Napoleon. In the intimacy of a reign (D. Casali)

Dimitri Casali, historian, specialist in historical popularization (former teacher in ZEP and creator of the concept Historock combining History and rock), offers us a new work in the collection "Documents of History" at Larousse. Flip through this wonderfully produced synthetic book, marvel at the abundance of illustrations, hold in your hands copies of real period documents (letters, engravings, bulletins of the Grande Armée ...) and immerse yourself in this Napoleonic era where the genius of a man models France and permeates Europe for a long time. From page to page, from animation to document, discover or make discover in a fun way the epic of the Eagle.

A subject treated in a classic way

The subject, Napoleon, is treated in a fairly classic way. That is to say, a chronological presentation (from birth in Corsica to his death in Saint Helena) interspersed with thematic files that are also all classic: the relationship to work, the relationship to women, conspiracies against his person, the relationship with his brothers and sisters… In short, themes well known by fans of the First Empire but a coherent plan within the framework of a popularization work such as this one. We do not have here a thesis, nor a specialized work on a facet of imperial history, but a generalist work on Napoleon intended to present this character to as many people as possible. In fact, the writing style is simple enough that anyone can easily dive into it from college. We move easily from the author's pen to numerous extracts from the memoirs of contemporaries or from the writings of Victor Hugo.

A masterful model

If the way of dealing with the subject is classic, the presentation is very original, fun and educational. Much attention is paid to the aesthetics of the book, with among other things a magnetic flap allowing the book to be closed as would the red ribbon drawn on it. But once the book has been opened one can only notice the care taken in the background of the pages, always varied and adapted to the subject at hand. The textures thus participate in the reader's immersion in Napoleon's world: engravings, floor, brick wall, cloudy sky, smoke from battles, apartment wallpaper, maps, paper texture, painting… The presentation of the book contributes -even to awaken the senses of the reader. Added to this is a multitude of illustrations, over 350 in 123 pages! Suffice to say that the reader always has something to visualize what he is reading, from drawings by Job to paintings by Gros or David, including a multitude of lithographs, caricatures ... And maps! Because it is very difficult to understand the Napoleonic campaigns without maps. However, it is regrettable that the battle maps are systematically fixist, offering only one situation at a time-T without actually rendering all the maneuvers. These cards are presented in small flaps to open, moreover the book is full of these small animations. These are generally images which, when lifted or unfolded, offer additional information or testimony on a subject mentioned in this page: it can be on the Horse Hunters, the Mamluks, Napoleon's dress or the last words of the Marshal Lannes for example. To these leaflets are added numerous inserts with equally varied themes from the relationship between Letizia Bonaparte and Marbeuf to the etiquette of the imperial court. In the end there are about a hundred of these animations which make it possible to deconstruct (in appearance) the book to make it more attractive because not presented as a "block" but as a series of very short articles around a very synthetic frame. .

But what certainly makes the originality of this work is obviously the presence of many facsimiles (reproduction of archival documents), no less than forty. This principle is not an innovation, there are already other historical books using this principle on many themes (the Normandy landings, Mont Saint-Michel ...) including Napoleon. We are particularly thinking of the work by David Chanterrane and Emmanuelle Papot published by Gründ editions. The Larousse editions are therefore now offering a very similar book, less expensive and with twice as many facsimiles, which admittedly feels strongly the editorial counterattack. In any case, this is a good thing for the reader, who is thus always more spoiled with copies of archival documents, allowing him to immerse himself more and more in reading letters and speeches, in getting used to

the writing of this early 19th century, holding in his hands a lithograph by Napoleon at Essling, a drawing by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux on Waterloo, an image of Épinal or one of those famous bulletins of the Grand Army. If we do not ask the reader to know how to treat the historical document like a historian, we nevertheless allow him to touch History through these copies. Besides, if the reader had trouble reading the writing of Josephine, her imperial husband or the clerks of the various ministries: do not panic! Because of course all the texts of the facsimiles are transcribed at the end of the book.

We therefore have in our hands a simple, clear book, accessible to all, wonderfully illustrated and laid out which will necessarily appeal to the neophyte but also perhaps to the amateur of the First Empire who, if he will not learn anything new. , will always be happy to handle the facsimiles! It would not surprise me either if some of these facsimiles end up framed above a collection of small soldiers or next to a library full of books by Tulard, Pigeard, Lentz, Boudon ...

The golden legend of Napoleon?

It is obvious that it is necessary to synthesize in this kind of work, to cut corners. We cannot say everything in 123 pages while including more than 300 illustrations. Moreover, the general neophyte public, more targeted by this kind of book, would surely quickly tire of reading a detailed presentation of Napoleon. There are other books for this.

Nevertheless there sometimes seems to be a certain bias in the way of treating subjects and in the choice of subjects that go by the wayside. Military campaigns are thus very quickly closed, often around the description of a battle (Lodi for example for the first Italian campaign). What emerges is a sense of the speed of operations, with each campaign almost boiling down to "I came, I saw, I conquered." Moreover, we can note that on the battle of Austerlitz, the work of Oleg Sokolov was not taken into account, who proved that the battle plan was changed at the last moment and that consequently the speech of the day before which announced the whole process was rewritten after the victory. Speaking of victory, we also notice that those of Jena and Auerstaedt are only mentioned in the context of Napoleon's "lightning campaign" without saying a word about Marshal Davout, who was nevertheless the great winner of this last battle. Regarding the battles we also note that the defeat of Saint-Jean-D'acre is not mentioned either (except in a line, but not on the expedition to Egypt but on the reports of Napoleon with his comrade Phélippeaux at the military school in Paris). Moreover, it is the entire campaign in Syria that is not addressed, which avoids raising the controversial subject of the Jaffa massacres. We do not speak either of the reception of the departure of Napoleon from Egypt by his soldiers and generals ... Likewise, if we speak of the plots, that of Cadoudal, Moreau and Pichegru goes unnoticed. This allows us not to talk about the direct consequence of this plot: the assassination of the Duke of Enghien ...

There are many examples of this kind, on subjects too partially covered, notably the war in Spain. This war is too synthesized and perhaps a little biased since if the Spanish guerrillas are presented not a word is said about the French counter-guerrilla war and its share of atrocities. Moreover, the context of the Spanish Civil War, the reason for the French presence, is not really explained. The Spanish Civil War is presented more as a victorious campaign by Napoleon, the benefits of which were lost by his incompetent marshals after his absence.

Napoleon's image is therefore never really damaged, even in his first relationship with Marie Walewska, presented as one of the most peaceful, on which the sources do not necessarily agree ...

Our opinion

« Napoleon. In the privacy of a reign "Is a very beautiful book which certainly gives pride of place to the golden legend of the Eagle, but which

by its presentation and its spirit of synthesis is a good tool to make known to everyone, from the college, this character

crucial and charismatic of the history of France. And it is not in vain since this kind of work will have to replace the national education which today conches the one who established the high schools in 1802, Napoleon being only an optional character, treated only if the professor wishes ... But Napoleon has not finished fighting his last battle, even if the

government minimizes it in teaching and memorial ceremonies (while we are in the middle of the bicentenaries of the Empire) it remains one of the privileged subjects of history, novels, comics, cinema, video games ...

Casali Dimitri, Napoleon. In the intimacy of a reign, Editions Larousse, Collection "Documents of History", October 2011.

Video: Napoleon Bonaparte. Animated History (September 2021).