Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows by Ruth Scurr

Three years after his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte could not even call on a doctor. His previous physician, Barry O’Meara, had returned to England from the isola maledetta of Saint Helena, the bleak outcrop in the distant South Atlantic where the former emperor would see out his days. O’Meara had clashed with Sir Hudson Lowe, the island’s governor, who was similarly detested by Napoleon, now flabby, indigent and depressed, willing death’s arrival.

His mother, then in Rome, came to the rescue. She sent a Corsican doctor, François Carlo Antommarchi, accompanied by two Catholic priests, to Saint Helena. They arrived at Napoleon’s villa, Longwood, in September 1819. Antommarchi suggested that his patient “must dig the ground, turn up the earth, and thus escape from inactivity and insult”.

Within 24 hours, the energized exile appointed a Swiss servant as chief gardener. His butler was sent to the tiny capital, Jamestown, to buy gardening tools, and four Chinese laborers — known only by numbers because their names were thought too difficult to pronounce — were hired. Napoleon was impressed by their “quality labour at a good price” while they in turn were amused by his outfit of a nankeen jacket, red slippers and a straw hat embellished with taffeta. The bicorne, of which he had worn as many as 150, had long gone.

Napoleon’s horticultural ambitions on Saint Helena mirrored those of his previous military campaigns, albeit on a much smaller scale. His workers complained of tiredness, but they were unrelenting in their efforts to please him as they created a world from unsympathetic soil, a shady idyll for a man who once bestrode Europe.

First and Final Love

The Cambridge historian Ruth Scurr brings shades of subtlety and nuance to a life well known, telling Napoleon’s story through his love of nature and the gardens. A brilliantly original biographer of Robespierre — briefly Napoleon’s ally — and of John Aubrey, Scurr has attributes too often missing among her contemporaries. She can write, beautifully; and she casts a cold eye on proceedings, unfazed by previous adoration or condemnation of her subject.

Gardening was the first and final love of Napoleon. He embraced it as a lonely child at school in the Champagne region, far from Corsica, his beloved birthplace, where he would create an arbor, a place to study alone. He would return to the active pursuit of gardening in exile on distant Saint Helena, at the end of his life, powerless, diminished but still a man that cast shadows: “They cannot stop me being me.”

The garden at Malmaison, Napoleon and Joséphine’s marital home.

The appeal of gardening to Napoleon is rooted in his rationalism, typical of the late 18th-century Enlightenment. Although gardening came to be known as the “English art”, Napoleon preferred the straight lines and symmetry of the jardin à la française. Imposed on nature, such works were designed to be seen from above — Napoleon would employ balloons in his military campaigns.

His desperate need for order, Scurr suggests, harked back to an event that he witnessed in the garden of the Tuileries Palace in Paris, where in August 1792 members of the Swiss Guard, having laid down their arms on the orders of the deposed Louis XVI, were massacred by a revolutionary mob. Their corpses, piled up around a pond, contrasted gruesomely with the manicured surroundings. Napoleon became all too aware of how quickly a crowd can turn.

He made his reputation as a young artillery officer fighting off an Anglo-Spanish fleet at the siege of Toulon in 1793. There his aide-de-camp was Jean-Andoche Junot, who introduced his superior to André Thouin, a committed revolutionary who helped to design the French Republic’s decimal calendar and would transform the King’s Garden in Paris into the Jardin des Plantes, a “relative enclave of civilisation” amid the Terror.

Thouin would take Napoleon on tours of its greenhouses, whose star attraction was the great bougainvillea, brought back from Brazil in 1772 by the explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville. As first consul in 1800, Napoleon would authorize a similar scientific expedition, this time to the Antipodes, where claims would be made on a Terre Napoléon.

It was with Joséphine Beauharnais, a creole from Martinique six years his senior, “who liked sex and was good at it”, that his passions, for gardens and for her, entwined. They married in 1796. She bought Malmaison, northwest of Paris, with its jardin à l’anglaise of winding paths and asymmetric plantings, while her husband was on a troubled campaign in Egypt. He was not best pleased with the purchase, nor her affair with a younger man, but it became their marital home.

Joséphine almost tripled the size of its gardens, introducing roses, hibiscus and magnolia, although her vision of meandering, curving paths was tempered by her husband’s demands for order. Both grew to love it, although its fecundity contrasted with their inability to conceive together.

Napoleon was proclaimed emperor in 1804. He was at his peak, at least on the Continent; Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in October 1805 had scuppered any ambitions to invade England. Despite Anglo-French animosities, Joséphine managed to keep in touch with scientists and naturalists such as Joseph Banks. But at Austerlitz, two months later, Napoleon secured one of his tactical masterstrokes, defeating the combined armies of Austria and Russia.

It was with Joséphine Beauharnais, “who liked sex and was good at it”, that his passions, for gardens and for her, entwined.

By then, Napoleon had begun the restoration of the Château de Fontainebleau, built for the kings of France from the 12th century. It was surrounded by forest and Napoleon rescinded the revolution’s anti-hunting measures, taking to his horse with gusto. It was one of a number of reactionary measures by the emperor, who had re-established the slave trade in his Caribbean colonies. Napoleon would hunt from dawn to dusk, avoiding Joséphine, whom he was now determined to divorce. She kept Malmaison, among other buildings, and received a substantial payoff. “Now you can plant whatever you like,” was his parting gift.

Napoleon married the 19-year-old Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria by proxy on March 11, 1810. He brought her back to another restored grand château, at Compiègne, where her great-aunt Marie Antoinette had been welcomed 40 years before. Canova was summoned to sculpt the new empress, who would soon give birth to the future king of Rome. But it was Joséphine, at Malmaison, with her unerring eye for beauty, who would commission Canova’s greatest works, including The Three Graces, and impress him with her own work of art, her garden.

Napoleon’s disastrous Moscow campaign led to his first exile, on Elba, off the coast of Tuscany, where he was accompanied by his Imperial Guard. On this island of luxurious vegetation and aromatic plants, Napoleon resided in the humble Villa dei Mulini, aided in his horticultural pursuits by an old hand, Claude Hollard. It was there he heard of the death of Joséphine, ceased exercising and grieved as much for himself as for her.

He returned to France, in the drama of the 100 days, which began at the Tuileries Palace and ended at Waterloo, the ground having been laid by supporters who knew him as Corporal Violet, after his favorite flower. Again a garden would play a significant role in his fortunes — this time, that of Hougoumont, fortified by a force of 1,000 or so allied soldiers spearheaded by the Coldstream Guards. “Keep Hougoumont,” Wellington ordered, and so they did. The French lost 5,000 men trying to take it and, in doing so, lost the entire battle when Prussian reinforcements arrived.

Between three and six million lives were lost for the ambitions of Napoleon, who concluded, shortly before he died of cancer on Saint Helena at the age of 51, that “man’s true vocation is to cultivate the ground”. His life, outlined in this grippingly original study, had come full circle to the lonely child, far from home. In his beginning was his end.

Paul Lay is the editor of History Today