The General’s Garden

From The Wall Street Journal:

On June 25, 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte arrived at Malmaison, the late Empress Joséphine’s estate 7 miles west of Paris. His dream of holding on to the French throne had just shattered at Waterloo, costing the lives of tens of thousands. Five years earlier, he had divorced Joséphine because she hadn’t given him the heir his dynastic desires required. Now that she was dead, all he could think about was how much he missed her—how she used to walk under the trees she had planted, those cedars, cypresses and Japanese pagodas, how she would examine the flowers in her greenhouse or gather the roses she loved so much. The memory made Napoleon wince. “She was the most graceful woman I ever saw,” he told his stepdaughter Hortense. Too little, too late.

Joséphine, always “surrounded by colour and fragrance,” as the British historian Ruth Scurr’s beautiful new book describes her, was the gardener Napoleon never became. This is, indeed, how she appears in François Gérard’s 1801 portrait of her: languidly sunk into her sofa, a bouquet of freshly picked flowers by her side, her teeming garden behind her. Compared to Joséphine, Napoleon was at best a jardinier intermittent, an intermittent gardener, an epithet bestowed on him by a plaque installed on the small island of Île-d’Aix, where Napoleon is believed to have grafted an ash onto an elm (just as he, the native Corsican, had grafted himself onto native French stock).

It is an adjustment to think of Napoleon as a cultivator rather than as a conqueror, a planter rather than a planner.

. . . .

Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows,” [is] a book so saturated with detail that the reader can hear the gravel crunching under her characters’ feet.

. . . .

 Ms. Scurr [tells] the endlessly fascinating story of his life anew: not as a megalomaniac’s power-hungry ascent to temporary glory but as the constantly frustrated reaching for the plenitude and happiness that Joséphine’s found in her garden.

Napoleon’s botanical career, such as it was, began in military school in Brienne-le-Château, with a small plot he used to create an arbor so he could be by himself. It continued with attempts to salvage his father’s mulberry nursery on Corsica, and, as he cast his menacing shadow over much of Europe, culminated in a variety of designs for formal gardens at home and abroad, including a madcap scheme that would have turned the Roman Forum into a promenade. But even as Napoleon sought to reinvent himself as a modern amalgam of Caesar Augustus, Charlemagne and Alexander the Great, he kept finding himself sent back to islands, his fabulous empire shrunk to gardens of diminishing size and lushness. Napoleon’s last, scraggly garden was on Deadwood, aptly named, a rocky, mist-shrouded plateau on Saint Helena, one of the remotest islands in the South Atlantic.

. . . .

Napoleon never allowed himself to love gardens the way Joséphine did—for the surprises they can yield, the basketfuls of unexpected beauty they can fling one’s way. The gardens Napoleon dreamed up were manifestations of his might, rigid tools of imperial domination. Tolstoy, in “War and Peace” (1869), rightly mocked historians who would attribute the actions of the masses to the will of one man. The French, he wrote, did not nearly lose the Battle of Borodino because Napoleon had a cold that day. Napoleon would have agreed, if for a different reason. He liked to think of himself as an impersonal force, an inexorable vessel for historical necessity. “I am the clock that exists but does not know itself,” he told his secretary Las Cases, a remark meant to show that he did, of course, know himself very well. Trapped in the prison house of his restless intellect, Napoleon demanded of himself that he be a genius, and of the world that it perceive him as such.

Gardens helped Napoleon carry on: Banished to Elba, his island Lilliput, he was never more thrilled than when he saw that his gardener had arranged some heliotropes so that they formed a large “N.” And a garden played a part in his downfall, too: Ms. Scurr reminds us of the walled-in orchard of the Hougoumont estate at Waterloo, which, fiercely defended by Wellington’s troops, evaded Napoleon’s control. Visiting the site more than four decades later, novelist Victor Hugo could still see the bullet holes.

. . . .

Did things change during Napoleon’s final exile on Saint Helena? Ms. Scurr suggests as much in the poignant chapter that wraps up her account. His health deteriorating rapidly, having grown, visitors reported, “enormously fat,” Napoleon heeded his doctor’s advice and grabbed a spade: “I will dig the ground.” Soon his old penchant for control flared up again: He helped construct a turf wall, 2.7 meters high, and a maze of sunken paths meant to shield him from his guards. But on Deadwood little would linger, not the fish in his pond, not the birds in his aviary, not the oaks he had transplanted (one held on). As his garden faltered, so did the botanizing ex-Emperor. 

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)