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7 Books to Read before You Watch Napoleon
by Mary Kay McBrayer
I won’t say that Ridley Scott’s Napoleon bit off more than it could chew. I respect a film that trusts its audience—I truly hate an over-explanation. Still, Napoleon contains multitudes… and it was more than I could digest in one sitting. (And, yes, I still believe we should bring back intermissions for films that run over two hours, if only so that I can do a little bit of recon on the subject to inform my own viewing, while I speed-pee. I will die on this hill.)
That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the film—it’s truly epic. Joaquin Phoenix was absolutely the correct casting for Napoleon, and Vanessa Kirby truly brings Josephine to life in a wry, sexy disillusionment. I mean, what kind of stone-cold B giggles while she reads her divorce decree? Answer: one that I am obsessed with. Personally, I was as interested in Josephine as Napoleon. That’s probably not surprising, since I’m a woman, but I learned a lot from the times when she was onscreen, such as that the only way she thought she could survive imprisonment was to get pregnant because they would not behead a pregnant woman. Also, she somehow had two children by her first husband, but she could not conceive with Napoleon… what happened there? All that to say, I’d watch her movie.
Also, I don’t know how the marketing seemed to obscure this fact for me that now seems pretty obvious, but this is a war movie. It is violent af. The opening scene is Marie Antoinette’s march to the guillotine and subsequent incredibly tedious and gory beheading. All while a delightful, upbeat and ironically ominous French song plays over her execution. (This score truly has my whole heart.)
Truly, everything aspect is executed so well that I got past the inaccurate accents almost immediately—although they did cause me some trouble during the international conflict scenes (is that diplomat French? Or English? Oh, Austrian-I-mean-Prussian?), but then again, to my knowledge, the Romanovs’ first language was French, even as the Russian royal family, so that could just be my lack of education.
Speaking of which, I think the whole film would have landed more solidly for me if I’d had a better grounding of the historical events. I mean, I knew about the French Revolution against the aristocracy, and the subsequent release of the aristocrats from the Bastille and other prisons later… but I didn’t know how much later, what exactly happened in between, or just how Napoleon Bonaparte leveraged himself onto the scene as the French leader. That seemed especially impossible for me when he wasn’t even French, but Corsican (which was, at the time, a whole different country who did not want to be French). So, these books are the ones I wish I had dipped into before I saw the film because I think they would have helped me enjoy it more. (Still, I’m glad I listened to this podcast before I went to give me a survey of the territory.) I don’t know about you, but when I understand clearly what is happening, then I can better enjoy how it’s happening.
My knowledge of the French Revolution is working, popular common knowledge at best… which means it’s likely the version of events that popular culture has agreed on, and that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s factual. This book details not only what happened during the Revolution itself, but also the aristocratic anxieties that established the landscape for it to happen. It also follows the fall-out of the Revolution, tracing it through the early 19th century to the 1848 revolutions and the situation that led to the Great War. It’s pretty fascinating to see how everything flows into the next thing, and I think this book would have made me understand the cross-section of history that Napoleon covers.
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Here’s our deep dive into the French Revolution itself. If you know the names of Mirabeau, Robespierre, and Danton, but not necessarily what their roles were between the execution of the aristocracy and the Reign of Terror, this book will educate you. It’s based on decades of scholarship, and man, if I was going to pick one book on this list to have read before seeing the movie, this would probably be it. I would definitely have better understood the courtroom scenes (also violent!) with Robespierre that seemed like cascading anarchy culminating in attempted suicide.
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I should also mention that I adore Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette, especially because she lets a set really shine in the way she frames a shot… and I don’t know anyone who loved that movie who doesn’t rave about the costumes just as much. Napoleon focuses more on Napoleon Bonaparte than any women of his day, but Josephine B. does get her moments to shine. For example, that so-chic haircut in the first and second acts was actually an act of rebellion: it’s known as “Coiffure a la victime[MM1] .” If you’re interested in how fashion represents history, check out this book. Don’t worry, it’s illustrated.
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Okay, so as an American, I never learned in school—or at least I didn’t retain the information—that during Napoleon’s empire, there was relative peace on the continent. (I mean, it is a war movie, but the battles we see in Napoleon all take place off the continent, in Egypt or Russia, et al.) After his defeat at Waterloo, which is on the continent, that’s when the Spring of Nations happened. “What’s that?” my American colleagues might ask in unison with me. It’s when other countries in Europe vied for their own statehood. This book goes wide, exploring the following era but in multiple places.
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If the above book chronicles the wide history across Europe, Age of Revolutions goes wide in the other direction, across the Atlantic. It’s a thorough, three-generation narrative spanning 1760-1825, but through North America, the Caribbean, and Spanish America. Best of all, the tone of this book is an accessible narrative that explains the connections between revolutionaries like Napoleon himself, John Adams, and Touissant Louverture.
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One thing I do remember from my public-school American History classes is that without assistance from the French, America would very likely have continued to be a British colony. It wasn’t until later that I realized the same King Louis who greenlit that assistance was the one beheaded by his own subjects, but that connection is everything. Even though history was often taught as if each story existed in a vacuum, its intersection is where things get interesting. Cue: the Marquis de Lafayette, who fought in the American Revolution as a runaway French teenager, then returned to France as a national hero who then helped launch the French Revolution, which ultimately led to five years of dungeon incarceration. This guy was the ultimate revolutionist… a soldier, statesman, idealist, philanthropist, and—keyword here for American historical enthusiasts—abolitionist. This book is all about him and how he was, in fact, a hero in both the Old World and the New.
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Speaking of the New World… so you know about Napoleon Bonaparte, but how much do you know about the man whom contemporaries called “The Black Napoleon?” That’s Toussaint Louverture, the educated, Catholic slave who organized the largest, only successful slave revolt: that’s right, here we have a biography of the man who led the Haitian Revolution, whose military prowess is celebrated in both Haiti and France. It’s an incredible story, not to be missed.
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