A BOOK REVIEW: To Befriend an Emperor, Betsy Balcombe’s Memoirs

A BOOK REVIEW:  To Befriend an Emperor: Betsy Balcombe’s Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte on St Helena, edits and introduction by J. David Markham, Ravenhall Books, 2005. (Originally published in 1844 as Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon on the Island of St Helena, by Lucia Elizabeth Balcombe Abell.)

As I covered in my last blog, Napoleon’s first home on St Helena was the one-room summer pavilion at the Briars, the Balcombe family estate. During his six-week stay, he developed an avuncular friendship with the Balcombe children, especially brash thirteen-year-old Betsy, who spoke French.

In 1844, Betsy published Recollections of the Emperor, a detailed account of their time together. In 2005, Ravenhall Press published a “gently modernized” version.  Historians still rely upon the memoir to document the emperor’s St Helena exile. To anyone interested in Napoleon, this light-hearted book provides fascinating insight into his character.

Napoleon loved children, perhaps because his own childhood had been cut short when, at age nine, he was sent to French military school.  During the following six years, he saw his father twice and his mother once.  The strict, almost monastic school left little opportunity for play.  As an adult, however, he loved rough-housing with his nephews, spoiling his toddler son, and teasing his generals’ children.

On St Helena, Betsy Balcombe became his favorite. According to the memoir, the emperor encouraged her pranks. Even when she held him at bay with his own sword, stole his official papers, or accused him of cheating at cards, he forgave her audacity.  Each tale, told in a precocious child’s voice with rich detail, gives the reader a humanizing portrait of a great man whose influence is still felt today.

Sometimes, the book turns to more serious subjects, as when Betsy quizzes Napoleon on the rumor about him becoming a Muslim in Egypt.  “[She asks] ‘Why did you turn Turk?’ He did not understand me, and I was obliged to explain that ‘turned Turk’ meant changing his religion.  He laughed and said, ‘What is that to you? Fighting is a soldier’s religion; I never changed that. The other is the affair of women and priests; as for me, I always adopt the religion of the country I am in.’”

When Napoleon left the Briars for Longwood House, Betsy and her family continued to visit him, but association with the Famous can lead to misfortune. British authorities accused Mr Balcombe of aiding Napoleon with unauthorized communications to Europe.  Stripped of his lucrative position as provisioner to Longwood, the Balcombes experienced an exile in reverse—banishment from remote St Helena.  Despite her family’s upheaval, Betsy saved the precious notes from her days with the emperor, supplying us a front-row seat to Napoleon’s St Helena exile.

The 192-page, hard-cover, 2005 edition, titled To Befriend an Emperor, features charming illustrations and updated spelling.  Noted scholar J. David Markham’s introduction provides excellent historical context.  Alternately, the original Recollections of an Emperor can be downloaded from Google Books for free.  I recommend either version of these sweetly-told stories as captivating summer reading with a Napoleonic twist.

(This review first appeared on the website, www.swanways.com.)


  • Maria Soledad Flaugher
    July 29, 2013 - 11:16 am | Permalink

    During my high school years in Madrid (but in an Italian school) we had to learn by heart “Il Cinque Maggio” (The Fifth of May) by Alessandro Manzoni, written shortly after the news of Napoleon’s death reached Europe as a reactive impulse. I do believe that by then my interest in him was set for life.

    Great anniversary page!

    Thanks again,

  • mrodenberg
    August 5, 2013 - 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Thank you! All the best, Margaret

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