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  • Articles by Sonali

    Book review: Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally


    In his novel ‘Napoleon’s Last Island’ Australian writer Thomas Keneally documents Napoleon’s exile on St Helena Island, deep in the South Atlantic, in terms of his unlikely friendship with a young British girl Betsy Balcombe. Not much is known about this period in Napoleon’s life. Keneally first stumbled across Betsy Balcombe’s name when he visited an exhibition about Napoleon at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in 2012, featuring mementoes from his time in St Helena. Betsy was mentioned in the exhibition catalogue. Keneally was intrigued by her connection to Napoleon and that she later travelled to Australia.

    Journals were written by the Island’s inhabitants during Napoleon’s exile. The story is compiled in part from the writings of Napoleon’s Irish surgeon Captain O’Meara, and from Betsy. Keneally admits that he has added to the facts. The novel is a version of the truth. His intention is ‘in some way – to tell the truth by telling lies’, capturing the story’s essence.

    In 1815 William Balcombe (Betsy’s father), an agent of the East India Company was living in St Helena with his family and had been commissioned by the British Cabinet to supply groceries to Napoleon during his exile. Napoleon stayed at the Balcombe property, The Briars, in their summerhouse for a couple of months while Longwood, his permanent residence in St Helena, was being restored. He became friendly with the Balcombes. Betsy and her older sister Jane were his favourites.   

    Narrated by Betsy, ‘Napoleon’s Last Island’ can be viewed as a ‘coming of age’ story when we see events through her fresh eyes. Here Keneally represents Napoleon’s friendship with Betsy as that of a teasing playmate, although accounts from other journals suggest his relationship with Betsy was more flirtatious.

    Betsy considers ‘his time at the Briars as Napoleon’s optimistic period on the Island’. We see his more human and ‘egalitarian’ side in the book, when he’s always amiable and pleased to play hide and seek with the Balcombe children and mixes easily with the Islanders, from all walks of life. We’re also reminded that he’s effectively a prisoner on St Helena following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo‘... this is to be the new Elba. The Ogre is to be placed halfway between Europe, Africa and South America. This is the deepest pocket they could find to put the Universal Demon in.’

    Napoleon’s ‘optimistic period’ comes to an abrupt end with the arrival of Hudson Lowe, the newly appointed, and maniacal Governor to the Island. Hudson Lowe increases security around Longwood to limit any possibility of Napoleon escaping. Napoleon’s food rations are cut back. Hudson Lowe also keeps an eye on the Balcombes.

    On the face of things, ‘Napoleon’s Last Island’ is a historical yarn. Keneally’s writing style reflects the period and sometimes feels a tad old fashioned and clunky perhaps. The story is brought up to date though by Betsy Balcombe, adding a modern twist. She has a rebellious streak, and jars with the expectations of women in Georgian society.  Napoleon enjoys goading her. She argues back precociously, against protocol much to the alarm of his Generals and embarrassment of her family. She gives us a unique perspective on Napoleon’s situation, exposing his contradictions but also his humanity, spiked by all the attention she receives from the great man perhaps.

    The plot does plod along in places but it’s brightened up by a grand ball, and towards the end by the Deadwood Ladies' horse race. And Keneally does a good job of setting the scene, depicting Napoleon’s arrival on the Island in fantastic detail. We really do get a sense of the atmosphere as he, and his extensive entourage, proceeds up from the landing bay watched with anticipation by all the inhabitants. Equally, the untamed environment of St Helena plays an active role here, giving the story an edge. The wildlife and rolling, volcanic landscape are imposing and transformative even. The rhythm of life moves at a slow pace. Attempts at propriety and ceremony often seem absurd.

    The Balcombes are accused of treason for colluding with Napoleon by Hudson Lowe, and sent back to England. Napoleon dies in St Helena in 1821. Events take a new turn when the Balcombes move to Australia in the 1840s after being exonerated.

    Napoleon bequeathed various trinkets and gifts (including several locks of his hair) to the Balcombes, which are on display at the Mornington Briars (in Melbourne), the homestead of Alexander Balcombe, Betsy’s younger brother. These were exhibited at the NGV. The well–informed volunteers at the Mornington Briars are also credited as a source for this remarkable story, skilfully retold, and confirming Betsy Balcombe’s place in history. 

    The Briars, 450 Nepean Highway, Mornington Peninsula, Mt Martha, Vic 3934 Australia


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