Overall Rating –
This was a pretty interesting biography to read in that it did not focus on the same areas as many other Napoleon books that I have read. It may look like it doesn’t have a particularly good score but that is mostly to do with poor illustrations and the fact that it is not a military focused book which I prefer when dealing with a character such as Napoleon.
In fact I would actually say that if you are a reader looking to explore the personal side of Napoleon’s life and maybe learn some juicy little stories about his relationship with women, then this book may be one that you are interested in.
The first thing I noticed when opening this book was the pretty bare contents page. As you can see from the picture provided there is no indication whatsoever what subject each chapter contains, instead it simply lists “Chapter One”, “Chapter Two”, “Chapter Three” and so on. I guess this is not too crazy of a problem, after all the book runs in chronological order so you can kind of guess what’s coming next, however it doesn’t help the reader who is looking for a specific subject. If you only wanted to read about the invasion of Russia in 1812 or about the battle of Austerlitz you would have to trawl through the chapters to find the appropriate point. This is not the end of the world but it is very annoying!
Chapters 1 – 4
These chapters focus on the early life of Napoleon; his Corsican upbringing, education in France, early life in the military and political aspirations in Corsica. These chapters are some of the most interesting chapters of the book in my opinion as McLynn’s strength is in providing obscure stories that colour the period. These chapters give a nice brief history of Corsica and of Europe at the time and so give a good introduction and set up the stage for the story of Napoleon.
Chapter 5 – 6
These chapters focus on Napoleon’s arrival at Toulon, his posting to the Army of Italy, his defence of the Convention in 1795 and his marriage to Josephine. McLynn gives a decent run through of the problems Napoleon had with the commanders engaged at Toulon and the frustrations that he had in having his plans listened to and then implemented.
The overview of the strategy that Napoleon devises whilst attached to the Army of Italy as head of artillery is good without wasting too much time on the intricacies. Chapter 6 ends with Napoleon appointed as the Commander in Chief of the Army of Italy.
Chapters 7 – 8
These chapters deal with Napoleon’s first campaign in Italy and with the reasons for his success. While McLynn gives a nice overview of the plan and the troops movements he does not go into any real detail for the engagements, which is fine for an overview only. As with the book in general McLynn gives a good break down of Napoleon and Josephine’s relationship during this time.
For those interested in why Napoleon was so successful in Italy, McLynn breaks down the success in these chapters as due 4 reasons: technology, the effects of the Revolution, superior morale and Napoleon’s own genius as tactician and strategist.
Chapter 9 – 10
In these chapters McLynn describes the Egyptian campaign and Napoleon’s subsequent return and involvement in the coup that would see him as First Consul of France.
Chapter 11 – 12
These chapters focus on Napoleon’s second Italian campaign and the period of peace that followed.
McLynn outlines the achievements of Napoleon during the period of peace following the treaty of Amiens and gives a good outline of Napoleons ability to appeal to left and right as a national reconciler. These chapters also offer a good, quick overview of the Concordat and the Napoleonic Code which can be very dry topics so the fact that he is able to be both brief and informative comes in very handy here.
Chapters 13 – 14
These chapters detail the resumption of hostilities in 1803 and the reasons why Napoleon decided to be crowned Emperor. The exploration as to why war broke out is good and McLynn is able to explain why the blame tends to be pinned on Napoleon rather than the British. It is in chapters such as these where McLynn’s ability to bring in stories really strengthen this book as there are some very good stories involving various assassination attempts on Napoleon’s life.
This chapter involves Napoleon’s plan to invade England and the beginning of the Third Coalition. There are some good stories to anecdote the Naval manoeuvres between Britain and France. McLynn gives a good overview of why the Third Coalition is put together and what their goals were although the actual campaign against Austria is rushed through quickly, except for the battle of Austerlitz which gets a bit more detail. This chapter also gives a brief but very good breakdown of the Grande Armée and why it was so successful.
This chapter focuses on Napoleon’s diplomacy with Prussia and how it would eventually lead to war and the campaign that ends with the occupation of Prussia. This however is finished with quickly before the author continues on with the campaign against the Russians which ends with the battle at Friedland and French victory. The chapter finishes with a quick overview of the Treaty of Tilsit.
This chapter focuses on the divorce of Napoleon and Josephine and the occupation of Portugal and Spain. McLynn digests the different reasons he believes Napoleon had for taking this step with Spain such as opportunism in the moment and a grand plan for the continental blockade to strangle British trade.
