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Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life


A definitive biography of Bonaparte from his birth in Corsica to his death in exile on St Helena, this book examines all aspects of Bonaparte's spectacular rise to power and his dizzying fall. It offers close examination of battlefield victories, personal torments, military genius, Bonaparte's titanic ego and his relationships with the French government, Talleyrand, Wellington and Josephine. A consummate biography of a complex man.

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A definitive biography of Bonaparte from his birth in Corsica to his death in exile on St Helena, this book examines all aspects of Bonaparte's spectacular rise to power and his dizzying fall. It offers close examination of battlefield victories, personal torments, military genius, Bonaparte's titanic ego and his relationships with the French government, Talleyrand, Wellington and Josephine. A consummate biography of a complex man.

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Editorial Reviews

Robert Gildea
A rip-roaring yarn...a vast dramatis personae of emperors and princesses, marshals and bishops, mistresses and murderers....Napoleon does, as it claims, present the whole Napoleon, the public and the private face....Schom has a lively style, and a neat turn of phrase, and his book reads well.
The New York Times Book Review
Robert Gildea
A rip-roaring yarn...a vast dramatis personae of emperors and princesses, marshals and bishops, mistresses and murderers....Napoleon does, as it claims, present the whole Napoleon, the public and the private face....Schom has a lively style, and a neat turn of phrase, and his book reads well. -- The New York Times Book Review
Adam Gopnik
Polished, scholarly, and successful.
The New Yorker
Dan Wick
Meticulously researched... Schom presents a rounded portrait not only of Napoleon but also of the principal figures in his extraordinary life... and brilliantly presents Napoleon's life while appropriately deflating his legend.
Washington Post Book World
Kirkus Reviews
A biography so negative, it even casts doubt on Napoleon's military genius. Historian Schom breaks no new ground in portraying the man who rose from the impoverished Corsican aristocracy to become emperor of France as a brutal, selfish manipulator who dreamed only of glory and cared little for other people. But even previous biographers who didn't think much of Bonaparte as a human being or a ruler usually conceded that he had no equal on the battlefield. Schom is at pains to refute this notion, beginning with a blistering account of the Egyptian campaign of 1798-99, during which the French army was decimated due to its general's failure to inform himself about the land he was invading or to properly plan for provisioning his troops, flaws that would have even more tragic consequences in Russia in 1812. The evaluation is so hostile, it's a little hard to understand how Egypt made Napoleon popular enough to sweep into power in November 1799—let alone how he managed to lead the French army triumphantly across most of Europe over the next 13 years. Despite his assertion that he covers 'every aspect of [Napoleon's] life and character,' Schom severely scants the monarch's sweeping political and social initiatives within France; not even the enduring Napoleonic Code gets much attention. This is old-fashioned narrative history, primarily concerned with personal intrigue among the elite and detailed accounts of battles, and lacking consideration of their broader context. On that limited basis, it's entertaining: vivaciously and rather sloppily written, effectively if not definitively researched (notes refer mostly to published sources rather than archives), with vivid charactersketches of all the Bonapartes, the agreeable and promiscuous Josephine, cynical foreign minister Talleyrand, and other key figures. More suitable for those looking for the proverbial 'good read' than anyone seeking deeper insights into a crucial transitional moment—and man—in French history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060929589
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/28/1998
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Pages: 944
  • Sales rank: 192,839
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Alan Schom is a Fellow at the Hoover Institution and has lectured on French History at Oxford University. He lives in California and France.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"A Dangerous Islander"
I was born even as my country was perisbing.

On December 17, 1778, thirty-two-year-old Carlo Maria (or Charles, as he now called himself) Buonaparte boarded a coastal vessel in the Corsican port of Ajaccio. At his side, Joseph, ten, his eldest son; Napoleone, or "Nabulio," nine, the second surviving son; and Charles's brother-in-law, Joseph Fesch, waved to their brothers, sisters, and friends. They had just left their weatherbeaten four-story stone house in the Strada Malerba (Weedy Street), where Joseph and Nabulio had kissed their mother good-bye. They were bound for France, where Joseph would enter the College d'Autun, preparatory to a career in the church. Nabulio would continue on to the Royal Military School of Brienne-le-Chateau, where he would learn what to many Corsicans was still an elusive language, French, along with history, geography, mathematics, and the other courses required prior to entering the Ecole Militaire of Paris. The boys' amiable and mild young Uncle Fesch, their mother's half-brother, was off to the seminary at Aix-en-Provence to prepare for the priesthood. Such was the end of Napoleon's brief childhood.

