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.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor