Towards the end of this political biography of Napoleon, Steven Englund remarks that successive French regimes have never known quite how to integrate the Emperor into their official representations of national history, and that the Fifth Republic is no exception. An independent scholar living in Paris, whose family origins lie in the film industry—he is the co-author, among other works, of The Inquisition in Hollywood, a study of McCarthyism in the studios, and once produced a life of Grace Kelly—Englund is also a historian who wrote his thesis on ‘The Origin of Oppositional Nationalism in France 1881–1889’ under Arno Mayer, and publishes like any other in professional journals. His next book will be a biography of Charles de Gaulle. His life of Bonaparte is written within the tradition of biographies of great men and their interaction with their times, and it does not expand in any way the limits of the genre. But, aimed at an educated public, it stands out from the run of such works on Napoleon by its level of analytic intelligence, its mastery of recent scholarship, and its generally balanced approach to its protagonist. It is also a pleasure to read.

A decade ago, Englund noted that the time of impassioned attacks on or apologues for Napoleon appeared to have passed. Whereas the appeal of the great historians who wrote about the Emperor in the nineteenth century lay in a ‘triumph of their engagement over their detachment’, nowadays ‘a historiographer would have a hard time making exciting reading out of relatively slight and nuanced differences of opinion among historians in their overall view of Napoleon’. Englund’s study, written from a left-of-centre standpoint, brings back the political engagement, without allowing it to overwhelm the scholarly detachment.

The underlying question that shapes the form of this biography is the phenomenon of national consent to Bonapartist rule—the reasons why not only the French political class and upper bourgeoisie rallied to Napoleon so completely after the overthrow of the monarchy, but the mass of the French people at large were willing to fight valiantly, even after 1812, in a futile defence of the Emperor. The answer that Englund gives determines the narrative and structure of his book. He sees Napoleon as a child of the Revolution, who once in power was perceived by his contemporaries as indispensable for guarding its achievements. For them, he argues, it became either him—and it didn’t matter whether it was Napoleon as General, Napoleon as Consul, or Napoleon as Emperor—or the restoration of the Bourbons. Nothing else was imaginable, and no other alternative was offered by his domestic opponents. This was not only his doing, though he certainly did much to contribute to the belief. It was also the way the successive coalitions of European powers arrayed against Napoleon portrayed him. He was never truly accepted as an equal among the crowned heads of Europe, even after he married the niece of Marie Antoinette, no matter what regalia he wore or how many counts or dukes he surrounded himself with. For them he was always a product of the Republic; something which the Emperor himself, as Englund shows, never quite forgot.

The overall design of the biography reflects this view. It is divided into four parts, each headed by a line from the first verse of the Marseillaise. Thus Allons enfants de la Patrie: the youthful Bonaparte rallies first to Corsica, his native land, and then to Revolutionary France. Le jour de gloire est arrivé: he brings the Republic one triumph after another on the battlefield. Contre nous, de la tyrannie: as he erects his Empire, the European monarchies form one coalition after another against him. L’Étendard sanglant est levé: the Ancien Régimes gain the upper hand, and the Bourbons return. The bloody flag of tyranny wins the day. A second theme is interwoven with this narrative biography. It is the tale of a personal rise to glory and then self-imposed decline, and it is told with regret and much sadness. For Englund Napoleon’s deterioration begins with the breakdown of the peace of Amiens in 1802, for which he holds him primarily, though not exclusively, responsible. Thereafter hubris leads to a series of bad choices and decreasing political insight, as successive wrong decisions narrow the available options, until in the end the road taken appears all but inevitable. On this level, the biography is the story of the progressive disappointment of the author in his protagonist.

There follow from Englund’s focus of interest a number of exclusions. The first of these is any extended consideration of Napoleon’s qualities as a military commander. Although he explains that his childhood fascination with the Emperor was as a general, battles and strategies are confined to a bare minimum here: the Russian campaign gets just three pages, out of nearly six hundred. Anyone wishing for a clear sense of what most distinguished Napoleon as a military commander, other than luck and improvisation, will not find it here. Politics, not arms, is Englund’s theme. Nor is he especially concerned with the more enigmatic sides of Napoleon as a personality. The psychological portrait he offers of the young Bonaparte, up to the age of twenty, when the Revolution broke, is vivid enough. But once politics takes over, from 1789 onwards, his treatment of Napoleon as a human being becomes much more perfunctory.

If this saves him from much banal commentary or speculation, it also limits what he can say about aspects of Napoleon’s character and development that are plainly of interest. His relations with the opposite sex are the most striking example. Nothing could be less like a cold calculator of political advantage than the 24-year-old officer madly in love with Josephine Beauharnais, who was not only much older, but indifferent and unfaithful to him. Her infidelity was publicly advertised—through the good offices of Nelson—in the Morning Chronicle, in an early feat of the English gutter press, yet he forgave her and she remained his closest friend until his death. Englund treats the affecting relationship between the two with respect, but without any depth. Towards the end of his life, Napoleon confessed that ‘Josephine possessed an exact knowledge of the intricacies of my character’, but these are not what detain Englund. He rightly reminds us of Bonaparte’s conservative attitude to women once he achieved power—the Code Civile restored much of pre-revolutionary patriarchy, ‘including a tightening of the rules of divorce and the subordination of women to their husbands and fathers’—and cites his comment at St Helena that ‘one must not get caught up in arguing with women; it is best to listen in silence as they talk irrationally’. But he also mentions ‘a more honest’ moment in exile, when the deposed Emperor expressed regret that he had not given more time to women: ‘I could have learned a lot of things from them.’ In general, the inconsistencies over time between the personal and political are left to one side.

Another relatively neglected aspect of Napoleon’s personality is his intellectual development, of which Englund provides no sustained account. Here too, we are told much more prior to his assumption of supreme power than after. In Englund’s view, it was after graduation from the École Royale Militaire in 1785, when he was free of its rigid curriculum and mediocre instruction that a ‘born autodidact came into his own’. Posted initially to Valence, over the next eight years Bonaparte read voraciously across a wide range of subjects, from astronomy and mathematics to geography and philosophy, steeping himself in texts of the Enlightenment and pre-Romanticism, and trying his hand at fiction, both short stories and a novel. He admired—a particular irony, in view of later actions—and commented on Raynal’s passionately anti-colonial Histoire des deux Indes, and read everything of Rousseau from the Social Contract to the Confessions. At the height of his Empire, happening to be in Ermenonville, where Rousseau spent his last weeks, he told his travel companions: ‘Only the future will teach us whether it would not have been better, for the sake of peace on earth, if Rousseau and I had never existed’.