Two historical novels, one about Mesmer and the other about Napoleon, together with a book about Napoleon, The Emperor’s Last Island, that might easily (all too easily?) have become a historical novel: with such books before him the reviewer asks himself, not for the first time, what he feels about historical fiction. A theory that comes to his mind, suggested by some masterpieces in this genre, is that there is nothing historical about the historical novel. The proper subject for a historical novel, the matter with which it most naturally works, would seem to be not the past, but rather some myth about the past, some legend that we now entertain about it—that is to say a modern, not a historical, entity. It requires a historian, working with a historian’s methods, to fumble for the truth about Napoleon, and much of this truth will defy capture; but we can all of us, very completely, possess the Napoleonic myth. It is the myth of the ’45, a shared possession, that sustains Scott’s Waverley, and again a myth, of a more complicated kind—a literary myth, about the relationship of Lotte Buffe to the Lotte of The Sorrows of Young Werther—that informs Thomas Mann’s wonderful Lotte in Weimar.

This amounts to firmly rejecting what one may call the Marguerite Yourcenar theory of historical fiction. In some notes on Memoirs of Hadrian, Yourcenar speaks of the historical novelist as having “one foot in erudition and the other in magic: or more exactly, and without metaphor, in that sympathetic magic which consists in projecting oneself by thought into another’s inwardness.” This is the hubris, the occupational disease that can afflict historical novelists and makes us squirm sometimes at what they get up to. The fact ought to be faced: no “sympathetic magic” is, in truth, going to transport us into the “inwardness” of the dead and gone. Indeed it would be a wrong ambition, for it amounts to thinking that you can, in imagination, become somebody dead and gone, and to become somebody is not the same as to understand him, indeed it would prevent your doing so. (What would one think of an anthropologist who announced that he or she was becoming a Trobriand islander?) It had better be accepted that, to understand the past, one must content oneself, like Carlo Ginzburg and Le Roy Ladurie and Richard Cobb, with standing outside it, making inferences about it from its otherness.

But then, even assuming some loophole in this law, how peculiarly ill-equipped is the novel form, which so reeks of its own period and culture, to overleap the barriers of time! Admittedly, the dearest ambition of the novel as practiced by George Eliot or Graham Greene—such an elaborate tissue of conventions as it is, with its five “codes” (see Roland Barthes’s S/Z), its pauses and aftermaths, its dispensing of “wisdom” and cunning mimicry of time—is to pass off its form as “natural,” as a transparency and not a form at all. But this confidence trick is dubious enough even in novels with a contemporary setting (it was too much of a confidence trick for Proust and Joyce); it must then be a hundred times more so in a historical novel. From sheer self-respect we jib at the claim to be shown Jugurtha or the Ghibelline League as through a plate of glass—at the pretension that where all else is remote and alien, the “inward” and psychological can be reached by sheer intuition.

Moreover, this conventional novel form suffers grievously when put to work in the historical mode. Umberto Eco, in some “marginalia” to The Name of the Rose, is funny about the woes of the historical novelist, with his chronic need to be remedying his reader’s ignorance without the reader noticing. Through his narrator, the monk Adso, says Eco, he makes much use of the figure of rhetoric known as “preterition”: the one with which, by saying, “I shall not refer to the wellknown victories of Julius Caesar,” one manages in fact to refer to them. Writing, as he is, a sort of anti-historical novel, Eco can get away with such ploys, even make charming capital out of them. It is not so, alas, with George Eliot in Romola, where the admirable form of The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch is grievously wrenched and maltreated, out of the sheer brute need to force-feed the reader with information. The novel is stretched to breaking point between its two claims: that fifteenth-century Florence needs a lot of explaining, a lot of filling-in of local color, if we are not to condemn it for not being Victorian England; and conversely (a truth supposedly vivid to the novelist above all others) that Renaissance Florence is ultimately no different from anywhere else, humanity being everywhere the same. “The great river-courses which have shaped the lives of men have hardly changed; and those other streams, the life-currents that ebb and flow in human hearts, pulsate to the same great needs, the same great loves and terrors.” The fruit of the first of these claims is a bent toward “typicality”—we shall be given a “typical” Florentine street scene, and a whole chapter entitled “A Florentine Joke”—and it is the curse of the “typical,” in such a context, that it tends to convey a whiff of contempt. The fruits of the second are equally fatal. The theme of the “unchangingness” of human experience cannot be left to emerge: it has to be grabbed at and rammed home with loud asseveration. The case is forced, destroying the quiet persuasiveness achieved in Middlemarch.


