Ornery, obstreperous Betsy Balcombe and the Ogre
Thomas Keneally has again turned documented history into novel form, fleshing out journals and documented source material with a writerly imagination.
His subject here is Napoleon, from his arrival on St Helena, and the strange friendship which developed between the exiled, defeated Emperor, and the thirteen year old Betsy, the daughter of the Superintendent of Public Sales for the East India Company, on the island.
‘Boney’ was initially viewed by the island residents with a mixture of horror, disgust, fear and great fascination. He was after all a mythical monster whom England had been at war with, but he was also a figure of exotic charisma.
Because the building where Bonaparte was most probably going to end his days, and in fact did do so, was still in the process of being repaired, renovated and readied to be an effective house arrest, Bonaparte and his retinue lived for a while in a property on the Balcombe estate, and very quickly a kind of friendship and admiration for the exile developed between the Balcombes and their ‘guest’
Betsy, an unusually spirited and fiery young girl refused, from the start, to be cowed, intimidated or respectful towards the man she initially thought of as The Ogre which legend had painted him as. Instead, she was positively cheeky, rude and forthright, challenging him, calling him ‘Boney’ to his face, and criticising him. Far from being offended, ‘Boney’ responded to Betsy’s challenging behaviour by responding to her in kind, jesting, japing and ridiculing. It was a curious relationship, and very soon, ‘Ogre’ had become renamed by the whole family as ‘OGF’, Our Great Friend. And a new and far more meanly spirited foe arrived on the island, Herbert Lowe, as Governor of St. Helena. Lowe, categorised as ‘’The Fiend’, and, in Keneally’s book wittily nicknamed ‘Name and Nature’ by Betsy (‘low, by name and nature’) was highly suspicious of the friendship between the Balcombes and the exile, and constantly striving to restrict Napoleon’s freedom still further, cutting back on his allowances of food, visitors and materials, stepping up surveillance on him. Obviously there were fears that Napoleon, who had escaped from Elba, might do so again from the far more isolated St Helena.
The Balcombes, in fact, also came under suspicion as possibly being prepared to aid Napoleon, and were even suspected of treason. William Balcombe lost his position with the East India Company, and 3 years after Boney’s arrival the family had to return to England, to a degree of penury and great distrust from some quarters.
Even at the time, the relationship between the 47 year old Napoleon and the barely teenage Betsy was seen as some kind of love story, though it was as much a love between the whole family and the Frenchman.
Keneally’s sources included Betsy’s own account, published when she was an adult, and also a book published by Barry O’ Meara, an Irish doctor who had ministered to Napoleon on the island, had also become a friend, and highly critical of Lowe.
Keneally is successful at giving the wonderfully individualistic, distinctly uncowed, unbowed feisty young woman a believable and engaging voice, and also in giving Napoleon himself an aspect different from that generally found in history books.
The book did feel overlong, however, and somewhere around the 300 page, somehow I felt that Betsy’s narrative voice had slipped off and away, and I became aware that the narrator was Keneally, and there were a couple of scenes where I also felt that probably some bedroom fictions were happening, rather than purely the dramatisation of source material.
Keneally continued with Betsy and her family’s life after they were made to leave St Helena, as the family ended up in Australia, so to some extent the Balcombes became part of Australia’s history. However, once away from St Helena the narrative drive became much less compelling.
The story of Betsy and Napoleon has also given rise to radio and film adaptations
I received the book as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK