cover image Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows

Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows

Ruth Scurr. Liveright, $28.95 (416p) ISBN 978-1-63149-241-9

Historian Scurr (Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution) spotlights Napoleon Bonaparte’s lifelong preoccupation with gardens and gardening in this unusual and perceptive biography. She takes note of the plot of land at boarding school that Napoleon turned into a private retreat, and describes how a doomed mulberry nursery, intended to be partially funded by the government, nearly bankrupted his family after his father’s death and fueled his own frustration with the monarchy. Napoleon’s interest in plant and animal specimens from state-sponsored voyages of scientific discovery suggests his deep connection to the natural world, as well as his commitment to a strong, imperial France. As emperor, Napoleon renovated several estates, investing tremendous thought and resources into the creation of gardens at each location, and often marked his control over conquered territory by rearranging the landscape for the establishment of gardens, including the Jardin du Capitole in Rome. Gardens as controlled zones of cultivation became even more important to Napoleon during his exile; the book’s final chapter details the backbreaking and often fruitless labor performed by servants trying to execute his garden plans on St. Helena. Even readers well-versed in Napoleon’s rise and fall will learn something new from this gracefully written and imaginatively conceived portrait. Agent: Melanie Jackson, the Melanie Jackson Agency. (June)