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October 2016: Historical Fiction > Napoleon's Last Island--Thomas Keneally (4 stars)

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message 1: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments A charming and brilliant window on the life of a British girl, Betsy Balcombe, and the special friendship she developed with Napoleon Bonaparte during his time of exile on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena starting when she was thirteen. The tale is of an intersection of cultures and classes in a microcosm of civilization, of a world-shaker on a tiny stage, and of girl striving for the self-autonomy of a woman before her time. The story is rendered in a warm embrace, with fools standing in for enemies through most of the story and with plenty of comic relief.



Her father William was a merchant who had the commission from the British East India Company to import and sell food and household goods for the British Navy and civilians on this 5 by 8 mile island, which is located about a third of the way between southern Africa and Brazil. This remote site of Napoleon’s banishment was chosen to assure that his supporters wouldn’t free him in a repeat of what happened when he was imprisoned on Elba in the Mediterranean. For about a year after Bonaparte’s arrival in 1815, he was housed in Balcombe’s rural guest house with some of his retinue of servants. A few French aristocrats and soldiers of his inner circle who volunteered to share in his exile were housed separately at an inn in town. Thus, we get the odd spectacle of the toppled Emperor living in close quarters with British commoners continually mixing in with a motley slice of French society, ranging from puffed-up generals to decadent countesses. Though tagged the “Great Ogre” or “Fiend” by many in the Navy keeping watch on his security, the Balcombe family came to use OGF for “Our Great Friend” as a code for him and eventually pay a big price for their friendship with this enemy of the British Empire.

Even before the Emperor landed, Betsy was a force of nature, always pushing at boundaries in their little island community, damn the torpedoes, with an almost madcap verve. Which is what we admire in so many of our heroes, don’t we? When she and her more compliant sister Jane, two years older, are sent to school in England, Betsy makes sure she gets expelled from school so she can home to St. Helena. Her father can’t help forgive her. He recognizes her stubbornness and ways of fighting back as an element of her character he can admires. I loved the humor in the judgments of the school headmistress in her letter to her parents:

Her opinions, she said, was that had we lived in biblical times, the concept of satanic possession would perhaps been invoked in my case. …They were pleased to understand, she exhorted them, that they should in no way consider me lacking in native cleverness. However, in me, obdurancy was like a disease, and I would be permanently disabled by it unless some later recovery took place on my way to womanhood.

With so much excitement and uncertainty about the Emperor’s arrival and what it will mean for the community, it was a bit sad to see her eye get jaundiced over the polarity of reactions in the community. She witnesses the island residents, both high or low, alternate between wanting to be raised in glory by association with the famed former Emperor and the opposite tendency to feel better than him or to punish him in revenge. She goes through similar wavering herself. Her family stands to gain income from the arrangement, but their affection for him blossoms naturally from the charm and dignity of this invader. Betsy is the one to be wary at first, starting with Napoleon’s verbal flirting with her mother by comparing her looks to his first wife Josephine, which strikes her as manipulative and invasive. But soon she is charmed too, and matching him nip for nip in mischief and tease for tease in play.

There are games of blind-man’s bluff and hide-and-seek along with her younger brothers, production of plays, his construction of a cart pulled by mice, and an adventure featuring a charging cow in a pasture. Napoleon tends to go too far, such as when he terrorizes the neighbors playing a ghost, eggs her on to a display of threatening swordplay, or constrains the churlish son of his chamberlain and demands Betsy to kiss him:

I could think of nothing more obscene and struggled in his grasp, but he was determined to have it as a game. This was all very well for him. It was an outrage for me. …I had thought that I was somehow a freestanding votary who showed my devotion by repeated mischief. And now it was a child summoned to kiss me!…I felt a sense of outrage once the kiss had been consummated and I heard the Emperor hooting, while I choked on the bile of this cruelty disguised as play.

She finds ways to fight back by pushing his buttons over failures from his history. Subtly calling him on the carpet for burning Moscow in his disastrous Russian campaign, leaving his army’s wounded behind to face slow death or suicide with his withdrawal from Egypt, and making a lie of his anti-slavery rhetoric by sending forces to suppress the slave rebellion in Haiti. She uses such nuclear options to keep her head up:

I sought to make him lose his temper so thoroughly with me that all would change, and I would never be called upon to be an ally, and I would never be teased or tease him back. I did not even want to be treated with the courtliness that was his manner towards Jane. But then I wondered sometimes whether Jane was a person as was I, or a construction of easily learned attitudes and mannerisms.
… She did not understand the compact that existed between him and me; that I had particular knowledge of him and his impulse to play, fully as children play, inflicting pain as children do, and with the same fierce intent of children.




But Napoleon always is quick to apologize, helps in her and Jane’s education, has a gown made for her to attend a ball, and often advocates with her parents to lift her punishment for bad behavior. He is adept at disarming her rages:

”Is there anything we do the right way?” I asked the Emperor. “You don’t like our roast beef …, and you don’t like our puddings, and you hate our music, and now you don’t like pantaloons. Is there anything else to hate?”
…”Oh,” he said. “I am sad if I brought forth in you, Betsy, the need to be a patriot. I admire so much that is English, above all the hearts in your breasts.”


