One would think that a reader obsessed with Jane Austen and romances from the Regency time period would know a great deal about Napoleon Bonaparte. Alas, that would not be me, so the book The Murder of Napoleon by Ben Weider and David Hapgood, told me many interesting things about the man. Now I must add a proper biography of the infamous emperor to my stack of books to read.
So, first of all, did I mention I don’t really know much about Napoleon? I figured he died in battle or something, so was surprised to learn he was exiled to the island of St. Helena off the west coast of Africa in the years before his death. Contrast that with the authors of this book and especially the other central figure in it, one Sten Forshufvod, a Swede who followed in his father’s footsteps by obsessing over Napoleon. Obsessing is the wrong word–passionate, Forshufvod was passionate about Napoleon, and how it paid off, for back in the 1950s-60s he discovered the possibility that Napoleon didn’t die of natural causes on the island, but was murdered.
The Murder of Napoleon is a great nonfiction read. It bounces back between detailing Napoleon Bonaparte’s surrender to the British and his last years of exile on St. Helena (1815-1921) and and the efforts of Forshufvod to figure out the truth about his death during the time period of 1955-1975. Some of it’s a lot of dry information, but mostly it’s a riveting read, not only the details and quirks about Napolean’s habits and character, but also about the fields of science dealing with poison and poison detection. The book is originally from 1982, so I don’t know if Forshufvod’s findings and speculations have been officially determined and listed by France, but even if not, it’s fascinating. I was particularly struck by just how charismatic Napoleon was with almost everyone, and how enthralled even the British soldiers were with him. It was sad to see, too, how scholars and scientists get stuck in their ways and can’t look at the evidence objectively. I’m sure that science and scholarship isn’t much different today. Sometimes people just don’t want to know the truth. They prefer to believe their own version of it. I’m the same with some things, and I get how painful it can be to deal with the truth, but it’s still sad, a sad part of humanity.
If you’re looking for a great summer read, I highly recommend this engaging book that delves into the history of one of the most remarkable men who ever lived. In it, Napoleon is alternately brilliant, infuriating, and often lovable. If it’s true that he was murdered in such an awful way, I am sorry that he suffered so horribly. How awful, too, for those around him to witness his suffering and to be unable or unwilling to do anything. I’m not sure if an emperor Napoleon was better for the people than proper royalty, and I’ve read books like The Scarlet Pimpernel in which the “good” side is the aristocrats and the royals, but it would have been interesting to see what life in Europe would have been like today had Napoleon remained emperor. One thing was definite about Napoleon: he was a born leader.