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.”
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...
(The entire section is 622 words.)