The Garden as Battlefield

Ruth Scurr, Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows

Chatto & Windus, 400pp, £30.00, ISBN 9781784741006

reviewed by Jemima Hubberstey

At a first glance, it might seem extraordinary to think of Napoleon, the great military commander and notorious emperor of France, through his gardens. Yet gardens are never neutral or even wholly ‘natural’ spaces, in fact reflecting the ideas and ambitions of the people who designed and commissioned them. As John Dixon Hunt argued in Greater Perfections (2002), ‘the garden has always been a complex and central human activity, arguably a matrix of man’s and woman’s ambitions, instincts, and desires’. In examining the life of Napoleon in this way, Ruth Scurr’s Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows demonstrates how they reflect Napoleon himself and his mission to impose order on France.

Scurr begins with a quote from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, noting that men like Napoleon needed to insist upon women as looking glasses who would reflect an image of men at ‘twice their natural size’. To Scurr, seeing Napoleon in gardens helps to ‘strip away the distorting mirrors which Woolf complains are essential to all violent and heroic action’. Yet I would draw a further parallel with Woolf. In the ‘Time Passes’ section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, important human events are placed in parenthesis and Nature herself reclaims the narrative; in her diary, Woolf reflected that her aim in this passage was to describe ‘the passage of time, all eyeless and featureless with nothing to cling to'. Similarly, in this biography, Scurr places her subject’s military exploits in parenthesis. Without the legacy of myth and heroism to cling to, she presents Napoleon as a ‘mere speck of time within the history of the natural world’.

Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows traces Napoleon’s career through the gardens that he inhabited and cultivated throughout his life. In the opening chapters, we see Napoleon as an unpopular and homesick schoolboy at the military school of Brienne-le-Château, tending to his small plot of land. Then we glimpse him as young man, desperately negotiating with the French authorities in an attempt to save his family’s mulberry groves in Corsica; we come to realise that the failure of these negotiations sowed the seeds of his sympathy for reform of the Ancien Régime. Then, when Napoleon rises to power, we see him as a patron of the botanical gardens and natural sciences, trying to achieve his vision of bringing progress and prosperity after years of revolutionary turmoil. Yet, there is a tension in his ideals: his policing of the countryside reveals ‘his regime’s hierarchical, authoritarian and centralising approach to administration’.

In Scurr’s own words, taking this alternative approach allows her to ‘find space for the small details that are pushed aside in grander, more conventional narratives’. This approach provides some rewarding insights, the most striking of which is the way in which the gardens at Malmaison — like a marital battlefield — symbolise contested ground between Napoleon and Josephine. Even in the early years of developing the château’s gardens, there was ideological tension behind their different tastes: Napoleon preferred the geometric order of the earlier French style, while Josephine admired the more informal, sentimental jardin à l’anglaise with its meandering paths. Ironically, the English style was also favoured by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who Josephine commemorated at Malmaison; Napoleon believed that Rousseau’s liberal ideals had prepared the road to the revolution. When Napoleon became Emperor of France, Josephine lavished further expense on her garden and exchanged exotic animals with Frederick I of Württemberg for their respective menageries, while Napoleon resented unnecessary expenditure on what he viewed as frivolities. The ultimate irony is while Josephine would pour her energies into cultivating the fertile soils of an ever-flourishing garden, she herself was past the early blooms of youth and unable to provide Napoleon the heir that he needed for dynastic and political stability. It was only upon their divorce that Napoleon finally informed her she had the freedom to ‘plant whatever you like’.

In focusing less on the myth of the man, and more on the real people and places that surrounded him, Scurr offers a vivid — and at times, even bathetic — retelling of the Emperor’s life and achievements. Scurr debunks the legendary claims that are so often made of Napoleon by returning to the realities of the natural world. For example, there is a widespread myth that Napoleon introduced the reseda odorata into France and Europe by sending the seeds to Josephine in a grand romantic gesture; Scurr contests this by demonstrating that the plant already featured in Philip Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary as early as 1752. Equally, for all that Napoleon claimed to be the first to discover the ancient Canal of the Pharaohs, Scurr undercuts the heroism of this glory mission, providing a darkly comic insight into how the soldiers were hopelessly unsuited to the desert environment. (In between making undrinkable cups of bitter coffee from salt water, the troops managed to misjudge the tides, resulting in a commotion during which General Caffarelli lost his wooden leg.)

One of Scurr’s most vivid observations relates to a lesser-known detail about the Battle of Waterloo: the final irony that victory depended on conquering the walled garden at Hougoumont, and that ‘in failing to take that single patch of ground, they had lost’. Scurr is similarly perceptive on Napoleon’s exile at St Helena, where the defeated Emperor poured his energy into creating a final garden – ‘impos[ing] himself one more time upon the earth’ until, as he was dying, he was finally unable to even access his garden.

Napoleon: A Garden in Life and Shadows demonstrates the way in which the French leader oscillated between employing gardens as symbols of power and control and relying on them for solace and escape in moments of personal failure. Not only does Scurr’s fresh retelling offer a novel approach to biographical writing, it also challenges the reader to think about the way in which natural spaces are contested spaces of power and control, whether in a garden or a battlefield.

Jemima Hubberstey is undertaking a Collaborative Doctoral Award with the University of Oxford and English Heritage, researching the connection between literary coteries and garden design in the 18th century.