When Napoleon Bonaparte married Josephine on 9 March 1795 in a civil ceremony, the bride wore a plain white muslin gown. She added colour by sporting a red, white and blue tricolour sash on which was pinned a medal, a gift from the bridegroom, inscribed with one word: ‘Destiny’. One of many revealing episodes recounted in this exhilarating biography, it not only justifies what might otherwise seem a rather cheesy subtitle, but also encapsulates the self-confidence and vulgarity that were such obtrusive characteristics of its subject. Napoleon would never have agreed with Oliver Cromwell that ‘no one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going’. Napoleon knew what he wanted, and that was power. Michael Broers observes that ‘if Napoleon’s life was more … like a novel than a documentary, then power is the red thread of its plotline’. Unlike Cromwell, of course, Napoleon was unencumbered by principles. He started with nothing, believed in nothing, achieved everything – and ended with nothing. That richly deserved denouement will have to wait. This first of two projected volumes ends in the autumn of 1805, with Napoleon marching east to what was to be his greatest military triumph, at Austerlitz.
His story, combining hubris and nemesis so perfectly, has often been told. In the last decade there have been substantial biographies