Betsy Balcombe was thirteen when Napoleon Bonaparte came to live in her garden. The two forged an extraordinary relationship in the first weeks of Napoleon's incarceration on St Helena .
Julia Blackburn draws from Betsy's memoirs and the diaries of Napoleon's aide, the Count de Las Cases, to recreate the story of a meeting between innocence and a great burden of experience, the Fool and the King, of a child who lives for the moment with a man who is wrapped in the greatness of his past. Betsy's daughter later wrote: 'Napoleon never ceased to be the preoccupation of my mother's life..suddenly thrown into close proximity with the most dramatic figure of the age, she was ill-prepared to withstand the resultant repercussions: glamorous, disturbing, intimate, even sinister'.
The serial is beautifully written, moving and funny; with fine performances by Alex Jennings as Napoleon, Michelle Tate as Betsy, Ian McNeice as Mr Balcomb and Rupert Wickham as Count de Las Cases. The drama is based on a story that writer Julia Blackburn discovered when she was researching her book The Emperor's Last Island . Julia is the author of the recent highly-acclaimed portrait of Billie Holiday, With Billie .
Betsy's father was purveyor of goods for the East India Company on the island of St Helena . The Balcombe family invited Napoleon to live in the Pavilion in their garden (a former ballroom which functioned as a guest room) for the first weeks of his life on St Helena, while his house was being refurbished at Longwood, in the most bleak and remote part of the island. The drama follows the developing relationship between this young girl and the world's most feared and revered man, at a time when he was new to captivity, when he had not yet learned to recognise himself as a prisoner. Echoes of his recent past at Waterloo and Trafalgar and of the oppressive despair of his coming incarceration at Longwood form a backdrop to the play.
Betsy watches as Napoleon first comes ashore at night. All three and a half thousand inhabitants of the island line the quay, with flaming torches held high so they could see him more clearly. Every moment of Napoleon's life was monitored and scrutinised. Every word he spoke was transcribed by his personal staff, and his movements were recorded by English guards. Tourists came to try and catch a glimpse of him. On arrival at St Helena , Napoleon said he 'felt like a wild beast, caged but still dangerous and set among people who had never encountered such a creature before.' Betsy later watches him leave her home for his last residence at Longwood, where a guard of soldiers beat out a salute on their drums that must have sounded as much like a warning as a welcome.
The Count de Las Cases, one of Napoleon's most adoring acolytes, is a somewhat unreliable narrator. Las Cases particularly hated the way Betsy teased and played with Napoleon. He was jealous of the understanding which developed between the Emperor and the child - it was a kind of love affair which excluded him and diminished his influence with Napoleon.
Betsy Balcombe spoke French and she was not afraid of His Imperial Majesty. Napoleon's entourage of Counts and Generals would not speak to him unless spoken to; their access to him was rigidly bound by rules, and they did not like this English girl who took liberties with the Emperor. Betsy played rough games with Napoleon; and she watched the way his eyes seemed to change colour from blue to grey to brown. She felt his hair, which was as soft as the hair of a young child, and she wondered why his teeth were so dark, until she realised that it came from eating so much liquorice. She took Napoleon's hands in her own to examine them. She was at an age between childhood and womanhood which allowed her licence to be bad mannered and rough, but keep an edge of flirtatiousness. She told him frankly that she did not like his singing and she was allowed access to him at any time she chose.
As Napoleon's ship arrives at St Helena , Napoleon dreads the scrutiny of the islanders and the thousands of soldiers brought in to guard him. Betsy Balcombe watches with her family. The next day he visits Longwood with his entourage, and later arrives in the Balcombes' garden. Only Betsy speaks French and so she takes the role of intermediary. Napoleon asks if he might occupy the Pavilion until Longwood is ready and the Balcombes agree.
Preparations are made for Napoleon to move into the Pavilion. Priceless objects and people are installed, including Count Emmanuel de Las Cases, who is fervently devoted to the Emperor. Surrounded by sycophants, already Napoleon is hemmed in by boredom and a horror of the future on St Helena . Only a child can help him step out of the pattern of monotony and evasion and so he turns to Betsy.
Betsy takes - and is given - more licence than anyone else with the Emperor. She tells him that a visitor to the Balcombes is afraid of the ogre Napoleon and so he goes to meet the girl with his head lolling, howling savagely. Betsy is amused; the girl is terrified. Betsy plays cards with him and when he cheats at both she threatens him with his own sword and runs off with a bundle of dictated memoirs. Napoleon's staff are incredulous, but the Emperor is pleased by her. Then one day she brings him a mechanical toy used to frighten English children. It shows Napoleon fat bellied and grotesque, standing at the bottom of a ladder. The toy 'Boney' jerkily mounts the steps, each marked with the name of a country he has conquered. At the top step, marked St Helena , his legs crumple and he falls from the ladder, helplessly suspended.
Napoleon's entourage are further outraged by Betsy's relationship with the Emperor. She calls him names and clambers over him like a puppy with a large dog. He gives her sugarplums, then tells her ghoulish stories about the spirits of dead soldiers crying for their lost limbs, and sends a servant dressed as a ghost to frighten her at night. Napoleon still feels like a guest at a masked ball, playing at being a prisoner. This playfulness is abhorrent to the intensely serious Count Las Cases. Las Cases decides to punish Betsy for insolent behaviour by pushing her roughly against a steep bank. Napoleon reacts by holding him by the shoulders to allow Betsy to thump his ears with her fists.
Napoleon must leave for Longwood; his playing time is over. He procrastinates, saying that he needs more time and that anyhow the smell of fresh paint at Longwood would make him sick. Betsy visits him as he dozes in the garden in the early morning. She stands next to him, holding his hand until he wakes up. The English admiral in charge of the island threatens to surround the Pavilion with one hundred soldiers if Napoleon will not co-operate, and so he prepares to go. His possessions are packed away, he dresses and waits for the moment of departure. Everything is done with ceremony. Napoleon says goodbye to Betsy. The guards at Longwood beat out a drum salute as he approaches.
Julia Blackburn is the author of Charles Waterton, The Emperor's Last Island , Daisy Bates in the Desert, which was shortlisted for the Waterstones/Esquire/Volvo Non Fiction Award, a biography of Goya and The Book of Colour, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She wrote A Good Death, an afternoon play for Radio Four in 2002. Her biography of Billie Holiday With Billie was broadcast on Radio Four in March 2005.