Anne Whitehead

Betsy and the Emperor Reviews

Betsy and the Emperor Reviews

The true story of Napoleon, a pretty girl, a Regency rake and an Australian colonial misadventure.

Publisher’s note:
‘After Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, he was sent into exile on St Helena. He became an “eagle in a cage”, reduced from the most powerful figure in Europe to a prisoner on a rock in the South Atlantic. But the fallen emperor was charmed by Betsy Balcombe, the pretty teenage daughter of a local merchant.

Anne Whitehead brings to life Napoleon’s last years on St Helena, revealing the important role of the Balcombe family. She also lays to rest two centuries of speculation about Betsy’s relationship with Napoleon.

Anne was awarded an Australia Council Literature Board Fellowship for this work and her research has taken her to the South Atlantic island of St Helena, then only reached by a week's voyage on the last Royal Mail Ship. She also explored archives and locations connected with the Balcombes in England, Scotland and France.

Extracts from reviews:

'Anne Whitehead deftly weaves a lively, poignant tale of Napoleon's last years on St Helena and the precocious teenager whose impudent charm briefly enlivened his exile. Her indefatigable pursuit of a tantalising archival trail takes her readers from St Helena to England, Scotland, France and New South Wales, uncovering a life curiously shadowed by its early brush with fame.' 
Professor Penny Russell
University of Sydney
'St Helena - an exiled emperor in the garden pavilion and in the house a pretty, flighty teenager. And therefrom spring some fascinating narratives, ending up, after a disastrous marriage to a stylish cad in colonial New South Wales.'
Marion Halligan
award-winning author
'A fascinating exploration of the life journey of Betsy Balcombe Abell from St Helena to Sydney to London. This is a well-researched and readable history of the dramatic repercussions for an English family of its proximity to Napoleon in his final years on St Helena.'
Professor Ann Curthoys
University of Sydney
‘Anne Whitehead’s Betsy and the Emperor (Allen & Unwin) is an admirable comprehensive history of the Balcombe family and their intimate relationship with Napoleon on St Helena and their final fetching up in 1820s Australia. It is the defining word on these extraordinary and poignant actors in the histories of the Emperor, Saint Helena and Eastern Australia.’
Tom Keneally
Summer Reading Recommendations’, SMH Spectrum, 12 December, 2015
‘For her new book Betsy and the Emperor Anne Whitehead scoured the archives, including the neglected French records of the years on St Helena, to provide an amazingly full account of Bonaparte’s daily life, and of Betsy Balcombe’s later life in Sydney and England. Her research reveals the way networks of patronage operated across the British Empire in the early nineteenth century, from London to St Helena, the Cape, India and Sydney. Her Betsy is a well-travelled representative of the smart middle-class girls of Jane Austen’s novels, allowed a degree of freedom in her youth but ultimately obliged to deal with faithless fortune hunters and to follow her father to the ends of the earth… She takes Betsy’s story well beyond Napoleon’s life to describe her disastrous marriage and abandonment by Edward Abell, and her father’s subsequent career in Sydney as the colonial treasurer…’
Susan Lever
‘Close Quarters’, Inside Story, 24 November 2015
‘Whitehead has travelled widely and read deeply, deftly managing an abundance of primary sources including a swathe of official records and numerous diaries and letters written by Napoleon and his associates – many of which could only be read in French. She shows considerable skill in managing a cast of characters who were intent upon confuddling the authorities with their intrigues. She also does a fine job of demonstrating how the exalted cult of Napoleon existed in stark contrast to the conditions he experienced on St Helena, where rats were said to infest his bedroom, and both his mattress and his poultry were considered “impossibly thin”.

Whitehead also recounts her own adventures as an intrepid history detective who travelled to St Helena, Madras in India, Paris and Saint-Omer in France, as well as Scotland, Sussex and “bleak Dartmoor”. In St Helena, Whitehead found Napoleon’s grave empty and much of Betsy’s childhood home greatly changed or stiffly memorialised. Nonetheless, by tracing the towns and streets once inhabited by the Balcombes, the author provides us with a potent sense of the residue of the nineteenth century British world and how it continues to exert a presence even now.’
Keira Lindsey
‘The Interesting Mrs Abell’, History Australia, 30 May 2016
‘… this lively and engrossing account of Napoleon’s final years on St Helena [is] by Australian historian Anne Whitehead. She has been intrepid enough to make the journey to that barren isolated rock herself, which is no easy feat… Imagine how much more isolated the former Emperor of Europe must have felt confined to his rat-infested quarters there, with a devoted entourage that squabbled and gossiped to pass away endless hours of boredom… But a young girl called Betsy, the spirited daughter of his initial hosts, caught Napoleon’s eye and made his plight slightly more bearable. Why did this teen, whose manners lacked decorum appeal to Napoleon? Was it merely her prettiness or did he find something refreshing in her untamed and fearless cheeky behaviour? And what were his motives in befriending her family, the Balcombes? There is plenty of intrigue here, as well as plans for an escape (to America, to join his brother Joseph). An enthralling slice of history, told with verve.’
Caroline Baum
Booktopia Buzz, September 2015
‘Whitehead’s book is less biography than a history of the world through which Betsy travelled, as well as some of the places the author has travelled to in the writing of the book, deftly woven into the narrative… Whitehead’s history also underscores the difficulties of a woman living in the first half of the 19th century. After leaving St Helena, she eventually married Edward Abell, who turned out to be a scoundrel… Whitehead’s history is thorough, possibly the best available account of Betsy, interesting for what it tells us about the life of an ordinary woman.’
Professor Philip Dwyer
Sydney Morning Herald & The Age, 14 November 2015
‘Anne Whitehead is to be congratulated on her brilliant history of Betsy Balcombe, her family and their involvement with Napoleon. Whitehead’s research has been extensive; hence the historical context is not to be faulted. And while I was rather sceptical of the “imagined interpretation” promised in this book, I was won over with the way it was handled. For anyone interested in the story of Betsy and Napoleon, and much of the social history of the 19th century, this book will keep you engaged for a long time. It is a very enjoyable read and, like all good books, this one stayed with me for many days after I had finished reading.’
Dr Christine Wright
RAHS Vice President, History: Magazine of the Royal Australian Historical Society, March 2016
‘It's a long way from the mid-Atlantic island of St Helena to colonial Sydney, but author Anne Whitehead undertook this historical journey after reading a small book published in 1844. Written by a woman named Mrs Abell, it recorded the author’s recollections about the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s time of exile on that tiny island… Whitehead has used that first person account as well as other documents to give a much rounder picture than Betsy herself had written of St Helena and the Balcombe family. Whitehead travelled to St Helena… and to England and France to discover why Napoleon had been so charmed by an irrepressible, impudent teenager…’
Jennifer Somerville
Good Reading, November 2015
‘Just how close Betsy Balcombe got to Napoleon has been a bone of contention since she first met the French emperor in 1815. Did she or didn’t she?... Anne Whitehead’s new book Betsy and the Emperor is the most meticulously researched version yet of Betsy’s incredible life. It takes the reader through Betsy’s friendship with Napoleon, her time in Australia as the daughter of NSW’s first Treasurer and up to her death in London in 1871 at the age of 68. It does answer the “did she or didn’t she” question – but you’ll have to read it to find the answer. Verdict: “Remarkable”
Keith Moor
Herald Sun (Melbourne) 12 December 2015

Views of St Helena

Book is published by Allen & Unwin, Sept. 2015 — Biography & Autobiography (452pp) ISBN: 9781760112936
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