Betsy and the Emperor

Written by Staton Rabin
Review by Marina Maxwell

It is the fall of 1815 on the remote island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean when Napoleon Bonaparte arrives there as England’s most notorious prisoner after his defeat at Waterloo. While the French dictator awaits incarceration in gloomy Longwood prison, he is temporarily quartered with the East India Company’s Superintendent of Public Sales, the superintendent’s wife, and their two daughters. Thus begins the true account of Napoleon’s three-year relationship with Betsy Balcombe, the fourteen-year-old English girl who, although initially repulsed by the former Emperor of France, learns to respect him and, ultimately, to love him as a cherished friend.

Although the intriguing situation presented in this young adult novel is rooted in fact, the author has embellished it with a colorful back story, as she explains in the Author’s Note, to tell the story in her own way. Toward this end, she chose not to read the real Betsy’s autobiography (Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, by Betsy Balcombe Abell). While vivid and intelligently written, I felt the growing bond between Betsy and Bonaparte would have made a lovely and enlightening book without the addition of several, almost ridiculous, plot points. For me, the protagonist’s wholly fictional and frivolous attempts to help Bonaparte escape the island—-in a hot-air balloon sewn from her sister’s silk dresses, and without Bonaparte’s knowledge, for example—was not only distracting, but also served to diminish the otherwise engaging central story. (Ages 10-14)