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The empire of vulgarity

Napoleon was a crook, a scoundrel, an opportunist and a tawdry show-off, but fatally seductive. By Jan Morris; Napoleon and Josephine: An Improbable Marriage by Evangeline Bruce Weidenfeld, pounds 25
T his book about the little bugger Napoleon (General Augereau's definition) and the whore Josephine (Napoleon's mother's judgement) will do little to comfort those who, in the run-up to the nuclear test on Muroroa atoll, pine for reassurances of French grandeur. Retold with enthusiasm but with no holds barred, the old story is as squalid as ever it was, and as I waded through its treacheries and tyrannies, vanities and pretensions, hypocrisies, tomfooleries and almost universal sleaze, I found myself yearning once more for the moment when Wellington and Blucher would arrive at last to end it all.

Evangeline Bruce's husband was US Ambassador to France in the hideous post-war period of French history, and although her book is ostensibly a portrait of the famous marriage, it is really about France at another of its climactic historical periods. The marriage itself is about the most engaging thing in it: riddled though the 13-year union was with infidelities and deceptions, it had its elements of disinterested affection, on both sides, which are remarkably lacking from the rest of the saga.

For the most part Mrs Bruce is telling us what we know already, salted by recognisably feminist preferences. But her admirably honest and straightforward narrative demonstrates with an awful new clarity how tawdry the whole Napoleonic adventure was, and how pitifully the 19th-century romantics were duped by the legend of Napoleon's idealism. Millions of men, from almost every country in Europe, died in the course of his campaigns and they died not for noble ideals, not even for that hackneyed abstraction the glory of France, but for Bonaparte's vulgar personal ambition.

Vulgarity, indeed, is the leitmotif of the book. Almost everyone was coarse in one way or another. Josephine, for instance, was a compulsive spender, a compulsive liar, a wartime profiteer and an adulteress. Compared with the rest of the characters, though, she was a perfect saint. Thugs, cheap crooks, manipulators of every kind, scoundrels, malicious opportunists, show-offs - these were the elite of Imperial Paris, the post-revolutionary aristocracy. and they were presided over by the biggest thug, crook, manipulator, scoundrel, opportunist and show-off of them all, Napoleon himself.

Surrounded by his appalling Corsican family, all scheming stagily for advancement, we see him swiftly mutating from the ever-victorious general who thought nothing of sacrificing 20,000 men in a single battle, to the egotistical buffoon with 44 palaces, who made his court a tinsel parody of royalism - its charade of sashes, plumes, silk breeches, curtseys and inflexible protocol played against a background of absolute power. Napoleon's restoration of monarchy is the best argument for republicanism I know: how did anyone take seriously his preposterous scattering of kingdoms, princedoms and dukedoms - absurdities which have left their living mementoes to this day in most of Europe's ruling families?

There is no pretending that the gentle Josephine, so fond of flowers and animals, had no share in all this. During Napoleon's rise to megalomania she played an essential part in bolstering his confidence and pandering to his excesses. He thought she added patrician style to his authority; she, it seems, was willing to satisfy his juvenile taste for utterly submissive women dressed according to his obviously fetishist urges. She did nothing to try to restrain his bully-boy progress across Europe, and she played a simpering role in such events as his imperial coronation in Notre Dame, when he impertinently turned his back on Pope Pius VII (later to be both his prisoner and his excommunicator) and crowned himself with a replica of Charlemagne's crown.

In fact, after reading this book it is hard to avoid the conclusion that nobody connected with Napoleon was guiltless of his crimes, whether crimes against his own people, which were innumerable, or crimes against Europe which would in later times undoubtedly have seen him sentenced by an international court. Those jumped-up macho marshals of his; those sycophantic courtiers and socialites; the turncoats, one moment licking his boots, the next moment deserting him; Barras the aristocratic regicide; venomous Fouche; Talleyrand the avaricious and traitorous priest ("nothing but shit in a silk stocking", as Napoleon called him) - all were guilty, if not by complicity, then by association.

Napoleon's self-propagated legend, perfected during his exile in St Helena and later to give birth to a world-wide cult, made posterity think of him as a martyr and a true hero - saviour of the revolution, prophet of liberty, friend of oppressed nations and lover of all things beautiful. We know better now, but the snag is that the man himself remains irresistibly fascinating. Bruce succumbs to his charisma in the end, and so, of course, do I. Who doesn't? Women of all ranks and nationalities fell for him - partly for his power partly of course, but for his personality too. Men from sergeant-majors to artists were his willing creatures: he once said that if Czar Alexander of All The Russias was a woman he might like him as a mistress.

The awkward truth is that Napoleon was a terrible man, but undeniably marvellous. He was like a sexy Hitler. History will finally judge him, I do not doubt, to have been a monster and a charlatan, but despite themselves men and women down the ages will sympathise with Josephine when, brutally denied entry to his bedroom, she sat on the stairs outside in the small hours, crying her heart out in frustration.

On the other hand one can only suppose that the men of the Imperial Guard, who eventually burnt their flags and ate the ashes, so as never to be separated from their glory, were off their heads: and in a peculiarly French way at that.