Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Uncle Bernac: A Memory of the Empire by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

An encounter with Napoleon, and not much else
Uncle Bernac, a historical novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was originally published in 1897. The story takes place in 1805, at which time the narrator, a Frenchman named Louis de Laval, is living in England. During the French Revolution de Laval’s father had fought on the side of the Royalists while his mother’s brother, Uncle Bernac, had sided with the Republican cause. When the King was ousted and the Revolutionaries triumphed, the de Laval family fled to England, taking up residence in a village in Kent, while Uncle Bernac took possession of the family estate of Grosbois, near Boulogne. Thirteen years later, Napoleon has assumed control of the French government and named himself Emperor. After the death of his father, de Laval receives a letter from Bernac. The uncle, who now works for Napoleon, invites his nephew to come back to his native soil, promises to let bygones be bygones, and assures him a position in the Emperor’s service. Though the young man is suspicious of his uncle’s intentions, he can’t resist an opportunity to return to his homeland.

Though the novel is called Uncle Bernac, the title character is little seen and doesn’t figure very largely into the book’s plot. He functions merely as a device to get de Laval into the presence of Napoleon. In fact, the book’s main purpose is to provide an opportunity for Conan Doyle to give a character study of the great French Emperor. The author obviously harbors a healthy hero worship for his nation’s former nemesis. The Napoleon that Conan Doyle depicts in this novel is pretty much the stereotypical image that one would expect—part monomaniacal genius and part petulant child. Conan Doyle also provides accompanying sketches of the Empress Josephine, various members of the Imperial Court, and several heroes of the French military. He describes them all with loving enthusiasm, detailing their individual quirks of mannerism and the decorative details of their uniforms as if he were a child showing off the action figures in his toy box. While all these characters engage in protracted conversation, the reader is left to wonder what’s the point. When, if ever, will the book return to the story of de Laval? The young man ostensibly came to Napoleon to receive a commission, yet orders are not forthcoming, and the initial enchantment with the Emperor and his court soon fades into tedium.

There are a couple of good scenes at the end that redeem the story from total mediocrity, but it sure takes a long time to get there. Ultimately, Uncle Bernac would be a better novel if it spent less time on the meeting with Napoleon and more time on the adventure story that bookends it. Conan Doyle wrote a much better novel on the Napoleonic Era, The Great Shadow, which covers the military might and historical impact of the French Emperor from the perspective of a British narrator. There Napoleon barely gets a cameo, but his almost mythic presence is felt far more keenly in that novel than it is in this one. The Great Shadow proves that a little Napoleon goes a long way, while Uncle Bernac demonstrates that a lot of Napoleon leaves little room for anything else. Conan Doyle undoubtedly has a knack for making an interesting story out of even the thinnest of plots, but Uncle Bernac is average at best. Only the most avid fans of the author should spend their time on this one.

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