Rushed home from high mass in the cathedral of Ajaccio on August 15, 1769, Letizia Buonaparte had barely reached the house when she gave birth to Napoleon, in the sparsely furnished drawing room. She had timed it too closely, as she did everything. Letizia Ramolino, the daughter of a state inspector of roads and bridges, and the stepdaughter of her mother's second husband, a banker named Fesch, was fourteen on June z, 1764,when she married eighteen-year-old Carlo Maria di Buonaparte.

Originally from Lombardy, her family had gradually moved across much of Italy, including Florence and Naples, before setting out from Genoa for Corsica in the fifteenth century. Letizia was a slender, dark, not very tall girl who rarely smiled. Life was a serious, if not grim, affair for a female with no formal education, intended only to marry and bear children-as indeed she would-of whom eight ultimately survived. Her Corsican dialect of Italian was not flawless, and her grammar and writing were adequate at best; French was to remain a great mystery to her. As for books, she never read them in any language. But because France had purchased Corsica from the Genoese Republic on May r s, 1767-though conquering the defiant Corsicans, led by Pasquale Paoli, only the following year-she was destined to hear a lot of French spoken, in spite of her own antipathy to it and its people. She had brought a dowry of approximately seven thousand livres (considered quite respectable at the time) and a little land. She was a hard woman, a survivor of the rigors of tumultuous Corsican history, and was to prove a severe mother, reflected by her house with few furnishings, not even a single rug in the two lower stories the family occupied. The Buonaparte residence was hardly a welcoming place, and her brood found little kindness there. Although she attended mass when required-her husband's uncle, Lucien, was the archdeacon of Ajaccio--she was not "religious" by nature. She limited her world to her husband, who was rarely there; her children, who were always there; and the responsibilities involved in managing the family's income and affairs.

Charles Buonaparte's family had originally come from Florence to Ajaccio in 1520, where they were members of the small ruling "noble" (though titleless) class. Charles's first, and last, eminent ancestor, one Guglielmo di Buonaparte, had, as a nobleman, been a member of the municipal council of Florence in the thirteenth century, then under the control of the Ghibellines. But with the return of the Guelphs, he and his entire family were forced to flee the Tuscan capital and retire to Sarzana in Liguria and San Miniato, where they grew more and more impoverished, finally forcing Francesco di Buonaparte to sail to Corsica in the sixteenthth century for a fresh start.

Alas, the Buonaparti were not the best of businessmen, and although always educated, frequently serving in the law in one capacity or other, they left no fortunes behind. Indeed, when Charles had married Letizia in 1764, he was almost penniless. His law degree from Pisa enabled him to become "royal assessor" for the judicial region around Ajaccio. Though granted the title of equerry, his salary was only nine hundred francs a year.` But he had "expectations"--the ailing Uncle Lucien, a priest with no family, promised to leave the good-natured if rather chaotic Charles his entire estate. And thus they now had the large house in Ajaccio, where the portrait of the island's French governor, Monsieur de Marbeuf, proudly hung in the otherwise dingy and unused drawing room.

Although a good Corsican patriot, Charles Buonaparte (the family never used the aristocratic particle, for which there was no title in any event), following Paoli's defeat by the French, had adapted quickly to the new political scene. He was one of those individuals who, although lazy by nature, are constantly devising new projects and schemes for the government to develop, in the hope of improving their own positions. But apart from getting himself elected one of the twelve members of the ruling municipal council of Ajaccio, most of Charles's schemes went awry. Nevertheless, at least his position in society was grounded in four generations of noble birth, and that opened many a door for him. Because of his ever growing number of progeny-now including Maria Anna (Elisa), Lucien, Louis, Maria Annunziata (Caroline), Paoletta (Pauline), and Jerome-- Buonaparte needed all the help he could get, and thus, after dropping off the boys at Autun, he hastened on to Versailles, where he managed to secure a full scholarship for Napoleon at Brienne in January 1779.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2007

    Four Stars, But............

