A scholarly review of the book, The Age of Napoleon, written by Christopher Herold
Christopher Herold’s The Age of Napoleon details Napoleon’s rise from relatively common origins on the island of Corsica to the enormous political and military power he commanded as Emperor of France. The book focuses on every step of this fascinating journey, providing a mélange of facts, opinions and anecdotes to illustrate the story of the almost legendary man, and of the world he created around himself. Herold’s book should be perceived, and as such, read, as a history book, albeit a particularly detailed one. This is a result of the fact that Herold examines and presents his own personal views on the French Revolution, but also systematically backs his statements up, and provides acute details that, instead of merely presenting factual data; actually question the reader’s own ideas on the subject. However, be that as it may, and keeping in mind Herold’s frequent allusions to dates, facts, and names pertaining to the French Revolution, the book is not all-encompassing, nor does it pretend to be so. Like many such books written on historical subjects, a general background of the period is required to fully understand all of Herold’s references in his book. This is definitely not to say, however, that Herold’s book is in some way limited; it certainly tries, and succeeds, in explaining its subject matter. If Herold’s book were to be viewed from the standpoint of a purely independent study, the reader would have to have had some foreknowledge of the key elements of both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period. As such, a bit of pre-textbook reading prior to undertaking Herold would be most helpful in understanding the text.
The Age of Napoleon is broken up into twelve separate chapters. In this review, I discuss the chapters which I found to be my favourites, although I heartily recommend the entire book as a whole. The first part is centred on Napoleon’s origins on the island of Corsica as a member of the Buonaparte nobility. It talks, almost nostalgically, of Napoleon’s early childhood, which “stood out as a happy period – the only happy period of his life – after which he always equated happiness with rootedness in the land of one’s birth” (Herold 17). It also talks of his education, at various Corsican and French schools, in which he “showed a marked aptitude for mathematics”, and as Herold almost snidely points out, “a monumental lack of talent in his attempts at verse” (Herold 19). It was this marked aptitude for mathematics which led him to become an artillery officer, which depends highly on that subject, opening up young Napoleon’s career in the French Revolution.
The second part, titled the “The Rise to Power”, details Napoleon’s swift rise through the ranks and overall rise to power. As Napoleon himself stated, “All great events hang by a single thread. The clever man takes advantage of everything, neglects nothing that may give him some added opportunity” (Herold 85). It was this motto, or creed, one could say, that Napoleon firmly and strictly followed all his life, and was the catalyst for his grand rise to power. This statement is sarcastically supported by Herold when he says, “if by great events he meant winning battles...and pointing a bayonet at a deputy’s rear, he was unquestionable right” (Herold 85). Yet Herold also notes, with remarkable aptitude at that, that no matter how strong of a character Napoleon was, “it was the French Revolution that precipitated a series of wars of conquest” and it was this same period which allowed him to reach as far as he did (Herold 423).
The young Napoleon displaying the full force of his creed as he storms the Bridge at Arcole - Image Source
The seventh part, which was titled “Resolute Britain”, clearly details the conflict between France and England, and their numerous clashes throughout both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era. It describes the inevitable deadlock that France and England, which were longtime enemies since long before the French Revolution and Napoleonic period, which could never result in “peace without a complete defeat of either England or France” (Herold 235). Though France always had the upper hand in the land battles, where Napoleon could bring his mastermind strategies to bear, England reigned supreme upon the oceans, making any plausible possibility of a French invasion of England implausible. Such developments, were “neither a mere bluff nor a gamble”, no matter if the chance did not materialize (Herold 238). Such thoughts, however, culminated in the destruction of a combined French and Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, thought to be “undoubtedly the most glorious [battle] in the history of the English navy” (Herold 243). This was also the time in which Napoleon, after several disastrous naval defeats, came up with his tyrannical idea of the Continental System, which was supposed to blockade all trade from and to England, but in the end, “succeeded no better against England than had his scheme for invasion” (Herold 249). Be that as it may, even if “all over England Nappy was being thrashed and the Frenchies whipped”, it was exacerbated during this time with England’s “ludicrous”, unnecessary, and much to concentrated “call to arms” (Herold 253). However, it should be noted and remembered that, “it was against England that Napoleon’s power broke” and with which Boney the Ogre was finally laid to rest (Herold 267).
The HMS Victory, the British 104-gun ship of the Battle of Trafalgar, which came to symbolize British naval dominance of the period - Image Source
The eleventh part details Napoleon’s fall from power and his return from exile from the isle of Elba during the fleeting glory of the Hundred Days. Though this period, to many Frenchmen and Napoleon himself, stood out as a glorious one, it also, considering the fact that it ended in defeat, stood out as one prone to many disastrous errors. As Herold points out, “there was a marked decline in his mental energy and in his ability to make quick decisions; although these qualities occasionally returned to him in brief flashes, he was often strangely lethargic and hesitant” (Herold 382). After the defeat at the Battle of Leipzig, the terms of the peace settlement – total abdication in exchange for the sovereignty of the isle of Elba - were “humiliating to a man who had ruled Europe from Spain to Poland, but after much struggle he accepted it” (Herold 392). On the other hand, Napoleon did not have much of a choice, bereft of the army’s support and with the allies marching into France from all directions.
The decisive Battle of Waterloo, which finally sealed the fate of the Napoleonic Age - Image Source
In the twelfth part, titled, “Legacy and Legend,” Herold discusses Napoleon’s overall legacy and how his legend was forever immortalized in history. The author seems to return and mirror the beginning of the book, where he had remarked that just as spectacularly as Napoleon’s career had begun, so to had it spectacularly ended, “with mountains of red, rolling flames like immense waves of the sea, alternately bursting forth and lifting themselves to skies of fire, and then sinking into the ocean of flame below” (Herold 7). Yet Napoleon’s own thoughts and feelings betrayed the matter at hand when addressing, in a letter filled with “a mixture of ruse, self-pity, and histrionics”, the prince regent of England in supplication to be placed under British law and jurisdiction (Herold 419).
Napoleon gazing out to the sea from the Island of St. Helena - Image Source
In conclusion, Herold accomplished his goal of accurately and precisely describing not only the man, but the era as well, in a well-argued and interesting book. Though the text, like practically all works, has a few minor problems, it still remains clear, albeit sometimes a bit dense, in its explanations. The book is quite comprehensive in its analysis of the Napoleonic Era; going into detail into other areas of this period of history not frequently looked into. In his analysis, Herold is rather even handed, challenging the common assumptions of Napoleon and some of the views of his contemporaries. Another important aspect of the book to consider is that it is a work of popular history; while it is extraordinarily informative and detailed, it is not written in the same, systematic and scholarly way that most history books and textbooks are written. As such, Herold displays an incredible degree of humour throughout, which adds to the interest of the reader in the book as a whole.
What makes Herold’s book a masterpiece is the thoroughness with which he analyzes and interprets an important aspect of the problems of the period’s transitory phase. After reading this book, one can certainly say that it was written for an audience with a high level of reading and writing. Some basic background information, as previously mentioned, as well as knowledge of major events and figures, of the period is strongly recommended to know before even attempting to read this book. Overall, the work was thought-provoking and interesting, and it should be read by anyone interested in European history. If one were to read Herold’s discussions thoroughly and actively, of the political, cultural, military, commercial and social aspects of the Napoleonic world, one would gain a broad perspective, both of the era and of Napoleon himself.
© 2011 Gregory Markov
Christopher, J. The Age of Napoleon. 1st. New York, New York: Mariner Books, 2002. Print.