On 15 August 1769, a child was born who would change the face of Europe. He was, of course, Napoleon Bonaparte. Two hundred and fifty years later Dr Karen Attar, Senate House Library’s curator of rare books and university art, looks back at him through print.

Books in libraries can be found in intellectually surprising places. When discussing the literary collection of Sir Louis Sterling, we commonly use the phrase: ‘first and fine editions of English literature’. This is an accurate summary. But beyond the high-spot literary collecting there are occasionally books that are not literary at all: viz. Newton’s Opticks and Principia, and Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

A small cluster of books shows a clear non-literary interest in its subject matter, Napoleon. Several of these are biographies, including the comte de Las Cases’ sympathetic and influential Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena (1823), the first defence of Napoleon after his defeat and a work which contributed markedly to the Napoleonic legend in Europe. Many are illustrated. Indeed, the two-volume Recueil des principaux costumes militaires sous Napoléon le Grand (1814) consists entirely of coloured illustrations. Somerset De Chair’s edition of Napoleon’s Memoirs combines both elements and slots well into the section of Sterling’s library devoted to private press books.

Somerset De Chair (1911–95) was a writer, politician and avowed Napoleon aficionado. One of his novels, Enter Napoleon (1934), dealt with Napoleon’s rise. His editions and translations included alongside the work featured Napoleon’s 1793 political pamphlet Supper at Beaucaire (1945) and Napoleon on Napoleon: An Autobiography of the Emperor (1992).

While on St Helena, Napoleon had dictated his memoirs, with digressions, to generals sharing his captivity, Charles Tristan, marquis de Montholon (1783–1853) and Gaspard, Baron Gourgaud (1783-1852). The results appeared in a single publication entitled Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de France, sous Napoléon, ecrits à Sainte-Hélène, sous la dictée de l’empereur, par les généraux qui ont partagé sa captivité, et publiés sur les manuscrits entièrement corrigés de la main de Napoléon (1823). It was translated in the same year into English as Memoirs of the History of France during the Reign of Napoleon.

The work could scarcely be seen as collaborative, as it is arranged according to the dictatee, with no concern for the chronological order of events described. De Chair’s publication largely follows the text of the 1823 translation. But it abridges and amalgamates the two accounts, omitting the asides and rearranging the events chronologically. It furthermore changes the narration from the third to the first person for immediacy. In all of this de Chair was confident of following Napoleon’s desires:

[T]he voice of the giant himself has been muted until now.

If Napoleon had been alive when the book was being published he would surely have rearranged the material in the most attractive, most arresting form. He who had always been content to appeal to the million, who was the originator of the modern dictatorship by plebiscite, would have wished his book to become a best-seller. I have merely done what he would have wished …

… in an age of ersatz Napoleons, the authentic voice is arresting (p. 6).

De Chair succeeded. To cite the praise appearing in a review in The Illustrated London News (9 Mar. 1946, p. 254): ‘… the effect … is astonishing; one can hear the man talk’.

The sheer quality of production marks this two-volume work. The publisher, the Golden Cockerel Press, was the only established private press to continue publication throughout the Second World War. Conflict conditions did affect the production: as Roderick Cave related in The Private Press (2e, 1983), Christopher Sandford, the Press owner, noted unsatisfactory features in the design of the first volume arising from the misinterpretation of instructions sent while in army service.

Hitches arose independently of the war. The contract with Reynolds Stone for vignettes to adorn the title page and binding was annulled by mutual consent, and Sandford brought in John Buckland Wright, another regular engraver for the Press, at short notice to supply designs with more panache.

Obstacles notwithstanding, Napoleon’s Memoirs was a de luxe publication. It sold for £6.6s (450 standard copies) and for £31.10s (50 specially bound copies). This was the most expensive sum charged for a Golden Cockerel book during the war years, not to be reached again until the issue of the Golden Cockerel’s Mabinogion in February 1948.

For a price, pure rag papers, good leather for binding, and gold for blocking were obtainable for up-market publishing during the war, and the Press obtained them. A reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement (20 April 1946, p. 186) wrote appreciatively: ‘These volumes are delightful and lordly, admirably printed on excellent paper, altogether a venture in book production to remind us of older days and make us forget “austerity”’.

‘Sumptuous’ was the adjective employed by The Illustrated London News reviewer, who lamented when handling the volumes that he had lost his white kid gloves in a blitz. The Senate House Library copy reflects the beauty especially well, being one of the 50 copies specially bound by Sangorski & Sutcliffe, with bees (Napoleon’s symbol) stamped in gilt on the covers. For the sake of the content, the ILN reviewer would also have welcomed a more affordable edition – a wish granted by Faber and Faber in 1948.

Sterling’s and other books about Napoleon, as well as further works printed by the Golden Cockerel Press, are discoverable via the Senate House Library catalogue.

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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