The age of Napoleon transformed Europe, laying the foundations for the modern world. Now Alistair Horne, one of the great chroniclers of French history gives us a fresh account of that remarkable time. Born into poverty on the remote island of Corsica, he rose to prominence in the turbulent years following the French Revolution, when most of Europe was arrayed against France. Through a string of brilliant and improbable victories (gained as much through his remarkable ability to inspire his troops as through his military genius), Napoleon brought about a triumphant peace that made him the idol of France and, later, its absolute ruler. Heir to the Revolution, Napoleon himself was not a revolutionary; rather he was a reformer and a modernizer, both liberator and autocrat. Looking to the Napoleonic wars that raged on the one hand, and to the new social order emerging on the other, Horne incisively guides readers through every aspect of Napoleon's two-decade rule: from France's newfound commitment to an aristocracy based on merit rather than inheritance, to its civil code (Napoleon's most important and enduring legacy), to censorship, cuisine, the texture of daily life in Paris, and the influence of Napoleon abroad.
Two centuries on, Napoleon remains very much a part of European political discourse, as French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin's recent 600-page canonization of the Corsican-born leader made clear. From the pen of the popular historian Horne (Seven Ages of Paris; The Price of Glory: Verdun, 1916) comes a slim and sexy addition to the 600,000 works on Napoleon Horne says are in existence. Here the author focuses on the nonmilitary and domestic dimensions of Napoleon's life and times: particularly his character, his private life, his beautification of Paris, the style empire and the see-through gossamer blouses of the ladies of the naughty 1790s. Horne's taste for the titillating will be shared by some readers: in Egypt, Napoleon "was solaced by a lady called La Bellilote, who concealed a well-rounded pair of buttocks in tight officer breaches," in Paris by the full-breasted 15-year-old Mademoiselle George. Horne draws extensively on the pages of Lanzac de Laborie's massive and largely unread early 20th-century account of Napoleonic Paris, which furnishes him with a treasure-trove of local color. Unfortunately, there are several signs of haste: whatever his achievements, Napoleon was not born in the 15th-century reign of Louis XI, and the first years of the 19th century were not a "new millennium"; the book's sexiness, above all, comes at the expense of real weight. Its cultural points of reference (the constant comparisons to the Nazi and Soviet regimes) are dated, and one might wish for a work more seriously engaged with its subject's importance for the universalizing ideologies of the present. As picturesque social history, however, this addition to the Chronicles series is fleet-footed and fast-moving. (May 4) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 08, 2006
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Excerpt from The Age of Napoleon by Alistair Horne
The Will to Power
At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since. -Salvador Dal '
How, first of all, was it possible for a poor Corsican boy, born with limited horizons, to scale such heights By the time he had reached Tilsit in 1807, dictating terms to the Tsar of All the Russians, which represented the peak of his military successes, he was still only thirty-seven. Because of his youth at the conclusion of that most famous run of victories, one tends to forget that he was born under the reign of Louis XV and started his military career under Louis XVI. If he was a child of the ancien r ' gime, he was also very much a product of that event dubbed by Thomas Carlyle "the Death-Birth of a World." He was steeped in the French revolutionary heritage, without which he would surely never have gotten as far as Tilsit.
Commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1785 at the age of sixteen, from the harsh military academy of Brienne, somewhat derided as a "skinny mathematician," this scion of the lesser Corsican nobility made his first real mark on military affairs some eight years later, at the Siege of Toulon in 1793. The key naval base was then held by an English fleet under the command of Admiral Hood; Napoleon, as a twenty-four-year-old artillery captain, was brought in to advise the not very distinguished commander of the French revolutionary forces besieging it. With his genius for the swift coup d'oeil, which was later to stand him in such good stead, young Napoleon Bonaparte's strategy succeeded, and the British were driven out. He became a hero in the ranks of the incompetent revolutionary army (though still unknown outside it), and was promoted to the dizzy rank of g ' n ' ral de brigade when still only twenty-four, and made artillery commander to the Army of Italy.
After a brief, fallow period of considerable frustration, his next opportunity came when, by chance, he happened to be in Paris on sick leave during the autumn of 1795. A revolt was pending against the Convention, and Napoleon was called in by his friend and protector Paul Barras (one of the five members of the governing Directoire) to forestall it. He positioned a few guns (brought up at the gallop by a young cavalry captain called Murat) on the key streets leading to the Tuileries Palace. Three years previously he had witnessed the mob storm the same palace, and the weakness of the King on that occasion had made a lasting impression on him. "If Louis XVI had shown himself on horseback, he would have won the day," Napoleon wrote to his brother Joseph. He was determined not to repeat the same error and showed no hesitation in giving the order to fire. Discharged at point-blank range, the historic "whiff of grapeshot" of the Treizi ' me Vend ' miaire put the mob convincingly to flight. For the first time since 1789 the Paris "street," which had called the tune throughout the Revolution, had found a new master whom it would not lightly shrug off. Barras, grateful but also nervous at having Napoleon so near the center of power, now appointed him-at the age of twenty-seven-commander in chief of the French Army of Italy.