Forrest (Modern History/Univ. of York; Paris, the Provinces and the French Revolution, 2004, etc.) offers a balanced view of one of history’s most complex and controversial characters.
The author seeks not only to show us Napoleon the man, but also Napoleon the player in a vast drama in which he was a principal but not the only player. Forrest begins with the hoopla attending the return of Napoleon’s remains to Paris in 1840 (he’d been interred on St. Helena when he died in 1821). Then, the author backtracks to Corsica and Napoleon’s boyhood, education and military training, the revolution and his emergence as a gifted military strategist and officer. Forrest shows us Napoleon’s voracious reading habits, his patronage of artists and writers, and his ability to identify gifted administrators and marshals. But we also see his congenital inability to delegate, a fault caused by “his arrogance and his complete faith in his own abilities.” The author traces Napoleon’s political rise from consul to emperor and tries to communicate concisely the intricate political alliances in Europe—alliances that at first propelled him into power but eventually led to Waterloo. The author argues that Napoleon’s “Continental System” (imposing French ways everywhere) was “a strategic error” that alienated potential and actual allies. Forrest praises Napoleon for some things—the legal codes, the emphasis on education, the support of scholarly research, especially in Egypt—but as the story advances, all is overwhelmed by the cascades of blood flowing from the battlefields he loved.
An open-minded, cleareyed view of a man who manifested the best and the worst of his species.