Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows

Liveright: Norton. Jun. 2021. 416p. ISBN 9781631492419. $28.95. MEMOIR
Scurr (history, Univ. of Cambridge; Fatal Purity) here uses her signal strength as biographer to look at what seems a small matter, and through it illuminate a much larger subject, in this case the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. All his life, Bonaparte loved gardens. As a young cadet at Brienne, he tended his own plot and raised crops to eat. Later, as the leader of France, he wasoccupied with schemes of conquest and at the same time supported his wife Josephine in her efforts to make the gardens at Malmaison a wonder, including the import of exotic plants and animals to the estate. Public gardens played a utilitarian role in his rise to power because they trumpeted his splendor. Napoleon paid special attention France’s forests, which were an asset for their timbers. In exile in Elba and St. Helena at the end of his life, he tended a garden again, as Scurr tells in this lively account. While the book does not include images, Scurr’s vivid writing helps to convey a visual portrait; the book’s extensive bibliography may spark interest for further reading.
VERDICT Though this isn’t the first book one should about Napoleon, it is an attractive one, which presents an unusual perspective on the life of the general.
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