Dare I rewrite history with history’s Bad Boy-Napoleon?
Agents and editors shied away with comments like: “you can’t fictionalize Napoleon”; “You can’t portray Napoleon as a human being with actual feelings” ; “You can’t rewrite history and have him escape exile.” Has no one heard of Alternate Fiction?
After reading dozens of books on Napoleon, and especially his exile on St. Helena, I decided to throw a fictional wrench into the works. What if a young woman of deep compassion and intelligence was in his entourage, a woman who would drag him out of his lethargy on this confined island? A woman who saw the man beneath the myth. She could also become caught up in the political (both British and French) intrigues, and the possibility that someone was on the island intent on murdering the ex-emperor so he could never return to power. She could be the one who strives to uncover this assassin and prevent Napoleon’s murder. Then add to this, her falling in love with Napoleon. Amélie Perrault, the chef’s daughter, became that character.
Napoleon was soured on love; he wanted his heart to be bronzed over. But when had he last known true pureness of heart, selfless devotion? Through his point of view, we see his struggles with his devastating defeat at Waterloo and imprisonment by the English who he thought would treat him as an honored guest, and their hauling him to the South Atlantic to the tiny volcanic island of St. Helena.
Here, he must fight severe restrictions, constant surveillance of British troops, and utter boredom. Then he hears a beautiful voice singing in the courtyard of his ramshackle residence.
Amélie stared up into the face of the emperor.
“Your Majesty, this is my daughter, Amélie Perrault,” her father introduced in a strained voice.
She kept her mouth from gaping but felt the blood drain from her face. The emperor scrutinized her and she wondered what terrible crime she’d committed. Maybe he too would scold her for witnessing his tirade against Governor Lowe. Or had her conniving for his attention finally succeeded? Light-headed, Amélie sucked in her breath and managed a smile. “How do you do, Your Majesty.”
She realized too late the emperor was supposed to speak first. Aware she should curtsy, her mind went blank, leaving her at a loss as to which foot went where. She dipped her head.
“Mademoiselle, the little gardener. Is that you I heard singing so spiritedly out in the courtyard?”
“You did listen? Oh, I’m sorry if I disturbed you, Your Majesty.” She grinned wider and didn’t glance at her father who stood rigid near the door—he’d faded into the background.
“No, no, you misunderstand. You haven’t disturbed me.” Napoleon laughed softly. “I find your voice very interesting. Have you had formal training?”
A rush of awe heated her from the inside out at this praise from the one man their entire world revolved around. Her knees trembled. “Very informal training, Sire, and self-study recently...from the books I borrowed from...I—”
“You learned to sing like that from books?” His sweet smile and flashing blue-gray eyes illuminated his pallid features.
“No I...but I do love to read. You learn so many different things...it opens up the world...” She broke off, ashamed of her babbling, twisting the ribbon under her chin with nervous fingers.
“Quite right, Mademoiselle. Would you mind singing that song again for me, now?”
She blinked at him. “Of course...I wouldn’t mind…Sire.” The idea of singing directly in front of the emperor with her limited knowledge of music made her toes curl in her muddy shoes. A voice in the wind might not sound so melodious in the confines of a house.
“Tres bien. Come into the reception hall. It has the most space.” Napoleon strode from the room.
Passing her father, she didn’t look at him as she followed the emperor through the house to the front. The green reception salon was Longwood’s largest chamber. A mahogany billiard table the British had brought up in the first months of their residence took up a fifth of the space. An old piano stood in the far corner. Two lumpy sofas and several chairs slumped against the walls. Two globes, one of the Heavens, one of Earth, flanked the door from the drawing room. Amélie stood in the realm she’d been eager to explore. The wind rattled the window panes as she felt her nerves rattling beneath her skin.
She hid her dirty hands behind her back and waited for some signal to begin. Napoleon sat and nodded his head.
After a deep breath Amélie anxiously cleared her throat and started to sing. Tentative at first, her voice sputtered and crackled as she grappled for control. Now gathering momentum, she hoped her singing exuded a rich tone. She closed her eyes, trying to regulate her breath, hitting the high drawn-out notes and concentrating on doing her utmost—fearful of making a mistake. When done, her body quivered at the exertion. She took another full breath before meeting the emperor’s gaze.
Napoleon rubbed his chin, looking at her thoughtfully. “Your voice is good. A little untamed around the edges, but brimming with possibilities. Do you know any other songs?”
“A few, Sire.” She named some of the arias she remembered off-hand.
“You must practice properly, Mademoiselle. You could have the makings of an accomplished singer.”
Caught unawares by this attention she’d longed for, pride tangled in with her fluster. “Yes, maybe someday I might think of such things.”
“No ‘someday.’” Napoleon rose with effort and approached her. “You need to practice now, and I will help you. I was quite the patron of the opera in Paris. Every week I attended the theater, when not on campaign. We can engineer some sort of strategy for you.”
Amélie stared at him and longed for a chair edge to cling to. She’d only hoped to spark his interest with such a caprice. Singing wasn’t the basis into his company she’d sought. “That’s very kind of you, but not necessary. I would like to discuss books, battle tactics, and aren’t you writing your memoires?”
“Nonsense. You have talent. Why waste it?” he said, his voice confident, his smile warm. “One must grasp the opportunities thrust before them.”
Amélie licked her dry lips, her heart throbbing. She quivered with the excitement she always imagined she would in his personal presence. Drawn by the melancholy she sensed beneath that smile, she said, “Yes, Your Majesty. You’re right, one must.”
ELYSIUM, desire and murder on a forsaken island of exile; by Diane Scott Lewis
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