apoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, who spent the majority of his life at war against the United Kingdom, became one of the most admired military heroes in British popular culture. For example, in Master Timothy’s Bookcase, G. W. M. Reynolds described him as “the hero of a thousand battles—that meteor which blazed so brightly, and which so long terrified all the nations of the universe with its supernal lustre” (205–06) For a quarter of a century, between 1793 and 1815, Britain had been at war with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, until he was finally defeated at Waterloo. Yet from the moment of his defeat, this great man captivated the British public.
Scene in Plymouth Sound in August 1815: The Bellerophon with Napoleon Aboard at Plymouth (26 July-4 August 1815). John James Chalon (1778-1854). 1817. Oil on canvas, 96.5 x 153.7 cm (60.5 x 37.9 inches). Courtesy of the Royal Museums Greenwich, Greenwich Hospital Collection BHC3227. Click on image to enlarge it.
When Napoleon surrendered to Captain Maitland in 1815 he was taken to Plymouth aboard HMS Bellerophon. The ship was docked at Plymouth for two weeks with the emperor confined on board. Hundreds of people flocked to the harbour, however, to see if they could catch a glimpse of the great man. The good natured Napoleon relished his new found popularity among the English and made sure he appeared every evening at 6:30 p.m. to wave to his ‘fans’.
Napoleon in Plymouth Sound, August 1815 (Napoleon on Board the Bellerophon at Plymouth). Jules Girardet (1856–1946) 1817. Oil on canvas, 112 x W 163 cm. Courtesy of The Box (Plymouth City Council). PLYMG.1909.94. Click on image to enlarge it.
Napoleon’s stay at Plymouth was depicted in an 1816 painting by John James Chalon, a Swiss artist working in England, while a later work by the French painter Jules Girardet entitled Napoleon in Plymouth Sound, August 1815 depicted similar scenes of adoring fans clamouring round the Bellerophon in small boats to catch a glimpse of the man.
The cordial manner with which the emperor was received by the public led some of the authorities to fear that maybe these throngs of fans were secret revolutionaries. The authorities’ fears were unfounded. Although there were some protests in England in the post-war period, many of which were connected to the campaign for universal male suffrage, very few British radicals would have considered themselves Bonapartist in any sense. Similarly, we find Sir Walter Scott, one of the most celebrated authors of the nineteenth century, writing his nine-volume The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, Emperor of the French (1827), which, in his own words, was an account of “the most wonderful man and the most extraordinary events of the last thirty years … his splendid personal qualities – his great military actions and political services to France” (I, 1). Upon the book’s first publication, there were some dissenting voices raised against Scott’s depiction of the emperor. These criticisms came from prominent members of the Tory party – a party which boasted among its ranks Napoleon’s conqueror, the Duke Wellington. Most of the objections centred upon what Scott’s critics saw as too favourable a gloss on Napoleon’s life. Yet Scott, perhaps anticipating some of his critics, remarked in his preface that Napoleon should be seen for the great man that he was because “the term of hostility is ended when the battle has been won and the foe exists no longer.”
Scott’s was obviously a mature and sensible view to take in an era which had witnessed the birth of British nationalism and the denigration of the French in English popular prints. In fact, Scott’s biography of the general did much to cement Napoleon’s posthumous reputation as a great military leader. His biography was reprinted many times throughout the nineteenth century, and to his critics, good-natured as ever, Scott simply responded that “I could have done it better … if I could have written at more leisure, and with a mind more at ease” (Quoted Lockhart IV, 127).
Mr. Pickwick Meeting Napoleon from Pickwick Abroad; or, The Tour in France.
The radical, G. W. M. Reynolds, who was enthusiastic about all things French, made Napoleon the hero of a short story entitled “A Tale of the French Revolution,” which appeared in Sherwood’s Monthly Miscellany in 1838, and one of Reynolds’s later novels entitled Pickwick Abroad; or, The Tour in France (1839), a pastiche of Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, includes a sympathetic depiction of the Emperor (49).
J. G. Lockhart, Walter Scott’s son-in-law and biographer, emulated his relative by writing another much shorter Life of Napoleon (1851), which also was reissued in numerous formats, being abridged for a younger audience as a ‘Gift Edition’ by the publisher, Bickers and Sons in the 1890s. Lockhart praised Napoleon as a man who, although he fought for the wrong side, could be admired for the following reasons: “He recast the art of war … he gave both permanency and breadth to the French Revolution. His reign, short as it was, was sufficient to make it impossible that the offensive privileges of caste should ever be revived in France … he broke down the barriers of everywhere of custom and prejudice; and revolutionised the spirit of the continent” (495).
