To Befriend an Emperor

balcombeTo Befriend an Emperor: Betsy Balcombe’s Memoirs of Napoleon on St Helena

Every now and again you stumble across something quite remarkable. Betsy Balcombe’s memoirs are just that. She was a teenager on St Helena, living with her parents on that bare rock. Napoleon, forced into exile, came to stay. And she wrote a charming account, well worth reading.

Here’s the moment the exiled Napoleon arrives:

“Napoleon’s position on horseback, by adding height to his figure, supplied all that was wanting to make me think him the most majestic person I had ever seen. He was dressed in green, and covered with orders, and his saddle and housings were of crimson velvet richly embroidered with gold. He alighted at our house, and we all moved to the entrance to receive him. Sir George Cockburn introduced us to him.

On a nearer approach Napoleon, contrasting, as his shorter figure did, with the noble height and aristocratic bearing of Sir George Cockburn, lost something of the dignity which had struck me on first seeing him. He was deadly pale, and I thought his features, though cold and immovable, and somewhat stern, were exceedingly beautiful. He seated himself on one of our cottage chairs, and after scanning our little apartment with his eagle glance, he complimented mamma on the pretty situation of the Briars. When once he began to speak, his fascinating smile and kind manner removed every vestige of the fear with which I had hitherto regarded him.

While he was talking to mamma, I had an opportunity of scrutinizing his features, which I did with the keenest interest; and certainly I have never seen anyone with so remarkable and striking a physiognomy. The portraits of him, give a good general idea of his features; but his smile, and the expression of his eye, could not be transmitted to canvas, and these constituted Napoleon’s chief charm. His hair was dark brown, and as fine and silky as a child’s, rather too much so indeed for a man, as its very softness caused it to look thin. His teeth were even, but rather dark, and I afterwards found that this arose from his constant habit of eating liquorice, of which he always kept asupply in his waistcoat pocket.

The Emperor appeared much pleased with the Briars, and expressed a wish to remain there …”

I had the pleasure of editing the text for the book, adding notes and explanations, and hunting out some of the pictures.

The story has inspired a number of books. There’s Staton Rabin’s novel for young adults, Anne Whitehead’s biography of Betsy and there’s even rumoured to be a film in the making (Napoleon and Betsy) starring Emma Watson as Betsy. The blurb about the film calls Betsy “a spunky young noblewoman”, but if you read the book I thinks she comes across as a bright, curious and observant young lady.

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