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The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte
First Edition, First Impression:
The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, Emperor of the
French. With a Preliminary View of the French Revolution.
By the Author of "Waverley," &c. In Nine Volumes.
Vol. I [II-IX]. Edinburgh: Printed by Ballantyne and Co. for
Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, & Green, London; and Cadell & Co.,
Composition | Synopsis | Reception | Links
|In May 1825, Archibald Constable revealed to
Scott his ambition to bring literature within the financial
reach of the middle classes and of the increasingly literate
working classes by publishing a series of inexpensive editions.
Scott gave the scheme an enthusiastic welcome and agreed to
inaugurate the new series, known as Constable's Miscellany,
with a reissue of the first part of Waverley and
with the first volume of an entirely new work, a study of the
life and times of the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. Scott
announced his forthcoming work in his introduction to Tales
of the Crusaders published in June (see The
Talisman and The
Betrothed), creating feverish anticipation throughout
the literary world and bringing immediate requests for foreign
The biography was originally to run to four volumes,
but the immense amount of reading that Scott undertook soon led
it to stretch far beyond Constable's original conception for the Miscellany.
In 1826, though, Constable's business collapsed, and Scott, whose
affairs were intrinsically linked with those of his publishers
and printers, was left with debts of £121,000 (see Financial
hardship). In May of the same year, his wife Charlotte died.
Under these immensely trying conditions, which took a heavy toll
on Scott's health, he produced a formidable body of work, working
at extraordinary speed. During the inevitable intervals in the
composition of 'Bony', as he waited for source material to arrive,
Scott find time to write Woodstock and
to begin work on the Chronicles
of the Canongate.
To supplement information gleaned from reading and
from correspondence with military and political figures, Scott
made a research trip to London in October 1826, where the government
had granted him free access to archives dealing with Napoleon's
exile in St. Helena. Later in the same month he visited Paris to
speak with former colleagues of Napoleon, and was lionized by the
social and literary world. Among Scott's influential network of
correspondents in both the British and French governments was the
Duke of Wellington himself who provided a first-hand account of
Napoleon's Russian Campaign.
After his return to Scotland, the biography continued
to expand to incorporate the mass of detail that Scott had accumulated.
By the time it was complete on June 7, 1827, it had stretched to
fully nine volumes, containing over a million words. Yet this massive
undertaking was, in Lockhart's words, 'the work of one twelvemonth--done
in the midst of pain, sorrow, and ruin'. The first volume was finally
published in June 1827, jointly by Cadell in Edinburgh and Longman's
in London (who in October 1826 had successfully offered 10,500
guineas for the work).
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presents a dispassionate, unpartisan view of Napoleon, paying tribute
to his military genius and administrative skill and underlining
his legacy to France in the form of a national system of education,
greatly improved communications, and the Code Napoléon.
Refusing to paint him as the bloodthirsty despot presented by many
a fellow Tory, Scott notes his mild and humane temperament and
genuine love of his country. The seeds of his downfall lie in his
progressive self-identification with the French people and in his
vision of himself as the man on whom the nation's destiny rested.
His life ultimately becomes a tale of hubris, where overweaning
ambition and self-blinding egotism lead to defeat in the Russian
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Napoleon was an immediate, worldwide commercial success.
Critical response, however, was lukewarm. There was censure of
Scott's 'poetic' approach and over-literary language. The Eclectic
Review judged Scott's knowledge 'extremely superficial', and
the London Weekly Review opined that it would be read with
'pleasure' and 'emotion' but not 'confidence'. For the Monthly
Review, it was simply 'A signal and palpable failure'. Despite
Scott's fears that his studied impartiality would provoke both
admirers and despisers of Napoleon, few reviewers took serious
issue with his political thesis. An exception was the young John
Stuart Mill in the radical Westminster Review who expressed
serious reservations about the opening volume, a preliminary sketch
of the French Revolution before the appearance of Napoleon. For
Mill, Scott was over-indulgent towards Louis XVI, too dismissive
of the Republicans'' attempts to negotiate with the King, and unfair
in seeing the roots of the Revolution in the works of the Enlightenment philosophes.
Scott reacted to all criticism with his customary
equanimity. 'I could have done it better', Lockhart quotes him
as saying, 'if I could have written at more leisure, and with a
mind more at ease'.
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