It appears, as happens to all of us, that I deeply offended someone recently by having a less than rose-tinted pair of glasses on when I wrote a new blog about Napoleon. Why this should have been, I don’t rightly know. It’s not like his atrocities are news or anything anymore. But so it was.
And anything I said in support of my argument was, er, dismissed by this individual and then, going for the kill, she advised me that I needed to learn what a good historian does. (Which as far as I was aware was something about taking all the information in–even the bits that don’t support one’s pet theory. Or have I read Dorothy L. Sayers’ fine novel about the subject, Gaudy Night, too many times? And believed it.)
Hence, in my personal defense, I wish to say this. Once upon a time there was a little boffin named MM Bennetts. (No, the MM does not stand for Montmorency, whatever certain people may tell you…) And this creature, Bennetts, was not perhaps cut out to be an historian. No, the heart and soul of this child were in music–a pianist first and Beethoven the first and great love.
But history was what our little boffin read, fascinated by the lives and hopes and losses of all those fabulous artists and poets and people who had lived before. (And the novelist part is all Dorothy Dunnett’s fault–a great friend and mentor, as it happened.)
Nor did Bennetts arrive at Napoleonic controversy by a straight path. Indeed, for a long time, our boffin was immersed in the glories of the Italian Renaissance and specialised as a mediaevalist. But, these twists and turns happen…and through Beethoven and the architecture of the brothers Adam and all sorts of other things, this Bennetts became immersed in this world of early 19th century Britain. (To be fair, I would have liked to have been frivolous and write immensely successful somethings or other…but the research, you see, it always drew me in further and further. Like down Alice’s rabbit hole.)
I had been to a huge exhibition of Goya’s etchings of the atrocities of war, from the Peninsula, you see. And then I was in Paris at the Conciergerie. And if you’ve not been there, well, all I can tell you is that it’s one of those places where the cries of the innocent condemned still weep from the very stones.
Anyway. At the end of the tour, I asked about atrocities against the population committed after the Reign of Terror. And the tour guide–after assuring me I couldn’t be English, my French was too perfect–was emphatic that there had been no atrocities committed by the Napoleonic regime or any other regime after the Terror.
Obviously, the party line.
But I knew it wasn’t true. I had seen the evidence.
And this was shortly before the French celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution–wherein curiously I noted that there were no mentions of the September Massacres, no mention of the genocide against the aristocracy nor the clergy…it was all a great party.
And as the years have gone by, and I have relied more and more on first hand accounts of events, more and more turned to other countries’ non-partisan views and accounts, as the accounts which for 100 years were kept from us by the Berlin Wall’s presence and no sharing, and now all the forensic examination of Napoleonic grave sites, I find I am in a world of quotidienne atrocity, about which I have become, with no little reservation, an expert.
In my defense, it’s not what I like. I like cakey, horses, poetry and antique roses. I adore P.G. Wodehouse, Shakespeare and Donne. I still play the piano and fill my world with music–it’s what we’re here for.
But I cannot turn aside from the sufferings of others and pretend they didn’t happen because Napoleon had the best air-brushing artist and propagandists the world has ever known. And if that’s what you’re wanting, well, look elsewhere I guess.
I don’t, I hope, court controversy. But I’m not going to lie.