Napoleon would have approved of Andrew Roberts’s title. Like Louis XIV, he encouraged his subjects to call him great even during his lifetime. It is surprising that biographers have done it so seldom before, since most of them have been quite as much his fans as Roberts. And there have been hundreds of them. Probably no figure in history has had so many books devoted to him. In English alone he has had five very substantial biographies since 2010. Partly this is owing to seemingly inexhaustible public fascination with one of the greatest soldiers ever. Partly too, it is because we are living through years of Napoleonic bicentenaries, culminating next year in that of Waterloo. After that, there might be a respite, at least until the anniversary of his death in 2021.
Roberts has written about Napoleon before, both in a volume comparing him with Wellington, and in a concise survey of the battle of Waterloo. Now he gives full rein to his admiration. In preparation, he has visited most of the Napoleonic battlefields, and sites of memory as inaccessible even as St Helena. He has been shown innumerable relics great and small, held often by eminent persons whom he carefully lists in a star-studded preface. He even signs these acknowledgments from a street in a smart Parisian district named after a Napoleonic marshal, and a stone’s throw from the great man’s tomb.
Like other recent biographers Roberts draws on the new scholarly edition of Napoleon’s general correspondence, now nearing completion, which offers a trove of reliable information. One thing that stands out from using this, repeatedly emphasised by Roberts, is how many balls Napoleon could keep in the air at once. On any given day he might be planning (or fighting) a battle, giving instructions for public works back in France, checking accounts or military statistics, and issuing warnings or reprimands to obscure underlings. His memory and passion for detail were prodigious, as were his appetite for work and self-discipline. He was formidably well-read and impressively numerate. It was these all-round qualities that made him so much more than a successful general. It is possible to deplore or despise what he achieved with the power he enjoyed, not to mention the influence of his posthumous reputation. But the world has seldom seen such an amazing concentration of abilities in one man.
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