Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows by Ruth Scurr - review by Caroline Moorehead

Caroline Moorehead

Green-Fingered Emperor

Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows


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Among the Bonapartes, gardens are more often associated with Josephine, whose greenhouses and plants at Malmaison became famous throughout the world, than with Napoleon. But, as Ruth Scurr writes, from a very young age the future emperor used gardens as a retreat from the frustrations of powerlessness, while on St Helena they provided him with rare privacy from prying British guards. In between, though he had little time for actual gardening, he maintained a steady interest in the natural world in all its forms, collecting, planning and inspiring others. Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows is history at its most enjoyable, a discursive ramble along its edges, away from matters of power and into its byways.

Napoleon’s school days in Brienne-le-Château are best known from the snowball fight in Abel Gance’s remarkable six-hour film Napoléon. Less well known is that during this time he found refuge in a small allotment no larger than a grave, though he soon took over his schoolfellows’ adjoining plots. Here, legend has it, he created an arbour, a green sanctuary where he could read and be alone.

The Jardin des Plantes on the left bank of the Seine in Paris had started in the mid-17th century as a nursery for medicinal plants and it remained a natural enclave through the revolution, when it became home to exotic birds and animals ousted from aristocratic menageries. As Napoleon embarked

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