Saturday, 29 August 2015

Book Review: Imperial Sunset - R. F. Delderfield

Novelist and Napoleonic history buff turns in a wonderfully readable account of the decline of Napoleon and his Empire.

Playwright turned author and amateur historian R. F. Delderfield was very clearly something of a latter-day Bonapartist. So far I've read three of his non-fiction books [1] on the Napoleonic era: this one, Napoleon in Love (subject = obvious!), and The March of the Twenty Six (subject = the Napoleonic Marshalate). They are all very, very good indeed. What is best about them, undoubtedly, is how readable and exciting they are. 

Delderfield's skills as a writer of fiction and drama are very evident throughout. His skills and credentials as a historian might perhaps be open to debate, and I have seen reviews criticising his favouring of excitement and atmosphere over scholarly exactitude. I must say, this doesn't bother me too much. There's plenty of other literature out there on Napoleonic subjects; one can do as Delderfield did, and read as much of it as possible and then make one's own mind up as to the 'facts'.

Looking suitably serious, this shot is used (facing left) on the rear of the dust jacket of my edition. [2]

Of the three Delderfield Napoleonic history books that I have read so far, this is probably the best. The story starts with the aftermath of the retreat from Russia in 1812. Delderfield's skills as a novelist enable him to set up a series of very vivid opening tableux, of Cossacks on the Elbe, in 1813, and garrison towns throughout the empire with wavering and divided loyalties. He skilfully describes the Coalition powers moving westwards as the French retreat, their crumbling alliances and stranded fortress outposts draining Napoleon's resources, such that though he fights with great skill and verve, there's a kind of inevitability to his gradual downfall. 

Delderfield draws on many contemporary accounts, making particular use of those by Marbot and Barrès. And he clearly admires Eugene, MacDonald and Caulaincourt, for their honesty and loyalty at a time when many, including such stalwarts as Ney and Murat were to eventually abandon the man who had helped raise them and so many others like them so high. The central story retains a resolutely central and western European theme, although Delderfield does continually refer to important developments in other theatres, such as Italy and Spain.

The author caught in more approachably avuncular mood.

One of the reasons I like this more than the other two Delderfield Napoleonic books I've thus far read - and I love them all - is that both of the other two above-mentioned works are kinds of 'group portraits', describing numerous individuals and their relations with Napoleon in his varied conquests. This one has a more satisfyingly focussed central narrative thread, telling as it does a very interesting and exciting story. 

It's intriguing that Delderfield, clearly a fan of Napoleon (but not an uncritical one), in covering the campaigns of this 'Great Captain' chose to write - at least in terms of his published historical works (and this observation is somewhat mitigated by the more extended coverage of his group portrait works) - only about the Russian campaign and its aftermath (he has a book about the the Russian campaign which I intrnd to read), rather than the glory days of his first 15 or so triumphant years. 

Consequently, and given his obviously pro-Napoleonic stance, there's something elegiac in the tone of this work, a mood he brilliantly captures in much of his Napoleonic writing, but especially poignantly at the close of this particular book, when he describes the ageing veterans of the Grande Armée growing old under other more peaceful but less 'glorious' French regimes.

Pictured above: Napoleon looking suitably glum, as he contemplates the sun setting on his 'glory'. This classic image of Napoleon was painted by Paul Delaroche, and depicts Napoleon at Fontainebleu, in 1814, capturing the both the period and the mood, as well as the siutter admirably.

Thomas Hardy was another writer of fiction obsessed with Napoleonic history, and this book exemplifies what he was getting at when he said 'My argument is that War makes rattling good history; but Peace is poor reading. So I back Bonaparte for the reason that he will give pleasure to posterity.' This book was difficult to put down, and was certainly a great pleasure to read.


[1] He also wrote some Napoleonic fiction. I read Seven Men of Gascony in my mid-teens, and, whilst it is admittedly not 'Great Literature', like say for example Tolstoy's War And Peace, it certainly helped cement my love for the era. And it certainly qualifies under Hardy's definition, as a 'rattling good' read, and part of Napoleon's legacy of 'pleasure to posterity'.

[2] My copy was brought at a wargames from show, from (I think?) Paul Meekins, and is a Chilton Press 1968 1st edition. Vintage booksniffers... this was a good year: what a bouquet this old tome has!


  1. I disagree about The Seven Men of Gascony, but its purely subjective, as I found this book a really wonderful read. I may be wrong, but I think Delderfield got the idea for this book from the fictional book, Story of a Conscript which came out a couple of years before his book and concerned a ill educated French peasant who is drafted into the army in 1809. But irrespective of this I still return to the Delderfield books for inspiration.

  2. Hi Robbie

    Is this the book you're thinking of, re Delderfield's ionspiration?’un_conscrit_de_1813

    I'd like to read that as well. I wonder if it's been translated into English?

    I must confess I'm not sure what it is re Seven Men of Gascony you disagree with me about. Is it my "it is admittedly not 'Great Literature'" comment?

    When I recently re-read Seven Men of Gascony I did still enjoy it, albeit not quite as much as I did aged 11/13-ish (I can't recall exactly when it was, in those faraway mists of time!). I'd just read Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Tolstoy's War And Peace, and Hardy's Far From The Madding Crowd. I love Delderfield's work, both as novelist and historian. But he seems closer in style and feel to Fleming and Forester than Tolstoy Hardy or Thackeray!



    PS - I even read Delderfield's Diana, after Seven Men of Gascony (this is back in my early teens). Still haven't seen any of the Delderfield TV adaptations tho'. But I'd like to!

  3. Thanks for this review. I too like Delderfield - I love his final comments in the "notes" to Napoleon's Marshalls where he says, basically, yes I've read a great many books, but as a gentleman I would find it tedious to list them all, or words to that effect. Quite charming - he was proud, I think, of not being a professional academic.
    You mentioned the ebb of Empre in 1813-14 and the fortresses sapping Napoleon's resources. Does the book have anything to say about the siege of Erfurt in October 1813? I happened to be there last week and walked the grounds of the Citadel Petersberg, a Vauban era fortress, very well preserved. As I recall the French held out there until Napoleon's abdication.

    1. Hi Michael, I'm glad you enjoyed my review. I don't recall offhand if the seige of Erfurt (your visit sounds like it was interesting!) is mentioned specifically, but I do recall that numerous fortress sieges are alluded to. Certainly I recall mention of Davout in Hamburg, and I believe Rapp in Danzig... Poss also the fall of Ragusa in the Adriatic... there were others as well, but I forget which! I'll have to re-read the book at some point. I know I will, 'cause it was pure pleasure!