Thursday 2 September 2010

L'Autre St Hélène

I posted an initial comment on this book in a post on 25th May.

I have now had the time to read it - the first French book I have read for longer than I care to remember. A detailed account, some 400 pages long, it is nevertheless a thoroughly enjoyable read. Despite frequent recourse to a French dictionary, I found it difficult to put down once I had started. It has given me a number of ideas for topics I wish to pursue, and I shall doubtless refer to it frequently in the future.

As the title suggests, the focus is on Napoleon's health and the medical treatment he received whilst on St Helena. In here is the story of all the doctors associated with the captivity. Some fell foul of the authorities, some never actually got to see Napoleon, some were incompetent, and some were perhaps afraid to tell Sir Hudson Lowe anything he did not want to hear. The book also throws an interesting light on the relations between Napoleon's fellow exiles at Longwood, and helps to re-establish the reputation of Montholon. The feelings of the patient himself are not a prime concern of the book, but in one telling passage the author draws on the evidence of Santini, one of the domestic servants at Longwood, who claimed that neither the loss of his throne nor his exile hurt Napoleon as much as the betrayal of Marie-Louise, the wife and mother of the child whom he was never to see after 1814. As for the hapless Sir Hudson Lowe, this book only confirms his unsuitability for the appointment he was given.

The author, a native French speaker who is based in England, is uniquely placed to be able to use both English and French sources. I cannot recall any previous history of the captivity which is so firmly grounded in both French and British archival material. The author has also drawn on a large number of French printed sources which are sometimes not easily accessible outside France.

With an impressive bibliography, footnotes on each page, and a large number of quotations from original sources, it lacks only an index. Despite the scholarly apparatus, it is very accessible to the general reader.

In conclusion, this is a significant, scholarly, yet highly accessible book which deserves to be read by anyone interested in the captivity of Napoleon.

I eagerly await its publication in English.

( Albert Benhamou L'autre Sainte-Hélène: La Captivité, La Maladie, La Mort, Et Les Médecins Autour De Napoléon Albert Benhamou Publishing, 2010. ISBN 978-0-9564654-0-5)

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