Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by David Hannay
Sir William Napier (1785–1860)
[William Francis Patrick Napier, the historian of the Peninsular War, was born at Celbridge, Kildare, Ireland, on the 17th December 1785. He was the third son and fourth child of the Hon. George Napier, a son of Lord Napier and of his wife Lady Sarah Lennox, sixth daughter of the second Duke of Richmond. He entered the Royal Irish Artillery in 1800, was transferred by the favour of the Duke of Richmond, his grandfather, to the Blues in a few months, and soon afterwards passed, at the invitation of Sir John Moore, to the 43rd infantry. In this regiment, or in the 52nd, he served in the expedition to Denmark, and in many of the most important passages of the Peninsular War. Having applied to enter the Royal Military College he missed the battle of Waterloo, but he served with his regiment in the army of occupation, mostly at Bapaume. In 1819, on the return of the army of occupation, he went on half pay, and next year began literary work by a review of “Jomini,” written for the Edinburgh. A wound which he had received at Cazal Nova, during Massina’s retreat from Portugal, left him with a bullet pressing against his spine, and latterly incapacitated him for active service. He rose on the retired list to the rank of General, was Governor of Guernsey from 1842 to 1847, and was successively Colonel of the 27th and 22nd Regiments, in which latter post he succeeded his famous brother, Sir Charles Napier, the Conqueror of Scinde. His History of the War in the Peninsula was undertaken, 1823, at the suggestion of Lord Langdale, and as an answer to Southey. It occupied him for sixteen years, and was published between 1835 and 1840. A revised edition appeared in 1850–51, and he made a selection of the battles and sieges in 1855 in one volume. His other works were The Conquest of Scinde, 1845, and The Administration of Scinde, 1851, in one volume each, written to defend his brother Sir C. Napier; and a Life of Sir Charles Napier, in four volumes, 1857. Sir W. Napier was a vehement radical of somewhat confused sentimental ideas, and a man of a passionate, indeed almost hysterically emotional nature. He died at Clapham Park, on the 10th February 1860.]  1
THE DEFECTS of Sir W. Napier’s literary work can all be easily traced to the influence of his character and his beliefs. His biographer, an anonymous Guernsey friend, whose ill-arranged work was edited by Mr. H. A. Bruce, Lord Aberdare (1864), allows that when he was moved by the sight of what he thought wrong, he did not measure the terms of his accusations of the wrongdoer, and was apt to fall into excess. A less friendly critic might put it that when his emotions were excited, he was not particular to take care that he told the truth. This would be unjust, but it must be allowed that, when his personal likings or dislikings, his hatred of what he called the aristocratic principle of government, his adoration of Napoleon as the soldier of democracy, and his professional pride as an officer of the British army were touched, he was unmeasured and uncritical. To this must be attributed his sophistical excuses for the French invasion of Spain, and his gross unfairness to the Spaniards, whom he detested, partly because their claims seemed to diminish the share of glory justly due to his own service, and partly because they refused to accept a liberal constitution at the hands of the Corsican “soldier of democracy,” and persisted in fighting for a despotic king and a bigoted church. Something too must be allowed for his not unnatural impatience with the ineptitude of Spanish generals and juntas. But those defects are counterbalanced by extraordinary merits which have made his “Peninsular War” perhaps the greatest specimen of military history in any language, and have left it not only without equal, but without second in our own. His personal experience, though a great advantage, was the least of his qualifications. He could when the dry light of his intellect was not damped by passion, reason closely, and expound with admirable lucidity. When the principles of war, or the military causes of success and failure were the matter in hand, he gave his reason fair play. In this respect, however, he has been equalled by other military writers. Where he stands, it may be confidently affirmed, alone, is in this, that he brought to the history of war the imagination of a great romantic writer, and a poet’s command of “simple, sensuous, and passionate images.” His style is perfectly adapted to his subject—simple, swift, direct at times, and then under the stimulus of some heroic action, or heroic suffering, rising to a sonorous vehemence full of telling images, often conveyed by the power of a single word put in its place. He goes intrepidly to the very border of the turgid, but never over it. His qualities as a writer fully atone for his patent errors as a judge.  2

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