Thomas Keneally, author of over thirty novels, among them the Booker Prize winner Schindler’s Ark (1982), decided to write about Napoleon after visiting an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2012. Some of the exhibits were from the collection of the Balcombe family, who befriended Napoleon during his last exile on the South Atlantic island of St Helena. They included Sèvres plate, Jacob Frères furniture, a lock of Napoleon’s hair and his death mask. ‘We people of the globe’s southernmost regions are used to going to Europe on interminable, brain-numbing flights to gawp at such items,’ writes Keneally, ‘but to be able to do it in Australia was a delight.’
The Balcombe family eventually emigrated from England, via St Helena, to Australia; when Napoleon was exiled there in 1815 William Balcombe was superintendent of public sales for the East India Company. Napoleon lived in a pavilion at the bottom of the Balcombes’ garden when he first arrived on the island while he waited for his permanent residence to be finished. He became fond of the whole family, especially William’s second daughter, Betsy, a feisty girl of thirteen who later wrote Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon on the Island of St Helena (1844).
Keneally, who is now eighty, boldly chose to write as Betsy, assuming the voice of a 19th-century teenager. He presents his novel as a secret journal, ‘the one hidden behind the real one published in 1844’. His purpose is far from hagiographical. ‘I am an Australian bush republican’, he writes