You know, after last week, I decided that it was important not to just concentrate on the big subjects, that they might be a bit too famous, and have already had a bit too much critical attention thrown on them to be tackled by little old me in a few hundred words. So this week I decided to set my sights a little lower, and went for… Um, yes… Napoleon.
Now my history with Napoleon is a little different, quite simply because I didn’t think that I had one. As a child of whatever education reform it was, the Napoleonic wars didn’t feature: we ‘did’ Ancient Egypt, the Romans, the Tudors, World Wars One and Two, 20th century Russia… Wellington did appear, mentioned in the context of Irish politics (I think), and memorable mainly because there was a Wellington Road around the corner, which our teacher repeatedly reminded us was named after the Duke of Wellington, as opposed to, you know, the rubber boots. (I must confess a tendency to mangle Nelson, Wellington and the battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar into one big mush, and can only remember which one the admiral belongs to because of the location of his column in London. I know quite a lot about the Easter Rising though, and I can name all of the children of Tsar Nicolas II, so my education wasn’t entirely wasted.)
So, I thought I was pretty open-minded about Napoleon, and apart from being a little confused by whatever Victor Hugo was rambling on about for a good fifty pages in the middle of Les Misérables, I sort of thought that general opinion was probably pretty close to mine: he was a bit of a nutter who wanted to take over the whole world and managed to make himself king/ emperor/ dictator of a pretty big chunk of Europe. Not being particularly full of nationalistic fervor, I nevertheless had it in my head that it was thanks to Britain that he was stopped (probably with the help of a fair few others as well), and it was a bit of a democracy v. dictatorship battle, almost a precursor to WW2m if you will. I never could get my head around the two exiles thing, though…
And then I came to France, and discovered that their relationship with Napoleon is a little bit different to how I had imagined it. This is a nation who happily executed their king, but then somehow ended up with an emperor, and I somehow get the feeling that they’re still not quite sure how they feel about it.
Nowhere is this more evident than Fontainebleau, once a Medieval château and subsequently modified by every French monarch that had a bit of spare cash and fancied a spot of interior designing. Who’s the one who has his own museum though? That’s right, good old Napoleon. And whilst it might be argued that the portrait gallery with massive ‘larger than life’ portraits of the entire family and Roman-style marble busts (complete with the odd crown of laurels) is intended to show the massive ego of the Bonaparte clan, I can’t help but feel that there’s still a fair bit of modern admiration in there too. As for the kidnapping the Pope thing (and the crowning himself, for that matter), well… it was his own fault for falling for it, and you’ve got to admire Napoleon’s nerve, haven’t you?
I can’t say that I blame them too much, either. After all, whilst the video reenactment of the General’s farewell to his troops is a bit melodramatic, it was a bit of an anti-climax for a country that had intended to build itself an enormous empire and prove its worth to of all of its annoying neighbours, Britain included.
I wonder, too, whether there is a part of the modern French consciousness that is acutely aware of how everything went a bit downhill after the end of the Bonapartes. After all, the most famous rulers of the country are probably Napoleon I, Louis-the-husband-of-Marie-Antoinette (that would be XVI) and Louis XIV. After the Empire it just gets a bit messy, and military victories become rather sparse.
I suppose that’s what they’re celebrating in the new exhibition at the Marmottan Monet, which focuses on Napoleon’s three sisters: they were apparently pretty, fashionable, intelligent, witty and became royalty, before ultimately losing it all again. It seems significant that it ends with portraits of the four children of Caroline Bonaparte, a suggestion that these could have been the future ruling class, if it hadn’t been for the minor problem of the fall of the Empire. And then we have a quote from big brother Napoleon, who lists the qualities of all of his siblings. Blind elitism and a desperate attempt to defend his family-centred oligarchy, or a wistful reminder of a time when, briefly, France was the most powerful country in the world? The constant reminders of their patronage of the arts and examples of porcelain and jewellery may well suggest the latter.
I suppose in the end, it boils down to a simple fact of basic pride in your country, which all of us must unavoidably have, to a certain degree. I would not call myself a nationalist or a patriot, but I can’t quite face the idea of the whole of Europe being a ‘greater France’. No doubt for the French it’s a far more appetising idea.