She comes to recognize Napoleon’s need to retain dignity and integrity in defeat, and his recourse to naughty behavior as an important outlet to undermine the oppression of his serious jailers. But all their escapades take a dangerous turn when they come to threaten her father’s reputation and position. Under the punitive regime of a new governor in the form Lord Hudson, a dystopia comes into effect, with a network of spies put in place and restrictions imposed on Napoleon’s household supplies, movements, visitors, and communications. Betsy’s father is treated like a traitor, and he comes under a cloud for helping smuggle out letters to support the Emperor’s efforts to gain more funds and to be allowed to retire to the English countryside. Betsy’s triumph in winning a horse race against the snobby daughters of admirals and merchant chiefs comes to a bad outcome when Hudson learns that she secretly made use of Napoleon’s Arabian steed.

I love literature like this that helps you see a developing self in transformation. It’s hard not to admire Betsy’s plucky strategy to take a pose or commit to a choice and then stubbornly stick to it as long as possible. She is so stoic is taking her punishment while never giving those meting it out the satisfaction of seeing her cry. That puts her in the school of Mattie in “True Grit”, with the “tough-on-the-outside” ying interfacing with “tender-on-the-inside” yang. I won’t go so far as comparing Rooster Cogburn to Napoleon, but there is a similar mythic sense of allying with both as devil mentors as the means to take on the devils behind the powers that be. In this case, Betsy’s learning to play with the Emperor leads to teaching her a lot about the game of life.

The real-life Betsy did publish a journal from this time in her life, which along with the accounts of other players on the scene, provided a launching point for Keneally to imagine a fuller version from a perspective later in her life. Other versions of her tale point to lechery behind the scenes, but Keneally doesn‘t go there. He does have Betsy deal with knowledge of the Emperor’s lusts for others and of an affair with the wife a count in his circle. Perhaps to make it clear how much is fiction, Keneally does place a little shocking vignette of debauchery in the middle of his tale.

By 1818 William Balcombe is ousted by Lord Howe. Through certain moral compromises he is able to get a job in the financial administration in New South Wales. It is through a museum created by Betsy’s descendants that Keneally, now in his 80s, first becomes intrigued by the untold aspects of her story. He shares his attitude toward Napoleon in his preface and this 2012 article in The Weekend Australian:

I must emphasize I have never carried a larger than standard-sized torch for the Emperor. On the one hand, he produced the civil law reform, Code Napoleon. He was not a tyrant in the notable way of Roman Caesars and totalitarian leaders. He seemed to be Exhibit 1 for “Enlightenment Man” and “Man of Destiny”. But in the 20th century we would discover the foul places that men of destiny could take us. I am an Australian old-fashioned republican, so the word “emperor” holds no allure for me, and I find Bonaparte’s pretension of becoming an Emperor to save the French Republic on the face of it preposterous.

Despite these reservations, his realization of fictional Betsy ends up having her paint quite a human version of Napoleon:
Later I would hear it argued, and above all see it written, that on the island the Emperor used his natural ease with other human beings as a means of gaining allies who could then plead his case in England, France, and Austria. …The truth was that a great deal of his ally-making was as natural to him as his own breath, and his power to win souls over had no higher purpose when they were souls of children or slaves or servants or householders, none of whom had any management of the gales of opinion that swept the earth.




message 2: by Anita (new)

Anita Pomerantz | 6647 comments Fascinating review, Michael . . .would you describe this book more as dense or fast-paced? I'm intrigued by the premise, but not sure I will like the "voice" based on the quotes . . .sometimes it is hard to get in the rhythm of the language though from a few isolated quotes, so curious what you felt. Were you absorbed by it all, or did you have to concentrate a lot? I like to know what I'm getting into . . .


message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments Anita wrote: "Fascinating review, Michael . . .would you describe this book more as dense or fast-paced?... Were you absorbed by it all, or did you have to concentrate a lot?.."

Warm hearted, easy pace, no literary tricks to challenge readability. The ups and downs of alternatingly dangerous and comic excitements relate to family crises, clash of agendas, and changing of affections or enemies as understanding emerges. The hard work of Betsy growing up is pretty universal: how to be simultaneously loyal and true to your own ambitions, family, country, and friends, navigate the marriage game, and get respect and inspiration from the play and survival struggles of this wildcard of Napolean.


message 4: by Anita (new)

Anita Pomerantz | 6647 comments Michael wrote: "Anita wrote: "Fascinating review, Michael . . .would you describe this book more as dense or fast-paced?... Were you absorbed by it all, or did you have to concentrate a lot?.."

Warm hearted, easy..."


On to the TBR it goes . . .thanks, Michael!


message 5: by Denizen (new)

Denizen (den13) | 1138 comments You've added it to my TBR as well!


message 6: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments I don't tend to push books on people, but I feel good for tempting you. This author is in his 80s and has nothing to prove. He obviously just likes to play with history, filling in some gaps to stir the imagination.


message 7: by Regina Lindsey (new)

Regina Lindsey | 1005 comments Great review and interesting premise!


message 8: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments Regina wrote: "Great review and interesting premise!"

Thanks a million. Anita made it TBR. Makes a way to triangulate upon 2nd or 3rd opinions.


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