Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Betsy Balcombe, Napoleon and the Briars

My life has been a chequered and a melancholy one ..- Betsy Balcombe (1802-1871)

Napoleon never ceased to be the preoccupation of my mother's life..suddenly thrown into close proximity with the most dramatic figure of the age, she was ill-prepared to withstand the resultant repercussions: glamorous, disturbing, intimate, even sinister . - daughter of Betsy Balcombe

Whilst still a baby Lucia Elizabeth Balcombe (known as Betsy) and her elder sister Jane were brought to St. Helena by her parents William and Jane Balcombe, and lived on the family's small estate at the Briars.(1) In subsequent years three brothers were born. Then, in 1815, when she was still only 13, Napoleon came to stay in the pavilion in the garden, and for her things would never be the same again.

Napoleon stayed a couple of months until his new home was ready. Living in close proximity to the Balcombe family was to be his happiest time on the island. When Napoleon left for Longwood Betsy was heartbroken, but was comforted by Napoleon's insistence that she should come and visit him at Longwood.

William Balcombe (portrait below) acted as a purveyor for Napoleon's household, and so the family were able to make frequent visits to Longwood House and to Mme Bertrand. In 1818 however, they left the island, ostensibly because of Mrs Balcombe's health, but at least in part because of Hudson Lowe's suspicions about William Balcombe's dealings with Napoleon. (2) Betsy was again in tears. For Napoleon this was one of a number of departures which increased his isolation. In saying goodbye he told them that he would surely die on the island he hated.

Balcombe's subsequent efforts to return to St. Helen were frustrated, and the family lived in very straitened circumstances in England. Finally, after agreeing to testify on Hudson Lowe's side in the anticipated court case with O'Meara (Napoleon's doctor), Lowe removed his objections to Balcombe's preferment, and he obtained a government post as Colonial Treasurer in New South Wales in 1823.

Betsy herself married Edward Abell at Exminster in May 1822 and they had a daughter. (3) Her husband soon deserted her and she left with her family for Australia. On the journey her sister Jane died.

William Balcombe remained in Australia until his death in 1829.

Her mother (portrait left) briefly returned to England with Betsy and Betsy's daughter, to petition the Government for a settlement; she was rewarded with £250 and promised government posts for her children. The three then returned to Australia.

Betsy and her daughter finally returned to England in 1834, but her mother and her three brothers remained in Australia for the rest of their lives.

The second son, Thomas Tyrwhitt Balcombe (b.1810) became a distinguished artist, but took his own life in October 1861 in his house in Paddington, New South Wales, which was appropriately named Napoleon Cottage. Betsy's youngest brother, Alexander Beatson Balcombe (b 1811), named after the governor of St Helena, became a successful landowner and gave the name "The Briars" to his house at Mount Martha near Melbourne.(3)

For Betsy the rest of her life was to be a struggle. She met Napoleon's brother Joseph and his nephew (soon to become Napoleon III), and in 1844 published her Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon . (5) She was later given a grant of land in Algeria, which she never visited, and died in gentile poverty in London.

The Recollections is a delightful read, although not a completely accurate historical record. I have included a number of extracts in the next section.

Betsy Balcombe and the Emperor

Those who have a preconceived view of Napoleon are likely to be as surprised by Betsy Balcombe's account of her friendship with Napoleon, as she herself was surprised when he failed to live up to the advance billing.
The name of Bonaparte was still associated, in my mind, with every thing that was bad and horrible.
I had heard the most atrocious crimes im-
puted to him ; and if I had learned to
consider him as a human being, I yet still
believed him to be the worst that had ever
existed. Nor was I singular in these feelings;
they were participated by many
much older and wiser than myself; I might
say, perhaps, by a majority of the English
nation. Most of the newspapers of the
day described him as a demon; and all
those of his own country who lived in Eng-
land were of course his bitter enemies ; and
from these two sources alone we formed our
opinion of him.

