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"Napoleonic Memoirs, Pro and Con..." Topic


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Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP02 Jun 2013 10:36 a.m. PST

A question was put regarding the Appendix on Memoirs in Cronin's biography as to reliability/unreliability of the memoirs.

The title of the Appendix is 'Memoir-Writers and Napoleon.

Unreliable:

Claire de Remusat-pro-Napoleon until 1813, then turned on him. 'She filled her book with scenes which, she admits, she did not herself witness but which were recounted to her by Talleyrand.' Enough said there.

Bourrienne: Memoirs were ghost-written and disproven by Comte Boulay de La Meurthe in 1830 in his 720 page book, Bourrienne et ses erreurs.

Barras: Memoir done based on some notes from Barras by Rousselin de Saint-Alban.

Talleyrand-sacked by Napoleon for rapacity, as Bourrienne had been twice. He also committed treason against France during the period.

Marmont: Committed treason in 1814.

Duchesse d'Abrantes: Rapacious, banished from Paris by Napoleon and sided with the Bourbons.

Chaptal: Resigned in a huff as Minister of the Interior because his favorite actress preferred Napoleon. Took sides with the Bourbons.

Thiebault: Stayed loyal to the Bourbons after 1814 and not only sullied Napoleon's reputation but just about everyone else he had served with. it was later found they were ghost-written.

Las Cases: Too much propaganda.

-Antonmarchi.

Reliable:

-Queen Hortense.
-Joseph Bonaparte.
-Meneval.
-Baron Fain.
-Bausset.
-Thiard.
-Lavalette.
-Arnault.
-Desaix.
-Roederer.
-Caulaincourt.
-Marchand.
-Montholon.
-Gourgaud.
-Bertrand.

B

Personal logo Whirlwind Supporting Member of TMP02 Jun 2013 10:44 a.m. PST

Thanks Kevin, much appreciated.

Regards

basileus6602 Jun 2013 1:00 p.m. PST

"Reliable" and "Memoirs" are words that don't marry well. I wouldn't go much further than "slightly misleading" for the best of them, to "mere self-servicing" for the worst.

Naturally, even the second ones can be useful if the historian knows how to read them and has a deep grasp of the language used (what is left out is at least as useful as what is told)

John the OFM02 Jun 2013 5:53 p.m. PST

Who DIDN'T have an axe to grind back then? What other reason is there to write your memoirs?

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP03 Jun 2013 2:32 a.m. PST

To write down what you did over the period-especially if you were in uniform for any length of time. Some wrote their memoirs for their families and didn't intend publication.

The ghost-written memoirs are the most malicious intended to harm and defame.

And you had those who wanted to curry favor with the newly-arrived Bourbons, so they defamed their former employer and comrades.

And then those such as Marmont trying to justify a felony-treason-as well as 'explain' errors on campaign, which those who were present knew were nonsense.

There are many reasons to write memoirs, and not just to grind an axe…and soldiers many times 'remember with advantages' (Marbot being an extreme example) but that does not invalidate memoirs in general with being suspect. Some are, some are not, but the best of them (Lavalette, Coignet, Fain, Parquin, Blaze, etc.) clearly set the tone of the times and reflect on what the authors saw and did.

B

von Winterfeldt03 Jun 2013 4:19 a.m. PST

Pro : Cronin
Con : Presser
Balanced : Tulard

Adm Richie03 Jun 2013 7:35 a.m. PST

I don't understand this at all, that list simply seems to suggest that anyone who at any time acted against Napoleon is untrustworthy in their accounts but Kings and Queens made by his whim are reliable.

Keraunos03 Jun 2013 8:17 a.m. PST

Adm,

its important to be able to grasp the difference between someone who is unreliable and someone who is expousing a poisition which you may disagree with but which you can at least examine using their information they present without accepting its conclusions,

Kevin's advice on which memoirs are unreliable therefore is one which I would rely quite a lot upon as an easy way to exclude the former safely without necessarily excluding the later.

even though I don't necessarily take the same views on much else that Brechtel does, you can disagree with him on his interperation of the evidence, virtually never on the evidence itself.

