BOOK REVIEW: ‘This Dark Business: The Secret War Against Napoleon’ by Tim Clayton

While I have read numerous books about the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Europe of his time, This Dark Business is the first book that I have read that covers the underground world of espionage, assassination and intrigue between the years 1789 and 1804 – the beginning of the French Revolution and the crowning of Napoleon as Emperor of France, respectively.

But why do I feel that reviewing a book about espionage, assassination and intrigue during the French Revolution and beyond is relevant for nationalists? Quite simply, it is because much of what is written about and covered in Tim Clayton’s work here resembles, surprisingly, much of the world of politics, intrigue and public discourse today in the 21st century.

To begin with, Tim Clayton is a British historian with a keen interest in artistic depictions and caricatures. Throughout this book, Clayton explores in-depth the influence and effectiveness of comical artistic depictions of the various political figures during the time of the French Revolution, focusing specifically on, of course, British and French figures. The examples that Clayton gives reminds us as the readers very much of how comical artistic depictions and drawings of political and other public figures today help shape our own public perception of such figures, whether we personally agree with their respective ideologies or not. Especially in the midst of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, the various works of art and propaganda that we see relating to Russia, Ukraine and even the West’s own role in the conflict very much echoes the very similar types of propaganda that Clayton refers to as examples in his own book about the propaganda war between Georgian Britain and Napoleonic France. Sometimes, the similarities in the artwork and propaganda between the late 18th century and today in the 21st century are so stark – putting examples of such caricatures side-by-side – one would be forgiven if they assumed that the former examples were drawn up and published only yesterday.

The theme of propaganda is touched upon frequently throughout This Dark Business, and, once again, it is a theme which one can compare very strongly with modern day politics. In fact, the theme of propaganda can be argued as being timeless in nature, whatever form it takes. With regards to Georgian Britain and Revolutionary France, Clayton refers to several examples of literary propaganda in books, pamphlets and newspapers of the time that employed rhetoric which wouldn’t be out of place in even the modern political scene in Europe and the wider world. Caricatures depicting rival politicians and regimes as either obese or skinny creatures, entire demographics of people resembling slaves, satirical religious iconography depicting friendly regimes as saints and opposing ones as demons – such imagery and artwork can be compared with striking resemblance to what we see in newspapers today, social media images and even popular internet memes, among the politically active youth. In fact, one could even make the rather justifiable argument that such imagery and propaganda could be considered to have been the “memes” of their day, if we are to use modern day terminology for historical examples.

Tim Clayton often retells accounts and events from the 1790s in vivid detail. One notable example is his retelling of the assassination attempt on Napoleon’s life in Paris on the 24th December 1800 in the introductory chapter of this book. It must be kept in mind, however, that this book and the themes and events that it covers is very heavy on its focus on propaganda and the espionage aspect of British-French relations in the 1790s, so do not expect to read much about big battles or in-depth psychological analyses of various historical figures in the vein of exhaustive biographies.

In terms of criticisms against This Dark Business, there is actually very little to criticise here, but in terms of accessibility and serving as a form of literary “popular history”, to use an academic term, the “less bombastic” nature of the themes and subject matter of this book might not be for everybody who is not already an enthusiast of the French Revolution and/or Napoleon. Those who are looking for accounts of grand battles and the military campaigns of the greatest commanders of the age may want to look for a different book. That is not to say that this book is bad by any means – just that it is significantly more…niche in its subject matter. The importance of this work and the research undertaken by Tim Clayton cannot be denied either way, for the themes and subject matter covered in This Dark Business will undoubtedly resonate with nationalists today, who themselves are frequent targets of propaganda and distorted mainstream and state-created narratives.

Overall, would I recommend this book? If you are looking for something new and wish to broaden your knowledge on the more “behind-the-scenes” aspects of 1790s geopolitics and British-French relations, espionage and political intrigue, then this book will certainly satisfy that curiosity. If, however, you are looking for a more gritty set of accounts regarding the military history and general political aspect of the French Revolution and the life and career of Napoleon Bonaparte, there are countless other excellent works that you may wish to explore and pick up instead.

Stefan Brakus

ETN Board Member (Serbia)

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