Other works praising Napoleon continued to appear in mid-Victorian Britain. These included an English translation of M. Laurent De L’Ardeche’s History of Napoleon, which appeared in the 1840s, and the travel writer and criminal biographer, Charles Macfarlane, contributed a Life of Napoleon Bonaparte (1855) that described Napoleon as “that extraordinary hero who was once the terror of nations, and whose deeds have since attracted the attention of the world” (1). Macfarlane concluded by saying that, although Napoleon had many faults, “we ought to judge leniently of the mighty dead” and that readers can still take away moral lessons from his life because “the errors, the vices, the failings of others, are good angels speaking to our souls, when they remind us of our own imperfections” (366-67).
To some Victorian writers, Napoleon’s military genius was so great that it was impossible not to admire him. British novels in the latter part of the Victorian era, such The Lives and Recollections of Calcraft the Hangman (1871) described him as ‘the Great Napoleon’. In fact, George Emmet’s Shaw the Lifeguardsman argued that Napoleon should have won at Waterloo, since the Duke of Wellington was his inferior in terms of being a strategist. Were it not for the “pluck” of the rank-and-file of the British army, Emmet suggested, Wellington would have lost (V, 287).
In reality, a number of factors contributed to Napoleon’s loss: scholars have pointed to reasons such as Napoleon’s medical ailments, which prevented him from thinking clearly on the day, evident by the fact that he failed to exploit some of Wellington’s tactical mistakes; some of his best marshals, Marmont, Victor, and Augereau had remained loyal to the French king and refused to side with him on his return from Elba; Wellington, furthermore, occupied a better defensive position, while Napoleon had to delay the start of the battle in order to get his canons placed in position. It is the delay that perhaps cost him the day, for this allowed time for the Prussians to come to Wellington’s assistance.
Yet Napoleon had more guns and was a better strategist. He should have won but he did not, as Victor Hugo stated in Les Miserables (1862), a phenomenally successful novel in both France and Britain: “His plan of battle [at Waterloo] was, by the confession of all, a masterpiece” (314). English writers’ admiration for the emperor lasted well into the twentieth century; in John Galsworthy’s In Chancery (1920), which was part of his famous Forsyte Saga series, when the Forsyte family patriarchs discuss what they see as an unnecessarily prolonged Boer War, a frustrated Uncle Timothy exclaims, “‘Men!’ said Timothy; ‘you don’t want men – wastin’ the country’s money. You want a Napoleon, he’d settle it in a month’”(420). Timothy echoes those Victorian writers who may not have agreed with Napoleon’s ambitions of building a European-wide French Empire but who found him admirable nonetheless.
Note: ‘Literary Notices’, Cleave’s Penny Gazette, 18 August 1838, 2. Very oddly, this seems to be the only contemporary literary notice to draw attention to this seemingly obscure work by Reynolds. I have not seen a copy myself, and it is not listed in the bibliographies of any of the scholarly works on Reynolds’s life and works.
Emmett, George. Shaw the Lifeguardsman. 6 vols(London: Hogarth House, n. d.
Galsworthy, John. The Forsyte Saga. 3 vols. London: Penguin, 2001.
Hugo, Victor. Les Miserables. Trans. Charles E. Wilbour. 11th edn. London: Everyman, 1998.
Lockhart, J. G. Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott. 4 vols. Paris: A & W Galignani, 1838.
Lockhart, J. G. The Life of Napoleon. London, 1851; repr. London: Bickers and Son, 1893.
Macfarlane, Charles. Life of Napoleon Bonaparte. London, 1855; repr. London: George Routledge, 1879.
Reynolds, George William MacArthur. Master Timothy’s Bookcas; or, The Magic Lanthorn of the World. London: Published at the Office of Reynolds’s Miscellany, 1847.
Reynolds, George William MacArthur. Pickwick Abroad; or, The Tour in France. London, 1838; repr. London: Willoughby [n. d.].
Scott, Walter. The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte with a Preliminary View of the French Revolution. Edinburgh: 1827; repr. [n. p.] [n. pub.] [n. d.] c. 1850?).
Last modified 18 May 2020