Well Read – Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows

Interview with Ruth Scurr about her latest book

No famous figure in history has been so closely identified with his hat as Napoleon Bonaparte. While most French officers wore their bicorne (two-cornered) headgear “en colonne” (perpendicular to the shoulders), Napoleon wore his “en bataille” ensuring his troops could always identify him by his profile. The red white and blue cockade pinned to the brim was a symbol of the 1789-1799 revolution that led to the ambitious Corsican crowning himself Emperor in 1804.

But it was the image of Napoleon in a very different hat that inspired Ruth Scurr’s illuminating new biography: Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows. It’s a book that reveals a surprisingly peaceful side to a warrior whose name has become a byword for vaulting ambition.

“I was gripped,” Scurr tells me over a phone conversation, “by a painting of him in a battered, old straw hat in exile on St Helena. He took four of those famous bicorne hats with him. But the tourists who went to catch a glimpse of the world’s most famous man would have seen him in the straw hat, stuffed with newspaper at the crown. He wore it to work in the elaborate garden he cultivated there, where sunken paths helped him evade the surveillance of his British guards.”

Digging deeper, Scurr learned that gardening had been Napoleon’s first and final passion. Anecdotes of the clever Corsican boy’s time at boarding school in Brienne-le-Château suggest that between the ages of nine and fifteen he threw his heart and soul into a plot “not much bigger than a grave”.

Homesick and teased for his nasal Corsican accent, the scholarship boy from a modest but aristocratic family is believed to have cultivated a green sanctuary where he could read in peace. One story features the teenager showing early republican leanings by camping out in his garden instead of participating in a feast day honouring King Louis XVI. When fireworks launched by the revellers caused a stampede across his precious plants, the future emperor is said to have defended his territory by brandishing his gardening tools like a pike.

Napoleon would return to Brienne-le-Château in January 1814 to fight invading Russian and Prussian forces. He won a narrow victory but later claimed he had nearly been killed near the fruit tree beneath which he had sat as a schoolboy. It tells us something about him that – even in the middle of a bloody battle – he believed he recognised a specific tree.

“The more I read,” recalls Scurr, “the more significant gardens I found. Napoleon witnessed the massacre of the king’s Swiss Guard in the gardens of the Tuileries Palace in Paris, in August 1792; he tried to create gardens wherever he went, in Paris and Cairo and Rome; he gave special permission for packets of seeds to be transported through military blockades. I was worried there was no garden associated with his defeat at Waterloo. But it turns out there was a battle-within-the-battle, in the walled garden at the Chateau d’Hougoumont.” Bodies of Napoleon’s soldiers tumbled in a small orchard, which became known as the Killing Ground. Bodies were stripped by pillagers in the formal garden, where trees and hedges were destroyed and the terrace had been smashed. Yet the day after the battle, Captain Mercer of Wellington’s victorious English army visited the site and claimed that, despite the devastation, “roses and other flowers bloomed forth in all their sweetness, and the very turf when crushed under my feet smelt sweet and fresh”.

Scurr – who lectures on history and politics at Cambridge University – notes that both gardening and empire building are “about imposing your will on the space around you and establishing your idea of order”. She dates her own obsession with gardening back to a school trip to Kew Gardens, aged twelve.

“I bought a Grow Your Own Cucumber kit,” she explains. “When it grew – like magic – I became emotionally involved with it. We had to go on holiday and I got very worried about what would happen to it. My grandmother assured me she would take good care of it in her greenhouse and promised she would fertilise the flowers. When I came back she said it would be best to keep the plant in her greenhouse until the cucumber was ready to eat. I remember the shock, the horror. Eating the cucumber would be like eating a pet. My family was quite concerned when I organised my own private funeral for the cucumber! But it was hugely significant for me, having shared its whole life cycle. Now I spend two or three hours a day in the garden.”

Scurr tends to her biographical subjects with the same diligence as her plants. Her 2007 book on Maximilien Robespierre, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Chatto & Windus, £16.99) delighted critics by humanising a figure often written off as a bloodthirsty monster. Hilary Mantel admired her “ingenious, inspiring” 2015 book on seventeenth-century English diarist John Aubrey (John Aubrey: My Own Life, Vintage £9.99).

While many feminist historians have focussed on bringing lost stories of influential women from the shadows, Scurr believes that offering her take on history’s alpha males is part of the same project

While many feminist historians have focussed on bringing lost stories of influential women from the shadows, Scurr believes that offering her take on history’s alpha males is part of the same project. “Many men are preoccupied with Napoleon’s military and career strategy,” she says. “I think there’s an identification thing going on, because he’s the epitome of the self-made man. But I am attracted to seeing the “great men” from a side angle.”

With Napoleon, her original plan had been to explore his life through its impact on others. Her writing still gives attention to the “little people” we often forget, like fourteen-year-old Marianne Peusol who died on Christmas Eve 1800 when one of Napoleon’s enemies made an assassination attempt with a bomb. While many chroniclers focus only on the event as evidence of the forces swirling against him and the fury with which he responded, Scurr takes time to remember a lively, red-haired child who left home excited to be part of a street party and came back in pieces. She also notes that Napoleon’s sister – travelling with him – was nine months pregnant at the time.

This focus on minor characters led Scurr to the tales of the many horticulturists whose lives Napoleon had touched, thereby unveiling a seldom-seen side to the man. For example, he sought parallels in nature when revolutionaries urged him to find a replacement for the old structure of the Ancien Régime. Scurr reminds her readers that the Revolutionary Calendar was created in collaboration with botanical experts, with new months named after germination, blooming and harvest. The ideology had to be as powerful as the seasons to replace the Catholicism that had (mostly) been binned along with the heads of the French aristocracy. “I was brought up a Catholic and lapsed,” reveals Scurr. “And that’s the story of the Revolution, which might be why it resonates with me on a deep level.”

Today, the author admits she’s been wearied by the extensive media coverage of Prince Philip’s death. “In circumstances where so many people are bereaved and locked down it felt like propaganda. I’ve never felt quite so Republican!” But she knows from her research that “once a monarchy is broken, it can be broken forever”. And while the British restoration endured, French attempts failed. Napoleon tried to re-establish a kind of hereditary system, but it was never the same again.”

When Scurr needs a break from the royal news, she can always escape to her Cambridge garden. “The clay here is good for roses, and I have a lovely old Chapeau de Napoléon rose. It has a spiky, conker encasement of a bud before the pink flowers burst through that looks like his bicorne hat. The rose is a rebellious, sprawling thing.” Like the revolution? “In a way… yes!”

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail


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