TWO hundred years and two months ago, a momentous (and, to that point, unimaginably preposterous) event occurred on a pinprick of rock in the south Atlantic Ocean: dethroned French emperor Napoléon Bonaparte – the Great Ogre, the Tyrant, who had rampaged across Europe and already escaped once from exile – was incarcerated again.
In the hands of the Royal Navy after his rout at Waterloo and forced flight from Paris, Bonaparte, then aged 47, was shipped to arguably the most isolated outpost at that time under British control. The inhabitants of tiny St Helena were simultaneously astounded, appalled and intrigued when on October 17 1815 the prize captive and his entourage were ushered onto their 17-by-10-kilometre sliver of land.
His miserable banishment there would not succeed entirely, however. Bonaparte’s spiteful jailers, intent on seeing him endure a lonely and deprived subsistence, had not foreseen the companionship he would find in an unlikely playmate and ally: 13-year-old Lucia Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Balcombe. Caught midway between childhood and adolescence, Betsy was irreverent, quick-witted and challenging – an alluring combination to a man wearied by being fawned over endlessly and tiptoed around.
Thomas Keneally’s enthralling, educative and at-times-heartwrenching novel – part fiction, largely fact – celebrates both the youthful pranks and the profound tenderness that passed between the pair as Betsy honed her love-hate regard for the liquorice-eating, compassionate, attentive man she teasingly called “Boney” and would go on to remember always as “Our Great Friend”.
An excellent companion book, also released in recent weeks, is Sydney writer Anne Whitehead’s Betsy and the Emperor. When read as a follow-up to Keneally’s novel it verifies that many of the outlandish escapades described therein did indeed occur and expands on the Balcombe family’s later wanderings, including to Australia, where the grand-daughter of one of Betsy’s younger brothers was Dame Mabel Brookes.