Chapter 18 – 19
These chapters focus on German nationalism and the Austrian offensive in 1809 and the general running of Napoleonic Europe. McLynn gives a quick overview of the campaign that culminates in the battle of Wagram, the breakdown of the Concordat, excommunication of Napoleon and the arrest of the pope. He also gives a nice outline as to how Napoleon was able to keep control of areas outside of France by using collaborators and how not everyone disagreed with his rule.
This chapter focuses on the escalation in Spain and the Peninsular War, including the arrival of the Duke of Wellington to command British and allied forces against the French. McLynn takes a deep look at the Spanish guerrilla fighters and suggests they played the most important part of the defeat of Napoleon in Spain.
This chapter focuses on Napoleon’s marriage to the Austrian princess Marie-Louise and the birth of his son. McLynn gives a nice overview of the economic warfare between Britain and Napoleonic Europe.
Chapter 22 – 23
These chapters focus on the preparations for and slide into war with the Russians in 1812. The campaign is given a quick outline followed by the burning of Moscow and the retreat from Russia.
This chapter focuses on Napoleon’s worsening situation in Spain and the joining of Prussia and eventually Austria to the Russian side. McLynn looks at the growing demands of conscription and the growing anger in France at it, highlighting poor troop quality and officer quality in the failure for knockout blows during 1813.
Chapter 25 – 26
These chapters focus on the invasion of France, the removal of Napoleon from power and the restoration of monarchy. Chapter 26 ends with Napoleon’s return from Elba.
Chapter 27 – 28
These chapters focus on the Waterloo campaign and the final defeat for Napoleon and Napoleon’s life on St Helena.
Overall this book is pretty easy to read. Sure there are some points where it feels as though McLynn has reached for a Thesaurus so that he can add some nice long, flashy words to the text but the flow of the story is generally good. Sometimes it feels as though there are some unwanted breaks where McLynn goes off on a tangent, however these are a recurring occurrence in most in depth history books. The examples he gives are appropriate for the story sure but they feel a little bit like he is forcing them in to make sure he is giving us all that he has researched, which I can totally understand, but it does break the flow in some sections. A picture of the book can be seen here in relation to an A4 writing pad so that you can get a feel for the size of its pages.
Not everyone is a fan of the “beginnings” of some historical characters and they tend to have a preference for the meat of the subject – in the case of Napoleon his military campaigns and rule as Emperor of France. If that is the case for you then you may find the beginning parts of this biography slightly dull and slow. Personally I like hearing the stories of Napoleon’s youth and his early stages in the military and so the detail that McLynn provides here is a plus in my books.
This isn’t the longest nor the most in depth history of Napoleon and actually sits somewhere in the nice middle ground with plenty of primary source snippets and stories to give flavour to the story but not so much that there is a complete bog-down in the narrative. In that respect I think the book is very good if you are trying to read this to gain an understanding of Napoleon. A picture of the the book on its side with an A4 writing pad is given for scale.
The book stands at 739 pages in total however pages 669 onwards consists of a sources list and index. I am always a fan of laying out the sources, however I feel that McLynn could have made more of an effort during the majority of the text to outline his references and from where and in which source he was getting his information. Simply laying out 70 pages at the end is simply overwhelming for the reader who may have been interested in only a certain stories or primary source that is mentioned in the text.
I give a 2 Stars rating for this part of the book. I’m a huge fan of lots of maps, especially when it comes to military campaigns as I find it hard to get my head around some of the descriptions of troop movements and fighting without having some sort of visual aid. Napoleon: A Biography unfortunately comes up very short in respect to maps with only some very small and not particularly informative maps covering the battle of Austerlitz, Jena (seen to the left), Leipzig, Waterloo and a general map about the entire Russian Campaign 1812. The fact that a single map is given to the entirety of the Russian Campaign of 1812 should give you an indication that very little useful information is given other than where the army went and whereabouts the battles were fought.
There are some nice pictures included in the middle of the book in two separate sections which give a general historical flavour to the period. The pictures provided are ones you can find elsewhere and are all simply lumped together with no real thought. They are nice for adding some illustration so you can better picture things in your mind but as they are black and white they are not particularly impressive when we (well me at least) like to see the bright colours of the interesting uniforms of the period. Examples of these pictures can be seen to the right.
