Sunday 6 September 2015

Book Review: Napoleon In Love - R. F. Delderfield

Love and cherries. The romantic legends of Napoleon in love, as told by a romantic novelist.

Delderfield was primarily a novelist, famed for popular novels such as A Horseman Riding By (actually a trilogy) and God Is An Englishman, some of which were adapted for TV. I first encountered him via a school teacher friend of my father, who, knowing of my interest in things Napoleoninc, lent me his copy of Delderfield's Seven Men of Gascony, which I thoroughly enjoyed. As the latter novels title and subject hints at, Delderfield was also interested in history, and Napoleonic history in particular. In fact obsessed would perhaps be closer to the mark. 

If one compares Delderfield's approach to that of most contemporary authors in this field, his background in poplar fiction marks him out as an 'amateur', amongst a predominantly professional field of academics and military types. Before I read this I'd recently read his The March of the Twenty-six, about Napoleon's Marshals: compare this with, for example, the David Chandler edited Greenhill book, Napoleon's Marshals, and they come across, in some respects, quite differently.

Caroline Colombier, as a sweet young flower.

Napoleon found some cherries, with Caroline Colombier. A mythical imagining of the young Napoleon picking cherries with Caroline Colombier. His get up is perhaps rather an imaginary anachronism, as here he sport his 'emperor at war' outfit.

As an author of fiction Delderfield has a gift for words that makes him eminently readable, but one also wonders if he's not also perhaps somewhat susceptible to the love of colourful anecdote, whereas drybones academic and professional historians might sometimes read more stodgily, but be (one hopes) more concerned with fact than fiction.

This is of course to some degree true, but Delderfield shows himself aware of these issues in numerous places in all his books, as, for example here, when he says, regarding the memoirs of Napoleon's valet Constant that 'one cannot help feeling that he has no scruples about sacrificing the truth for sensational reading.'

Napoleon lost his 'cherry' with a Parisian streetwalker, according to his own accounts of his youth. That's what this pic purports to portray.

Another very interesting point is made in the bibliographical notes, where he quotes another Napoleonic historian, expressing their mistrust of the typical scholarly bibliography. I have to say this rings true for me: if you look at some bibliographies (many, perhaps the majority nowadays) the authors appear to have spent every single waking minute since birth speed-reading the literature on their subject. 

Can they possibly have read so many of the works cited in any other manner other than very cursorily? Or do they have a team of researchers? The latter is true for a lot of the big name authors, especially the TV celebrity types. And the truth is that, for all the armour and titles - which all sounds really rather feudal - of the professionals and scholars, often enough one finds they are as susceptible to myth and propaganda as most others. Comparing The March Of The Twenty-Six with Napoleon's Marshals, despite their differences, shows this to be true.

Desirée Clary, the young woman he was engaged to before marrying Josephine, and upon whom Napoleon based his lover/wife in his unfinished 'novel' Clisson & Eugénie.

Anyway, having addressed issues of pro. vs. amateur, and authority and reliability, etc., what of this book itself?

Well, it's certainly both fun and informative, ranging from Caroline Colombier, Napoleon's first love, via streetwalkers, mistresses and wives, to his final female companions on the lonely isle of St. Helena. And what an amazing life Bonaparte lived, filled with epoch making war, statesmanship and, as here, love and sex. Also, where the vast majority of British writing is blatantly anti-Napoleonic, Delderfield is clearly a Boney-phile. For those who don't know much about this aspect of Bonaparte's incredible life, I won't spoil things by going into any detail, and for those who do know... well, you already know! I will just note that the catchphrase 'Not tonight, Josephine' makes no appearance, despite the author covering the whole subject fairly thoroughly.

Delderfield: a man, if not actually in love with Napoleon, then certainly in love with Napoleonic history!

From a practical perspective the book is well structured, being chronological, and divided in to many short easily digested chapters. As a read it whizzes by, thanks to it being relatively short, those nice brief but plentiful chapters, and the authors enjoyably straightforward yet evocative prose style. As reliable history, despite his own professed awareness of the issues of reliability, Delderfield is both rather partisan and clearly fond of colourful anecdote, although he will often qualify where he thinks stories may be unreliable.

Napoleon the man, and the Napoleonic world, remain endlessly fascinating, as witness the still fecund publishing industry that erupts like a continual Vesuvius of words and opinions, and I can't really pretend to anything approaching professional knowledge on the subject.

Yet my own fairly obsessive interest in this area leads me to think that there has been a sea change in the way it's written about: most modern books tend to focus on more narrow aspects: a particular campaign, or a particular aspect of the era or the man (or other figures, like Wellington, Nelson, The Czar, etc.), whereas in years past treatments were often more holistic, e.g. Sir Walter Scott's many volume epic, recently published in a single abridged volume (The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte).

Scott's work, now available as an abridged single-volume edition.

If I'm not mistaken, very often those older books would include a fair amount of coverage of this aspect of Napoleon's life, whilst most modern books more or less ignore it. Given what one (Adam or Marx even?) might call this 'advanced capitalist' style of specialisation, Delderfield's book is a welcome addition to any Napoleonic library, filling in a once much read and popular area now often left blank in the vast contemporary Napoleonic literature.

Anyway, in the end I can only say that I thoroughly enjoyed this, and give it five stars for the pure pleasure of reading it. If I was being fussily academic, I might give it only three or four... but I'm not, so it gets the full five for fun. And besides, even taking into consideration his amateur status as a historian, and his pedigree as a writer of fiction, this remains a good solid informative read, even if clearly written by a fan of Bonaparte with a penchant for colourful anecdote. Whichever way you slice it, I'd heartily recommend this.

Oh, and let's not forget - as French husbands (if national stereotypes have any truth in them) are wont to do - the wives:

Josephine in her coronation garb (Gérard).

Marie-Louise, looking regal and foxy (painted by Borghesi).

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