    As I set out to write the review I had not read others previously shared. As I did, I was pleased to see that they had echoed my own thoughts. A very readable book and a book that would motivate one seeking greater detail to delve further. Mr. Schom's bias against Napoleon is true enough, but one can also argue that it is a valid point of view, nonetheless. That Schom lives in France and is an American who has chosen to kick the tiny Bonaparte in the shin, is interesting given the way the French revere the Bone Man. Given the French DO is probably testimony that Napoleon WAS Hitlerian in an early 19th century version. But I digress. It's an easy read but be aware you will not find much that is positive in it's view towards Napoleon. One questions the good intentions of a man who invades and kills millions of people, laying waste to nations, nations whose people did not suffer oppression, and then later IMPOSES HIS PERSONAL CODE upon them. That's not the same thing as free elections with purple thumbs raised in the air, boys and girls. Napoleon WAS an early 19th century monster. Still, all his victories DO seem, by Schom, to be the result of luck, other men's genius or other men's mistakes. It is as if Napoleon has nothing to do with it. Yet near the end, Schom DOES make reference to the same Napoleon's 'genius' for war, after having spent the first 850 pages denigrating that supposed genius. Personally, I believe Napoleon DID have great skill, he sometimes did have great support (yet as often as not AWFUL support from the same, inconsistent subordinates)and he often made critical mistakes and poor leadership choices. I think Schom has highlighted Napoleon's weaknesses but left us all wondering what were these 'genius' qualities he has made little mention of during the text? Another BLINDING deficiency in the book are the maps. I found them particularly uninformative. No markings of movements, barely discernible locations, many references to places ending up NOT on the map. Overall, I don't think Schom leaves you in too bad a place, if you come away from the book thinking Napoleon was a 'bad' man. He was. He was a bloody, murdering, war mongering mad man who seems to have been, unfortunately, pretty good at what he did, at least until he burned out the entire French nation at war, of course. Then, at a great and grand cost in blood and bone and treasure, the comet-like dictator burned out forever at gun point. Since this was to be France's LAST appearance on the world stage as a major individual dominating force in world history, it is understandable that they would grope to remake this butcher into a world figure of honor and good. As they made DeGaulle 140 years later. (ever since the French nation has known nothing but military loss and defeat. In World War 1 they can never claim to have won it alone. They'd have simply lost again.) Schom's book lacks any counterbalancing good points that Napoleon may have had, but you end up, amidst all the death and mayhem to not particularly think his good points were so very important, since Mr. Jefferson and company were accomplishing a lot more over here without firing a shot. No, Schom has given us a one sided version of a one sided monster. Everything else is pure media. I didn't like the maps, I noted the inconsistency about 'military genius' and the general anti-Napoleon tone. I also explained why I think it is still an appropriate tone, if noting it is NOT an unbiased one. In such cases as this, one should not worry too much if one concludes a Napoleon, a Hitler, a Ghengis Khan, a Saddam Hussein, an Edi Amin WAS a monster. That's a given. Otherwise a smooth, fun read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 15, 2003

    Gah! A Brit Strikes Again !

    Why can't the British not see past their raised noses! Whose snobier? Them or the French? Yes, Napoleon was French, but GEEZ, it only took 20 years, his own greed, internal disloyalty and a 5 country coalition to bring him down. Look at him for who he was, not where he was from!! If someone doesn't have 'SIR' in front of their name, the British have never heard of them before! Napoleon was many many things, good and bad. He deserves all the praise AND blame for what he wrought. But, those 5'5' shoulders stood stronger than many men before and almost all men after him. He introduced the World to modern warfare and to some extent modern government. Napoleon does not get enough credit for his non-military acheivements either. Finding the Rosetta Stone??

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2002

    o beeeee quiet we're not napoleon lovers we simply want to read the work of a historian not a child throwing a temper tantrum

    i waisted 20 dollars of 800 pages of BS. written extremely impartially, this book credits EVERY single victory of Napoleon either to Davout or Lannes, his two best generals. it considers the genius as not an aggrandized, egomaniac possesing military genius but simply an aggrandized egomaniac. at the end of the book it Mr. Schom goes so far as to say he was worse then Ghengis Khan. now i actually agree somewhat with this but mr schom is certainly not acted like an unbiased, indifferent, historian but an overly-opinionated, shut-minded, obstinate child throwing a temper tantrum

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2002

    Just Started Reading

    Recently I have started reading Alan Schom's book 'Napoleon Bonaparte,' and so far it has made me become even more interested in Napoleon. I would recommed this book to anyone that is interested in history (especially French) or that is interested in reading biographies.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2001

    Very Detailed but Biased

    Schom's book on Napoleon is well detailed, but the author has a bias against Napoleon throughout the entire book. All leaders, as do all people, have their plusses and minuses. Napoleon provided much needed stability to France after the 1789-99 revolution, and made his nation a world power the likes of which it has not been since his fall in 1815. In addition, he agreed to the Louisiana Purchase with Thomas Jefferson, and he had the common touch with his people in contrast to the Bourbons. The biggest negatives were his ill fated Continental System which cut off trade and commerce with the leader of the time Britain, and the fall and winter invasion of Russia which put the events in place leading to his downfall. This is the only full biography I have read on Napoleon so far. I am hoping the next one I read will have the same level of detail, but less negative criticism of the subject.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2001

