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on 8 June 2001
Napoleon is said to have generated more books on him than the number of days of his life. Yet, it is often difficult to find one short book that gives an account of all the facets, human, political, and military, of this historical figure. Cronin's book has succeeded to do so. But one warning: reading it will be an invite for reading more about Napoleon... Napoleon's era was the beginning of modern political Europe, the change from old regime to people's regimes. Also the beginning of new warfare. In Europe, nothing will ever be as before after the french revolution and the rise of Napoleon. So be prepared to be addicted as History, for once, is better than Fiction. As Napoleon said it himself "what an adventure my life has been!". You will not be disappointed by reading Cronin's book.
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on 18 December 2000
I had found (a previous edition of) this book when I was 13 in my school library. I have no idea what made me read it ... I thought I was a Communist back then. I suppose I read it to find reasons to dislike Napoleon. Instead the book persuaded me, nay seduced me, to respect and admire this great man of European History. Without appearing to be obviosly doing so, Cronin destroys the monstrous prejudice that Napoleon suffers in Britain and countries with a measure of British influence (as is my country, Malta). Apart from being a huge work of research with mountains of first hand sources, this is a splendidly easy to read biography and an invitation to people who thought Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin fall in the same category to take a closer look.
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on 8 October 2002
As Cronin says at the outset, he wants to give us Napoleon the man more than the general or emperor. And he succeeds impressively. Napoleon's campaigns and battles are well documented elsewhere (most notably in Chandler's epic text). Here Cronin gives us the battleplan not at Jena or Austerlitz, but inside the mind of the man who was Napoleon.
This is a superb text. By the end of it one feels that he almost knew and dined with Cronin's Napoleon personally. The biography is emotional and sensitive. The sense of intimacy achieved is chilling. I felt almost at his bedside in St. Helena at that painful end.
Here is a rare successful portrait of the human being behind a legend.
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on 25 September 2003
A good biography gives the reader the impression that the author is totally unbiased about the subject, and recounts the story from a purely objective point of view.
A bad biography, in the sense of it being unworthy as historical chronicle (even though it may actually be a good read in itself) is a book in which the author tries to present his or her personal opinion of the subject and sell it off as being a valid study of the subject's life.
From a purely superficial point of view, it could be tempting to insert Cronin's book into this second category. A more detailed look at the contents, the style of writing and the motivations of the author reveal in fact that Cronin's 'Napoleon' is definitely an excellent example of the first category.
Cronin's objective was not to simply present once again the already well documented story of one of the greatest French men who ever lived (and definitely the greatest Corsican). As he mentions in the introduction his purpose in writing the book was to create a living, breathing Napoleon who comes across as more real than in any other biography. Reading this book you will discover not only what he (Napoleon) did, but also who he was.
In every chapter a masterful character study unfolds, and at the end of the book one is truly left with the impression that Cronin’s arguments are not the result of a personal gut feeling about Napoleon the man, but indeed valid thoughts supported by facts and convincing interpretation of facts.
Cronin is a splendid judge of character, and he manages to glide the reader effortlessly through the life journey of a man who’s beginning and end were two amazing extremes, independently unrelated (birth and early life as Italian nobleman in Corsica, and death as ex French Emperor in St. Helena) but linked together by an amazing path. Cronin’s pen ensures that this path makes perfect sense in uniting the start and finish of this remarkable life.
A must for everyone who wants to know who Napoleon the man really was.
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on 27 September 2006
This book provides an interesting view of the man himself and, as a biography, is amazingly well written. My only criticism is in the way Cronin addresses Napoleon's move from Consul to Emperor. It seems that the event calls into question some of the personal principles and motives attributed to Napoleon earlier in the book. We are treated to a quick discussion on the subject, but I felt that Cronin calls upon the faith of the reader to trust the depiction at this point in the book in lieu of outright convincing us.
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This is an excellent biography of Napoleon. It is written in such a way that you feel as if you're reading a novel, rather than a dry biography, this a good thing as it makes it exceptionally easy to read. It doesn't really look at Napoleons more negative attributes, but does show how innovative and what a great leader he was. An engaging and enjoyable read.

