Napoleonic literature

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Napoleonic literature

Napoleonic literature

For over half a century, European authors spun out tales, demilegends, and stage dramas based on the career of the Corsican militarist and French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon I). On a par with the exploits of Achilles, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar, the mythic details of Napoleon's fall from power stirred readers as well as the imagination of such writers as JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE, the folklorists JACOB and WILHELM GRIMM, the fabulist IVAN ANDREYEVICH KRYLOV, and the PROTEST writer Anne-Louise- Germaine de Stael (Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker, baronne de Stael-Holstein, 1766-1817), a French-Swiss intellectual and libertarian who angered Napoleon with her publication of De l’Allemagne (On Germany, 1810) (see PROTEST LITERATURE). While battlefield guides and trinket vendors raked in cash from tourists, artists painted murals, and the English poet Robert Southey (1774-1843) issued The Life of Nelson (1813) and the pro-Iberian epic Roderick, Last of the Goths (1814). Upon Napoleon's defeat and abdication, Lord Byron (1788-1824), immediately composed his “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte” (1814) berating a brilliant upstart for his ignoble ambition.

Other writers expressed mixed sentiments about brilliance gone awry. The French George Sand (1804-76) wrote of contradictory views in her AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Histoire de ma vie (Story of My Life, 1855). The French fiction writer and dramatist Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), a champion of individualism, recognized the rebel spark in Napoleon and admired his energy and brio as he advanced from soldier to emperor. Balzac's childhood and training at a school at Vendome during the Corsican's rise to power provided details and observations of the shaping of imperialism. In the short stories “The Vendetta” and “A Shadowy Affair” (1850), Balzac depicts the emperor as a jovial fellow unspoiled by power and prestige and capable of dispensing justice and mercy to his subjects. The author contrasted opinions on patriotism in “The Napoleon of the People,” anthologized in Le medecin de campagne (The Country Doctor, 1833), a polemic disguised as an exchange of ideas among local profession- als—a physician, a justice of the peace, a notary, a wood merchant, a mayor, and a cavalry veteran. The doctor, in his dialogue on democracy and demagoguery, distinguishes the epochs of greatness—times when “There comes a Mirabeau, or a Danton, a Robespierre, or a Napoleon, or proconsuls, or an emperor, and there is an end of deliberations and debates” (Balzac 1895, 166).

Martial themes recur in a framework narrative, “Passion in the Desert,” anthologized in Balzac's masterwork, Le comedie humaine (The Human Comedy, 1850). The text of the short story contrasts a panther and a lone French legionary who confront each other in the Egyptian desert. The soldier's solitude and the animal's friendliness lead to an unlikely attachment between the man and his beloved Mignonne (little one). In a fond retrospect, the protagonist looks back on his battlefield experience with Napoleon’s Grande Armee: “I went through the wars in Germany, Spain, Russia, France; I have marched my carcass well-nigh over all the world; but I have seen nothing comparable to the desert” (Balzac 1905, 405-406). Weary of warfare, he concludes that the grand savagery of nature appeals to him because “God is there, and man is not” (406).

A Romanticist's View

Alexandre Dumas (Dumas pere, 1802-70) used classic fiction as an outlet for anti-Napoleonic rage. The author’s father, General Alexandre Dumas, suffered professional demotion during service in Napoleon’s army. Alexandre was 13 when Bonaparte lost at Waterloo to the British under the duke of Wellington and the allied Austrians and Prussians. He later recalled the rejoicing at Louis XVIII’s return from Ghent to the French throne.

As a law clerk to the duc d’Orleans at the Palais Royal in Paris, Dumas developed a parallel career as a crime analyst and dramatist. His classic vendetta tale, Le comte de Monte-Cristo (The Count of Monte Cristo, 1844) explores overlapping acts of greed and treachery that cover a 23-year span. In the novel, serialized in 18 parts in the Journal des debats, the author recalls the anti-Napoleon hysteria that leads to the imprisonment of 19-year- old Edmond Dantes, a merchant seaman based in Marseilles during the Bourbon restoration of 1814. The text, like Robert Southey’s allegory “The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo” (1816), begins with the political turmoil in France before and during Napoleon’s escape from Elba. To Southey, Napoleon embodied evil, “Like Satan rising from the sulphurous flood, / His impious legions to the battle-plain” (Southey 1816, 19). In the opinion of Dantes’s archenemy, the public prosecutor Gerard de Villefort: “Napoleon, in the island of Elba, is too near France, and his proximity keeps up the hopes of his partisans … [resulting in] duels in the higher classes, and assassinations in the lower” (Dumas 1889, 1: 70). Upon Napoleon’s resurgence to power for 100 days, the chameleon-like survivalist Villefort admits glibly, “The miraculous return of Napoleon has proved that I was mistaken; the legitimate monarch is he who is loved by his people” (145). Before Dantes can take revenge for the prosecutor’s colossal crimes, he must escape from a dungeon in the Chateau d’If, a GOTHIC prison and emblem of medieval-style French oppression. To recoup his strength, Dantes involves himself with a panorama of Mediterranean characters: pirates and smugglers, the pope, swordsmen, and Haydee, the wronged daughter of the Ottoman ruler Ali Pasha. The Count of Monte Cristo has been filmed numerous times, including a 1975 version made for television, featuring Richard Chamberlain as the romantic swashbuckler avenging himself and his family against the villainies of Louis Jourdan, Tony Curtis, and Donald Pleasence.