As an instance of what can be done with historical myth, the freedom it gives from the chores and awkward ruses of a Romola, one need look no further than The Death of Napoleon, a dazzling little novel by Simon Leys (pen name of the art historian and sinologist Pierre Ryckmans), first published in 1986 as La Mort de Napoléon. It relates how, by means of an international plot of extreme intricacy (its inventor died of brain fever before it was executed), the emperor Napoleon escaped from St. Helena, leaving a look-alike, a humble sergeant named Eugène Lenormand, to replace him and deceive his English jailers. Disguised as a lowly cabin hand, the Emperor makes his way to Tristan da Cunha aboard a seal-hunting lugger, proceeds then to Cape Town on a Scandinavian schooner, and sets off on the last leg of his journey back to France on board the brig the Hermann-Augustus Stoeffer.

At all stages his escape goes smoothly, being secretly monitored by a network of agents; then by an unpredictable hitch his vessel is redirected to Antwerp, wrecking the whole master plan and landing him on a gloomy mud bank in the Scheld with no more than his own talents and ten months’ seaman’s pay to support him. How shall he proceed? It is a situation calling for all his “Napoleonic” genius (a matter already of legend), and entails his making his way incognito to Paris and setting up as a fruit seller there, in partnership with the kindly and unsuspecting Mme. Truchaut, widow of an ancient Bonapartist. With all a master strategist’s finesse, he is slow in sounding out the terrain and concerting his plans before imparting his great secret to any companion, though one or two seem to guess it. Then, all unexpectedly, comes the devastating news from St. Helena: the “Emperor” (Lenormand) is dead. The blow for a moment shakes even a Napoleon’s courage. Henceforth, he tells himself in horror, his destiny is posthumous. “From now on Napoleon would have to make his way not only against Napoleon, but against a Napoleon who was larger than life—the memory of Napoleon!”

By this time, or earlier, the reader will no doubt have begun to rewrite the story on different lines, responding to various unobtrusive pointers—hints that poor Lenormand, though a victim of mythomania, has dimly sensed himself, feeling compelled to brush them aside in “Napoleonic” manner. It had all begun, we perceive—or anyway begun in earnest—in a curious episode aboard the Hermann-Augustus Stoeffer. It is a beautiful little scene, of the most delicate and far-reaching suggestiveness. The ship’s black cook, of “loathsome” appearance and a bit of a “Napoleonist” himself, took a fancy to the pathetic Lenormand, resenting the way the rest of the crew mocked him with the sobriquet “Napoleon.” He let him have favors, “a juicy piece of crackling here, a pig’s trotter there”; and early one morning, on some obscure benevolent impulse, he shook him out of his bunk to observe the dawn. The passage that follows needs to be quoted at length, to convey the power of the prose and the excellence of the translation:

The sky was divided between night and dawn—blue-black from the west to the zenith, pearl-white in the east—and was completely filled with the most fantastic cloud architecture one could possibly imagine. The night breeze had erected huge unfinished palaces, colonnades, towers, and glaciers, and then had abandoned this heavenly chaos in solemn stillness, to be a pedestal for the dawn. The highest crest of a wind-blown cumulus was already brushed with yellow, the first beam of daylight against the roof of fading night, whereas the lower regions of the clouds were still sunk in darkness, where one could vaguely make out deep gorges, shadowy peaks, rows of cliffs and blue chasms, nocturnal snow-fields, and wide expanses of purple lava. The entire sky was caught in an interrupted surge of energy, frozen in motionless chaos. Above the smooth, translucent sea, everything was in a state of suspense, waiting for the sun.

