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An Interview with Michael Broers: Part II

Portrait of General Bonaparte (1797) by Jacques-Louis David [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of General Bonaparte (1797) by Jacques-Louis David [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At the end of Part I of this interview with Napoleon expert Michael Broers, we left Napoleon in Paris: aimless, depressed, and stuck at the Topographic Bureau. Join us now as we forge onwards to ever bigger and more complex things.

No doubt, during those nine idle months in Paris, Napoleon achieved about as much as a normal human being working really hard.

Yes, I think that’s right. When you look back at the notes he took, the studies he made, particularly of Northern Italy—its geography, its climate, its infrastructure—it’s pretty remarkable. For a lot of people, they would have published that and said, there’s my life’s work. And that was him just marking time. He was quite remarkable in that respect. One of the things you find about him going through the correspondence is that he really did read voraciously. He asked if he could meet Goethe, who was the great poet and novelist of the age, and Goethe said that Napoleon came to him almost like some desperate graduate student wanting an interview for the thesis. Not “I’m Napoleon, I’m the greatest man of the era, you’re Goethe, the greatest author of the era, let’s schmooze,” but “I’ve read this or that ten times, and I’ve always wondered: what do you mean here?” And Goethe was taken aback, in a way, that this guy had wanted to meet him because he’d read his books and knew them by heart, and wanted to know if he’d got it right. He was like that. He was so curious about the world. I think that’s one of the things that endears him to me a little bit: that he’s so curious about everything. He read up about vaccinations and things like that, and he was so determined that the government should promote vaccination of both animals and people, because he understood chemistry. He was a very learned man.

And he deployed all of it—he used all of this knowledge, one way or another. I’m particularly thinking about those nine months and the work he did on Italy. It came into play later on, didn’t it?

It certainly did. In fact, one of the things I’m working on in Volume Two that strikes me: when he was a teenager, and at school—obviously a very unhappy time at boarding school—he read all this romantic literature, Rousseau and Goethe and things like that. I have to say, I’ve put myself through that, partly because I teach Rousseau as part of our remit. I’ve read all the novels, Émile and La Nouvelle Héloise and Goethe’s Werther. (Never read Werther if you’re prone to depression.) All that stuff that he read doesn’t really impinge on his proper life because he is, as we’ve been saying, a curious, active, very enthusiastic guy; it’s part of his character that if someone comes to him with a good idea, he says, “Yes, this is a great idea. I’ll help you!” But when it comes to the romantic stuff, when he’s stranded on St. Helena and writing his memoirs… You can’t prove this, right, but I think it’s pretty obvious from the way he casts himself in the memoirs he dictates in exile on St. Helena: this is what people like, this is popular literature. These memoirs are going to make a splash; this is how I’m going to portray myself, and I can do it. Nothing went to waste, like you said. Get Werther; get Rousseau; get Jane Austen, for that matter. Haul that out of the memory bank and let’s use it. Nothing got wasted.

That’s tremendous. I have to say that one of the things I really like about your biography—and I am generally very grumpy about biography as a whole, being trained in social history, but this is one of the very few I’ve really enjoyed about anyone—is the way you free Napoleon from the ways in which people try to evaluate him through the lens of their personal conviction. You read Napoleon by his own lights and that is, I think, something very valuable and impressive in what you’ve set out to do.

That’s very heartening from you, Kirsty, because I’m a pupil of Richard Cobb and I am, a bit like you, very suspicious of the great-man-in-history kind of thing. Personally, I think I’m a bit of a frustrated anthropologist; I tend to look for someone in their context and, to me, that was the launchpad. Even though I confess that the first chapter was the one I wrote last, because I think you have to understand somebody in action in life before you can go back and evaluate their background properly. I don’t think you can start with the background; I think you have to look back to it. And one of the things I was interested in when I was doing this was looking at the Corsican background, seeing him in his context, on his own terms. I suppose, in that sense, I am a revisionist at heart; I think you have to try and take people as you find them on their own terms. You can’t do it—I’m not saying this is possible—but you have to try all the same. Try and see them the way they saw themselves; try and think about what was important to people at the time and understand them, before you can impose your own judgements. And that is genuinely the way I feel about history.

This is the first biography you’ve written, is that correct?

