Reviews: Fiction

Betsy and the Emperor

By Staton Rabin

Rabin, Staton.  Betsy and the Emperor: a Novel.  N.Y.: Margaret K. McElderry (Simon & Schuster), 2004. 294 pages. ISBN# 0689858809. Hardcover. $16.95.

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This new young adult (YA) novel is a historical fantasy based on Napoleon's earliest years on St. Helena. Ms. Rabin has reimagined Napoleon's exile through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Betsy Balcombe, the tomboyish daughter of a British official living on the distant South Atlantic island. 

Freshly returned to St. Helena from a boarding school in England, Betsy, while on one of her adventures, sees the arrival of a ship in the island's port of Jamestown.  Investigating the commotion —Are pirates raiding the port? —Is the island being invaded? —Betsy discovers that, in a way, there is an invasion.

Napoleon has landed, but as a prisoner of the British; isolated on a tiny, rocky island in the back of beyond and guarded by more than 2000 British troops and a small fleet of warships.  Betsy discovers that Napoleon has come to the Balcombe's home, known as The Briars, to live.  Betsy and General Bonaparte, as the British insist on calling him, are about to find their lives intersecting.  Eventually they will enter into a sort of conspiracy together.

From the first Napoleon plays both the ogre—a role Napoleon, at times, seems to revel in—and the aggrieved ex-Emperor. Betsy, recently released from her own prison of a English boarding school, finds herself, in a sense, in just a bigger prison formed of both the size of the an island that Napoleon once described as "petit" and by the expectations of those around her towards a girl entering into young womanhood.  As Betsy says, she was "not at all aspiring to proper young ladyhood."

Betsy, at first, is unimpressed by the former conqueror, but Napoleon, employing the charm he was reported of being capable of, eventually wins Betsy over.  Betsy is unimpressed with Napoleon's glory, considering him as a "man who had brought so much misery upon the world.  Who never did anything of value, nor gave a thought to anyone but himself." To Betsy, whose fellow students at school had lost fathers and brothers in the wars, Napoleon is little more than a "professional murderer." As Betsy spends more time with the new arrival and learns more about Napoleon her opinion of her fellow prisoner begins to change.

For his part, Napoleon at first teases the teenaged girl, calling her "monsieur" when he catches her riding astride rather than the sidesaddle proper for a young woman. But Napoleon sees Betsy (perhaps as he saw himself around Betsy's age) as someone who is "trapped... like a good actress in a very bad play.  You dream [he tells her] of doing great things, but no one expects it of you.  Your heart aches to break free—and write your own destiny on the wind... someday they will see what they have missed in you—you will make them see. And they will be sorry."  Gradually the rebellious Betsy, whose older sister is one of those who Betsy wants to make sorry, begins to have some grudging admiration for the rebellious general.

Under the influence of the Balcombe family's half-mad, half-French tutor, Huff, Betsy enters into an ambitious conspiracy to free her new friend—unbeknownst to Napoleon.  In a way Napoleon's escape from his prison would be an escape of Betsy from her own confinement.  "But risk my life," she vows, "I would do again —and again— if it would help set him free." 

At the same time Napoleon conspires to assist Betsy in her first tentative steps into adult social life, as Betsy experiences her first crush on a handsome British officer.  The arrival of the island's new governor —and Napoleon's new jailer— Hudson Lowe marks the appearance in the plot of a villain who disrupts the lives of both Betsy and Napoleon. 

Rabin presents her heroine as a tomboyish girl struggling with her approaching adulthood.  Betsy is lively, independent and adventurous.  Napoleon is presented as a complicated mixture of playfulness and ruthlessness.  He enjoys teasing Betsy and playing games with Betsy's little brothers, but also is involved in a much more serious game with his British captors.

Rabin has not tried to recreate the actual events of Napoleon's captivity, though most of the characters are historical.  Rabin admits in the "Source Notes" that she avoided reading the real Betsy Balcombe's memoir of her life on St. Helena before finishing the novel.  Instead Rabin has created a historical fantasy of adventure narrated by a teenaged Betsy of her own imagining. 

Rabin includes, besides the "Source Notes," a "Geographical Note" on the island of St. Helena and historical notes on the Code Napoléon and on French anthem, La Marseillaise. A contemporary map of St. Helena and portraits of Napoleon and of Betsy as an adult are also included.

Staton Rabin is an author of young adult books, as well as screenwriter, so it is no surprise that Betsy and the Emperor has been option for a movie, with Al Pacino mentioned in the role of Napoleon. 

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg
Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2004


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