Further from anywhere

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

  • The Emperor’s Last Island: A Journey to St Helena by Julia Blackburn
    Secker, 244 pp, £16.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 436 20030 9

Each chapter of Julia Blackburn’s peculiar and haunting book has its epigraph. The largest number of quotations are from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass; the second most frequent source is King Lear. Absurdity and tragedy alternate and overlap in this tale of pomp in reduced circumstances. As Lear discovered, a king’s no better than a fool when the winds are blowing. The South Atlantic island of St Helena, ‘further away from anywhere than anywhere else in all the world’, is ceaselessly battered by winds, not the kind of cathartic hurricane that blasted Lear’s heath, but a dull unremitting assault of cold air that has lifted the topsoil and that drives the islanders mad. Here, on a plain called Deadwood, in a house infested by rats and fleas, Napoleon passed the last six years of his life. The Emperor’s Last Island contains a vivid account of those years. Part autobiography, part travelogue, part history, it adds up to a melancholy and exquisitely bizarre essay on fame, mortality and the vanity of human wishes.

Blackburn is not concerned with Napoleon’s glory days, except in so far as they are part of the baggage of memory and reputation that he brings with him to his place of exile. Indeed, she says, ‘I still know very little about Napoleon before he came to St Helena’ (her artfully wrought book is full of similar, apparently artless avowals). Her account of his later life is riddled with doubt about the substantiality and value of temporal success, a doubt which undermines the premises on which conventional biographies of the great must rest. When, after his death, his body is opened and small bits and pieces of it (fragments of rib, an ulcerated scrap of stomach) are filched by the doctor performing the autopsy, Blackburn remarks that it seems ‘as if some ancient and obscure ceremony was being performed, with everyone who was present wanting to take for themselves a portion of the power of a dead man’. Implicit in her book is the suggestion that the writers and readers of biographies are engaged in a similarly futile, irrational but compelling rite.

Napoleon once asked his surgeon whether, in dissecting corpses, he had found the site of the soul. After his death, that same surgeon was deeply disappointed (‘My proceedings were unfeelingly arrested’) to be prevented from removing the emperor’s brain and searching for manifestations of genius and high destiny. We do not now expect to find traces of conquest or tyranny inscribed in neural tissue, but are still fascinated by the private lives of the illustrious dead. Adroitly having it both ways, Blackburn feeds that fascination with a wealth of intimate detail while exposing the fallacy that underlies it. She proposes many analogies for Napoleon in exile: one is that of a small animal, covered with ants; another is an island, swarming with people measuring, mapping, drilling. Neither ants nor prospectors reach the heart of their subject/prey.

Blackburn’s Napoleon is not the hero of his own life but an episode (admittedly a major one) in the story of St Helena. She tracks the island’s progress from its explosive first appearance toward the end of the Tertiary Period to its present forlorn condition as the last barren outpost of the British Empire, where everything has to be imported and where every prospect is littered with the clutter of past failures, dilapidated buildings, rusty washing-machines, plastic pipes. And just as this sad chronicle is the field in which Napoleon’s story is placed, so it in turn is placed, very clearly and deliberately, in the field of Julia Blackburn’s consciousness, complete with its memories, fantasies and emotional responses. A few lines back I mentioned the Tertiary Period, and left it there, a bare phrase vivid only to geologists. That is not Blackburn’s way. In her narrative the phrase triggers off a description of her son’s picture book: ‘prehistoric monsters are being hurtled to their death by a huge tidal wave.’ Most of her chapters begin with an anecdote, a reminiscence, or a flurry of images. When Napoleon is moved to Longwood, the house where he will die, she is moved to write about the Royal Hospital for Incurables, whose gates she used to pass as a child, about an iguana eating a lettuce leaf, about her grandfather – ‘the nurse slapping his cheeks in the hope that he might open his eyes for a moment and say hello or goodbye’ – about Robert Graves in Majorca, and about an old lady singing:

Forty-four and forty-five
Am I dead or am 1 alive?
I know but I don’t care.
I know about despair.

This intensely personal structure of image and reference ensures that Blackburn is always present in her book, but she is never assertive. St Helena was once a fabled paradise where peacocks screeched in laden fruit trees and freed domestic animals grew preternaturally fat beneath the enormous ebonies and redwoods. Centuries of avarice and mismanagement have transformed it into a sterile rock. Even the sand in the bay has been suctioned away to make into cement. Blackburn is indignant about this, but she doesn’t beat any kind of green drum. She simply muses: ‘It seems so very odd and yet it is so very common, to look at a stretch of landscape only in terms of the ... profit that could be extracted from it.’ As usual, the thought provokes an association, and as usual it is a forgiving one. She is reminded of an early settler in North America who wrote that the sound of great trees crashing down was comforting to him in the frightening immensity of the New World.

Napoleon was not the first fabulous exile to whom St Helena played host. Blackburn prefaces his story with that of Fernando Lopez, a Portuguese nobleman who was left on the then uninhabited island in 1513. Lopez had converted to Islam in Goa. For that apostasy (or for the equally transgressive one of living like an Indian) he was hideously mutilated by his fellow-countrymen. He came to St Helena without nose, ears, eyebrows, beard, right hand or left thumb, realising he could not bear to return to human society. It was he, with the aid of the sailors who left him plants and animals when they stopped to take on water, who created the earthly paradise that St Helena once was. In Lopez’s time sailors would carry whole lemon trees, heavy with fruit, aboard their ships. The island was hospitable, open to all. By the time Napoleon arrives three centuries of exploitation have rendered it destitute. Its trees cut down and its oil eroded, it is fit only for a brothel or a prison. ‘Once he had been brought ashore he was to be swallowed into the belly of the island and then everything was to be closed off and turned inwards, concentrating on him and holding him tightly fixed.’

