Book of the week: Napoleon’s Last Island

John Ure enjoys a fictional account of a young girl’s friendship with the former emperor in his final years.

Napoleon’s Last Island by Thomas Keneally (Sceptre, £18.99)

Thomas Keneally is widely known beyond his native Australia as a prize-winning novelist as well as a non-fiction writer. His latest book combines these skills to create a fascinating story based on the genuine relationship between Napoleon and Betsy Balcombe, the teenage daughter of the British East India Company’s representative on St Helena. She befriended him during his last five years in exile on the island and it is through her eyes that the story is told.

Following Napoleon’s escape from Elba, and the alarmingly rapid rallying of the French around their former emperor, the victorious allies after Waterloo had banished him to ‘the deepest pocket they could find to put the Universal Demon in’: the barren island of St Helena in the wastes of the atlantic.

Many people have written about the depressing effect of this on Napoleon; Mr Keneally concentrates attention on the alarming and exhilarating effect Napoleon had on the inhabitants of the island, where nothing had happened to shake the tedious calm until, suddenly and unexpectedly, ‘the Ogre’ and all his retinue arrived, galvanising the whole population through a mixture of curiosity, awe and amazement.

For William Balcombe (Betsy’s father), this was a particular challenge. The British governor had no intention of relinquishing his house for the former emperor— whom he had decreed was, from now on, to be addressed just as General—and so a residence very different to the palace on Elba was being re-constructed at an estate called Longwood. However, this was not yet ready and the obvious place to provide temporary accommodation was the Balcombes’ company house.

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They offered to move out to make room for the entourage, but napoleon graciously declined, insisting instead on moving into an outbuilding. already, ‘the Ogre’ was beginning to show some of the courtesy and charm that was to win the family’s affection; he would soon be ‘Our Great Friend’ or OGF.

The precocious Betsy flirted innocently with Napoleon and members of his entourage and enjoyed listening to his stories and playing childish games with him; she would ask him cheeky questions about whether he regretted invading Russia and whether he or the Russians had burnt Moscow. Through their imagined conversations, the author creates a very different image of Napoleon from the dour and daunting figure usually presented by historians.

The vindictive behaviour of the new governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, who cut down on the privileges and expenditure—including the supply of wine and food (provided by Betsy’s father and the East India Company)—to his celebrated captive and tried to deprive him of all contact with the islanders, is graphically described through Betsy’s sympathetic eyes.

However, this imaginative fiction is based on more than just a kernel of genuine history, as Andrew Roberts’s authoritative biography Napoleon the Great, which mentions Betsy several times, confirms. Mr Keneally admits that he ‘plays fast and loose with strict historic chronology’, but the tale he tells so engagingly is probably near enough to the truth to make it informative as well as highly entertaining.