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Lawrence Sondhaus
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My Multi-volume Napoleon Biography Reading Project, Book 1: Bonaparte by Patrice Gueniffey

Bonaparte: 1769-1802 - Patrice Gueniffey, Steven Rendall

Like many a reader, I am often confronted by the problem of having practically an infinite amount of books I want to read, yet only a finite amount of reading time available in which to read them. Because of this, I have become very selective about what I read, always looking for the most comprehensive or best-regarded work on a subject so as to maximize the number of topics about which I can read. To determine this, I read numerous book reviews, and I especially appreciate those which compare the work to its predecessors in assessing its value. Such comparisons are not always available, and when they are they can be idiosyncratic, but I appreciate it nonetheless as a starting point for making my own decision.


One of the subjects where I have found it particularly difficult to make such a determination is with biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte. As one of the most written about figures in history, there is no shortage of works about him and his times; the challenge is finding which are the best biographies about him. A few years ago I thought my problem was resolved when the esteemed Philip Dwyer published Napoleon: The Path to Power, the first of a projected two-volume biography. I purchased a copy, and was about to buy the second volume when I discovered that Michael Broers (a historian whose work I admire greatly) was also publishing the first of a two-volume biography, then that the French historian Patrice Gueniffey was working on a similar effort. Faced with so many choices, I decided to do what any geek would do, which is to read (along with a friend who is a self-described Napoleon fan) all of them, with Georges Lefebvre's classic two-volume study thrown in for good measure. That way I could settle for myself for the foreseeable future the question of what was the best multi-volume Napoleon biography. I'm limiting my comparative evaluation to the first volume of each series, for two reasons: 1) Broers and Gueniffey are still writing their second volumes, and 2) I reduce my reading burden by two books, which for the seeming contrary nature of this project is still a goal.


The first book I read was Gueniffey's biography, which offers a rich study of Bonaparte from his Corsican background to just before his establishment of his emperorship. In depth of analysis and in tone it reminds me more than just a little of Michael Burlingame's great two-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life, a work that is the product of enormous depth of study and understanding of its subject. Though generally an admirer of Bonaparte, Gueniffey pulls no punches in his criticisms, and his book is much the better for it, Reading it helped fill in many of the gaps I had in my knowledge about Bonaparte's early years, particularly regarding his relationship with his first wife Josephine, his ascent to power in 1799, and his political achievements in office. In a way, though, I regret having made it our first selection, as after finishing it it's difficult to imagine the other books measuring up to it in terms of detail, insights, and readability.