Review of Napoleon: A Political Life

We spent about three months reading Englund’s biography of Napoleon.  This is a major time commitment for table reading, both lunch and dinner every day from late August to late October.  The French Emperor’s life is certainly fascinating, but as the author admits himself in his conclusion (entitled ‘a misplaced introduction’), the book is as much analytic as narrative.  So while for table reading purposes the narrative sections were fine, the analytic parts were harder going.

For example, we spent too much time on nationalism (both French and Corsican), the economics of the Empire, and the fine distinction in French between la politique and le politique.  However, the narrative arc took over for the last half of the book, and the discussions of the two exiles and the hundred days were strong.

We had not read a biography of Napoleon in the twenty years that I have been at Saint Anselm’s, and I was looking for one that would deal intelligently with the relations between the pope and the emperor.  A year or two ago, I came across an article in Commonweal Magazine about Roman Catholicism in contemporary France.  The author, Mr. Englund, had also written a book on Napoleon according to the byline note.  And true to form, the biography’s portrait of the church in revolutionary and imperial France was well done, with an interesting portrait of Pope Pius VII (and not just because he had been a Benedictine monk).

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