A revelatory portrait of Napoleon to mark the 200th anniversary of his death, written for our own time, not in power politics or epic battles, but through his love of nature and the gardens that gave his revolutionary life its light and shade.
Napoleon's gardens range from his childhood olive groves in Corsica, to Josephine's gardens and menageries in Paris, to gardens in Cairo, Rome and on Elba, to the walled garden of Hougoumont at the battle of Waterloo, and ultimately to Napoleon's final garden on St Helena, where Chinese labourers built him a summerhouse where he could sit and scan the sea in his final months.
During the French Revolution ideas about nature - human nature, the natural world and exchanges between the two - were at the centre of fierce political debates and events. In this lively and perceptive cultural history, Napoleon is placed firmly in this context: he wanted to see himself as a patron of the sciences and progress, bringing an end to the Revolution and binding up its wounds. In fact he unleashed an era of destruction and war, causing millions of deaths across Europe.
In this innovative biography, as uniquely fitting its subject as Ruth Scurr's applauded portraits of Robespierre and John Aubrey, Napoleon emerges a giant figure made human, seen through the eyes of those who knew him best - close witnesses, rich and poor, famed and obscure - in the shade of his gardens. The result is vivid, multidimensional and haunting, throwing us back in time, so that we see him before us, both as the Emperor hunting for glory and the man in an old straw hat, leaning on his spade.
Glorious . . . Scurr has achieved something remarkable: a completely original book on a completely unoriginal subject. But then she is herself a truly remarkable writer, one of the most gifted non-fiction authors alive -- Simon Schama ― Financial Times
If you read just one biography this year, make it Ruth Scurr's brilliant and original exploration of Napoleon's life as an amateur gardener. Everything makes sense once you realise this was a man obsessed with making Nature go his way -- Amanda Foreman
Just when you might think there is no more to say about Napoleon, Ruth Scurr, with her characteristic originality, has found a new way to tell his astonishing story: not through revolution or war, but through the gardens he made wherever he went. It's another wonderfully sideways take on a well-known life -- Stella Tillyard
I am desperate to see Ruth Scurr's book about Napoleon . . . it has a glorious conceit. Napoleon is seen through his relationship with gardens, and this feline, stalking approach creates a life of an icon which manages to be different ― Scotland on Sunday
Ruth Scurr's imaginative take on Napoleon's life serves up fascinating insights into the man's behaviour and motivations, as well as an illuminating account of those around him. The gardening angle is fresh and perfectly developed; to garden is to control and manipulate, an empire builder does the same -- Penelope Lively
A pleasure to read. The portrait of Napoleon as scientist, scholar, soldier, savant and grubby-fingered gardener is fresh and tremendously enjoyable. Scurr's sharp perception opens new vistas in the extensive landscape of Napoleon's boundlessly curious mind -- Sue Prideaux, author of I Am Dynamite! A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche
A quirky portrait from the biographer of Robespierre ― Sunday Times *the Books of 2021*
Ruth Scurr gives us a captivating, original perspective on a man too often simplified as a glorious - or vainglorious - emperor on horseback. Her sparkling book reminds us of Napoleon's human frailties and, above all, that he was also a man of science fascinated by the order, diversity and richness of the plant world. The origins of modern warfare and of the botanical sciences were fused in this man -- Peter McPhee, author of Liberty or Death: The French Revolution
It is hard to find fresh things to say about Napoleon, but Ruth Scurr has managed it. Tracing his engagement with gardens and plants from his boyhood in Corsica to his final years on St. Helena, she reveals a neglected side to the great soldier and emperor. No one interested in Napoleon will fail to discover here something unknown or unexpected -- William Doyle, author of The Oxford History of the French Revolution