Andrew Roberts picks heroes men who go against the grain in America to celebrate. Well, okay: who doesn’t love Winston Churchill? But King George III? Or Napoleon, for crying out loud? Yet I am finishing Napoleon: A Life, and I find myself admiring a man I always assumed was a great rogue. I am on page 770 and there are 810 pages in Napoleon: A Life. Yes, admiring him. Why? His energy and resilience, combined with his immense charisma. He could excite men into action, in a way I have never been able to do. Plus, he was a tactical genius, and a real workaholic on the battlefield. For him war was an art form. These days we are all supposed to be peaceniks, but I find myself incredulous at the cleverness, courage and industry of one of the most talented generals in human history.
And on one level I feel sorry for him and identify with him: he was never blessed with a woman who loved him, enough to be a faithful wife. With neither his beloved Josephine nor her successor Marie Louise did he commit adultery first, and I cannot help wondering if his mistresses came close to meaning as much to him as they did. It seems like a heartbreaking way to be lonely… except that it is how I am lonely. It is odd, the cool, calculating mind of Napoleon had no power over his wives. On the other hand, he had 22 mistresses in all, so perhaps he was not too lonely.
Like Napoleon with his empty marriages (his second wife defected when he lost his empire) I have lived without love, too. I imagine that Napoleon’s answer about his wives would be similar to me, dissimilar though battle and writing are, “So what if I don’t have women’s romantic affections! My life is adventurous, and I am a hero! All of France is my family!”
Should I never find the love of my life whom I long for, I shall go to my grave unrepentant, “So what if men are left cold by my beauty! I have conquered the imagination! In that I am more than Napoleon himself! I am an American, and some day all other Americans shall read my novels and poems, and these books will be on bookshelves next to Hawthorne, Twain and Hemmingway! My poems will be compared to Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson!”
Of course, part of what may have driven the affection of women away from him may have been his misogyny. Napoleon said to Madame de Staël that the primary good of women was “to have many children.” Yes, he lacked his characteristic charm where women were concerned. Perhaps that is why he never found his true love. With love there has to be mutual respect. I guess there does, anyway. I wouldn’t know. Perhaps in Heaven, I shall have tea with the Emperor (Napoleon) and ask him what he had against clever women when he was alive.