Yes, it is. I’m not sure whether it will be the last—it might be. It’s not a genre I was initially ever drawn to write, until—well, partly I was approached, but partly because of the new edition of the correspondence coming out from the Fondation Napoléon. I finally thought: this means you can write a proper biography of somebody. Because, if you think about most big Lives of Napoleon, the official correspondence that was brought out by his nephew was so sanitised that people actually needed to use memoirs to get behind the sanitised correspondence, which is a strange way to write biography. Memoirs are the most unreliable sources but, because Napoleon’s official correspondence was so unreliable, the memoirs became the supplement that was more reliable. It’s crazy. It’s the wrong side around. Now that this has come out, I thought, wait a minute: somebody can do something here, I may as well have a go. It’s ironic, it’s terribly ironic that I am doing this book, because my initial work was spurred by the fact that we’ve got to get away from the Great Man. We’ve got to look at the period. We’ve got to look at the régime itself and how it worked, and we’ve got to look at how people responded to it. Of course, a lot of my work has been very anti-Napoleonic. But I’ve found that I’ve really enjoyed this process. It’s become a labour of love. I think, too, because the man himself is so much of his time. He’s not a moper; he’s not introspective. That’s not to say he doesn’t have an inner eye, and he doesn’t have a sense of humour about himself, because he can laugh at himself. But it’s very much: these are the times we live in, and we’re part of them. This is the hand we’re dealt, and we have to get on with it. The man and the times mesh. I have to confess that when I’ve finished this book I am going on—I hope, I’ve certainly done a lot of writing towards it—to write a book called (it’s a very pretentious title, for the moment) Napoleonic Civilisation: An Exercise in Pride and Prejudice, for Oxford University Press. And that’s very much going back to: this wasn’t just Napoleon, this was a whole generation, but he was successful as such a leader because obviously he’s an extraordinary person, but he was also able to encapsulate the hopes, the fears, the ambitions of his own times.

At this point, Schiller’s ghost got into the phone line and disrupted the connection from Germany, and time was pressing. We tied up the conversation over email.

We were talking about reading Napoleon by his own lights. It strikes me that the Saint-Domingue expedition [intended to regain control of what is now Haiti and suppress the revolution led by Toussaint Louverture] is a difficult—and rightly very sensitive—instance which calls forth a justifiably strong reaction. What’s your assessment of the public response to this episode, and how could it best be approached? (I’m thinking especially of Le crime de Napoléon and its troubled reception.)

I’ve tried to tackle this in the book, and spent quite a bit of time on it, from the point of view of the biographer: I wanted to test the question of whether Napoleon was a racist or not, and his views on slavery. He was NOT racist, to confront Le crime, but he was pretty cynical about slavery; as were most French revolutionaries, truth be told. (They never tried to enforce abolition in the Seychelles, for example.) He let it be re-established in Martinique and Guadaloupe, and I don’t think we can really say if he was sincere to Toussaint when he said he would not, in Haiti; but he would have left Toussaint alone, had he not invaded Spanish territory. Napoleon regretted how he handled Toussaint, was generous to his men (if not to him) and showed no trace of racism there. But he did play the race card with the British, when he wanted to get peace with them, and offered to help enforce the slave trade. Cynical, but not racist. It’s pretty clear he regretted what he did in Haiti, not just in his memoirs, but from his correspondence and others’ memoirs.

This is more personal curiosity, but I wondered which materials you drew on for Joséphine’s actions and motivations, especially where these are essentially private and internal?

It is always hard; it is guess work. I inferred things from her circumstances, mostly, and tried to set her in the context of other women like her, her circle of friends, who often behaved in similar ways. I also tried to work out her feelings from Napoleon’s responses to her. She was not a writer, so that makes it hard! You can never really know about relationships, but Napoleon was a very honest man by his own lights, when he wrote to her.

Finally, we always ask guests to recommend five books: I’m going to take the liberty of adapting this to “five books about Napoleon”!

Steven Englund: Napoleon. A political biography.

Luigi Maschilli Migliorini: Napoleone (in Italian, and a French translation)

Georges Lefebvre: Napoléon (in French)

Emil Ludwig: Napoleon (in German, with English and French translations—the truth of the poet!)

David Chandler: The Campaigns of Napoleon

Many thanks, Professor Broers, for being so generous with your time and thoughts.

Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny is published by Faber & Faber (March 6 2014). Hardcover, 608 pp., ISBN: 978-0571273430. To find out more about Michael Broers and his work, including Napoleon’s Other War (2010) and Grand Prix Napoléon winner The Napoleonic Empire in Italy, 1796-1814 (2005), visit his website.

4 comments on “An Interview with Michael Broers: Part II

  1. Pingback: An Interview with Michael Broers: Part I | Vulpes Libris

  2. Pingback: Interview with Michael Broers, author of Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny | Kirsty Jane McCluskey

  3. Melrose
    May 1, 2014

    That was a very in-depth discussion, and makes you realise how simplistic many people’s views are of Napoleon,. He is such a complex personality, and involved in so many events going on at that time. It sounds (to use a phrase used at the start of the interview) like it woud be a life’s work to take in all the subject matter, broached here, that surrounds him, and would be a fascinating challenge. I have to say that this is one of the best interviews I have read, I think, on a subject, I know so little about. Thank you, Professor Broers, for such a thought-provoking discussion with Kirsty – I am left with lots of wondering – lots and lots an lots of questions, including the most mundane one – where did he get such boundless energy, where did it come from? I’d like a little bit of it!

  4. Kate
    May 2, 2014

    I did enjoy this, finding out just some of the things NB did, which starts showing how much more there is to find out about.

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