    The Mythic Napolean is Destroyed

    I recently visited Europe with my four kids and came away with the feeling that I needed to know more about Napolean since I kept seeing references to him everywhere we visited. This book was a page turner and confirmed the conflicting impressions that I gained regarding him. In France his memory was one of a great hero. In other countries he was portrayed as a marauder. In reading Schom's book I must conclude that by today's standards Napolean would rank right along with Hitler. It is not fair to judge him by today's standards since many countries at the time thought the way he did. He was just more successful at it than they were at least for fifteen years. The French revere his memory since he created a great tradition and a marvelous society for a few years. He truly changed European history in a massive way. Schom's point of view will be painful for many French who want to believe only the good and ignore the terrible human tragedy that Napolean brought to so many all across Europe including the many French families that lost sons so that Napolean could feed his ego by fighting battles that were not necessary. I recommend this book as a balanced biography that takes a mythic character and casts him in the light that most of Europe came to see him.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2000

    One of the funniest books...

    The inimitable Schom strikes again. At first, the reader might be a bit puzzleled by the author's negative determination to belittle the man of legend that was Napoleon. But once the reader accepts this fact, the book becomes very funny and entertaining. Every page provides the reader with an attempt to reduce the facts when suitable to do so. Schom is clever in this way but SO predictable. He does not let much room for the reader to apply his intelligence and draw his own conclusions. Schom does it all for you. His technique is very primary. By induction and deduction, he manages to distort the fact ad libitum. The historian Schom is backed by a mass of information but lacks the necessary objectivity to render an honnest account of the facts. His logic biased... forget rhetoric.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2000

    Clever, biased and a wee bit pushy

    A very opinionated book with sarcastic overtones. The reader is trapped in an entanglement of highly credible historical facts to which deductions and inductions are constantly added. The reader is not left with much room to draw his own conclusions. The author does not allow it. A suave example : On St.Helena ¿ Hudson Lowe is presented as the benevolent and charitable host. Lowe is said to have bought the silver plates of Longwood (250 pounds) which were on sale in order to help Napoleon in need of money...he kept it a secret to remain HUMBLE and held on to the plates for Napoleon... Any one knows that Napoleon was the most famous person living. Locks of hair, letters, leaves he picked from trees... anything the man touched became an object of cult (and could have had market value even to his enemies). Lowe and Napoleon hated each other. Furthermore, Lowe had to give minimal comfort to his guest for all the right diplomatic reasons. Should it be reminded that the island's hospitality to the Emperor was taking the form of a slowdeath by arsenic poisoning. The book will easely impose it's views on the profane reader but will annoy the more avid readers...

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2000

    'Napoleon Buonaparte' is a book!

    Some reviewers have reviewed the late Napoleon Buonaparte rather than the book by Alan Schom. Although I have not finished the book (yet), I find it interesting reading and well written. Schom seems to have some good research. It is hard to rate a history book for a number of reasons. One reason is the range of people and opinions in the audience. Another is the temptation to judge the subject rather than the book. I heartily recommend this book to the general reader. I hardly recommend it to anyone interested in justifying Napoleon. My daughter will review this one later.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2000

    Wonderful Book!!

    Awesome book!! It reads like a novel with historical information thrown in. I couldn't put it down and spent many days without enough sleep due to the fact that I had stayed up so late reading this book!! Buy this book!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2000


    This is a brilliant book, that deflates the Napleonic legend (which is why Napleon lovers dislike it so much). It paints him as the conscience-free psycopath that he was. The joke about another despot, Mussolini, is that when he was in power, 'the trains ran on time.' Obviously the trains running on time not balancing out the horrors he did. Same with Napoleon...Wow, we have the Napoleonic Code!...but millions of young lives were ended, and many people permanently and needlessly crippled because of Napoleon. A Napoleon society prevented a book signing Alan Schom was to have in Paris from taking place. That's how fanatically groupie-like Napoleon's sympathizers are. And because they exist, it is rare that you will get an honest appraisal of Napoleon like this book gives. It's brilliant. If you are going to read one Napoleon biography, let this be the one.

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    Posted December 23, 2009

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    Posted September 24, 2010

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    Posted April 7, 2010

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