‘What a novel my life has been!’ Patrice Gueniffey opens this magisterial and often exhilarating biography with Napoleon’s words, uttered in conversation with Emmanuel de Las Cases during his exile on St Helena. They go far to explain the emperor’s continued appeal to scholars and the general public alike, but they also hint at one of the major problems any biographer faces. For, even as a young artillery officer during the French Revolution, Napoleon was planning ahead, anxious to establish his reputation for posterity. Fact mingled easily with fiction as incidents in his early life were woven into a single coherent story. The novel was already being prepared.
For the historian, Napoleon’s career has always held a particular fascination, providing a compelling link between the world of the 18th-century Enlightenment and 19th-century modernity, a life forged in the cauldron of the politics of the French Revolution. But do his early years really suggest anything of his meteoric rise or his future greatness?