Adm Richie03 Jun 2013 8:21 a.m. PST

Certainly, but the list explains why enemies of Napoleon are unreliable, but not why we should consider the memoirs of his brother and step_daughter/sister-in-law reliable.
I think we'd all agree that both had relationships with Napoleon which could lead them at times to be biased both towards and against him. I winner why the conclusion has been come to that their memoirs are reliable evidence?

Bandit03 Jun 2013 9:19 a.m. PST

I don't understand this at all, that list simply seems to suggest that anyone who at any time acted against Napoleon is untrustworthy in their accounts but Kings and Queens made by his whim are reliable.

I'd go farther and say it is a subjective list based on the opinions of the original poster, Brechtel198.

Caulaincourt is said to be reliable. OK, in what way? He is highly sympathetic to Napoleon but he also makes Nappy seem as though he was completely removed from the gravity of the 1812 campaign and unaware of what was really going on.

Is that account accurate?

Is the accuracy or inaccuracy due to Caulaincourt's bias?

Caulaincourt certainly was bias towards himself, through the entire book he talks about how had Napoleon listened to him, had Napoleon valued rather than been suspect of his relationship with the Czar, etc. Caulaincourt certainly never finds fault in any of his own actions.

My opinion is that Caulaincourt is mostly reliable but to divide such things into two categories and say there you go, believe these and don't believe those seems… lacking.

Cheers,

The Bandit

Personal logo Whirlwind Supporting Member of TMP03 Jun 2013 9:52 a.m. PST

I'd go farther and say it is a subjective list based on the opinions of the original poster, Brechtel198.

It isn't a 'subjective' list of Kevin's. Kevin very kindly answered a previous question of mine as to Cronin's assessment of these sources. I think Kevin mainly agrees with Cronin, but that wasn't the point of the OP.

Regards

Trajanus03 Jun 2013 10:20 a.m. PST

All direct memoirs should be tested 'cui bono'.

Very few people can operate in the orbit of someone like Napoleon and remain neutral.

Pretty much everyone on the list above was directly influenced one way or another.

For what its worth I happen to like Cronin, list or no list.

Bandit03 Jun 2013 12:21 p.m. PST

Whirlwind & Brechtel198,

It appears I misunderstood. From the original post I did not understand that this was providing Cronin's list.

Cheers,

The Bandit

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP04 Jun 2013 3:26 a.m. PST

The list relates directly to memoirs regarding Napoleon because the book is a biography of him.

The purpose of the appendix is to relate the accuracy of the memoirs as well as why or why not, not to whether or not the biographies are pro or con.

Perhaps the first two paragraphs of the appendix might be helpful:

'The chief source for Napoleon's Life is his own writings: his essays and reading notes as a young man, his letters to Desiree Clary, to Josephine and to Marie Louise, his letters to his family, and the more than thirty volumes of letters, most of them dictated, in which we see him ruling France. Also valuable are the letters of Napoleon's contemporaries; verbatim notes recorded during meetings of the Council of State; and diaries in which Napoleon's words and doings were noted sur la vif. None of this material presents special problems. But it is otherwise with the Memoirs of those who knew Napoleon well: here enormous discrepencies are found, and there arises the problem of credibility.'

'First, we should look at the background. From 1815 to 1830 Napoleon's enemies ruled France, and strict censorship prevented the publication of Memoirs favorable to Napoleon. Not only that, anyone formerly close to the Emperor who wished for a good job was expected to make his bow to the Bourbons. It would be unrealistic to expect impartiality from Memoirs written at this time as it would be to expect, in 1943, impartiality from a Vichyite towards de Gaulle. Furthermore, we have to remember that the French treat the recent past differently from Anglo-Saxons: they have a deplorable weakness for fighting present or future battles on the battlefields of yesterday, and it was a Frenchman, Flaubert, who said, 'History is prophecy looking backwards.'

