The best books for getting inside Napoleon Bonaparte’s head

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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Gareth Williams Why did I love 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.

By Somerset de Chair (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Napoleon on Napoleon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During his exile on St. Helena, Napoleon dictated memoirs, notes, letters and battle commentaries to the generals who shared his captivity. He then edited the material himself. The result is an account of Napoleon's life in his own words, from his childhood in Corsica to his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Private concerns, such as feuds with his brothers and divorce from Josephine, are mixed with such matters of state as the rebellion of Toussaint-Louverture and the retreat from Moscow. In this edition, de Chair has incorporated much new material from three further volumes of notes and miscellanies dictated by…


Book cover of Napoleon: The Song Of Departure

Gareth Williams Why did I love 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.

By Max Gallo, William Hobson (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Napoleon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On 15 May 1779, the second son of a prominent but impecunious Corsican family arrives at the gates of a royal military school at Brienne in the east of France. Not yet 10 years old, he barely speaks French. A fierce patriot, even at such a young age, French for him is the language of the oppressor - in 1769 France robbed Corsica of the independence it had won from Genoa - and his schoolmates waste no time making fun of him, his accent, his Italian-sounding name, Napoleone Buonaparte . . .

Within 20 years this solitary child has become…


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

Gareth Williams Why did I love 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! 

By Martin Boycott-Brown,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Road to Rivoli as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the spring of 1796 the 26-year-old Napoleon took command of the Army of Italy - a collection of some 45,000 ill-fed, poorly-clothed and disillusioned men. He had only ever participated in one campaign and had never been involved in a major battle, much less conducted one as the commander of an army. And yet within just two months he and his scarecrow army had knocked the Piedmontese out of the war, driven the Austrians half way across Italy and laid siege to the fortress of Mantua, the capture of which was essential for the control of northern Italy. Over…


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

Gareth Williams Why did I love 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.

By Alistair Horne,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How Far From Austerlitz? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A London Sunday Times Book of the Year
A Daily Telegraph Book of the Year


Book cover of Napoleon Surrenders

Gareth Williams Why did I love 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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Unsettled

By Laurie Woodford,

Book cover of Unsettled

Laurie Woodford

New book alert!

What is my book about?

At the age of forty-nine, Laurie Woodford rents out her house, packs her belongings into two suitcases, and leaves her life in upstate New York to relocate to Seoul, South Korea. What begins as an opportunity to teach college English in Asia evolves into a nomadic adventure.

Laurie spoon-feeds orphans in Ethiopia, performs 108 bows at a Buddhist mountain temple, walks shelter dogs in Peru, milks goats in Fuerteventura, and gets lost in Mexico, all the while navigating dating at midlife.

After four years of traveling, Laurie’s return “home” becomes an unexpected adventure of its own when she ends up in Arkansas and meets Bruce, a bird-loving, bearded Quaker, and then struggles to reconcile her need for freedom with her longing to feel settled.

Unsettled

By Laurie Woodford,

What is this book about?

At the age of forty-nine, driven by an urgent restlessness, Laurie Woodford rents out her house, packs her belongings into two suitcases, and relocates to Asia. What begins as an opportunity to teach college English overseas, evolves into a nomadic adventure as Laurie works and volunteers in South Korea, Ethiopia, Peru, Spain, and Mexico. After four years of traveling, Laurie's return "home" to the U.S. becomes an unexpected adventure of its own when she ends up in Arkansas and meets Bruce, a bird-loving, bearded Quaker, who challenges her to reconcile her life of fierce independence with her longing to feel…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Napoleon Bonaparte, France, and Corsica?

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