Betsy and the Emperor

Written by Anne Whitehead

The tagline on the Australian edition, “The true story of Napoleon, a pretty girl, a Regency rake and an Australian colonial misadventure”, puts a light spin on what is a major scholarly work about Napoleon’s imprisonment on St Helena and how his friendship with the Balcombe family led to a chain of events that found them living in New South Wales.

Teenage Betsy Balcombe grows close to the deposed Emperor as he struggles with his humiliation and confinement on the remote island. She’s cheeky and irreverent, and he reciprocates with playfulness between them, much to the shock or annoyance of others. Meanwhile, British officials and members of the French entourage are involved in all manner of intrigues and liaisons as well as political posturing.

The vivacious Betsy lifts the tone whenever she takes centre stage, but the book drags at times under the weight of its research and repeated scrutiny, e.g., suspicions surrounding her father’s patronage in high places, and also diversions into the backgrounds of subordinate characters. But for Napoleonic aficionados, the earlier chapters will offer new insights into what really happened on St Helena while the latter chapters reveal lesser-known facts about the Balcombes in Australia.