“Part of my understanding of what I’m doing as a biographer involves openness to the idea that it’s a relationship; the biographer and the subject both in a sense are bringing something to the project.”
With her wonderful new biography, Napoleon: A Life Told In Gardens And Shadows (Liveright Books), Ruth Scurr offers up a new approach to Napoleon and our shifting understanding of the natural world. We get into the image of Napoleon as gardener and how she marked his history through gardens, how her conception of him changed over the course of writing the book, the need to avoid “taking sides” with her book, her focus on how Napoleon affected the people around him, why we need to let go of the Great Man approach to history, and why the notion of a ‘Definitive Biography’ is a lie. We also talk about how she became a biographer without developing a ‘Scurr-doctrine,’ how she fell into her amazing auto/biography of John Aubrey, the similarities between how Aubrey & I collect lives, the constraints of contemporary/authorized biographies, what it meant to finish her Napoleon biography in the early pandemic days (which meant missing trips to Elba & Waterloo), whether she’ll ever visit St. Helena, what sort of garden she prefers, and more. Give it a listen! And go read Napoleon: A Life Told In Gardens And Shadows and John Aubrey: My Own Life!
“Under the History Of Ideas model, the French Revolution could have been happening on Mars, for all the difference it made to that approach. It was all about theoretical structures and nothing about ‘this happened on Monday and therefore’ . . . There was no located sense of place, or time, or personality. None of those things mattered, because it was all about ideas.”
“There’s not that much space, so you have to choose what’s included and it has to earn its place.”
About our Guest
Lecturer and Fellow at Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge, Ruth Scurr is a historian, writer, and literary critic. The author of the award-winning Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, she lives in Cambridge, United Kingdom.
Follow Ruth on Twitter.
Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded remotely via Zencastr. I used a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Ruth by Dan White. It’s on my instagram.