For good or evil, what Lenormand then saw, that fantastic cloud pageant and scene of worldly (or otherworldly) glory, sealed his destiny: for evil, certainly, insofar as it finally shook his loose hold on reality; but for good, too, being a true vision however wrongly interpreted. Such ambivalences and discriminations are kept in play, by nuance and unlabored irony, throughout the rest of the novel.


Simon Leys’s is a most subtly conducted fable, the key to it lying in its epigraph from Paul Valéry:

What a pity to see a mind as great as Napoleon’s devoted to trivial things such as empires, historic events, the thundering of cannons and of men; he believed in glory, in posterity, in Caesar; nations in turmoil and other trifles absorbed all his attention…. How could he fail to see that what really mattered was something else entirely?

The theme of the novel is banality: the banality of wanting to think yourself Napoleon, in all its different shades and versions, from Julien Sorel’s in Le Rouge et le noir to that of the inmates of asylums; and the not-so-different banality of actually being Napoleon, having to live up to that fantastic role and denying your common humanity. We are made to see, if we did not already know, how easy it would have been in 1820—even, you might say, how proper and prescribed—to fall into Lenormand’s delusion. On visiting Waterloo he is puzzled to be shown the bedroom in which he spent the night on the eve of battle and to find it arouses not the slightest recollection; but his mind is soon set to rest, when he is shown another and rival eve-of-the-battle bedroom and realizes there may be many more—many charlatans who claim to have fought under him or pretend to know the battlefield better than himself. It is a sign of greatness to attract imposters. Also, people seem to want him to be their lost Emperor. At all events they warm to his style and man-of-destiny aloofness. The young waitress in a café at Waterloo is greatly taken by his “haughty courtesy” and grand way of ordering beer.

There are, it is true, less tangible threats to his confidence, ones that are harder to counter. On his way through Belgium he is briefly arrested, spending the night in an improvised lockup in a garden shed, and during the night he hears the heavy breathing of some mysterious unseen companion: Is it a warder, he wonders, or another prisoner, or perhaps some large animal? The police had casually mentioned he would be sharing the place with “Louis”: Who could this Louis be? Next day is all excitement, for one of the policemen who arrested him now declares himself the “Emperor’s” devoted follower; but through these “indescribable moments” an irrelevant thought keeps nagging at him, Who on earth was Louis? The answer has no significance to the reader, but the question has, though Lenormand himself strives to resist it, as “stupid obsession, inappropriate to the solemnity of the occasion.” Much later in the novel when Lenormand/Napoleon, defeated in all his ambitions, is lying on his deathbed, his mind is pierced by an “agonizing revelation”: he has been living all this time with the sweet-tempered widow Truchaut and has never known her first name! (Like her other friends, he has merely used her nickname, “Ostrich”—a name with its own irony for the reader.) If he is to “pass through to THE OTHER SIDE,” he tells himself, this question about her name is the test he will have to pass, and he summons his last energies to ask her, but to his horror hears the question come out as “What is MY name?” At this, he gives himself up for lost; but in the final exquisite sentences of the novel, shot through with a hundred delicate reminders and ironies, we realize him to be both lost and saved.

Far away, and muffled by distance, drums are rolling and fifes are playing their shrill notes. The regiments are marching to the front line; the din of men and stamping horses increases. The sound of the fifes is as sharp as early-morning air—and all the while, those drums keep beating. From time to time, quite close, can be heard the snorting of a restive horse, the tinkling of a harness, brief commands reverberating over the serried ranks.

And now a huge red sun emerges out of the mist, the sun that shines on victory mornings. It rises in the sky, a sky bright with rainbow-colored clouds.

How vast the plain is! It is vaster than all the plains on earth, pale and shifting: it is the boundless sea, the sea without memory! And with his arm extended in a broad sweeping gesture, pointing to the day-star as it rises, Nigger-Nicholas exults in his innocent triumph.

