Saturday, January 12, 2019

Sir Walter Scott: The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte

In 1786, [Napoleon] became an adventurer for the honours of literature also, and was anonymously a competitor for the prize offered by the Academy of Lyons on Raynal’s question, “What are the principles and institutions, by application of which mankind can be raised to the highest pitch of happiness”. The prize was adjudged to the young soldier. It is impossible to avoid feeling curiosity to know the character of the juvenile theories respecting government, advocated by one who at length attained the power of practically making what experiments he pleased. Probably his early ideas did not exactly coincide with his more mature practice ; for when Talleyrand, many years afterwards, got the Essay out of the records of the Academy, and returned it to the author, Buonaparte destroyed it, after he had read a few pages. He also laboured under the temptation of writing a journey from Valence to Mount Cenis, after the manner of Sterne, which he was fortunate enough finally to resist. The affectation which pervades Sterne’s peculiar style of composition, was not likely to be simplified under the pen of Buonaparte.
In 1789, Buonaparte, then quartered at Auxonne, had composed a work, which might form two volumes, on the political, civil, and military history of Corsica. He addressed a letter to General Paoli, then residing in London, on the subject of the proposed work, and the actual condition of his countrymen. He also submitted it to the Abbé Raynal, who recommended the publication of it. With this view, Buonaparte invited M. Joly, a bookseller of Dole, to visit him at Auxonne. He came, he says, and found the future Emperor in a naked barrack room, the sole furniture of which consisted of a wretched bed without curtains, a table placed in the embrasure of a window, loaded with books and papers, and two chairs. His brother Louis, whom he was teaching mathematics, lay on a wretched mattress, in an adjoining closet. M. Joly and the author agreed on the price of the impression of the book, but Napoleon was at the time in uncertainty whether he was to remain at Auxonne or not. The work was never printed, nor has a trace of it been discovered.

(from The Life of Nopoleon Buonaparte, Ch XIX in the full edition, but Ch I in mine)

Auxonne (pronounced "Aussonne") is in Burgundy, a few miles east of Dijon.

Louis Napoleon, in one of the numerous corrective footnotes that he added to Scott's work, tells us that M. Joly's account was romanticized. Napoleon had been allocated a good, larger-than-average room, as it was known that Louis was going to be staying with him.


It's taken me a couple of years -- longer than Scott took to write it! -- but I've finally finished reading the Life of Napoleon Buonaparte (downloaded to the Kindle app on my smartphone). Mostly in the dark, while settling down for a night in the van. Not ideal, especially since the phone screen got shattered. That was last August, while we were messing about on the fitness machines outside the "aire" at Le Mans.

Some provisos. Scott's massive book was published in nine volumes (June 1827 onwards). The eighteen introductory chapters, about the French Revolution and the wider European context in which Napoleon first emerged, are most unfortunately missing from my text. This text, I should explain, formed part of a £1 collection of Scott's complete works in Kindle format. The OCR-produced text is atrocious. It swarms with typos and many passages, especially in the numerous footnotes, are simply incomprehensible. These footnotes interrupt the main text, and each other, without any warning. So I became resigned to giving up an anecdote in mid-sentence with no assurance of when, or if, I would get to hear the end of it.

I had two motives for embarking on the Life of Buonaparte : to read more of one of my favourite authors, and to redress some of my ignorance of a part of European history of enormous cultural significance.

I don't regret the time I spent, but I'm not sure I could honestly recommend the exercise to casual readers. The Life of Buonaparte was mostly written during the worst year of Scott's life (discounting the final ones, when his health had broken down and his writing  became a mere compulsive tic). In 1826-27 the dire background of bereavement, illness and bankruptcy didn't  stop Woodstock and the Journal from being great books. But the Life became increasingly a conscientious slog, a way to numb himself from his own pain and grief. Scott's characteristic humour and breadth of acute reference are almost entirely missing.

