Master of Europe beyond the grave

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Mike Houlahan reviews Napoleon: Passion, Death, And Resurrection 1815-1840, by Philip Dwyer. Published by Bloomsbury.

Given the date range of this book, you might cynically call it "Napoleon without the good bits".

However, that would sell short what is a resounding finale to Australian author Philip Dwyer’s trilogy of books on the much-studied French emperor.

Throughout this intriguing final volume, Dwyer maintains a delicate balance between the haunting last years of Napoleon the man, and how his spirit continued to influence French and European thought; both before and after his death.

The book begins with Napoleon having left European shores for the last time, afloat on HMS Bellerophon on the first leg of his voyage to St Helena.

With his protagonist anchored in English waters before being transferred to the Northumberland and onwards to St Helena, Dwyer develops the themes which sustain the rest of the book; the general populace is fascinated by Napoleon’s every move and wants to know more about him, while the man himself is seldom seen despite dominating people’s thoughts.

While transportation to St Helena was intended to put Napoleon out of sight and out of mind, Dwyer’s analysis shows that was anything but the case.

Any snippet from the remote island was big news, and between Napoleon’s captors and his few companions in exile there was a steady trickle of information about the former emperor, for whatever reason, and from whatever motivation.

Dwyer does well to weave together both the labyrinthine personal politics of St Helena and how Napoleon’s exile was perceived from whence he had come, without losing his narrative grip of either thread.

Dwyer’s main actor leaves this mortal coil on p118, but he never leaves centre stage.

The author’s cut-off date is 1840, by which time Napoleon’s reputation had traversed from being called a "bugger" by the Bourbons to the July Monarchy bringing back his remains to Paris as a gift to the nation.

Through popular culture and popular perception, Dwyer argues convincingly about the myth-making process that surrounded Napoleon; both before and after his death, a process that still influences how the man is seen today.

Dwyer neatly counterpoints the machinations of the powerful with those whose affections they were hoping to win. For example, at the start of a chapter entitled "The Return Of The Messiah" he dryly notes that 13 or 14 "Napoleons" were admitted to the Paris insane asylum during 1840.

Dwyer is not so concerned with judging Napoleon, rather with explaining how the emperor has been judged, and by whom, and for what purpose.

That makes for a thought-provoking end to a contentious life and a satisfying end to an excellent book.

- Mike Houlahan is an ODT health reporter.

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