Saturday, April 22, 2023

Slivers of History

Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts is the book that most recently advanced from my TBR pile and into my eager hands. Like many other writers, I've always been an armchair historian. Frankly, I'm jealous of Roberts' skill and academic labors. This is the kind of project many writers dream of--delving into original source material (in this case, journals handwritten centuries ago in French), having access to national archives and private collections, plus the time and resources to devote so much of your life to such a monumental effort. And this tome (926 pages) is but one of several works that Roberts has contributed to the historical and literary record. 

The book is as expected an illuminating account of the broad sweeps of events with enough supporting content to give both context and a flavor of the times. Besides helping me understand French history and its relevance to the world we live today, I am fascinated by the underlying details of Napoleon and his contemporary life. Despite relying on everything getting documented by ink and quill pen, we get a very thorough look at events as they unfolded. When things occurred is noted to the hour. From the movies, we expect to see armies lined up in neat rows before they massacre one another. Here, we are told of running battles that are surprisingly fluid and starting in the early hours of the morning and lasting well into night of the next day. There is no artificial light, no radio, no telegraph: the fastest means of communication overland is by horse; over the water, by sailing ship. Command and control must've been chaotic, yet they managed. Some better than others and this is where Napoleon prevailed.

We also get a sense of the casual attitude toward sex the French are known for. We read accounts of adultery and cuckolding (even to Napoleon), of men and their mistresses, of women and their companions. I'll home in on one anecdote as an example of how quirky and complicated people were then, just as we are today.

In 1798, Napoleon and his army marched into Egypt. It wasn't unusual for the wives, and especially the paramours, to follow the officers on campaign. On this occasion, Lieutenant Jean-Noel Foures of the 22nd Chasseurs brought along his wife, Pauline, who was an exceptionally striking woman. So much, that Napoleon became smitten with her and began an affair. Imagine today, a general having a dalliance with a subordinate's spouse! Jean-Noel discovered the infidelity and divorced Pauline, and she then became Napoleon's maitresse-en-titre in Cairo. When Napoleon left Egypt, he handed Pauline to one of his generals, and he passed her to yet another. Before you take pity on Pauline, she like other women of the period, knew how to game the system. She used the connections she had accumulated to make a fortune in the Brazilian timber business, then returned to Paris wearing men's clothing and smoking a pipe, accompanied by a menagerie of pet monkeys and parrots. That sliver of history would be a book in itself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Loved this. Proves again that real life is stranger than fiction.