Feel free to check out my blog which can be found on my profile page.
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on 13 August 2003
5 out of 5 for readability, 1 out of 5 for impartiality. So I give it an average mark of 3.

The book is a pleasure to read, but it quickly becomes apparent that the author is highly reluctant to remark on, or even mention, Napoleon's failings, weaknesses, and the worst excesses of his rule. We are not told, to give one example, about the press censorship which characterized his regime. Indeed the impression is given that he was a champion of liberality and freedom.

Whilst undoubtedly a genius who cast an extremely long historical shadow, it is hard for example to read the chapter about Napoleon selling out his revolutionary ideals by establishing a hereditary dynasty of his own, without an ironic smile. The facts are glossed over in the manner of Soviet historians describing the establishment of the "dictatorship of the prolerariat". Whilst in reality Napoleon rode coach and horses over the revolutionary aspirations of overthrowing the hereditary monarchy and peerage by establishing himself as a totalitarian dictator, the book tells us that before doing so, "Napoleon consulted public opinion. It was favourable." Well that's ok, then!

Equally, Napoleon's warmongering imperialism, and insistence on establishing puppet regimes across Western Europe (as hypocritical as his declaring himself Emperor) is treated highly sympathetically. The depiction of the war against England as a defensive war, entered into with the greatest reluctance, makes you wonder if the author has actually read the primary sources.

Overall, this book is a great read, but its blinkered style means it is certainly not to be regarded as a definitive text on Napoleon the man.
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on 9 February 2009
Having just visited the island of St Helena and spent time at Napoleon's Grave and at Longwood and The Briars where he spent his last years in exile, I was very interested to read a good history of his life. This book by Vincent Cronin has given me an excellant insight into his personal life and also his campaigns. It is easily readable as well as very informative.
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on 12 July 2010
It is the small details that make this book so attractive- Napoleon was "God's messenger and friend of the Prophet" to the Muslims in Egypt, yet also very human - obsessed with Josephine who was not only extravagant with his money but with her favours to blue eyed young men.
Napoleon could not speak French (only Italian) when he left Corsica to go to school and his writing always became illegible when he was stressed - so he dictated all his commands which were recorded by loyal servants. He was a leader who was ruthless when required - he shot 4000 Turkish prisoners as he could not feed them and his men - but was also went to great lengths to sweep away unfairness and introduced universal suffrage for all men. The Italians welcomed him as a liberator from the Austrians and the pope - in 1797 he stopped the Jews in the papal town of Ancona being forced to wear the Star of David on their clothes and being locked up in a Ghetto at night - I wonder where the Nazis got their ideas from?
It is seems that he applied to come to Portsmouth as a young officer to learn from the English about naval warfare. The irony being that the British Navy was a thorn in his side always.
He won many many battles when vastly outnumbered and with inferior equipment though the book does not dwell on those matters - the book is about the man and the society he changed through hard work and quickness of mind.
The first publication of this biography was 1971 and as a product of the 60s it's presentation is often factual rather than sensationalist though the salacious details are all there. The book reports the seven deadly sins rather than putting them in banner headlines like some reviewers are prone to do.
This book will make you think about society and whether it has changed and the political developments of the past 200+ years. The French thought that the Egyptians of that time would be unable to cope with a true democracy and wanted autocratic leadership - It makes me wonder if the political leaders of our time have similar thoughts about us and other countries.
I enjoyed this book though it is at times rather detailed as regards what people ate and liked and disliked
It is easily digestible all the same. A friend who recommended this book said that after reading it that he would have died for Napoleon if he had been French rather than a Scouser
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Two statements made by Napoleon during the course of his remarkable, almost legendary life seem neatly to sum him up. He defined happiness as "the greatest possible development of one's abilities"; and once remarked "I am exceptional in this, that I am fitted for both an active and a sedentary life."

