Nowadays, I find, books tend to be cautious and equivocal, always striving to place everything in context. Not so back in 1910, when Harold Wheeler began his book:
 “There is no more marvellous story in human history than that of Napoleon I, Emperor of the French.”

He went on for thirty-two chapters, filling just over three hundred pages, giving brief dramatic outlines of the exploits of the Corsican general. Where contemporary biographers feel obliged to include numerous footnotes and appendices, Wheeler is happy to paint in bold strokes, confident that his readers would plough through the book, eagerly discussing it with friends or teachers or workmates. Perhaps during their debates, his readers would encounter new perspectives or overlooked facts, thus creating their own personal catalogue of footnotes.

Modern scholarship tends more towards books like ‘1812’ by Adam Zamoyski, a 500-page blockbuster with a huge index and lots of references, devoted to the defeat at Moscow. Even so, in his introduction, Zamoyski acknowledges that:
‘…to do justice to such a subject would take many years, and a book at least twice the length of this one….

It is reported that Pierre Boulez, champion of the avant-garde, has always refused to conduct Tchaikovsky. I wonder if this is due to the latter’s syrupy output; or could it be that the Russian’s most famous work is a celebration of Napoleon’s defeat, with the Marseillaise being dismembered by God Save the Tsar?

Even if you’re not a keen fan of Romantic history, Zamoyski’s book is an absorbing read; he mixes grand narrative with background details to create an interesting tale.


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