Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Death of Napoleon

The Literature About Napoleon

Sketch of Napoleon
Sketch of Napoleon

One estimate is that 500,000 books have been published (in all languages) on Napoleon. Allowing for some hyperbole, let us presume that the number is about half that, say, a quarter of a million volumes. It is inevitable that one finds oneself playing silly mind-games about such statistics. I apologize for sharing these absurdities, but the urge is uncontrollable.

Using the more conservative estimate, this results in about 1,400 books published each year since Napoleon's death in 1821. That would mean that, on average, almost four books are published a day somewhere on Earth — day after day.

Soon, one is feverish. Assuming that about a tenth of those quarter million books cover the period of Napoleon's exile that would mean that, for the purposes of this article, 25,000 books exist for the dedicated researcher to examine. If one supposes that a fifth of those books are written in English, then there would be 5,000 books to consider.

After a lifetime of reading and collecting books, I have a library of a little over 5,000 volumes. That means that if I had devoted my collecting strictly to those books that pertain to my research on the death of Napoleon, I would have a library — after fifty years of book collecting — of nothing but Napoleon titles.

Even more alarming, at the reading rate of three books per week, it would take me 1,666 weeks to read all of the material, or 32 years.

Fortunately, on the topic of the death of Napoleon, one relies principally on about two dozen primary sources. These include "the four gospels" written by Napoleon's closest staff members during the exile on St. Helena: Bertrand, Montholon, Les Cases and Gourgard, and the memoirs of his two principal servants, Marchand and Ali. These are augmented by the memoirs of two of his doctors, and the recollections of a young girl who befriended Napoleon in the first year of his captivity. Everything else about the death of Napoleon is derived from these works.

The principal modern books developed from the information in these memoirs are those assessing the possibility of Napoleon's having been poisoned. Chief among these are the books produced by Forshufvud (1961, 1995), and those by Weider (1982, 1995). A few others deal with the theory that Napoleon did not die on May 5, 1821 (Wheeler), and still others are evocative accounts of the years of exile on St. Helena, notably those by Kauffman (1999) and Giles (2001).

Of course, one must read at least one complete biography of Napoleon. Two recent ones, by Schom (1997) and by McLynn (1997) are very good, covering an immensely complicated life and career in single (although long) volumes. Interestingly, Schom concludes with certainty that Napoleon died of natural causes and McLynn concludes with equal certainty that he was poisoned. And both biographies are very well researched and written.

There have been a number of films about Napoleon. An early one that is occasionally offered on various movie channels is Desiree, starring a ridiculously miscast Marlon Brando as the emperor. Very recently, an Arts and Entertainment four-hour biographical film of Napoleon was reasonably accurate, if a bit tedious and pretentious. A second film, entitled The Emperor's New Clothes based on Ley's novel, stars the wonderful actor Ian Holm as Napoleon, and treats the "substitution" theory in a most imaginative way.

As one would expect, novels about Napoleon abound. Most are pot-boilers, but a few, such as Tolstoy's War and Peace, are enduring classics. A recent short novel on which the Ian Holm film was loosely based is The Death of Napoleon, by Simon Leys, and well worth reading.

For those who appreciate Napoleon as a source of inspiration for classical compositions, Beethoven's "Wellington's Victory" and Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" are the two most notable.

Portraits and sculptures of Napoleon are numerous. Whether they capture the essence of the man is debatable, but many are certainly arresting. To an artist's paintbrush, Napoleon was certainly the equivalent of "photogenic."