Napoleon the Great


Being British, I tend to have been presented with the view that Napoleon was an upstart dictator with a lust for power and the greed to try and conquer Europe, including this sceptred isle. But while he was an acclaimed general, he was no match for Wellington.

For all that, I have a somewhat greater admiration for Napoleon as man who clearly wasn’t just a gifted general but a bold statesmen, a forward-looking leader and lover of his country.

Drawing on over thirty thousand letters that Napoleon wrote over the course of his lifetime, this book tries to provide an insight into the man and how he lived. The portrait it paints is not that of a tyrant, nor a genius, but of a very rounded individual who read widely, had many interests and concerns, and who was as flawed as any other.

I learnt a great many things I hadn’t known before, surprising for such a well-known historical figure, who is most infamous for a few moments from a lifetime that was packed with achievements. A lifetime that only lasted 51 years. Yet not only did he rise in the military ranks and take the throne of France, but he also had influence in domestic affairs and indeed across Europe.

For all the fascinating detail, the pacing of this book seems odd at times. Spending great lengths on minutiae while speeding through entire battles or campaigns. I also struggled to understand quite what was so brilliant about some of his maneuvers, meaning his obvious failures — which need little explaining — became more pronounced.

It took me a long time to get through this, not because it was bad, but because it’s gargantuan. The book runs to nearly 1,000 pages. The audiobook, therefore, has a running time in excess of 37 hours.

It is read perfectly well by Stephen Thorne, who suits the material, but it’s the first audiobook where I recall hearing breaths and sniffles.

A very detailed look at a man who has cast a long shadow over Europe, with his influence still felt to this day. If you’re after a fascinating incite into one of history’s truly great protagonists, this could be it.

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Reviewed: 24th January 2017