Though it may be best suited for initiates of Napoleona, The Invisible Emperor details the deceptively calm but ultimately catastrophic interlude in the 25-year military career of one of history’s most famous soldiers, Napoleon.
Historian Mark Braude has re-created a detailed description of the emperor’s 10-month exile from France to the island of Elba. Napoleon’s new dominion lay only six miles off the Tuscan coast and 30 miles from Napoleon’s native Corsica, but to his captors, it seemed isolated enough for security and near enough for scrutiny. At the time, Elba was a French territory, which allowed for some familiarity of language and custom for Napoleon, and his guards even cultivated some loyalty toward the stocky little soldier, who whether for comfort or clever camaraderie preferred worn-out and undecorated old military garb as he wandered about the countryside.
Napoleon’s primary jailor, Neil Campbell, was an injured British colonel assigned, rather ambiguously, to “accompany” Napoleon in his new estate, which was quite lavish for an abdicated general. Still titled “emperor,” albeit only of Elba, Napoleon threw parties, ordered extensive renovations for his wife and son when they joined him in exile (they never did), had ships, horses and carriages delivered, and picked out several residences with good views. A man who once controlled nearly the entire European continent between Russian and Great Britain could now truly say he was lord of all he surveyed—86 square miles.
But if Napoleon’s weakness was stubborn ambition, his strength was strategy. Within the year, with only a thousand or so soldiers, he marched to Paris without even a skirmish. The next few months, now known as “the Hundred Days,” culminated in the Battle of Waterloo and the deaths of nearly 50,00 combatants.
Braude’s narrow focus on this “invisible” interlude dangles bits of psychological suppositions not always entirely supported, but his view of a man still caught up in his own self-image—one which, it must be admitted, was shared by many others—is intriguing.