‘There is some­thing ruth­lessly en­chant­ing about Napoleon’

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS -

fa­mously with Schindler’s Ark, reti­tled Schindler’s List af­ter the Os­car-win­ning suc­cess of Spiel­berg’s movie ver­sion. He soon re­alised he had stum­bled on a ter­rific, true tale. It emerged that the ado­les­cent Betsy had lived on the mid-At­lantic is­land of St He­lena, where Napoleon was bil­leted tem­po­rar­ily with her fam­ily and where her fa­ther was an East In­dia com­pany of­fi­cial.

The odd cou­ple’s in­no­cent, teas­ing friend­ship was re­counted some 30 years later when Betsy, a tom­boy who grew up to be­come a great beauty, pub­lished a jour­nal in 1844 pur­port­edly writ­ten dur­ing that time. Ke­neally learnt that many ob­jects on dis­play were con­nected with the Bal­combes, who were even­tu­ally sent into ex­ile by the Bri­tish, ba­si­cally for be­ing nice to the “Great Ogre.” They were trans­ported to Aus­tralia. “From the small­est pri­son in the world to the largest!” ex­claims Ke­neally amid more gales of cheer­ful laugh­ter.

Ke­neally, who has been short­listed for the Booker Prize four times and awarded Aus­tralia’s pres­ti­gious Miles Franklin award twice, has writ­ten in the fe­male voice in the past – in Bet­tany’s Book (2002), re­lated by two beau­ti­ful sib­lings, and more re­cently in Daugh­ters of Mars (2012), also nar­rated by sis­ters serv­ing as nurses dur­ing the First World War – but Betsy pre­sented a huge challenge. How could an aged Aus­tralian writer cred­i­bly ren­der a girl, and a Ge­or­gian one, too, with the jus­tice and af­fec­tion he felt for her af­ter read­ing her jour­nals?

He does so with vi­va­cious charm, I tell him. Well, he re­sponds, he read a great deal about the ed­u­ca­tion of Ge­or­gian young women. He has done a lot of close ob­ser­va­tion of women. He has been mar­ried to Ju­dith for more than half a century – they vis­ited St He­lena to mark their 50th wed­ding an­niver­sary last year – and he’s the fa­ther of two daugh­ters, Jane and Meg. (He’s co-au­thor­ing a se­ries of crime nov­els with the lat­ter and there’s talk of Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch play­ing their sleuth in the TV se­ries).

Ke­neally also has a 13-year-old grand­daugh­ter, Alexandra, “a spir­ited girl, Ger­maine [Greer] would be proud of her.” He would dearly love her to play Betsy in the pro­jected TV se­ries, for which the pro­duc­ers will be au­di­tion­ing in Lon­don in Au­gust.

“By the way, the TV se­ries is not be­ing made by the peo­ple who made Wolf Hall – as re­ported. One of the peo­ple in­volved did work on those pro­grammes. But as to whether it gets made depends on who they cast as Betsy. I re­ally en­joyed writ­ing in her voice – her tongue is re­lated to [Thack­eray’s] Becky Sharp’s, though Betsy would be too wise to say half the things Becky says in Van­ity Fair, but then Becky Sharp would be too wise to say half what Betsy, a bit of a wild is­land girl, says!” he ex­claims.

“You know, when I first heard about this girl and her fam­ily, who were de­stroyed by their as­so­ci­a­tion with Napoleon and how they ended up in Aus­tralia, I was re­ally gripped. I felt com­pelled to write what pur­ports to be a se­cret jour­nal, the one hid­den be­hind the real one – with apolo­gies to the highly in­tel­li­gent Betsy’s lively ghost! But there are gaps and si­lences, abun­dant mys­ter­ies in her text. There are so many ques­tions, in Betsy’s jour­nal. There are sub­texts, things hinted at rather than men­tioned. So I don’t know if a lot of things I’ve writ­ten in this book hap­pened at all. But the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Napoleon and the Bal­combes is an ex­tra­or­di­nary tale, with­out any in­ven­tion thrown in at all.

“Still, I am in­ter­ested in the ‘divine lies’ of fic­tion. Af­ter all, I’m a nov­el­ist and nov­el­ists tell truths by telling lies, which is why, for ex­am­ple, I chose to tell Oskar Schindler’s story as fic­tion. Any­way, it’s not so strange for an Aus­tralian to have writ­ten Schindler’s

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