Book Review:
The Age of Napoleon

By Alistair Horne


To get an idea what it was like to live during the times of the Napoleonic Era, those interested in the period should have a look at Alistair Horne's fascinating book The Age of Napoleon.

It isn't a large book, just over 180 pages, but it is packed with details and stories that show France between 1796 and 1815 in a very different way.

There is so much information in there I have read it twice already and it is one of those books you will keep picking up and finding something new in.

One of the great things about The Age of Napoleon is Horne's journalistic style, which is straightforward and well written.

He calls a spade a spade and while it seems he has little time for Napoleon the man, he respects some of his achievements.

For example he says as a rebuttal to folk who compare Napoleon with Hitler. "In terms of civil, non-military accomplishments, Hitler after 12 years in power bequeathed to Germany nothing but a mountain of skulls and rubble. Napoleon, on the other hand, had he never fought a single battle, would still have to be rated one of history's great leaders for the system of administration and civil reforms he left behind him in France."

And it is on the social and civil part Napoleon played in France that Horne has focused. He has 10 major parts to The Age of Napoleon that cover every aspect of his period in power.

They include his rise, his loves, the master builder, style by decree, the pleasures of empire and his fall.

The three areas that particularly grabbed my attention were The Master Builder, Style by Decree and The Pleasures of Empire.

Wanting to make Paris the most beautiful city in the world, Napoleon threw his energy into cleaning it up and redesigning it. He was not gentle about it at times - demolishing older houses with draconian decisions - and he was obsessed by providing the city with clean water.

It is hard to imagine the Paris of today being a rather squalid place, but before Napoleon it still had open sewers and took his will to build a 60-kilometre canal to channel fresh water to the capital.

In Style by Decree, Horne tells how the decorative arts flourished under the emperor, with manufacturers of fabrics and linens, as well as silversmiths doing very nicely indeed.

His Empire style of furniture - simple and solid - followed Napoleon's own tastes as did his patriarchal move towards limiting the excesses of the Directory's social habits.

He, through the example of Josephine, changed the fashions from the see-through, near naked dresses to more modest and moral items of clothing.

One of the great mental pictures in this chapter is where Napoleon - always cold in a Paris winter - is described as being "seen constantly wielding a pair of fire-tongs; or, in the early morning, working with a handkerchief tied around his head, its two corners flopping on to his shoulders".

In The Pleasures of Empire there are some wonderful tales of the riotous behaviour at the opera, including where rival gangs would back their own favourites and try to end the careers of their opponents.

And how Napoleon would demand changes to what was showing only hours before the performance - even if that meant people didn't know their lines.

There are just too many great little anecdotes to be touched on in a review, but needless to say The Age of Napoleon is one of those books that fans of the Napoleonic Era should have in their home libraries. It offers a different, civilian view of life under Napoleon and because of this adds so much more breadth to our understanding of the times.

- Richard Moore






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