Over a quarter of a century later she reflected
I think his love of children, and the delight
he felt in their society, — and that,
too, at the most calamitous period of his
life, when a cold and unattachable nature
would have been abandoned to the indul-
gence of selfish misery, — in itself, speaks
volumes for his goodness of heart. After
hours of laborious occupation, he would
often permit us to join him, and that
which would have fatigued and exhausted
the spirits of others, seemed only to recruit
and renovate him. His gaiety was often
exuberant at these moments; he entered
into all the feelings of young people, and
when with them was a mere child, and, I
may add, a most amusing one.

Among her recollections is her brother Alexander sitting on Napoleon's knee and calling him "boney".
One day Alexander took up
a pack of cards, on which was the usual
figure of the Great Mogul. The child
held it up to Napoleon, saying, " See, Bony,
this is you." He did not understand what
my brother meant by calling him Bony.
I explained that it was an abbreviation —
the short for Bonaparte, but Las Cases inter-
preted the word literally, and said it meant
a bony person. Napoleon laughed and
said,. " Je ne suis pas osseux,"

She also recalls the story of old Huff:
This old man, since the arrival of Napo-
leon, had taken many strange fancies into
his brain ; among others, that he was des-
tined to restore the fallen hero to his pris-
tine glory, and that he could at any time
free him from thraldom. All argument
with this old man upon the folly of his
ravings was useless; he still persisted in
it, and it soon became evident that old
Huff was mad, and, though strictly watched,
he found an opportunity one fatal morning
to destroy himself. An inquest was held
on him .. and his body was ordered to be
interred in the spot where three cross roads
met. The nearest to the scene where the
act was committed was the road leadingr
to the Briars, and there they buried the
old man.

I had amongst many other follies a ter-
ror of ghosts, and this weakness was well
known to the emperor, who, for a consider-
able time after the suicide of poor Huff,
used to frighten me nearly into fits. Every
night, just before my hour of retiring to my
room, he would call out, " Miss Betsee, ole
Huff, ole Huff." The misery of those nights
I shall never forget ; I used generally to
fly out of my bed during the night, and
scramble into my mother's room, and re-
main there till morning's light dispelled
the terrors of darkness.

One evening, when my mother, my sis-
ter and myself were quietly sitting in the
porch of the cottage, enjoying the coolness
of the night breeze, suddenly we heard a
noise, and turning round beheld a figure in
white — how I screamed. We were then
greeted with a low gruff laugh, which my
mother instantly knew to be the emperor's.
She turned the white covering, and under-
neath appeared the black visage of a little
servant of ours, whom Napoleon had insti-
gated to frighten Miss Betsee, while he
was himself a spectator of the effect of his

The stories about Napoleon's romping with Betsy got back to Europe, inspired largely by reports by the French Commissioner, about whom nobody seems to have had a kind word to say:
After Napoleon had been on the island
a few months, some newspapers arrived
containing anecdotes of him, and all that
occurred during his stay at the Briars.
Amongst other sottises, was a letter written
by the Marquess de Montchenu, in which he
described all the romping games that had
taken place between Napoleon and our fa-
mily, such as blindman's buff, the sword
scenes, and ending his communication by
observing, that "Miss Betsee" was the
wildest little girl he had ever met ; and ex-
pressing his belief, that the young lady was

Napoleon offered her a present if she revenged herself by applying caustic to a pigtail on Montchenu's wig, a suggestion forbidden by her mother. On being told that she had followed her mother's advice Napoleon pinched her ear, and said, " Ah, Miss Betsee, tu commences à être sage ", and he gave her the present anyway.

One well known episode shows Betsy mocking Napoleon for his fall from power

I recollect exhibiting to Napoleon a cari-
cature of him in the act of climbing a ladder,
each step he ascended represented some
vanquished country ; at length he was seat-
ed astride upon the world. It was a famous
toy, and by a dexterous trick Napoleon ap-
peared on the contrary side tumbling down
head over heels, and after a perilous de-
scent, alighting on St. Helena. I ought
not to have shewn him this burlesque on
his misfortunes, but at that time I was
guilty of every description of mad action,
though without any intention of being un-
kind ; still I fear they were often deeply felt.

