September 11, 2012

Napoleon Bonaparte in Literature

Two hundred years ago the world watched in alarm as Napoleon invaded Russia. The brash emperor had turned Europe upside down in his quest for greatness, and has had a correspondingly large role in literature ever since. There are countless histories of Napoleon and his era--from biographies of the man himself, such as Steven Englund's Napoleon: A Political Life, to military histories of his battle achievements, like J. Christopher Herold's Bonaparte in Egypt.

But Napoleon is also frequently the focus of lighter works. In An Infamous Army, Georgette Heyer's masterful retelling of the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon never actually appears on page. But "Boney" (as the British upper class scornfully called him) dominates every aspect of life in England and Belgium in the spring of 1815. Heyer juxtaposes the lords and ladies who danced and flirted their way through Brussels and the violence of the battle where Napoleon so very nearly won.

He also appears in Lauren Willig's The Garden Intrigue as a slightly pompous theater addict, who commissions his stepdaughter's friend Emma Delagardie to write a play for him. Emma has to navigate the complicated world of the Bonaparte household with the assistance of the verbose poet Augustus Whittlesby. Napoleon was quite capable of arresting people for trifling slights, keeping Emma constantly on her toes.

In a creative alternate history of the Napoleonic Wars, Naomi Novik's Temeraire series stars Captain Will Laurence and his dragon, Temeraire, who fight as part of the British Aerial Corps. In book three of the series, Black Powder War, Napoleon gets a celestial dragon of his own, and flies into battle at the head of his army and fighting dragon corps. His military genius becomes even more frightening when given this aerial dimension, and it looks like there are no limits to his success.

Many other Napoleonic novels offer the modern reader a glimpse of one man who dominated life in a manner that can be difficult to imagine today.

 Have you read any of these books? 
They are all fun, in very different ways!

I originally wrote this "Further Reading" post for Shelf Awareness and was compensated for it. Images are affiliate links.