Saturday, 12 April 2014

Napoleon in America: "I should have stayed on St Helena"

Napoleon wrote a novel in his youth, in exile on St Helena described his life as one, and over the past two centuries inspired quite a few others. The latest Napoleonic novel, by the Canadian author Shannon Selin, provides an alternate history: instead of dying on St Helena in 1821 Napoleon escaped to America and continued his action packed life there.

The book's great strength lies in the depth of its research. The author claims to have consulted some 300 sources in order to tell "a plausible whopper", and at the end provides a list of over 100 major and minor historical characters whom she has to a greater or lesser extent researched. Inevitably in an alternate history some had their lives changed: one Napoleonic General's life was truncated by 40 years; the very young wife of another, in real life to live until 1880, succumbed to the ex-Emperor's rather clumsy advances.

The author presents a very broad historical canvas: London, Paris, Vienna, Rome, Washington, New Orleans and numerous lesser places. St Helena, "a dark wart in the Atlantic", according to the racy blurb on the back cover, is dismissed in a single short chapter, which concludes poetically with Hudson Lowe staring at the ocean from a window in Longwood House, his career "splintering as rapidly as the silvery ripples that broke upon the shore." I am not convinced that it is possible to see the ocean from Longwood House, but a little literary license is excusable! One might also note that Hudson Lowe's future career was not much better in real life.

The author makes effective use of direct speech, letters and newspaper cuttings to set the contemporary scene and describe the events that unfold and the reactions to them. Here you will find the Bonaparte family on two continents, Francis 1st of Austria, Metternich, Wellington, Canning, John Quincy Adams, Monroe, Louis XVIII and the Count of Artois, Lafayette and the French opposition, Bonapartists and Liberals. Here too one can read about the machinations of the Holy Alliance, its members united in little except a fear of revolution and a hatred of Napoleon, the tensions within France's newly restored and somewhat precarious Bourbon monarchy and also within the British Government over France's invasion of Spain. Here too the author intelligently explores the concerns of the young American Republic, the ex-Emperor in its midst, desperate to avoid entanglement with the politics of the old world, still wary of British naval power which less than a decade earlier had burned down the White House under the command of the same Admiral who was later to escort Napoleon to St Helena, but with its own expansionist impulses and, like all the European powers, concerned about the fate of Spain's empire in the Americas.

The novel does not explore Napoleon's character in any great depth, this is thankfully no psychological novel, but it brings out his gaucheness towards women and his great love for the son whom he had not seen for a decade. The author has a lightness of touch and a sense of humour, most noticeable in her frequent references to Napoleon's sense of destiny. At one point she makes Napoleon say, "There is no role for me here. I should have stayed on St. Helena.", a reference to his comment that he should have stayed in Egypt, when he first saw the forbidding rock of St Helena in 1815. She also neatly captures the egotism of the Duke of Wellingon, who claimed that everything was turning out precisely as he had predicted: "How nice it would be, thought Dorothea [von Lieven, wife of the Russian Minister and Metternich's mistress], to one day meet a man who did not mind saying, "I was wrong.""

I am not a great reader of historical novels, and try to avoid counterfactual history, so had I not been volunteered by Simon Pipes of St Helena Online, I almost certainly would never have read Napoleon in America. To my surprise though I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the turbulent post Waterloo period.

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