Napoleon Bonaparte, gardener? | Books

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NAPOLEON: A LIFE TOLD IN GARDENS AND SHADOWS, by Ruth Scurr, WW Norton, 416 pages, $ 28.95

THE EAGLES OF THE EMPIRE: THE DESTINY OF THE NAPOLEONIC ELITE IN AMERICA, by Thomas E. Crocker, Prometheus, 456 pages, $ 29.95

From the making of books on Napoleon Bonaparte, it seems there is no end. Two hundred years after the emperor’s death in 1821 on the island of Saint Helena, it continues to be the subject of new biographies and speculations. His name and iconic image – the bicorn hat worn on the side, the army hood, the hand tucked into the vest – are instantly recognizable around the world.

Even if ours is the era of billionaire wonders, Napoleon’s precocity is nonetheless dazzling: on November 9, 1799, shortly after his 30th birthday, the former Corsican artillery officer assumed dictatorial powers over the whole of France. Five years later, he crowned himself Emperor of the French. At 40, “the man on horseback” (a prophetic expression of Edmund Burke) had conquered all of Western Europe. When Napoleon’s armies fought and lost the decisive battle of Waterloo, he was all 45 years old. Imprisoned later on St. Helena, the fallen emperor eventually died of stomach cancer – or, perhaps, arsenic poisoning if you’re conspiratorial – at a still young 51 years old.

What did Napoleon do during his six-year confinement on this small island in the South Atlantic? He grew flowers (the roses died), planted trees, built an aviary, and harvested peas and beans. An engraving shows him wearing a peasant straw hat and leaning on a spade. In fact, argues Ruth Scurr in Napoleon: A life told in gardens and shadows, this military genius who shakes the world had always turned to the natural world – and to two or three hour baths – for relief from ailments of the mind or burdens of power.

In his book, Scurr follows the rise and fall of Napoleon without a look at his battles, political maneuvers, and mistresses (there were at least 21). Instead, we learn about the vegetable garden that young Bonaparte kept in school, his subsequent attention to green spaces during urban renewal in Egypt, Italy and France, his delight in reflective walks in the woods and his penchant for neoclassical landscaping. Straight lines, notes Scurr, as well as “precision and order were at the heart of his aesthetic”. In contrast, Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine, insisted on a natural, park-like environment – the English style – for Malmaison, their private residence. As an Empress, she obsessively collected plants and animals from all over the world and was apparently the first person to breed black swans in captivity.

Most of the accounts of Napoleon’s entourage focus on this slippery diplomat Talleyrand or on the scheming Minister of Police Joseph Fouché, two masters of Realpolitk: each has been credited with the classic Machiavellian comment: “It was worse than ‘ a crime. It was a blunder. However, Scurr prefers to pay more attention to André Thouin, head gardener of the Jardin des Plantes. Thouin was one of 167 members of the Arts and Sciences Commission who accompanied Napoleon’s army during its largely unsuccessful Egyptian campaign. Stationed in Cairo, the group quickly established a 30-acre walled garden and research center, ultimately producing an encyclopedic record of their work in the historical catalog “Description of Egypt”. Later, many botanical and zoological specimens brought back from French scientific expeditions were entrusted to Thouin.

Throughout this unusual biography, Scurr – heretofore best known for a delightful and quote-rich tale of 17th-century antiquarian and gossip John Aubrey – elegantly explores the inner Rousseau of Napoleon, the 18th-century philosopher. which advocated nature and the simple life. Among the vast expanse of Napoleonic studies, it is good to have at least one book that emphasizes flower beds instead of battlefields.

There is only one battle in Thomas E. Crocker’s Empire’s Eagles: The Fate of the Napoleonic Elite in America, and this is Waterloo. After Napoleon’s defeat – “a near-flight affair”, as his opponent Wellington admitted – the Emperor’s family and his generals all realized that they soon risked jail time or squads. execution. Where should they flee? To many of them, America seemed a land of refuge and, perhaps, renewed opportunity.

A specialist in early American history, Crocker opens with a gripping tale of Napoleon in the port city of Rochefort, waiting to escape from France, possibly to Baltimore, where his younger brother Jerome once had. been married to a beautiful local. named Elizabeth Patterson. Revealing an unusual lack of decision, the emperor hesitated, then trusted the English to be honorable and soon found himself on his way to Saint Helena. Luckier, his older brother Joseph reached our shores, where he settled in royal comfort in a vast estate near Philadelphia.

After other Napoleonic loyalists reached the United States, they founded clubs and support groups, tried to establish a utopian wine-growing community in the Alabama swamps, and even planned a military operation to install Joseph as Emperor of Mexico. All these activities which Crocker recounts in great detail before devoting the second half of his book to a long-standing legend – which Marshal Ney, Napoleon’s “Braveest of the Brave”, faked his death in front of a squad of French execution, then fled to South Carolina, where he resurfaced as a schoolteacher named PS Ney. Could this be true? Crocker, trained as a lawyer, sets out the evidence for both pro and con.

In the end, the most tantalizing question about Napoleon remains open: would the world have been better if the man had never been born (or born in another era, as in the little classic of the alternate history of Stephen Vincent Benét, Curfew tolls)? It’s a tough call. Napoleon led millions of people to their deaths, but he also instituted laws and reforms comparable in importance to those of the American Constitution. People had few illusions: “Look at my virtuous Republicans: all I have to do is hang gold stripes on their clothes and they are mine.” However, he could also show a Trump-like bombast: “The French can only be ruled by me.

Whatever your opinion of the young Corsican, one thing is certain: in a hundred years, publishers will still be publishing books on Napoleon Bonaparte.


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