For this Betsy's father decided she should spend a week in a dark cellar:
the excavation swarmed with rats, that leaped
about me on all sides. I was half dead
with horror, and should most certainly
have been devoured alive by the vermin,
had I not in despair seized a bottle of
wine, and dashed it amongst my assailants;
finding that I succeeded in occasioning a
momentary panic, I continued to diminish
the pile of claret near me, and kept my
enemies at bay. As the first faint light of
morning dawned through my prison bars, I
was startled to perceive what my victory
would cost my father, for I was surrounded
by heaps of broken bottles, and rivulets of
wine, and either from exhaustion, or the
exhalation from the saturated ground of
the cellar, I was found by the slave who
brought me my breakfast in the morning,
in a state of stupor from which I was with
difficulty aroused. My father was too happy
at my escape to blame me for the means I
resorted to to preserve myself from my
hungry foes ; and I was forgiven my ill-
judged pleasantry to the emperor.

Today Mr Balcombe would surely have received a visit from a Social Worker! At least it is pleasing to know that Napoleon judged the punishment too harsh.
The latter [Napoleon] expressed regret at my severe punishment for so trifling an offence, but was much amused by my relation of the battle with the rats;

And so those of us with regard for historical truth await the forthcoming film of Betsy and the Emperor with some trepidation, although it will be interesting to see how Al Pacino plays Napoleon.

Did William Doveton really take a coffin made of St Helena wood with him when he visited London in 1818 - just in case? And was the decision to give him a Knighthood only taken by the Prince Regent after a meeting with him? Or was Mrs Abell's memory letting her down in this case?
1. There seems to be some uncertainty as to when the Balcombes arrived on St. Helena. usually it is put as 1807, but one recent source suggests he was there by 1805.

2. There was a lot of speculation that Balcombe was the natural son of a member of the Royal Family. Dame Mabel Brookes , great grandaughter of William Balcombe, suggests that although he and his brother spent a lot of time at Carlton House in their youth, they were actually sons of a naval officer lost at sea. Whatever the truth, William Balcombe was obviously well connected.

3. The date of this marriage is sometimes given as 28th May 1821, but a search of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints genealogical site gives the year as 1822. Her husband was apparently a former officer in the Madras Army, who had left in 1816. I have been unable to find out anything else about him.

4. The Briars is now a National Trust property and houses a museum of Napoleonic and early Australian history, See also Briars Park Mornington Peninsula. For useful information on the Balcombe family see Australian Dictionary of Biography

5. Mrs Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon is available online. The modern version, To Befriend an Emperor , edited by J. David Markham, has been reviewed by Tom Holberg for the Napoleonic Society. In the same series is an account of Napoleon's relationship with children on St Helena, which puts the friendship with Betsy in its proper context.


Leigh Russell said...

Interesting post. I thought your blog would be interesting when I saw your list of favourite books. I read a book called 'Napoleon's Women' or something similar, about his relationships which was fascinating.
Please feel free to visit my blog where I write about my experience as an author of crime fiction. Who knows, maybe you'll add Cut Short to your list of favourite books!

Hels said...

Your blog had not yet been recommended (by a student) when I wrote two earlier posts on the ex-Emperor:
1. Napoleon's house in exile: St Helena and
2. Did Napoleon step on British soil or not?

However I have just written a post on the Balcombe, Briars, Melbourne connection which will appear in January. Many thanks in advance for the link
Art and Architecture, mainly

Studio Phoenix Blog-spot said...

Excellent post - very engaging and adds fact to what little I knew. I had watched the film "Monsieur N" and loved it very much [I own a DVD copy, which I watch every so often]. It would be great to see a film based more on what happened. Thank for posting this. Cheers!