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Thomas Keneally’s book turns the spotlight on Napoleon

According to Australian author, Thomas Keneally (Schindler’s List), it was an exhibition of Napoleonic memorabilia that he visited at the National Gallery in Melbourne, Australia in 2012 that inspired his latest novel.

It was here that he saw artefacts including a swatch of Napoleon’s hair and death mask, collected from a homestead just outside of the city named The Briars.

Napoleon’s Last Island is based on the memoirs of Betsy Balcombe, the 13-year old daughter of the Balcombe family, who played host to the Emperor for 10 weeks at their home, The Briars, when he first arrived on St Helena in 1815 and who were eventually exiled to Australia, taking the memorabilia with them. “The idea of a friendship between the emperor and a girl who would end up in Australia, her family destroyed by their association with him, gripped me utterly,” says Keneally, writing in The Guardian.

Napoleon's Last Island Thomas Keneally

He recounts how William and Jane Balcombe hosted Napoleon, who chose to reside in their summer house ‘the Pavilion’ and regularly played games of blind man’s bluff and hide and seek with the Balcombe children. At some stage William began smuggling unauthorised letters and money bills for the Emperor, leading ultimately to the family’s disgrace.

Keneally visited St Helena himself last year with his wife, Judy.

Watch an interview with him here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmyyyHfDNTw

Thomas Keneally

Follow in Napoleon’s footsteps on a tour of the French-owned Napoleonic properties of Longwood House, The Briars Pavilion, and the Tomb in Sane Valley.

A special exhibition of Napoleonic artefacts entitled ‘Napoleon, His Fight for His Story’ can be seen at the Musée de l’Armée in Paris until 24 July.

1 Response

  • John Coyle

    Read the book just after it was first published, found it a bit too much of a romantic version of events. There were a couple of errors in describing the island in some parts, but not too bad by comparison with some other authors! An easy read, probably best for people who haven’t followed this story before.

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