Gracie and the Emperor
Many good stories start with the arrival of a stranger in the midst of a small town, community or family. So what if this stranger were Napoleon, the most feared man in the world? This thought led me to research Napoleon’s arrival on St Helena, and his time there. My research persuaded me to write about Napoleon the man.
British author Julia Blackburn described the small island of St Helena as ‘further away from anywhere than anywhere else in the world.’ The perfect place for a prison! In 1815, it took 67 days to sail there from London. Even today, it takes two weeks to make the voyage. Can you find St Helena on a map?
I have recreated the setting as accurately as I know, a hilly, rocky island with almost all its food and supplies imported, and stale by the time they arrived.
In writing historical fiction, I want the reader to be left with the truth. I don’t like to fiddle with the main character in the story. In my research, I found that apart from bringing part of his court from Paris, Napoleon behaved almost like an ordinary man on St Helena. He befriended children, was kind to slaves and loved his garden.
Napoleon didn’t speak very good English, said Bah! rather often, played Blind Man’s Buff with the Balcombe children and kept a pocketful of licorice. He did create a garden at Longwood, and someone sent him everlasting seeds. I chose Gracie to be that person. She and her family come from my imagination, but they live as residents of St Helena did in those days.
Many of the supporting cast are real people, especially Betsy Balcombe, the young girl who spoke French with Napoleon. She has been fictionalised in other novels, but because of her link with Australia, I’ve kept her as she was. Other real characters are Toby, the Malay slave who tended the garden at The Briars and cut the crown in the grass, Mr Porteous at the Jamestown boarding house, Captain Poppleton and the black stallion Hope.
Napoleon stayed for two months at the Balcombes’ residence, The Briars, while his house at Longwood was prepared. His friendship with Betsy is well known from her diary and recorded in a book by Dame Mabel Brookes, a grand-daughter of Alexander Balcombe, who played with Napoleon on the lawn at The Briars. Alexander later moved to Mt Martha on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and called his property The Briars after their St Helena home. Dame Mabel Brookes later set up a small museum there, containing Napoleonic memorabilia including the guitar Napoleon gave Betsy when the Balcombes left the island. He also gave Betsy a lock of his hair. The Briars house and garden, which maintains its connection with Napoleon, is open to the public.
FOR DISCUSSION: Does this fictional story help to bring history to life? Do you have an understanding of Napoleon, the man?
Napoleone Bonaparti was born on the island of Corsica and spoke Italian as a child. At the age of nine, he was sent to military college in France, where boys teased him because Napoleone sounded like la paille-au-nez (straw in the grass.) Do you think being bullied as a boy might have made Napoleon more determined to prove he could rise above the crowd and rule his country?
Willow trees, planted at Longwood by Napoleon, surrounded his grave. After his burial, twigs from the trees were taken as souvenirs and grown all around the world. If you take a cutting from a willow tree and manage to grow it, you may well have a descendant of a St Helena willow planted by Napoleon.
When did Napoleon crown himself emperor of France?
Which country owns the island of St Helena?
What is the population of St Helena today?
When was the Battle of Waterloo? Who was the leader of the victorious British troops? What did he go on to become?
Napoleon said: ‘For the sake of history, I should have died at Waterloo.’ Why do you think he said that?
Then I wouldn’t have written this book.