It’s very hard for a modern man or woman to wrap their head around Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the last great conquerors of Europe. A century later and he would have probably been a Hitler figure. A thousand years earlier and he would have been a legend. Falling where he did in history, in the early 1800s, he falls somewhere between, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the mind of Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock Holmes is British, through and through. Yet he claimed some French ancestry, and his great-great-uncle, Carle Vernet, was actually the official painter to Napoleon’s army, accompanying Napoleon on several campaigns. Of course, family is always going to have inside stories on their employers, so who knows what sort of tales got handed down among the Vernets and Holmeses about Emperor Bonaparte, once all was said and done?
When Sherlock Holmes speaks of Napoleon, it seems to be positively: He calls Professor Moriarty “the Napoleon of Crime” and a “Napoleon-gone-wrong,” the latter of which implies that the real Napoleon was felt to be a positive influence. On the other hand, Moriarty was a villain through-and-through. Would you call any villain “the Gandhi of Crime?” “The Mother Theresa of Crime?” No. There’s a touch of villainy tainting anyone whom one is reminded of by Professor Moriarty.
Holmes uses two of Napoleon’s battles as metaphors – Marengo, where Napoleon turned defeat into victory, and Waterloo, where the British finally defeated Napoleon. Both times he casts himself in the Napoleon roll in the metaphor. Given the times, however, Napoleon’s battles were a part of the not-so-distant past that generations of Victorians would surely use as common parlance.
Unlike many an Englishman, Sherlock Holmes definitely had favorable opinions of the French. He accepted the French Legion of Honor, an order begun by Napoleon Bonaparte, while refusing a knighthood from his own home country. He corresponds with French detectives. He spends months there doing chemical research when he has to be away from London. He even works for the French government on occasion. But as Napoleon died a good thirty years before Sherlock Holmes was even born, would the former Emporer of France have been anything more than a historical figure to him?
Indeed, Holmes’s first reaction to the purposeful breaking of Napoleon busts in“The Adventure of the Six Napoleons” was that of disbelief: “And a queer madness too! You wouldn't think there was anyone living at this time of day who had such a hatred of Napoleon the First that he would break any image of him that he could see.” Holmes is a modern man with modern opinions . . . and Napoleon the First is plainly a thing of the past. And even though no Napoleon-hater shows up as the investigation goes on, there is one British admirer of Napoleon who shows up.
So, in the end, one must conclude that to Sherlock Holmes, Napoleon was history.
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