Throughout his career, Dumas persisted in his anti-Napoleon writing. He followed Monte Cristo with the novella Les freres corses (The Corsican Brothers, 1844), which deals with the theme of vengeance. In 1855, the author wrote a subjective biography of the emperor entitled Napoleon. Another study of the usurper, Le chevalier de Sainte- Hermine (published in English as The Last Cavalier: Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the Age of Napoleon, 2005), remained forgotten for 125 years after the author’s death. The novel exemplifies megalomania in Bonaparte’s dialogue with Pope Pius VII: “You are pope, but I am emperor, an emperor like the Germanic emperors of old, like Charlemagne” (Dumas 2005, 633). Lost in reveries of triumph, Napoleon, like Adolf Hitler during World War II, affirms his dreams: “I would have marched to Constantinople and overthrown the Turkish Empire. I would have founded a great new empire in the Orient that would have guaranteed my placed in Italy” (56). The fantasy extends to grand promenades through European capitals and a proposed demolition of the house of Austria. While Napoleon spread his empire across Venice, Corinth, Athens, Smyrna, Cyrene, Carthage, Senegal, Ethiopia, Gibraltar, and Cadiz, his lust for plunder brought treasures from Alexandria, Egypt, and crusader caches from Malta.

The English View

The social novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) was 28 years old when Napoleon breached the Peace of Amiens to reignite continental war. Over the next 12 years, the Corsican invader was checked at Trafalgar, exiled to Elba, and finally defeated at Waterloo. In the aftermath of European victory, Austen began composing a domestic romance, Persuasion (1817), after the dethroned emperor had gone into a second exile on August 8, 1815, this time at St. Helena, a British possession in the South Atlantic Ocean. A sense of inevitable change strikes the returning naval heroes, including the agreeable Admiral Croft, a veteran of Lord Nelson's forces whose valor contrasts with the snobbery and wartime profiteering of many of the ruling class. Parlor conversation—reminiscences of the sea and land battles of the immediate past—focuses on combat ironies. At a climactic moment in male-female discussion, Anne Elliot declares to Captain Harville the difference between extroverted warriors and the introversion of women's circumscribed energies: “We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us” (Austen 1995, 179). As a modest celebration of Britain's victory, Austen rewards the dutiful Anne with an equally dutiful and rich husband, Captain Frederick Wentworth, who appreciates a steadfast mate.

Choosing the mockery of panache as his aim, the English parodist and satirist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63) described the Napoleonic era in the allegorical romance Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (1848), serialized in 20 parts in Punch magazine. He set the narrative in a social context and highlighted the terror of civilian characters and the doubts of soldiers before the battles of Quatre Bras, on June 16, 1815, and Waterloo two days later. Unlike LEO TOLSTOY'S epic novel WAR AND PEACE (1869), Thackeray's fiction focuses on a social rather than historical outlook at a time when “The almost universal belief was, that the Emperor would divide the Prussian and English armies, annihilate one after the other, and march into Brussels before three days were over” (Thackeray 1848, 2:71). A model of the theory of the Zeitgeist (spirit of the times), Thackeray's panorama of venality, panic, and opportunism demonstrates how wartime exigencies affect human attitudes and actions. Like Lord Byron's dramatic sound of fire that “strikes like a rising knell” (Byron 1854, 126) in “The Eve of Waterloo,” Thackeray foresees catastrophe. Speaking through an English cavalry officer, Major William Dobbin, the novelist gives a summary of the seriousness of the clash: “We're ordered to Belgium. All the army goes… . We shan't be home again before a tussle which may be fatal to many of us” (Thackeray, 1848, 1:320, 331). History substantiates Dobbin's estimate of the carnage: 4,000 French, and 4,800 English and Dutch were lost at Quatre Bras; at Waterloo, the cost was 25,000 French to 22,000 English and their allies.

Thackeray views the slaughter from a noncombatant perspective. After the enemy passes the Sambre River, “Boney” (Napoleon) becomes the monster whose approach stokes hysteria. A rout ensues among English civilians in Brussels, a vehicle for Thackeray's keen observations about human weaknesses. Amid disorder, two central characters, Amelia Sedley Osborne and Rebecca “Becky” Sharp Crawley, friends and military wives, react differently. Thackeray describes their thoughts after a cannonading announces the approach of the French army. Becky, an amoral social climber, capitalizes on her flirtations in Belgium and France to place herself among the elite and to plot an amour with one of Napoleon's marshals. Her old schoolmate Amelia, downcast by a battle that killed her husband, George Osborne, reevaluates her social and economic outlook. As a widow and single mother, she eventually chooses a realistic marriage with Dobbin, an old and faithful friend, when she discovers that George Osborne had betrayed her. In the 2004 film version, one of many made of Vanity Fair, Reese Witherspoon and James Purefoy starred as Becky Sharp and Rawdon Crawley, and Romola Garai and Jonathan Rhys Meyers played Amelia Osborne and William Dobbin, the idealized proponents of fidelity and stability.


Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Ware, U.K.: Wordsworth

Editions, 1995.

Balzac, Honore de. The Comedie Humane. Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley. Boston: Little, Brown, 1905.

----- . The Country Doctor. Translated by Ellen Marriage. Philadelphia: Gebbie Publishing, 1895.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: A Romaunt. Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird, 1854.

Dumas, Alexandre. The Count of Monte Cristo. 2 vols.

Translated by Pier Angelo Fiorentino. Boston: Little, Brown, 1889.

----- . The Last Cavalier: Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the Age of Napoleon. Translated by Lauren Wayne Yoder. New York: Pegasus, 2005.

Hayward, Jack Ernest Shalom. Fragmented France: Two Centuries of Disputed Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Maurois, Andre. Alexandre Dumas—A Great Life in Brief. Maurois Press, 2007.

Southey, Robert. The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1816.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. 3 vols.

Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1848.