Monday, 31 August 2015

Napoleon - buried in a Suffolk Churchyard

Not many people can say that their parents are buried close to Napoleon!

I first saw this grave at my mother's funeral in the same year that Napoleon, the Suffolk one, died. At the time I knew little about Napoleon Bonaparte, and nothing of his place in the popular imagination and memory of the inhabitants of these islands.

Some 20 years after the Suffolk Napoleon was born, in what at the time would have seemed far off Manchester, the future writer Anthony Burgess's father apparently wondered whether his son would be another Napoleon, but he didn't go as far as Mr Harper's parents, settling on the names John Anthony for his son.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Black Rock by Louise Hoole

The latest historical novel on Napoleon, by Louise Hoole

The daughter of a former Governor of St. Helena, Louise Hoole spent a number of her early years on the island, fell in love with it, and has subsequently done a great deal of research into the captivity of Napoleon.

The divide between "history" and "literature" is not as clear cut as many imagine, but having admitted that, I should declare that I am not a great fan of historical novels. I cannot fully understand why an author puts considerable effort into research, and then writes a book which contradicts the findings of that research! Despite that reservation I must admit that I enjoyed Black Rock . I particularly admire the economy and precision of Louise Hoole's writing. The first few pages convinced me that I would have to read further:

I staggered to my feet, wrapped a pillow around my head, and forced myself to suffer the appalling pain of movement. The shriek of the doorknob as I turned it was like that of a man losing a limb.
As I entered the billiard room, the dreadful noises seemed to die down as quickly as they had begun. I closed my eyes .. When I opened them again, I found myself looking down upon a body. I recognised immediately that it was my own.

The novel explores the motives and feelings of those who shared Napoleon's exile on St. Helena, and as the author admits in an appendix, she is persuaded by the research of Ben Weider that Napoleon was poisoned by one of his own followers, perhaps because of their hidden Bourbon sympathies.

The novel also attempts to explore Napoleon's own feelings, by making him, or rather his ghost, the narrator of most of the chapters. This is a task beyond the capabilities of a mere historian: Napoleon kept no diary and confided in nobody; the voluminous first hand accounts of the captivity all take an external view of the main player. The only other very different attempt that I have come across was the journalist Jean-Paul Kauffman's The Dark Room at Longwood, which is among the secondary sources Louise Hoole cites in an appendix. Lord Rosebery's, Napoleon the Final Phase is also mentioned in the same place. Like Rosebery, Louise Hoole has a lot of time for General Gourgaud, perhaps because of his lack of deference to Napoleon, and she even extends Gourgaud's actual stay on the island by three years!

Appropriately perhaps for a former resident of Plantation House, Ms. Hoole implies that Governor Hudson Lowe's failed career and shattered reputation was all the design of Napoleon. I am persuaded that Lowe, an appropriate tool and a scapegoat for an unpopular British Government, had more than a hand in his own downfall. Napoleon's aim was to secure his own return to Europe from an exile that he thought was totally unjustified and a betrayal of the confidence he had shown in surrendering to the British Government. Within that framework Lowe was little more than an irritation, and his appointment an insult. But hey, this is a novel, and an enjoyable one at that! I look forward to hearing Louise Hoole's talk at the next meeting of the Friends of St Helena.