‘There is something ruthlessly enchanting about Napoleon’
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