Book review: Napoleon. His Life, His Battles, His Empire

Napoleon. His Life, His Battles, His Empire. By David Chanteranne and Emmanuelle Papot. Published by: Carlton Books, March 7th 2019

I know almost nothing about Napoleon Bonaparte.

I studied International History up to postgraduate level. Despite this, I don’t remember being taught anything about him during my entire twenty years in education.

I know roughly what he looked like, that he was born in Corsica and that he married Josephine. I know he rose very fast through the ranks after reviving France’s fortunes following the bloody chaos of the French Revolution. He became very powerful and very important, very quickly but, like Hitler later, came badly unstuck trying to invade Russia. He died in exile, at a relatively young age (51).

I don’t get the impression he was anything like as bad as Hitler, Stalin or Mao in the 20th century. He didn’t unleash genocide and probably did some good along the way, reforming France’s legal system and the like. His wars nevertheless wrecked and destroyed thousands of lives. On balance, I suspect, he was more of a “baddy” than a “goody.”

What else? I know,  “My, my. At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender” because Abba told me so. But are 1970s pop lyrics really a reliable source of historical information? There is plenty of doubt, after all, that Rasputin was in fact, as Boney M argued, “lover of the Russian Queen.” As to whether he was really “Russia’s greatest love machine?”: well, it’s now almost impossible to verify.

This book was thus very helpful to me in filling in the considerable gaps in my knowledge of one of history’s key figures. With 180 illustrations, it would probably appeal to children, but I doubt I’m the only adult who found it useful.

After all, as a wise person once pointed out: “the history book on the shelf. It’s always repeating itself.”

Blu-ray review: War & Peace

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Let me get the painful bit out of the way first: there was a mistake in this year’s acclaimed BBC adaptation of War & Peace. Hopefully, this won’t ruin your enjoyment of the series. “Abandon Moscow?” exclaims a general in the penultimate episode. “Abandon Russia’s sacred capital?” Well, no. For this is supposed to be 1812 (or thereabouts). Moscow had not been Russia’s capital for a century and would not be again for over a century more. So oops.

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But ignore that, for as you’ll know if you were gripped by it throughout the winter months, this is great stuff. Andrew Davies juggles most of the characters deftly throughout these six episodes helped by a superb cast.

James Morton, Lily James & Paul Dano in War And Peace.

American actor Paul Dano excels as Pierre, a bespectacled misfit at the start, prone to getting drunk and embarrassing himself at parties by expressing his enthusiasm for the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, an unfashionable view as the French leader is waging war with Russia. Pierre nurses a secret love for Natasha (Lily James) but things get a bit complicated for him when he suddenly comes into sudden and extraordinary wealth. He is soon confronting numerous challenges including duels, conflict and Freemasons. Others, such as his friend Andrei (James Norton) are bored by the banalities of domestic existence and pledge to take on Napoleon’s forces head on.

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With a stellar cast including Jim Broadbent, Brian Cox, Gillian Anderson, Greta Scacchi, Rebecca Front and Stephen Rea, it may be too soon to call this “the greatest costume drama of the decade” (as the Daily Telegraph did, apparently forgetting they’re supposed to hate the BBC). But this is undoubtedly a landmark in TV drama.

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