B

Chouan05 Jun 2013 4:19 a.m. PST

"Reliable:

-Queen Hortense.
-Joseph Bonaparte.
-Meneval.
-Baron Fain.
-Bausset.
-Thiard.
-Lavalette.
-Arnault.
-Desaix.
-Roederer.
-Caulaincourt.
-Marchand.
-Montholon.
-Gourgaud.
-Bertrand."
As you've given an explanation as to why those in the other list are reliable, could you please explain why and how these are reliable? Thank you.

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP05 Jun 2013 12:50 p.m. PST

As there are quite a few on the list, and the supporting statements for their reliability are in Cronin, I would suggest that you look there.

If you are actually interested in the answer(s) you'd do that and if you don't have a copy, or refuse to buy a copy, get one from a library.

B

Chouan05 Jun 2013 1:13 p.m. PST

Why? You are the one telling us which ones are reliable and which ones aren't. Rather than a blank unsubstantiated assertion, I'd appreciate you explaining why you consider them to be reliable.
I've already given you my view of Cronin, a useful text if one wishes to read a positive and essentially uncritical account of Buonaparte.
You have listed the memoirs, and explained why those you've rated as reliable aren't, in your opinion. I would appreciate your reasons for asserting that the others are.

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP05 Jun 2013 2:03 p.m. PST

I posted Cronin's list. So, if you're actually interested you'd research them on your own.

And the reasons posted, for the memoirs that I actually posted some, are Cronin's reasons, not mine.

B

Chouan06 Jun 2013 4:05 a.m. PST

So merely a list of the Memoirs that Cronin thinks reliable or not, with his reasons for unreliability. So the list is essentially worthless, unless one is doing a critique of Cronin.

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP06 Jun 2013 3:29 p.m. PST

Cronin did the work on the biographies and if you had actually read the book you might understand the amount of material that has been reviewed and researched. it is clear if you read the appropriate appendix.

Far from being 'worthless' it is a guide to excellent scholarship as well to the reasons that the listed works in the appendix were written and by whom.

Saying that 'the list is essentially worthless' is not only wrong, it is definitely a demonstration of not taking a look at all available material, which leads one to believe that you're not interested in anything historical that contradicts what you believe to be factual material. And that is a shame to see and hear.

B

B

Chouan07 Jun 2013 1:45 a.m. PST

"Saying that 'the list is essentially worthless' is not only wrong, it is definitely a demonstration of not taking a look at all available material, which leads one to believe that you're not interested in anything historical that contradicts what you believe to be factual material. And that is a shame to see and hear."

No, I said that your list was worthless, not the material listed. It isn't a guide to excellent scholarship, it is a guide to one person's opinion, or perhaps, interpretation. It isn't the definitive guide to reliability that you seem to think it is, but Cronin's view of reliability. As such, it is only of value if one is assessing Cronin, not if one is assessing reliability. It is noteworthy that he lists Buonaparte's family as reliable. That alone would make me concerned as to his objectivity, as if Buonaparte's family members' memoirs are somehow more reliable than the memoir of a person who opposed him.
The material listed is, of course, of value. But not Cronin's assessment.
As I've mentioned elsewhere, I did read the book. However, the Historian's craft is using the materials to create a story, a view of the person or event. It doesn't matter how good the research is if the construct is flawed.

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP07 Jun 2013 4:49 a.m. PST

No, you are again mistaken as you have been in all the threads on the subject.

Cronin's assessment is very valuable and because you do not agree or have not read it and have not at least read some of the volumes listed to see for yourself, then your 'analysis' is flawed.

Cronin's research is excellent, and he found material not used before. And his 'construct' is excellent. Apparently you believe it to be flawed because the biography is sympathetic to Napoleon. That is a reflection on your biases and prejudices (as is your username and how you spell 'Bonaparte') not on Cronin's research, methodology, and 'construct.'

