There are hundreds of biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte, each with its own interpretation of the man: Napoleon the military genius, Napoleon the megalomaniac, Napoleon the savior of the French Revolution and Napoleon the betrayer of the French Revolution. But Napoleon the gardener? This is a new Napoleon indeed.
However, as Cambridge University historian Ruth Scurr demonstrates in Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows, gardening framed every stage of Bonaparte’s life, from his childhood in Corsica to his death on St. Helena. Even his most critical battle, Waterloo, was lost because he miscalculated the strategic importance of a walled garden.
Looking at Bonaparte through the lens of his passion for gardens brings out new and fascinating details about his life, including his love of science and engineering, his obsession with botany and especially his desire to stamp order upon an unruly natural and political world. Gardens, as this book makes clear, are the ultimate symbol of Bonaparte’s life—especially at its end, when every attempt to bring life and beauty to his final exile ended in dust and futility.
Scurr is well known for her inventive and absorbing biographies. John Aubrey, My Own Life, her critically acclaimed 2015 book about the 17th-century biographer, was written in the form of her subject’s imagined diary. So her decision to use such an original perspective in her latest book makes perfect sense. What makes Napoleon so satisfying is that it illuminates not only the emperor but also people from his life who in other accounts are, at best, mere witnesses to the man’s ambitions and exploits. We learn that the naturalists at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris were among his most faithful and honest friends. Most surprisingly, we discover that his wife, Josephine, who is frequently depicted as an extravagant social climber, was in fact a keen and respected (if acquisitive) amateur botanist and zoologist.
Napoleon is a rewarding book that gives intriguing and novel insight into a man about whom we thought everything had already been said.