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Napoleon’s Last Garden

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Six of us had cycled fifteen miles for lunch at a favourite Herefordshire restaurant. We had eaten too much, so despite the perfect cycling conditions – a windless afternoon, sunshine, warm autumn air sweetened by the scent of ripe cider apples – we decided there was no need to hurry home, and the village bookshop beckoned. First the garden section . . . then the cookery . . . but the travel shelves were more fruitful: Dalrymple alongside Leigh Fermor; Mackintosh-Smith next to Thubron, Crane and Simon Winchester. Mostly paperbacks, many were apparently unread, though obviously not remaindered. People hereabouts, I thought, don’t dog-ear the corners of their pages, and they read their books once, then dispose of them before the dust has time to settle.

The bright orange spine of The Emperor’s Last Island shone conspicuously. The author’s name didn’t register, but the powerful word ‘island’ most certainly did, and when I took the slim volume from the shelf and saw the painted sketch of Napoleon and read the subtitle, A Journey to St Helena, my pulse began to quicken. My great-grandparents were married there, a place more remote than anywhere else on earth; of greater significance to me, in the mid-1960s my own teenage eyes gazed briefly upon this island with its fortress-like cliffs; but in the intervening years I had read nothing about it.

My own visit to St Helena (near-visit, rather, since the ship on which I’d ‘run away to sea’, aged 17, only ‘anchored off’) lasted a mere few hours. Napoleon was trapped there for a quarter of a century, hemmed in for six years while he was alive by ‘the heat, the rain and the wind; by rats, by soldiers and government representatives’, and for nineteen years after he died (until his body was exhumed and returned to France) by six feet of heavy clay, two ten-inch-thick layers of reinforced concrete, a slab of stone and a lead-lined mahogany coffin.

Julia Blackburn’s r

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Six of us had cycled fifteen miles for lunch at a favourite Herefordshire restaurant. We had eaten too much, so despite the perfect cycling conditions – a windless afternoon, sunshine, warm autumn air sweetened by the scent of ripe cider apples – we decided there was no need to hurry home, and the village bookshop beckoned. First the garden section . . . then the cookery . . . but the travel shelves were more fruitful: Dalrymple alongside Leigh Fermor; Mackintosh-Smith next to Thubron, Crane and Simon Winchester. Mostly paperbacks, many were apparently unread, though obviously not remaindered. People hereabouts, I thought, don’t dog-ear the corners of their pages, and they read their books once, then dispose of them before the dust has time to settle.

The bright orange spine of The Emperor’s Last Island shone conspicuously. The author’s name didn’t register, but the powerful word ‘island’ most certainly did, and when I took the slim volume from the shelf and saw the painted sketch of Napoleon and read the subtitle, A Journey to St Helena, my pulse began to quicken. My great-grandparents were married there, a place more remote than anywhere else on earth; of greater significance to me, in the mid-1960s my own teenage eyes gazed briefly upon this island with its fortress-like cliffs; but in the intervening years I had read nothing about it. My own visit to St Helena (near-visit, rather, since the ship on which I’d ‘run away to sea’, aged 17, only ‘anchored off’) lasted a mere few hours. Napoleon was trapped there for a quarter of a century, hemmed in for six years while he was alive by ‘the heat, the rain and the wind; by rats, by soldiers and government representatives’, and for nineteen years after he died (until his body was exhumed and returned to France) by six feet of heavy clay, two ten-inch-thick layers of reinforced concrete, a slab of stone and a lead-lined mahogany coffin. Julia Blackburn’s racy and fabulously rich account of this most famous of all exiles reads at times as if she we re there with him, reporting for some nineteenth-century celebrity-obsessed magazine or making notes for a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Her bibliography suggests that she cast her net widely, reading everything she could find about this extraordinary imprisonment and the Emperor’s wretchedly lonely life in the South Atlantic: ‘He could spend an entire morning watching the clouds as they moved across the range of mountains in the distance . . . he could pick a flower and stare into its bright colours until the people standing around him became uneasy and restless.’ Napoleon’s years at Longwood, high up on the island’s Deadman’s Plain, were not entirely wasted, however: he made a garden. In July 1819, on barren land where ‘he-cabbage palms and she-cabbage palms’ once flourished among gum trees and redwoods, this solitary figure, with no visitors to ‘disturb the repetition of the days’, drew up his plans. The outer shell to his prison would provide him with places where he could hide from the eyes of the sentries and from the battering of the wind. Dreaming perhaps of the grand palais and château gardens of the homeland he would never see again, he craved ‘a venues of tall trees where he could walk in the shade; a summerhouse where he could take tea and a grotto where breakfast could be served’. More, he hankered after ‘a pool for golden carp, a cage for singing birds, a fountain of delicately cascading water’. What gardener, starting afresh, has not fostered such ambitions? A n yone ever smitten by the desire to shape and plant a bit of ground for his own amusement will recognize Napoleon’s hopeless aspirations. Only half-way through The Emperor’s Last Island does Julia Blackburn begin the tale of her own sixteen-day journey by ship to St Helena. Once there she envisages Napoleon ‘pottering around in his newly-made garden, a grubby white dressing-gown wrapped around his heavy body and a red Madras handkerchief tied around his head, up before the dawn to water the passion flowers and the rose bushes’. She mingles this image with that of another St Helena exile (the Portuguese nobleman Fernando Lopez, 300 years before Napoleon) ‘working tirelessly among vegetables, flowers and fruit trees’, and of her own father back home ‘in his little suburban garden . . . standing on his scrap of a lawn, admiring the stone head of a lion propped up on the rockery as if it was a distant monument on a hill’. As much as painters, novelists, film-makers and poets, gardeners are led by their imaginations, lured ever onwards by the possibility of recreating Paradise. Napoleon was up by five o’clock in the morning, ‘impatient for the cannon shot that signalled the withdrawal of sentries around the house’ so that he could rush outside to plant new seeds and ‘to arrange for trees and bushes to be moved like items of furniture’. But nature and the elements conspired against him. Oak trees with soil clinging to their roots were brought on wagons from the other side of the island for his avenue but failed to endure the upheaval. His new pond leaked overnight, resulting next morning in ‘a hundred little red fish . . . floating on their sides, colourless and dead’. He did eat breakfast in his grotto ‘surrounded by dancing dragons’ (made for him by Chinese carpenters), but when the earth dried out the grotto crumbled and it was allowed to disintegrate. Goats, an ox, pigs and chickens all breached the garden’s defences, bringing ruin in their wake. Nevertheless, for me Napoleon’s garden is the hero of The Emperor’s Last Island. Lost to high winds, cold impenetrable mists, torrential downpours, periods of searing heat (not to mention the Grim Reaper’s early call upon its maker), it survives in the mind as a triumph of endeavour over achievement. No garden is for ever, and which of us, after all, would choose to make a garden on a wild volcanic outcrop in the middle of an ocean?

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © David Wheeler 2004


About the contributor

David Wheeler crossed the Equator twelve times before he was 18 and before he settled to what his mother called a ‘proper’ job. He now edits the gardening quarterly Hortus which he founded in 1987.

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