In movies, there has always been an enormous passion for period pieces. Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth. The Count of Monte Cristo. Gone With the Wind. The Great Gatsby. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. What all of these films have in common is a romantic recreation of the past and what it was like to live in them. Yes, most of these movies don't shy away from some points where we see how nasty it could be to be around in these periods but, without exception, we are asked to follow characters who are most able to enjoy their surroundings and the benefits of their time. In Elizabeth, we witness the travails of a princess who will become queen. In Master and Commander, we follow the friendship between a distinguished ship's captain and a skilled doctor. In Pride and Prejudice, we watch an upper class girl try to avoid arranged marriage in order to marry a man that she can respect and love. First world problems much?
The point is that we have a fascination with the past, one that is particularly focused the people with the most freedom in their respective eras. Are there exceptions? Absolutely. But, as a whole, we love reading stories of those who have the immediate power to change their surroundings. We are fascinated with times foreign yet familiar to our own, awestruck that these periods once existed. This isn't fiction; it's real. And, while we may focus on the stories of characters and events that are fictional within these eras, it does not take away from the truth that these dramas could have happened, and that the settings were once vivid reality.
The Meteoric Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte
Though I'm here reviewing a book and not a movie, that introduction is perfect for describing the tone and power of The War of Wars: The Great European Conflict 1793-1815. This book is a history, a grand drama of a twelve year war, a massive tome capable of knocking out any nearby housecat. It's about an era that, for some reason, we never really see in movies. Whenever I've shown this book to people asking about what I'm reading, the result is immediate disinterest and surprise that anyone would read such a gargantuan book about a long past conflict. And yet, despite all of these negative factors, I'm here to tell you one thing:
This book fucking rocks.
The War of Wars imbues its time period with vigorous life. Have you ever wondered how it feels to be a frigate captain at sea? This book is filled with the grandeur of a life in the navy, storming the crests of high waves in pursuit of the enemy. Have you ever wondered what it's like to be a diplomat in Paris? There's so much political intrigue and shenanigans in this book that it is beyond compare. At every stage, we are given a retelling of events from the French Revolution to Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, from the cat-and-mouse naval chases of the Caribbean to the epic battle of Waterloo; all fully factual, all possessed with a page-turning narrative worthy of an award-winning novel. After reading this book, I was frankly astonished that I've never seen a movie about the Napoleonic Wars before. How have filmmakers missed this? This era is filled with such drama, heroism, and conflict that it's preposterous that it has not yet been immortalized in modern film.
But if there's one thing that makes this book great, it is the way the author brings the personalities of the various figures into life. As hinted in my introduction, this book focuses primarily on the statesmen, commanders, and leaders of the period. Yet, despite a vast cast of characters stretched across dozens of years, I never got lost. Just about every man and woman is memorable. What's more, we are given a balanced view of them. It is very easy for historians to get caught up in the near-mythic brilliance of Napoleon, but Robert Harvey manages to hit both his highs and his lows. We are able to appreciate Napoleon's genius intensity, his quest for recognition, and determination to succeed. Yet we are similarly able to witness his lack of self-control and uncontrollable megalomania. Through this we get a multifaceted perspective of Napoleon and many, many other 'great people' besides. Even with those that the author obviously admires (such as Pitt the Younger and Thomas Cochrane), we are shown their failings, petulance, insecurities, and more. This serves to create an incredibly deep and interesting cast of characters, unforgettable figures set amidst the dramatic backdrop of Europe's first truly global war.
The first thing one should know going into this, though, is that it is a general history meant to be enjoyed by those who aren't fussy professors. Essentially, it is (in my opinion) a well-balanced story of the Napoleonic War brought to life but, if you're seeking more specifics about this or that conflict, then it's best to look for a more focused book. You'll get a superb overview of every single stage of the war here, but you might come away wanting more. Perhaps the best way to put it is that this is a great introduction to the Napoleonic War for anyone who hasn't read of it before, a Napoleonic War 101 course, if you will. For me, that was perfect. But for anyone looking for a deep exploration of this or that battle or conflict, it might be best to look elsewhere.
Aside from that, I'd point out that some of the land battles and naval engagements were kind of hard to follow. But, really, this is totally my own fault. There are a great deal of detailed maps at the beginning of the book and, sloth that I am, I found myself far too lazy to flip back to the front in order to visualize what I was reading on the page. Regardless, I never felt completely lost.
My last critique is that, like I pointed out at the beginning, this history falls into the period piece trap of focusing largely on the 'big' 'important' upper class figures of the time. Unlike, say, the histories of Max Hastings, we only occasionally get the perspective of the average citizen or soldier of the time. This may damage its credibility as a truly effective history. But I can honestly say that I just didn't care. I was having too much fun. And at no time in this book did I feel like I was wasting my time or getting too incomplete of a picture.
Thus it is that, in order to shower praise upon a history with an exciting and sweeping narrative that is perhaps a tad light on substance, I've created a review that only sings lustrous praises and calls attention to dazzling adventures. I didn't call much attention to the specific figures, I didn't really talk about the incredible events, I didn't assess the immensely interesting effect the Napoleonic War had on the world, ramifications that we still feel to this very day. Perhaps I'll have to write a follow-up to do that.
But for now just be assured that, if you've ever had any passing interest in learning about this era of history, this is the book to start your journey with. I can't emphasize enough how excited this book makes me about teaching history and calling attention to the spectacular events that have happened in the past. And that's worth sharing.