B

Chouan07 Jun 2013 7:33 a.m. PST

"No, you are again mistaken as you have been in all the threads on the subject."

Rather a sweeping generalisation; I've been mistaken in every thread? Really? Very easy to disprove, as all I need to do is find one point in which I'm correct to prove your statement wrong!

"Cronin's assessment is very valuable and because you do not agree or have not read it and have not at least read some of the volumes listed to see for yourself, then your 'analysis' is flawed."

In your opinion. In any case, I haven't analysed them so how can my analysis be flawed? Cronin's assessment is very valuable; in what way? Is his interpretation of reliability of sources to be followed slavishly? Without question?

"Cronin's research is excellent, and he found material not used before."

Probably true, but what of it? It is what he does with his research that makes him a good historian, or otherwise.

"And his 'construct' is excellent. Apparently you believe it to be flawed because the biography is sympathetic to Napoleon. That is a reflection on your biases and prejudices (as is your username and how you spell 'Bonaparte') not on Cronin's research, methodology, and 'construct.'"

Many histories and biographies are indeed flawed, but doesn't render them worthless. A history that is biased, in whichever way, still serves to show us a view, even if we don't agree. I don't think it flawed because it is biased towards Buonaparte, I think it flawed in the way that he uses evidence to support his biased view. There is a difference. Other posters have pointed out those flaws in more detail, so I don't propose to dwell on them here. Refusing to read a book because one doesn't like it's viewpoint is foolish. I read it years ago and thought it weak, which is why I won't read it again, note the "again".

Personal logo Whirlwind Supporting Member of TMP07 Jun 2013 8:43 a.m. PST

So merely a list of the Memoirs that Cronin thinks reliable or not, with his reasons for unreliability. So the list is essentially worthless, unless one is doing a critique of Cronin.

I mentioned this above Chouan, but I'll just mention again, that Kevin very kindly posted this list for me (I have read Cronin's biography but I don't own a copy) in answer to a query of mine about who Cronin had considered reliable and unreliable. Kevin wasn't just randomly posting this because he thinks they are reliable, he was just helping me out.

Regards

Murvihill07 Jun 2013 9:03 a.m. PST

"However, the Historian's craft is using the materials to create a story, a view of the person or event."

Funny, I thought historians pursued truth. Stories are the pursuit of fiction writers. And most American journalists…

Arteis07 Jun 2013 5:29 p.m. PST

Good question, Murvihill. Here's my (gut feeling, as I am not a trained historian) attempt at a response.

Can historians actually pursue truth? Truth is such an elusive quality, as it so hard to define.

For example, one would think pursuing the truth of whether Kevin went to the shops at 6.00pm on 6 May 2007 would be simple. Surely all you need to do is find some evidence that either he did, or he didn't?

But what do we define as 'the shops'- a particular shop, a number of shops? Does 'went' mean he actually got to the shops, or just left to go to the shops, or started for the shops but ended up somewhere else? Is 6.00 the time he left or arrived? Do we accept him going at 6.10pm as still being truthful? Was the date based on Kevin's timezone, or the original writer's (unlikely, but who knows)? Does online shopping count?!?!

And even if one could define this particular truth, does the fact of Kevin going to the shops have a relationship with any other 'truths' being pursued? And (tied together with those other 'truths'), a bearing on some larger question? Or when it is pursued in isolation, is it just a red herring from the main issue? And, come to think of it, what is the 'main issue' have we identified the correct main issue to pursue the truth about?

I actually think focussing on the telling of the story is more influential than focussing on pursuing the truth. Good historical story writers (whether historians who are skilled at telling a good story, historical novelists or even American journalists!) can fire the imagination. Whether entirely truthful or not, they to my mind actually have a greater effect on most people's views of what happened in the past, and what their future actions might be as a result of those views (whether minor or major, good or bad). I don't think fusty but more precise academic historians can lay claim to such influence.

