Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 622

Napoleon is among those few individuals in Western history who are instantly recognizable. Although a Bonaparte would again control France during the reign of his nephew, Napoleon III, the average person knows only one Napoleon, a man so famous that he needs no last name. Therefore, there is less necessity to explain who this important individual was, but rather the task is to separate fact from myth. As noted in the introductory remarks by Lord Chalfont, “Napoleon, as is often the fate of giants, has been the target of constant attack by pygmies,” but “the story of his life makes irresistible reading.”

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Although his background is English, Chandler has created a balanced portrait of Napoleon. This is no mean feat when one considers that he is relating the history of a figure who attempted to invade the British Isles and who, until he was surpassed by Adolf Hitler in World War II, was often simplistically depicted as an archfiend by British nursemaids and nineteenth century historians alike.

Because military history is Chandler’s field of expertise, his choice of emphasis is readily understood, although the specifics of some of Napoleon’s less familiar battles could border on the tedious for a general reader. In addition many of the twenty-one battlefield diagrams would have no great appeal, though Waterloo would obviously be an exception.

Chandler admires Napoleon’s genius, but he neither ignores nor excuses his excessive ambition, which progressed beyond defending the ideals of the French Revolution against reactionary monarchies to the domination of his Continental neighbors. Historic events are not fictionalized, and the relatively few quotes within the text are historically accurate. As with any biography, however, certain limitations are evident. An obvious one is the assumption of some knowledge of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century tactics. Young readers may skip the battle passages, but in so doing, important sections of the work will have been omitted.

There is a tendency, especially obvious in the fifth chapter, “Defeat and Abdication 18131815,” to compress time and events almost to the point of confusion. After a headlong rush through the campaigns that spelled the end of Napoleon’s career, only a paragraph is devoted to the eleven months of peace between the emperor’s first abdication and his return from Elba, which led inexorably to Waterloo.

While most of the illustrations provide readers with useful additional information about Napoleon and his contemporaries, their placement at times is disconnected from the text surrounding them. The most obvious example occurs within the eight-page description of Waterloo, where the narrative is broken by the inclusion of three color prints with no relationship to that battle: a detail from the battle of Jena in 1807, the battle of Borodino in 1812, and the French retreat from Russia in that same year.

On a few occasions, the narrative emphasis seems wrong. One is the account of the Battle of Aspern-Essling (May, 1809), where Marshal Jean Lannes, one of Napoleon’s most reliable commanders and a close associate, was mortally wounded. Lannes was the first marshal to die in battle, and the effect on the army was considerable, as he was well respected. Chandler discusses Lannes’ part in the battle but ignores his death, a surprising lapse in a book devoted to military affairs.

Perhaps this biography’s most serious fault lies within its index, as neither Napoleon’s father, Carlo, nor his mother, Letizia, (pictured on two separate pages) nor four of his seven brothers and sisters are included, although they are mentioned in the text. Some military commanders are given their title of marshal but no first name, or are listed as generals when they are marshals, or, in the case of Marshal Pierre Augereau, have no indication of rank.

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Critical Context