The World of Books
By the books editor
This year France is marking, in various ways and styles, the bicentenary of the death of Napoléon Bonaparte. In the cause of heritage preservation the emperor has joined the Bourbons as part of the great panoply of French culture. The current head of the family, international investment banker Jean-Christophe, Prince Napoléon, a young man in the modern style, has been interviewed by Paris Match in the echoing halls of Les Invalides, where Napoléon I is laid in a magnificent sarcophagus.
Magnificence, glory, daring, new ways of winning wars and running a country: all these are associated with the emperor. Few of his French admirers chose to dwell on the ‘Hundred Days’ and the disaster of Waterloo – Victor Hugo’s morne plaine.
However, given my mischievous love of irony and the outré aspects of patriotic glory, his short reign as the sovereign prince of the island of Elba reads almost like a comic opera.
This was after the battle of Paris, and as a consequence of the Treaty of Fontainebleau in April. We, in the English-speaking world, hear less of this, because the British played a lesser role in the matter.
He was allowed to retain his title of Sa Majesté l’Empéreur for life. He was given Elba as “a separate principality for his life time, held by him in complete sovereignty”. There he went, taking with him some 600 members of the Grande Armeé who volunteered to go.
He was taken there on a British warship, and spent the five day voyage designing a flag for his new pocket kingdom. He landed there on May 4, 1814. Ashore he chose with the help of the mayor a residence on the high ridge above the town, the Casa dei Mulini. This mansion had the great advantage that all the open drains used for sanitation on the island flowed downhill from this peak; the stink of the town on Napoleon’s arrival nauseated him.
Once in residence he set about his new ambition to dominate his domain now reduced to these narrow acres. How quickly worldly glory, so strongly lusted after by rulers, sacred and profane, comes to nothing.
On Elba he collected his mother, his sister, his current mistress, his wife and other camp followers. Hearing tales of how unpopular the restored Bourbon monarchy was in France, Napoléon decided to gamble again.
Urged on by supporters in France, he left Elba at the end of February 1815 and landed at Antibes on March 1. A hundred days later he was finally defeated at Waterloo.
This time he threw himself on the mercy of the King of England. Now a prisoner of the British, there was to be no more nonsense about him ruling in any capacity. He was sent to the remote St Helena in the South Atlantic, where his way of life was described by his Irish doctor Barry O’Meara, that unique work of Irish literature, Napoleon in Exile, or A Voice From St Helena (1822).
However, the island of Elba still welcomes many who come to sample its seafood dishes and to see the relics of Napoléon’s brief rule. This delightful place has a special charm for all those who believe that “all political careers end in failure”. The emperor had attempted to tame the Pope; the Vatican survives. The nation marking the emperor’s death is now a republic, albeit its fifth.