Ultimately I am unsure about Napoleon: A Biography by Frank McLynn. It offers little new in terms of the public life of Napoleon and nothing interesting about his campaigns, which many other books cover in much better detail. Where the book does shine however is in the realm of Napoleon’s private life where the author goes into a fair bit of detail and reveals stories that I have not seen mentioned in other books.
For me personally I find that he tends to fixate way too much on possible sexual deviancy, especially of the women involved in Napoleon’s life, most notably his sister Pauline. The author also has an obsession for trying to psychoanalyse Napoleon and why he must be doing certain actions, with Napoleon’s mother getting a fair bit of the blame. An awful lot of the content provided in this book seems to revolve around the sexual conduct of the Bonaparte family; there is even mention of Napoleon’s run in with homosexuality at Brienne which is not something I have seen mentioned in other biographies. Even when Napoleon is young we see McLynn having trouble staying away from the sexual sphere and much of his early talk of it is in regards to the affairs of Napoleon’s parents. There is much psychoanalysing in the early chapters where McLynn seems to be trying to diagnose Napoleon’s later behaviour, such as Napoleon’s “Oriental Complex”.
When choosing to review this book, I was told that it gave a pretty pro-Napoleon interpretation of history. I have to say that my opinion is that it is rather a negative interpretation. McLynn suggests a few times that Napoleon was unable to settle for peace, and that he existed only to wage war. He constantly points to an “Oriental Complex” that he suggests makes Napoleon fascinated with warfare and conquering. There are plenty of controversial points such as when McLynn suggests that for all his genius Napoleon was never in the same league as Alexander the Great, Hannibal or Tamerlane – a statement that is certainly up for debate and is quickly followed by a statement suggesting that Napoleon was lucky to inherit the army he did in Italy with no mention as to the other great generals he just mentioned who inherited even better armies. He also suggests Napoleon didn’t have the “mental concentration” to withdraw from an unwinnable war in Spain. This is a pretty odd statement and I have had trouble understanding exactly what McLynn was trying to say when he wrote it. Nonetheless these are hardly flattering opinions of Napoleon, which is fine, but I do expect some evidence or well put together reasons for these beliefs rather than vague statements about mental concentration.
The book suffers from some major weaknesses, not least the big one for me being, as expressly stated in the preface, that Mr McLynn would not be engaging in the luxury and self-indulgent act (his words not mine) of providing footnotes and citations. It may just be that I am cynical but I would quite like to know the sources that are being used to make some of the bizarre assertions and speculations that Mr McLynn comes up with. It should be noted that the author does provide a complete bibliography section at the back of the book with all his sources, however it is hard to pinpoint exactly from what source he gets each individual story or wild claim from and so it is essentially useless (unless you want to trawl through all of his sources to find it!)
Other weaknesses stem around the lack of maps and general detail when it comes to the military campaigns which are an absolute necessity when dealing with a character who was primarily a general and who was involved in a massive number of battles and wars throughout his lifetime. To the right can be seen the one map which is meant to cover the entire Russian campaign, which shows what to expect in terms of military detail.
Readers should also be aware that McLynn fails to give a good overview of the French Revolution, so while it is mentioned in regards to Napoleon there is not too much detail as to what is happening in Revolutionary France outside of Napoleon’s interests. Some may see this as a good thing as the Revolution is extraordinarily complex and delving into the history around the time may take away from the narrative; however it can be equally confusing to see the constantly changing government names and no mention of events that end up having dramatic impacts further down the road.
Overall this book is good if you are interested in the private life of the characters involved as the majority of the time spent in this book seems to be in inserting new stories in this area. Everyone comes under the sexual scrutiny of McLynn in this book and new suggestions of infidelity and promiscuity seem to be made every other page. It certainly makes for more entertaining reading in that area as most books cover the campaigns in more detail but shy aware from the relationship side. Of course the flip side of this is that this book is very weak on the military side and so for someone looking for a detailed look at the campaigns I would not recommend this book. Nonetheless good military books can be found elsewhere whilst McLynn’s interest in the relationship area of the story are certainly one of a kind. The last two chapters perfectly sum up Napoleon: A Biography as the chapter focused on Waterloo and the military campaign is given little attention in comparison to Napoleon’s life at St Helena. Whereas the time on St Helena would normally be a final paragraph at the end of a book, McLynn has provided an informative chapter with plenty of the interesting stories that crop up in his book. It highlights McLynn’s weakness at providing the military information but his strength in providing interesting stories that you may not have heard about before.