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.

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