Sunday, 23 January 2011
Hooptedoodle #14 - Foy on Foy
Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. Potentially, I have a new project for the New Year. We'll see.
I have two major confessions to make today.
Firstly, I am not a qualified historian. I am pretty well read, I would contend that I am a passably smart chap (quiet at the back, there!), and I once wrote a short and rather humble booklet on the Portuguese Army, but I am certainly not qualified. This may seem an odd thing to say, but it is a serious point. Anything more thankless than attempting to be an unqualified historian is difficult to imagine. I am a big fan of a number of recent and present day Napoleonic historians - Muir, Esdaile, Gill, Elting, and Horward all come to mind - and am aware that to some extent they write/wrote their books for each other, within a closed academic community which despises 'popular history' as a point of principle. Fair enough - that's how it is. During my recent immersion in Salamanca, I was a little disappointed that Rory Muir felt it necessary to be so dismissive of Peter Young's and James Lawford's Wellington's Masterpiece, of which, for all its evident faults, I have been very fond for many years. Though no-one is likely to confuse Muir and his very scholarly approach with the enthusiastic (and rather patriotic) authorship of the earlier work, the fact remains that popular history is really where it's at when it comes to selling lots of books, so let's treat Young & Lawford and similar with all due respect. If it wasn't for all the unqualified punters like me who purchase and read their works as popular history, Dr Muir and the rest of the fraternity would be getting pretty hungry by now.
The second confession may come as rather more of a shock, so I recommend that you put your hot coffee down carefully, and sit back.
I am not really Maximilien Sebastien Foy.
I use his name as my blog persona, because he is, in a quiet way, a hero of mine, but the real Max Foy died in 1825. I have always had a high regard for MSF. Most of the eye-witness accounts I have read of the Napoleonic Wars are flawed in some way - they may be self-justificatory (Marmont), tedious (Pelet), romanticised and unlikely (Marbot), excessively patriotic (Marcel, Napier and many others) or written by complete jerks (Thiébault). This does not mean, of course, that I have not enjoyed or valued such writings, but Foy is something different. His best-known work is his Histoire de la guerre de la péninsule sous Napoléon, which was published after his death at the behest of Mme la Comtesse Foy, who suddenly was very short of money. The Histoire is readily available, in French or in a handy English translation (which you can download from Google books here and here if you do not wish to purchase it). It is remarkably balanced and fair-minded, gives a valuable overview of the characteristics and strengths of the participating nations but, sadly, ends abruptly at the Convention of Cintra (1808). Foy was born at Ham, Somme, but had an English mother, which may have contributed to his rather liberal views on foreigners.
Foy was one of the good guys. I have an impression that he would have been excellent company at dinner. He became colonel of a horse artillery regiment, then a general of brigade, and ended his army career as a general of division. Conscientious and always in the thick of battlefield action, his seniority did not advance as quickly as it should, and this may not be unconnected with the fact that he was a known critic of the French Empire. On merit, he should certainly have been one of Napoleon's Corps Commanders at Waterloo, where he received his fifteenth and last wound while leading a division in Reille's II Corps. Subsequently he became a liberal politician and a noted orator, and he died suddenly in 1825 at the age of 50.
There is another book, with a much wider scope. I have in my possession a copy of Maurice Girod de l'Ain's excellent Vie Militaire du General Foy, which was carefully edited from Foy's memoirs and correspondence and published, by the splendidly named Editions Plon, in 1900. It's a sound, scholarly job, meticulously referenced. I am not aware of this book ever having been translated into English, and I am thinking of doing exactly that - this is what might be the New Year project. Partly as a consequence of my rather convoluted Anglo-French family, I read French well, and I have sufficient familiarity with the period, the individuals involved and military matters in general to avoid most of the howlers which can present themselves in such works. The original idea was simply to produce a translation for my own amusement and, I suppose, to prove I could do it. That would be reason enough, but it also occurs to me that such a book might have a wider potential readership. I know nothing of the copyright implications or how I might set about the project, though I am currently in contact with a couple of academic fora and individuals to gain some guidance.
I have put this post up here mainly in case it is of interest, but also so that anyone who knows that an English translation of the Vie Militaire is on the shelf in their local public library can put me straight. Nothing at all might happen, of course, which would not necessarily be a novelty for my New Year projects, but at the moment I am very interested in this idea.