ Bretherton.
Friday 22nd: Kate is embarrassed to have taken so long to discover Penelope Lively’s adult fiction.