The little known story of how the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte ingratiated himself with an English family on the South Atlantic island of St Helena, and the devastating effect on them for the rest of their lives in England and Australia.
After Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, he was sent into exile on Saint Helena. He became an 'eagle in a cage', reduced from the most powerful figure in Europe to a prisoner on a rock in the South Atlantic. But the fallen emperor was charmed by the pretty teenage daughter of a local merchant, Betsy Balcombe.
Anne Whitehead brings to life Napoleon's last years on Saint Helena, revealing the central role of the Balcombe family. She also lays to rest two centuries of speculation about Betsy's relationship with Napoleon.
After Napoleon's death, Betsy travelled to Australia in 1823 with her father, who was appointed the first Colonial Treasurer of New South Wales. When the family lost their fortune, she returned to London and published a memoir which made her a celebrity.
With her extraordinary connections to royalty and high society, Betsy Balcombe led a life worthy of a Regency romance, but she was always fighting for her independence. This new account reveals Napoleon at his most vulnerable, human and reflective, and a woman caught in some of the most dramatic events of her time.
Caroline Baum's review
Just ahead of Tom Kenneally's new novel on the same subject comes this lively and engrossing account of Napoleon's final years on St Helena by Australian historian Anne Whitehead. She has been intrepid enough to make the journey to that barren isolated rock herself, which is no easy feat, given that it is still without an airport (to the great frustration of its residents).
Imagine how much more isolated the former Emperor of Europe must have felt confined to his rat infested quarters there, with a devoted entourage that squabbled and gossiped to pass away endless hours of boredom. The food was dreadful, there was nothing to do and the company was provincial, petty and limited.
But a young girl called Betsy, the spirited daughter of his initial hosts, caught Napoleon's eye and made his plight slightly more bearable. Why did this teen, whose manners lacked decorum appeal to Napoleon? Was it merely her prettiness or did he find something refreshing in her untamed and fearlessly cheeky behaviour? And what were his motives in befriending her family, the Balcombes?
There is plenty of intrigue here, as well as plans for an escape (to America, to join his brother Joseph).
An enthralling slice of history, told with verve.
About the Author
Anne Whitehead is an author, historian and former TV producer-director with the ABC. She is the author of Bluestocking in Patagonia and her book Paradise Mislaid was winner of the NSW Premier's Award for Australian History.