Monday, 30 November 2015

Notes from Eve Abbey ~ December 2015

I think it must be ten years since Anne Whitehead told me at lunch one day that she was going to write about an obscure story...

...a story about Napoleon's time on the island of St. Helena as a prisoner of the British after his defeat at Waterloo, and his aborted escape from Elba. It is a story with lots of tentacles, about his unlikely friendship with a precocious young woman named Betsy, who was the daughter of Thomas Trywhitt Balcombe, one of the owners of the store providing food and goods to the island as well as to passing ships.

Now in 2015, at long last, after deep research Anne's book called Betsy and the Emperor: The True Story of Napoleon, a Pretty Girl, a Regency Rake and an Australian Colonial Misadventure has been published by Allen & Unwin. This is a fascinating story made more interesting by the inclusion of Anne's research into early New South Wales. So much so that we have put the book in Australian History. It is certainly not fiction or biography and it will please many different people. The Australian connection leads down to Dame Mabel Brookes.

There is an absorbing picture of St. Helena, which Anne visited during her research; a fascinating picture of the pretensions and demands of the once-great Napoleon; an amusing picture of Regency society where, of course, Betsy Balcombe married a ne'er-do-well handsome rake; and finally, a friendly picture of Sydney society in the early days of the 19th century, where Thomas Balcombe was sent as Colonial Treasurer. When Napoleon first arrived on St. Helena with his retinue of supporters, he chose to live in a pavilion in the garden of Balcombe's residence while the house he was destined for was made ready. This took some time so Napoleon was a daily presence in the life of the Balcombe family. In fact it seems to me that the effect of these meetings remained with them all their lives.

It is a coincidence that Tom Keneally stumbled upon this story two years ago when he saw an exhibition of Napoleonic memorabilia in Melbourne. His book, a novel written in the voice of Betsy, is called Napoleon's Last Island and is a good read. Both books were reviewed together by Phillip Dwyer, an academic who has himself written two books about Napoleon, and is now writing another book about Napoleon's time on St. Helena! His books are Napoleon: The Path to Power 1769-1799 and Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799-1815. I think I am going to have to read these.

Isn't it amazing how the aura around Napoleon remains? When I was in Paris with Hilary Nicholson we spent a whole day in Les Invalides and came away like stage-struck teenagers marvelling at the exploits and glory of Napoleon. It took some days to remember how many people died along the way. What enormous self-belief he had! And convinced others to agree! Remember the sardonic fable written by Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans) about Napoleon's escape from Elba called The Death of Napoleon. As a final bit of trivia may I point out the family name Tyrwhitt in Balcombe's mode of address? Can it possibly be the same family which keeps putting inserts in the local newspapers offering well-made shirts to order? Such an unusual name and so difficult to say or spell!

[Editor's note: I too have been set off on a 'Napoleonic' reading trail after reading The Count of Monte Cristo. I've heard it said that Napoleon tops the list as the most popular biographical subject and we certainly have quite a few of them in stock: Vive le Napoleon au Abbey's!]

Keep well,


Buy these books at Abbey's (131 York Street Sydney) ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers

Abbey's ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers

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