Napoleon arrives in the book, as he arrives on the island, without need of introduction. Like a magnet moved beneath a tin tray, he sets people and things swirling around him simply by being there. Five and a half thousand British servicemen accompany him to St Helena. The price of an egg rises from three-pence to a shilling just because he has arrived. He sleeps one night in a hitherto undistinguished boarding-house which immediately acquires a history and brand new commercial value. Subsequent visitors can pay extra to sleep in ‘the Emperor’s Room’.

Blackburn’s book begins with the words: ‘When I first started to think about the idea of a man like Napoleon ...’ Not Napoleon tout court, but ‘the idea of a man like’ him. Her Subject is simultaneously a person and a fantasy. All those armed men were there ostensibly to prevent a rescue attempt, but, as she shrewdly remarks, ‘this threat was never so vivid as the idea of the danger contained in the man himself.’ Napoleon in exile was Boney the bogeyman still. Byron eulogised him:

Conqueror and Captive of the Earth art thou!
She trembles at thee still, and thy wild name
Was ne’er more bruited in men’s minds than now
That thou art nothing, save the jest of Fame.

Over and over again Blackburn evokes the uncanniness of encountering a ‘jest of Fame’ face to face. When Napoleon rides into the garden of the Balcombe family (whose teenage daughter, Betsy, will later write the most popular memoir of his exile), his horse’s hoofs cut deep marks in the grass. The detail is introduced gently and left to resonate. The ‘wild name’ is flesh, and heavy.

Blackburn speculates on how he may have felt, but her book contains none of the amateur psychology that is the stuff of more conventional biography. Instead she illuminates her subject’s state of mind by exploring the furnishings of her own. Napoleon’s dreadful situation reminds her of an image of dread drawn from quite elsewhere. ‘A fear must sit upon him, like those Medieval paintings which show a devil with a spiny tail perched upon the shoulder.’ Refraining from guessing at the unknowable, she confines herself to an account of the observable, an ostensibly modest enterprise which in practice leads to a phantasmagoric parade of objects and incidents: a chariot drawn by mice; a crown cut into the turf of the lawn to mark the Emperor’s sleeping-place; palaces of spun-sugar (a pastry-cook was one of his companions in exile) consumed in silence by a group of courtiers in mildewed silks while rats fight under the floorboards. Curiouser and curiouser. Napoleon himself makes startling appearances, teasing young Betsy Balcombe with his hair ruffled, his face contorted and his head lolling; bolting into his bedroom after dinner tearing off his clothes ‘like a boxer after a hard fight’; ordering his camp bed dismantled so that he can weigh it in a despairing ploy to fill the empty days.

As his companions fall away, he becomes more and more inscrutable. One Captain Nicholls was detailed to obtain ‘ocular evidence’ of his continued presence at least twice a day. The wretched captain’s difficulties form a parallel with those of the writer or reader who tries to see Napoleon plain. Blackburn relates a profoundly disturbing black-comic incident. ‘Three days before Napoleon’s 49th birthday Nicholls was standing in the garden and peering hopefully through the shutters of the bathroom window when suddenly the Emperor rose up out of the bath in which he had been lying for more than two hours, and white-skinned, naked and wet he walked up to the shuttered window and stood there so that he could be clearly seen.’ The dripping figure spied in the dim room stands a long way from ‘the idea of Napoleon’.

The structure of Blackburn’s book is as idiosyncratic, and as cunningly innocent, as its manner. Its subtitle is ‘A Journey to St Helena’, but the author does not leave home until she is two-thirds of the way through writing it. Most of the description of the place is hearsay, and tentatively expressed. When she finally reaches her destination it is to find very little there. ‘I feel that I must have Napoleon dead and buried before we begin to make our way towards his island’ she writes. ‘I don’t quite understand this sense of urgency.’ Whether she understands it consciously or not, her instinct is sure. Her narrative about Napoleon and the narrative of her own journey converge at his tomb: for them to have met earlier would have been impossible. Thenceforward the living writer and the dead emperor travel together. When she sets out to return to Europe he does so too, his exhumed body being carried back with all due solemnity to be reburied in Les Invalides.

This arrangement gives the book a dying fall. In the last few chapters she takes considerable risks. It is dangerous for her to ask herself why she has felt it worthwhile to go to St Helena ‘just so that I could accumulate a few fleeting impressions’ at a point when the reader is asking the same question. But the inconsequentiality of her visit to the island is a part of what she is saying. She goes to Long-wood but finds a modern reconstruction of the house – the stone doorstep is the only part of the original structure not to have been eaten by termites.

Very gently, very indirectly, she is making the point once made by Ozymandias’s mutilated statue. One of her last images is of a dance she attended on the concrete forecourt of a café ‘on the tip of a volcano in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. When the music started the people began to dance, very formally with one hand holding the edge of a partner’s waist and the other hand held high, old and young, round and round.’ Quietly but tellingly, the travel-writer’s ‘fleeting impression’ coalesces with the biographer’s insight. Like Napoleon, the dancers gallantly ignore the dwarfishness of their own rituals in the face of geography, in the face of death.