Thursday, 15 August 2019 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte. That’s almost 250 years worth of theories and stories about the very famous ‘Little Corporal’ from Corsica who ruled over much of Europe.
When Adam Zamoyski, author of Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth, first considered writing a book about such a fascinating historical figure as Napoleon Bonaparte, he admits that he was a little intimidated at the thought of adding to the “huge pile of books on the subject.”
However, he soon realised that most of these books focused on the infamous persona of this militaristic figure, rather than the events that led up to the man becoming who he was. In order to get far below the surface, he went back to the original European sources, the first writer to do so in the English language.
It is clear that what makes Adam Zamoyski’s book stand out from the rest is his aim to reveal the flawed, human side of Napoleon, who is often depicted – often mistakenly, Adam thinks – as a “genius, monster and/or demi-god.”
In fact, what most surprised him was how “un-Great” Napoleon actually was: “Reading his unbowdlerised letters and rather pathetic literary confections, along with the conversations recorded by his closest collaborators at the time, it became clear that he was really just a bloke like the rest of us, with some remarkable talents and very human shortcomings.”
Although Napoleon evidently had a human side, there are countless debates as to whether he was a revolutionary who sought to make the world a better place, or a ruthless empire-builder. His legacy, particularly in France, is still a major influence on legal systems, education and infrastructure.
Adam Zamoyski – who has dual British-Polish nationality – takes the more favourable view toward his imperious nature, arguing that, particularly at the outset, he wanted to improve Europe’s outdated political and social structures.
“Having sorted out and rebuilt France into a rational and equitable state, he realised that the rest of Europe was begging for such reform. Wherever his campaigns took him, he abolished archaic hangovers in the genuine belief that he was liberating ordinary people.”
However, had he successfully invaded Britain, Adam believes that he would have favoured an elitist approach and a strong state rather than handing over power to the people: “The institutions that had evolved in the British Isles had done so over centuries of bottom-up rather than top-down processes, and I think he would have met with insuperable resistance to his kind of state.”
Some would argue that this would not be a great change to the system we have in place today.
Having devoted time and research to both sides of the argument while writing his book, has Adam ended up as the Little Corporal’s friend or foe? His answer is – neither: “He was in many ways insufferable, but he was a human being and while he did achieve great things and reap great rewards, he somehow never managed to enjoy them, and true happiness evaded him.”
Adam Zamoyski will be speaking at Marlborough Town Hall on Saturday, September 28 at 10.30am – tickets are £10 each. Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth is published by HarperCollins.
Tickets can be bought: Online – www.marlboroughlitfest.org (no booking fee, postage £1.75 if required). Telephone: 0333 666 3366 Mon-Fri 9am-7pm, Sat 9am-5pm (through TicketSource £1.75 booking fee – plus postage if required). In person: at The White Horse Bookshop, Marlborough, Mon-Sat 9am-5.30pm, Sun 11am-4pm (cash/cheque only).