Scurr’s is an approach that pays some real dividends — rich details, fresh perspectives, a different cast of characters — but if her Napoleon the Gardener is essentially one with the Napoleon we all think we know he is a curiously diminished version. There is no question that he brought to his gardening projects the same energy and inquiring mind he brought to everything he did, and yet there is so vast a gulf between tidying gardens and sweeping away the 1,000-years’ rubble of the Holy Roman Empire, between grafting trees and grafting the Bonaparte name on to the royal houses of Europe, that anyone coming fresh to Napoleon’s life (if there is such a reader) might easily end up wondering what all the fuss was about.
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.