A French translation followed later in 1827, then German and Spanish. The book was a commercial success but the reviews were critical. French reviewers thought that Scott wrote too coolly of Napoleon; British reviewers thought that he wrote too warmly. Though these criticisms, and others, appeared flatly contradictory, yet you can't help wondering if the critics were united in sensing an endeavour that fell short of its potential . Scott didn't disagree. Soon after its publication, he told his friend John Leycester Adolphus, "I could have done it better, if I could have written more at leisure, and with a mind more at ease."

A visual of the full text, in both English and French, can be read here:

There are hundreds of Lives of Napoleon. Napoleon died on 5th May, 1821, so this is certainly a very early one. (Good luck finding a list, by the way.)

It's very detailed, and yet I think a modern reader will repeatedly think of questions that seem to call for some attention but don't receive any.  At least, that was my experience.

The earliest volumes make the best reading. Scott's account of Napoleon's Italian campaigns is often thrilling. Scott is always happiest when he can be honestly enthusiastic about his protagonist, even (or especially) when the protagonist isn't on his side.

But as Napoleon's less admirable features accumulate -- the duplicity and atrocity in Egypt, the bonfire of democratic freedoms in France, the serial lying of the Moniteur, the monstrosity of appointing himself emperor -- so the author loses his zest.

He remains, however, scrupulously just. If we miss Scott the visionary novelist, the stirring poet, the chatty essayist, yet still we have Scott the adept compiler of history and, perhaps above all, Scott the lawyer. The best sections of the later volumes are when he pronounces weightily on a moral point. For instance, Napoleon's accountability for the execution, or murder, of the Duc d'Enghien; whether Napoleon had a moral case for interfering in Spain in 1809, or for declaring war on Russia in 1812;  whether Bernadotte was disloyal to Napoleon, once he had accepted the Swedish crown; whether there was any validity in Napoleon's claim that he had been betrayed by the British when they exiled him to St Helena, etc.


My desire to learn more about European history arose, of course, in reaction to the dismaying result of the 2016 referendum.

Well, at least no-one witters any more about history being over. History is unmistakably here and is moving with frightening speed. It's curious how almost everything I read now, historical or otherwise, seems to have something urgent to say about our own times.

But perhaps the most striking thing, in this case, is Scott's profound belief in the importance of genuine democracy; a theme that arises particularly in connection with Napoleon's practical despotism, though not only there. (By modern standards democracy in the early nineteenth century was  a distinctly limited affair, but as an alternative to absolutism it seemed very precious.)

I can't help contrasting his view with where we are today.  On the one hand, the willingness of today's right-wing populists to subvert democratic process by any means available, criminality and fraudulence not excepted, and the willingness of so many to overlook this.

On the other hand (and no less alarming) the refusal of so many of us earnest left-leaning progressives to understand our obligation to accept a democratic outcome regardless of whether we voted for it ourselves.

Surveys seem to show that young people are becoming less committed to democracy. Perhaps they see it as a system that has serially failed to counter the evils of capitalism and the catastrophe of environmental destruction.

But is that really an informed view? Hasn't it, rather, been failures in the implementation of true democracy that have made our systems of government less effective than they need to be?

Would disentranchising some or most people be likely to solve the enormous problems of capitalism and environmental destruction?

But this isn't, at root, about systems of government. It's about whether people, people such as ourselves, still recognize an over-riding social duty to behave with integrity.

I'm thinking in particular of the integrity to reject, not only the transgressions of the other side (everyone does that), but the transgressions of our own side. It's becoming a rare virtue. Perhaps many don't even regard it as a virtue. Who wants such unreliable people around? Especially in a battle?

But is battling, of all things, what we really need?

Granted that Scott was well-born, white, male, Protestant, and a firm Tory in a period when Tories were seriously hard-line, his unfailing belief that all questions are moral questions feels like something we might have to learn from at some stage. As history is speeding up, it might be soon.



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