No need to be mad, certainly, to be possessed by this enticing myth; one feels no jolt in passing from Leys’s novel to Julia Blackburn’s The Emperor’s Last Island, an evocation of Napoleon on St. Helena which is not indeed a historical novel but is for all that a story of “possession.” With no special prior interest in Napoleon, so Julia Blackburn tells us, and indeed being fairly ignorant about his earlier years, she succumbed—or at any rate submitted herself—to the draw of the St. Helena story. She let it take charge of her, as it has done other writers before her—“It is curious to realise how passive I have been”—but at the same time recording her possession by it, as a story in itself. It was a curious enterprise, which she has very attractively brought off. It meant the making of various strict rules, both for aesthetic and for superstitious reasons. She would need to make the journey to St. Helena, but (so she told herself) not until she had already followed the Emperor to his death and first entombment: the two progresses, though synchronized, must be kept separate and inviolate. If one reflects on it, it was a logical scheme, being the opposite of what one would do in a historical enquiry, which hers deliberately was not.

Her title, moreover, is exact. Her book is about the island, as much as it is about the Emperor, and at the very beginning it springs a surprise on us, the St. Helena myth turning out a richer and stranger affair than one had realized. When the children of St. Helena are asked who they consider central to their island’s history, they do not mention Napoleon, but rather a sixteenth-century Portuguese nobleman named Fernando Lopez. In 1510, some Portuguese having seized the fortress of Goa in India, a party was left to guard it, under Lopez’s charge, until reinforcements could be sent. Two years passed. A fleet of Portuguese empire builders returned, to find that Lopez and his companions had converted to Mohammedanism; and in punishment Lopez suffered amputation of his right hand, ears, and nose. He went into hiding, out of horror of his own appearance, but after three years he emerged and took a passage home; but on arrival in St. Helena, his nerve failing him at the thought of facing his family, he abandoned the ship and took refuge in the forest, making this deserted island his home for the remaining thirty years of his life. More extraordinarily, he grew to love it, peopling it with fowl and cattle and planting it with vineyards and orchards, until it grew into legend as “a rich garden growing on a rock in a distant ocean, a place of natural and yet unnatural perfection.” By the time that Napoleon was brought there, four centuries later, this green Eden, through exploitation and callous misuse, had become a treeless and forbidding wilderness—described by travelers then as now as the saddest of places—and the first sight of it struck a chill to the Emperor’s heart. The infuriated world conqueror and serene Crusoesque Lopez make a deeply suggestive pair.

There seems no doubt that the mere climate of St. Helena, a place with no seasons and plagued with unceasing wind, helped in the long run to crush Napoleon. He had always had a low pulse rate, so much so that he told his doctors he doubted if he had a heart at all—he had never heard it beating. It was a metabolism, as Blackburn comments, that must have kept him calm in the hurry of battle but indolent and sluggish now that the fighting was over. At all events, indolence became his great enemy. He would lie in his bath for hours, dreaming (the heavy pressure of his hand, it was said, could be traced in the soap dish). He left off dictating his memoirs. His legs swelled and he grew fat. But then, already, through sheer exposure to curious gaze, he had begun, as you might say, to turn into an object—an object full of mana, converting his body and possessions and eventually even the island itself into holy relics.

There was, of course, much fun to be had from evading observation, if the would-be observer were his jailer, Sir Hudson Lowe. Indeed poor Lowe scarcely ever got to see him in the flesh and was reduced to muttering that it was “all a pretence,” all “a damned trick,” when his spies reported on the Emperor’s unwell appearance on his outings. (“Depend upon it he took an emetic in order to make him sick when in the carriage.”) Often, however, Napoleon would calmly accept scrutiny, with an old man’s detachment. He was only forty-six when he reached the island—a slightly surprising thought—but he was already in many ways an old man.

It is not that he did not fight the drift toward inertia. Half Prometheus, half comedian, there is something winning in his sudden bursts of frantic activity or absurd childish zest. Told that a certain Miss Legg is very much frightened of the Corsican ogre, he goes out to meet her with ruffled hair and contorted face, letting out a savage howl when he comes close. Quite late in his exile, when torpor has already begun to claim him, the notion comes to him of creating a flower garden. A magnificent idea! It will protect him from the wind and from prying English eyes. He will have a grotto, he decides, and a teahouse, and a pool, made out of his own discarded tin bath. The cook turns a piece of pipe into a fountain, and at the command, “Let the fountains play!” he turns on the kitchen tap, and with glee the Emperor keeps the water company as it inches along its little canal. Every morning at five o’clock, the time when the sentries withdraw, he is up, in a white dressing gown and scarlet bandanna, planting and watering and planning new beds and hurling lumps of earth at the windows to rouse his idle courtiers. At this point Julia Blackburn means him to evoke the ghost of the green-fingered Lopez.

