This first in a two-part biography does an excellent job of delineating the emotional and intellectual development of the Corsican general–turned–French emperor.
English historian Broers (Western European History/Oxford Univ.; Napoleon's Other War: Bandits, Rebels and Their Pursuers in the Age of Revolutions, 2010, etc.) offers a wonderful sense of the genius—and man—who was so stunningly able to remake European boundaries and mores after the meltdown from the French Revolution. In this first volume, the author moves from Napoleon’s idyllic years growing up in Corsica to his being chased out of the “cradle” with his mother and family for running afoul of the republicans in 1793. He eventually washed up on the shores of the Riviera and was able to make his career mark in the army with the siege of Toulon. The “politics of survival” dictated the years to follow, up to 1765, but Broers astutely points out that Napoleon was the last generation of supremely and classically well-read leaders (a group that includes Thomas Jefferson) and that his advance in the military, as well as within a heavily striated society, was largely the result of his diligent, ongoing efforts at self-improvement. Working from the “still emerging,” unexpurgated correspondence (which reaches the year 1809) being compiled by the Fondation Napoléon in Paris, under the direction of distinguished French historian Thierry Lentz, the author offers some exciting character observations. Napoleon had an eye for catching talent—he adored and elevated his very worthy stepchildren, Hortense and Eugène—while tolerating the outrageous shenanigans of many members of his family. From his previous work, Broers is well-attuned to how Napoleon fashioned his conquest and administration of Italy: “amalgamation” and “rallying to the new regime.” His proto-empire then allowed a swift and efficient system of wider reforms in France after the coup.
Among the plethora of Napoleon biographies, this is immensely engaging for lay readers.