The best books for getting inside Napoleon Bonaparte’s head

Gareth Williams Author Of Needing Napoleon
By Gareth Williams

Who am I?

I taught about Napoleon for thirty years, having studied history at Cambridge. I’ve been fascinated by the Corsican outsider, who, thanks to the French Revolution, rose to dominate Europe, since I saw a china bust of him in his green Chasseurs uniform on my maternal grandparents’ sideboard. I always loved historical fiction and having retired into a locked-down world, I put my time on the Isle of Skye to good use and set about researching and writing the novel I had always said I would write. Re-reading old favourites and encountering new interpretations was a joy and certainly made compiling this list an enjoyable challenge!

I wrote...

Needing Napoleon

By Gareth Williams,

Book cover of Needing Napoleon

What is my book about?

Needing Napoleon is an irresistible adventure that spirits the reader from present-day Paris to the Battle of Waterloo and beyond.

Can you change what has already happened? As a history teacher, Richard knows the answer. At least, he thinks he does. On holiday in Paris, he stumbles across a curious antiques shop. The eccentric owner reveals a secret Richard dares not believe. His conviction that Bonaparte should have won the battle of Waterloo could be put to the test. Accurate historical detail collides with the paradox of time travel as an ordinary twenty-first-century man is plunged into the death throes of the French empire.

The books I picked & why

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Napoleon on Napoleon: An Autobiography of the Emperor

By Somerset de Chair (editor),

Book cover of Napoleon on Napoleon: An Autobiography of the Emperor

Why this book?

Where better to start trying to understand Napoleon than with his own words? If only it was that simple! In total, four of his companions took down Napoleon’s words but he died without editing them. Exiled on St Helena, Bonaparte was determined to counter what he saw as the gross distortions circulating in the English-speaking world. I delight in his confident vision, even after his ultimate defeat. This book gives us insights into his view on the nature of history, his assessment of generals through the ages, including a substantial section on himself, the key events in his career, and a set of final observations in which he attempts to rewrite history to his tastes. Not then a balanced piece of work but no less fascinating for all that. It taught me the importance of putting myself in a character’s shoes before I start writing.

Napoleon: The Song Of Departure

By Max Gallo, William Hobson (translator),

Book cover of Napoleon: The Song Of Departure

Why this book?

This is a fine work of fiction that forms but the first installment of a four-book masterpiece. Max Gallo was a herculean figure in French post-war life. In this volume, he tells the story of Napoleon’s life from his birth in Corsica to the moment in 1799 when he topples the ineffective Directory. I love this book because the author puts us inside Napoleon’s head. We think his thoughts and savour his words. He has put the flesh on the bones of history, conjuring a sympathetic tyro at times plagued by doubts but also willing to take daunting risks. This book made me realise Napoleon was more than an icon or an ogre, an Emperor, or a military genius; he was an outsider, he endured bullying, and he felt the same gamut of emotions as we do. I never looked at historical figures in the same way again.

The Road to Rivoli: Napoleon's First Campaign

By Martin Boycott-Brown,

Book cover of The Road to Rivoli: Napoleon's First Campaign

Why this book?

This is a detailed and meticulously researched book focusing on Bonaparte’s first independent command. The Army of Italy is little more than an afterthought but he forges his rag-tag troops into a force that expels the Austrians from most of northern Italy. I loved the eye-witness accounts and the author’s ability to evaluate events such as those at the bridge over the Arcole. It became part of the Napoleonic legend, immortalised in Gros’ painting, that the young general was in the thick of the fighting but this has been denounced as blatant propaganda. We learn from Boycott-Brown that both things are true. Napoleon did expose himself to fierce enemy fire to rally his troops to the standard, although he did not make it to the bridge, and his men did not follow, forcing him to retreat. This is where I learnt to accept the notion that history is messy! 

How Far From Austerlitz?: Napoleon 1805-1815

By Alistair Horne,

Book cover of How Far From Austerlitz?: Napoleon 1805-1815

Why this book?

As a St Helena Lullaby puts it, quoted by Horne at the start of his scholarly but eminently readable book, "How far is St Helena from the field of Austerlitz?" Horne is a brilliant historian and he crafts a compelling book tracing Napoleon’s career from its apogee on the field of his greatest victory to its nadir with his exile to St Helena, far out in the south Atlantic. But we don’t just get the events, we get to experience the slippery nature of success, as Spain swallows troops and Russia decimates the Grande Armée. We see this through Napoleon’s own words, and Horne’s relentless research, as he struggles to maintain his dominance. I loved the balanced assessment of this final decade in power. I marvelled at Bonaparte’s brilliance and achievements whilst learning to appreciate how much the odds were stacked against him.

Napoleon Surrenders

By Gilbert Martineau,

Book cover of Napoleon Surrenders

Why this book?

As I fingered a copy of Napoleon Surrenders in a second-hand bookshop, a passing stranger said to me, "Read anything by Martineau, it’s all good, and that one is brilliant." Encouraged, I willingly paid £2 for my copy. Well, I have never spent so well! This detailed account whisks us from the evening after Waterloo to HMS Northumberland under sail for St Helena. Until I read this book, it was too easy to see Bonaparte’s story as over once he was defeated by the Duke of Wellington. But Martineau changed my mind. He crafts the story of those agonising months in which Napoleon has to say goodbye to his family, his soldiers, his home, and his country. He relinquishes his title for a second time and throws himself at the mercy of London. Martineau conjures the historical actors as real people confronting an impossible dilemma: what to do with Napoleon?

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