She passes from the live to the dead body of Napoleon, to the taking of death masks and the first amazing entombment, without change of speed or tone. We see him buried in four coffins, made to fit one within the other like Russian dolls, and the whole encased once again within great stone slabs. It is a sort of Egyptian burial, in which the monarch is furnished with supplies for his journey—a sauceboat in the form of an antique lamp, a plate, some imperial cutlery, a loaf of bread, and a bottle of water. Moving now entirely among relics and their chains of association, evoking the intrigues among the survivors, the decay and rebuilding of Longwood, and the reintombment in the Invalides, this planned exercise in imagining takes many further indecisive chapters to wind down, as if depicting the stages of another death. It is an odd, intensely attractive feat of writing.

The French, writes the historian Jean Tulard in his preface to Proctor Patterson Jones’s Napoleon, can only imagine Napoleon “on a battlefield, or presiding over the Council of State, always imperial and dominant.” Not very true, I would think; nevertheless this “intimate account” of the Emperor, based on the recollections of his valet, Constant Wairy, and his secretary, Claude-François de Méneval, is a most sumptuous and appealing picture book. The blurb speaks of it as “a Napoleonic museum within covers”—a rather neat description, and not inapt.

One judges historical novels, partly at least, by the thread which links them to the author’s present, and it is somehow here that the trouble lies with Brian O’Doherty’s The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. The novel retells, with a good deal of sympathy and virtuosity, an episode well known to readers of biographers of Mesmer: his temporary curing, by “mesmeric” methods, of the blind pianist Marie Thérèse Paradies. She was, or became, a performer of some celebrity, for whom Mozart would later write a concerto (K.456); and the story, known mainly from Mesmer’s own writings, is altogether fascinating and poignant. She was the daughter of a court official in Vienna and a protégée of the empress, who took a strong interest in her musical career. At the age of three she had woken to find herself quite blind, and having passed through the hands of various doctors (and suffered a variety of hair-raising and fruitless treatments) she was placed by her parents, being by now eighteen, in the care of Mesmer, who was just then coming into the public eye. His methods were almost instantly successful. He calmed her (evidently hysterical) condition and managed to cause one of her eyes, which was grotesquely out of orbit, to return to its proper position. Then, cautiously and in a darkened room, he succeeded in inducing her to receive visual sensations, first showing her colored objects, and then a human face (his own). This latter scared her at first, and the nose seemed to her so ridiculous that for some days she could not look at it without laughing. The prognosis seemed excellent, and her father published a rapturous account of her recovery, which was disseminated across Europe. As Marie Thérèse’s sight gradually returned, her piano playing deteriorated, but this was not an unnatural consequence, and she took it philosophically, feeling, as Mesmer did, that it was a price worth paying.

There was, however, a snag. She had grown deeply attached to Mesmer, and this began to make her parents jealous. Also, as the parents could not help reflecting, Mesmer appeared to be ruining a successful and profitable musical career. The truth seems to be (though of course one only has Mesmer’s side to it) that both parents, but especially the mother, were exceedingly neurotic—which indeed was the root of Marie Thérèse’s trouble. (“It never occurred to them,” comments Vincent Buranelli, Mesmer’s biographer, “to place themselves under his care, which they could have used.”)

At all events, tempers soured. Rumors were spread that Mesmer was abusing his position with the young pianist. Specialists were brought in to examine her and professed skepticism whether she had regained her sight at all. (When Mesmer was out of the room, she did not seem able to name objects that were presented to her. Did Mesmer perhaps have a trick of prompting her by secret signs? Could it even be that she believed that this was what seeing was?) At last, one day, the parents came to demand her back from Mesmer’s premises, whereupon a most appalling fracas took place, during which her father drew his sword and the mother, seizing hold of Marie Thérèse, hurled her violently against the wall, causing her to relapse into blindness. The scandal was enormous, so much so that Mesmer eventually had to leave Vienna and begin his career over again in Paris. As for Marie Thérèse (according at least to Buranelli) she got over her dependence on Mesmer and “returned with relief to the familiar comfortable world of eternal darkness.”

