Monday, 1 July 2019

The Emperor's Shadow : The Strange Story of the Balcombes

The Emperor's Shadow, London 2015

The author has done a tremendous amount of research, and has gathered together a large amount of information on the Balcombe family, much of which was unknown to me at least. Her basic thesis is that Napoleon, the calculating arch-manipulator, cultivated the Balcombe family because of their connection to the Prince Regent through their benefactor, Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt.(1)

"He had no intention of adjusting to the situation; he would devise how best to escape from it - and the Balcombe family might just offer an avenue. Meanwhile, surprisingly, there was some pleasure to be had.(2)

And of course whilst Napoleon may have enjoyed himself, Mme de Staël's somewhat biased judgement of him is endorsed:

"doubtless there was calculation on his part even amid the fun and silly games. He knew the accounts of them .. made him seem sympathetic, humanised him." (3)

The author makes a good case for Betsy being several months pregnant at the time of her marriage to Edward Abell in 1822. This she suggests may be the reason the marriage took place at Exminster, rather than Chudleigh where the Balcombes had been living. The author also makes a good case for her daughter being born in St Omer in France, away from the gossip of London and Devon.(4)

As for the bridegroom Edward Abell, solid facts are a bit thin on the ground. He was an Indian Army Officer, about 11 years older than Betsy, and the author speculates that they may have met on St Helena four years earlier when his ship docked. The evidence suggests that he married Betsy because of her family's connections. The author speculates that he may have impregnated Betsy deliberately so that he could marry her, "maybe he heard stories that her father was the natural son of George IV." Abell soon deserted Betsy, but later followed her to Australia, intending to sue William Balcombe for keeping his wife from him. (5)

The book sheds light on the deal which Balcombe made with Hudson Lowe to support him in his case against O'Meara. This cleared the way for Balcombe's appointment as Colonial Treasurer in New South Wales, where he spent the remaining five years of his life, and some of his heirs were to prosper. (See the Melbourne Blogger for more information on the Australian connection.)

Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt (1762-1833)

Over all the manoeuvering on St Helena and off presided Balcombe's mysterious benefactor, Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt. Tyrwhitt met Lowe in 1815 before he sailed to St. Helena and helped Balcombe secure his lucrative role procuring supplies for Longwood. It was he who came to Balcombe's aid when Lowe and Lord Bathurst began to have suspicions about his relations with Longwood. It was Tyrwhitt who strongly advised Balcombe to leave the island, whilst at the same time flattering Lowe with Royal gossip and making clear his lack of sympathy with the Whigs who were critical of Lowe's treatment of Napoleon.

Lord Holland is in a week or two to give us a Display upon Napoleon's Calamities; but as long as you keep him close, nobody cares for speeches.(6)

It was also probably Tyrwhitt who got the Times to retract a story that the Balcombes had been forced to leave St Helena, and it was Tyrwhitt who again met with Lowe and brokered the deal that removed Lowe's objection to Balcombe's subsequent colonial appointment. (7)

Balcombe, despite his association with Longwood House and Napoleon, was far better connected in London and better rewarded than Sir Hudson Lowe who had done the dirty business of the Liverpool Administration. On return from St Helena, Balcombe is to be found in the company of Sir Pulteney Malcolm and Admiral Sir George Cockburn, neither of them admirers of Sir Hudson Lowe. He is also interviewed three times by Lord Bathurst, who had to endure Lowe's endless long letters from St. Helena and perhaps was looking for an alternative source of information. Bathurst did however over-rule Balcombe's wish to return to St. Helena in 1819.

The author's conclusion about the famous relationship between Betsy and Napoleon is perhaps worth quoting, although it does overlook Napoleon's acknowledged love of children.

Betsy had brought out the best in Napoleon, that complex, brilliant, calculating and turbulent man, severely formal with others but always approachable for her. She had loved him and she would never recover from knowing him.(8)

Overall I have to admit that this book is really not to my taste. It meanders over some 400 pages, and includes material on Peterloo, the Cato Conspiracy, Queen Caroline, the Royal Divorce, the King's Coronation and much else besides. It includes a great deal of speculation and also gives an account of the the extensive travels the author undertook on her research. A more concise, factual treatment would have suited me far better, although I appreciate that I am a far from typical reader. Nevertheless it is a very useful source for anyone interested in the Balcombes and the story of their association with Napoleon,
1. Apparently the Prince Regent was unusually loyal to Tyrwhitt but he didn't take his advice on the Royal Divorce Bill and it was Tyrwhitt who had to present the divorce bill to Queen Caroline. Whitehead pp 257-259. Tyrwhitt had a number of nicknames among the royal family: ‘the Dwarf’, the ‘twenty third [sic] of June’ or ‘the shortest night’; ‘Saint Thomas’ from ‘the shortest day’, and so to ‘the Saint’.
2. Whitehead pp 54-55. The author says that says that Napoleon would have remembered Tyrwhitt's visit to Paris in 1801 as secretary and emissary of the Prince Regent.
3. Mme de Staël is uncritically quoted at some length in support of the author's view, concluding with, "he is a chess-master whose opponents happen to be the rest of humanity". She also quotes Philip Dwyer in claiming that Napoleon dispensed with people when they ceased to be useful. One does wonder about his tolerance of Talleyrand and Fouché in this respect! Anne Whitehead, The Emperor's Shadow, Bonaparte, Betsy and the Balcombes (London 2015) pp 49,62, 94
The author also exaggerates Napoleon's desire to escape, which was virtually non-existent, but which nevertheless understandably preoccupied Hudson Lowe and Lord Bathurst. For example the author comments on a conversation between Napoleon and Admiral Pulteney Malcolm in which the latter said had rowed around the island, that it was "useful information that a rowing boat could approach the cliffs." Whitehead p. 129.
4. Whitehead pp 281,300, 330.
5. The author and I disagree whether William Balcombe was actually at the wedding. I have a copy of the certificate and am pretty certain that the first signatory was Jane Balcombe, not William Balcombe. It could of course be Betsy's mother, but her mother although known as Jane was christened Emma Jane.
According to Betsy, Abell later admitted that he never had any affection for her, and that "he merely married under the hope of gaining something good thru my father and his exalted interests. " Letter from Betsy to Major-General Sir Henry Torrens, 10 August 1824, quoted in Whitead pp330-332.
6. Tyrwhitt to Hudson Lowe, Dec 8th 1817, quoted in Whithead p 191.
7. Whitehead pp 203-4, 282-4.
8. Whitehead p 197