Born in Corsica of Italian descent, (his mother was fourteen when she married, his father eighteen) Napoleon struggled to learn French and retained a strong Italian accent. His military career was meteoric: he was a general at the age of twenty six.

At this age he also met Rose Beauharnais, a thirty two year old widow with two children, five foot tall and with a light Creole accent, legacy of a childhood spent in Martinique. He dubbed her "Josephine" and they were married for fourteen years.. From letters he wrote to her we know that theirs was a passionate love: "I have woken up full of you. Your portrait and the memory of yesterday's intoxicating evening have given my senses no rest...what an odd effect you have on my are leaving at noon, and in three hours I shall see you".

Subsequently Josephine was discarded for a matrimonial alliance with Austria; but they remained in correspondence after Marie Louise, his second wife and son were kept from him in his exile. Josephine's name was on his dying breath.

We are told that in 1797 Napoleon had, with an army of 44,000, defeated forces four times that number. Cronin analyses his success, innovations and tactics. The following year he was fighting in Egypt, where "the Alexandrians had a brief warning of the French attack but absent-mindedly failed to close one of their gates. With the loss of 200 wounded Napoleon occupied the second city in Egypt just in time for lunch".

It seems incredible that someone so active on the battlefield should die in his bed. "The bullet that is to kill me has not yet been cast" boasted Napoleon. He suffered imprisonment on Elba, final defeat at Waterloo then a lingering decline and death on the island of St Helena where he spent the last five and a half years of his life.

Vincent Cronin is blatantly a biased biographer; an admirer of Napoleon the man and the brilliant military campaigner. But that is not to say that the book suffers in any way from this bias, so long as the reader is tolerantly aware of it - and perhaps at a future date balances it out with other reading, as I intend to do.

Cronin desired to picture a "living, breathing man" and here he is: the man who inspired his friends, battalions and generals; who said "there is only one way of judging men: by what they do." His friends may have been lavishly rewarded; and his close family given titles and preferments; but as one grizzled old soldier Lefebvre declared to an envious friend "I will fire at you sixty times, and then, if you are not killed, everything shall be yours"

Napoleon's empire was built up out of gains made in the course of two wars - defensive wars, states Cronin. At the empire's zenith in 1808 Napoleon ruled 70 million people - half of Europe. The basis of this rule was military strength - "he ruled to the thud of gunfire". He himself was always in the thick of battle: when requested to move to a place of safety he retorted "what do you take me for - a bishop?"

The war on Russia in 1812 provides staggering statistics. Cronin writes "not since Xerxes had marched the nations of Asia across the Hellespont had such a large force been seen". Altogether Napoleon marched 530,000 men from 20 nations. Each division was followed by a six-mile column of food supplies, masons to build ovens, cattle on the hoof, bakers, 28 million bottles of wine and two million of brandy. Wagons and carts totalled 30,000; horses 150,000.

Our concept of him is of a short, balding pot bellied man - he was five feet six and a half inches tall. In fact he only began to put on weight in his mid thirties and was generally regarded as a handsome man when younger, described by Fanny Burney as having "far more the air of a student than a warrior".

The biographer, like an indulgent parent, sees excuses even for faults and failings. Napoleon cheated at games because it was not in him to observe the rules - confirming his praiseworthy cunning. As for the claim of his personal ambition we are told that in reply to a jibe that he would like the job of God the Father if the post were free, Napoleon retorted "No, it's a dead end". His motivation was always the principles of the Revolution. He wrote "I have never really been my own master; I have always been governed by circumstances." He justified making himself emperor as merely a change of title, a means of establishing peace and quiet in France. His horrific retreat from Moscow was caused by his impatience - "this man brimming with energy, who acted so much faster than his fellows".

A few minor points. I would have liked illustrations and to have had all the French translated. Otherwise it is absolutely gripping - even the descriptions of the deployments of war, which I would never have envisaged myself taking an interest in whatsoever. A girl at my secondary school was fixated on Napoleon and I wonder now if it was this book she had been reading. I certainly defy anyone to read this and not be moved at Napoleon's untimely, though peaceful, death.
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