The story is a living and touching affair in O’Doherty’s hands, as perhaps it could hardly fail to be. He shapes it as five monologues (Mesmer; Mesmer again; Marie Thérèse; the father; and Mesmer in old age) and has devised a sort of prose for them, essentially modern day but tempered with unobtrusive stiltednesses and eighteenth-century-isms, that can pass reasonably well as “timeless.” He is soaked in the story and its strange details and interprets the motives of the main actors with fair persuasiveness. Why is one dissatisfied? It is, partly anyway, because it is “them” and yet not them. One has the impression of hearing, not so much their actual individual voices, but rather how they ought to have talked to the world or themselves, given some knowledge hidden from them but vouchsafed to us. It is partly that, as so often in historical novels, they have to “happen” (conveniently) to drop scraps of information necessary to the reader. But the trouble goes deeper. By hints and inflections they cause us to think modern thoughts about, or have modern reactions to, their story, and in doing so they slip out of character.

I will take a tiny example, out of many possible ones. Here is how Herr Paradies describes the frightful debacle in the Mesmer treatment center:

It seemed that my sword, which I had quite forgotten, was still in my hand, for M. shouted, “The sword! the sword!” In an instant, another set of those fellows fell upon me and forced me down. So there lay the entire Paradies family, all on M.’s floor, one dead to the world, one screaming as if judgment day had come, and myself looking at the world upside down, for they had bent me back over a hassock, with my throat higher than my chin so that I could hardly breathe.

Now this is essentially a comic description, reflecting no doubt the way O’Doherty the author views the scene and would like us to; but Herr Paradies has so far not been presented to us as a man capable of mocking himself, however ruefully, but on the contrary as stiff, calculating, and humorless. For such reasons, in these monologues, one gets no real sense of hearing the character’s voice. And perhaps, on the “anti-Yourcenar” argument, it is an error to expect to do so, ventriloquism being a wrong aim for an historical novelist. But then, in the present case, why is so much effort made in other pages at historical pastiche?

Further, what O’Doherty has added to the story, the raison d’être of his own novel as it were, strikes one as less convincing than the rest. His Mesmer, now old and half-forgotten, is troubled by a recurring dream about Marie Thérèse, one which seems to tell him the old rumors were not entirely wrong and—unconsciously anyway—his interest in her had been sexual. All quite plausible, but somehow one does not care much: partly, no doubt, because, in history as in the novel, Mesmer is not a man to be taken very seriously. He was clearly a genuine healer, but in large part also a charlatan or at least self-deluded. He always refused to reveal his innermost doctrines, but most probably because he hardly knew what they were himself. And what he meant when he claimed that, for three months, he had managed to think without words (sans langue) is an intriguing question but I don’t suppose the answer would revolutionize our philosophy. The effort to make the elderly Mesmer impressive tempts O’Doherty into some empty phrase making.

Moreover—and here the genre question comes in—absorbing as O’Doherty’s narrative often is, the source documents, Mesmer’s Memoir on the Discovery of Animal Magnetism and Historical Precis of the Facts Relating to Animal Magnetism up to April 1781 are equally or even more fascinating, and the one kind of interest wars somewhat against the other. For there are such pressing historical questions posed by these documents, as for instance whether Herr Paradies’s remarkable report on his daughter’s cure, as we know it from Mesmer’s Memoir, is authentic, and if so what it tells us about Paradies, that much-vilified man. Likewise could not these records, questioned rightly, throw light, indirectly anyway, on the famous “Molyneux problem,” which preoccupied philosophers—Locke, Leibniz, Berkeley, Condillac, and Diderot—through much of the century: i.e., if a person blind from birth were to be given the use of his or her eyes and were to be shown a cube and a sphere, whether he or she, simply by looking at them, would be able to tell which was which? It is the fate of a certain kind of historical novel, like this one, both to whet and to baffle one’s desire for “the real thing.”

This Issue

October 22, 1992