How many ordinary people's view of Napoleon is based on Cronin or Barnett anyway, compared to being based on Cornwell or CS Forester?

Gazzola08 Jun 2013 5:06 a.m. PST

Arteis

An interesting viewpoint. I think the difference is that journalists tend not to let the 'truth' get in the way of a good story, whereas good historians try to get near to the truth as they can.

However, what the 'truth' is and what the historian writes as his researched truth, will depend on the author himself -his viewpoint and interpretation. Where someone sees a hero or a great commander, another will see a tyrant or a murderer.

The problem is that many people forget that the author is a man or woman and not a machine and certainly not a time machine. They will have their own viewpoints which will affect what they write. But more importantly, historians and authors will be writing using the luxury of hindsight.

So it is easy to say, for example, Napoleon should not have gone into Russia, because we all know what happened. It is probably impossible for anyone to block out the end result of that camapign when trying to discover why it happened in the first place. We were not there and did not live during the period and we certainly do not think as those who lived the period those without mobile phones and modern technology etc.

Sadly, I think you may be right concerning the 'general public' in relation to how they relate to Napoleon, if not Wellington and the other great characters of the period. Never mind the influence of novels, many, I feel, might not even be aware of Waterloo had it not been for ABBA's Waterloo. And I flamin' liked the song.

BullDog6908 Jun 2013 6:12 a.m. PST

Arteis

I think you make some excellent points. I am not a 'trained historian' either, though have written two books on African Colonial history.

My outlook has always been to tell what I think to the very best of my knowledge is the truth, but just as importantly to make the book accessible and entertaining.

For example, if someone's memoirs mention an anecdote which I think is amusing and interesting, I will include it (with suitable reference). A friend of mine, who also writes similar books, disagrees with me, saying that such things cannot be cross-referenced and verified and thus cannot be taken as accurate.
I completely see his point of view, but take a different angle I want my books to appeal to the casual reader, and thus do not want them to get bogged down in all manner of un-necessary detail and caveats and cross-checking, or leave out entertaining and interesting stories just because I cannot absolutely, definitely 100% prove they are true. Indeed, if you do that, you might end up not writing anything at all.

Not everything can be cross-referenced and checked: a silly and trivial example from one of my books was where I included a tale of Dr Jameson's false teeth being stolen in the night by a rat. I got this from the memoirs of someone who knew the Doctor (that I verified) and who told the tale. As they were travelling together (that I also verified) at that time and the Doctor never wrote memoirs of his own, there is no way that one can ever really cross reference this point. Indeed, even if he did write his own memoirs, there is no reason to assume he would include every single incident of his life in them.
But the story of the false teeth is a bit of fun, it adds character, it is not controversial or slanderous and there is no real reason to doubt the veracity of the story so I include it.
But is it absolutely, categorically the truth? I couldn't possibly say.

I guess how much you let all this bother you all comes down to the market you are aiming at: are you writing a dry and inaccessible university text book style thing that only a handful of people (most of whom already know a lot about the subject anyway) will ever read, or something that might appeal to the average bloke, and encourage him to take a bit of interest in a given period of history?
I don't claim to be a Niall Fergusson or an Andrew Roberts, but I've had plenty of people tell me they find my books easy to read and enjoyable, and that they have never read much history before so they learned a lot. And that's pretty much what I am hoping for.

Chouan08 Jun 2013 2:30 p.m. PST

"I mentioned this above Chouan, but I'll just mention again, that Kevin very kindly posted this list for me (I have read Cronin's biography but I don't own a copy) in answer to a query of mine about who Cronin had considered reliable and unreliable. Kevin wasn't just randomly posting this because he thinks they are reliable, he was just helping me out.

Regards"

THat helps somewhat, except that it isn't made clear in the opening of the thread, which appears to simply give a list of those whom Cronin thinks are reliable or otherwise, with only an explanation of why those considered by him to be unreliable should be so considered.

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