Q & A with James about The Napoleon Diaries

James Hartley talks about The Napoleon Diaries Book One: Imperial Exile. It will be released on Amazon Kindle on August 15th, 2017. You can pre-order by clicking here.

Why did you decide to write the book?

About five years ago I realised I knew next to nothing about Napoleon and decided to read a biography. I chose Vincent Cronin´s book and loved it, especially the chapter about Napoleon on St Helena and his clashed with the British governor charged with looking after him, Sir Hudson Lowe. As I read their conversations I could see the scenes in my mind and decided to write them up as a short story. That developed – as is typical with anything to do with Napoleon – into a kind of obsession with the story and the period. I gradually started to read everything I could find on the subject – all the diaries and letters and contemporary accounts – and from that grew a huge volume which I initially called This Ghastly Rock.

The finished book was a monster – a huge read – which covered everything from when Napoleon first set foot on the island to his death. I had it read by friends and family, by historians and by various Napoleonic enthusiasts and, when I thought it was ready, I submitted it for consideration to various agents. Two read the manuscript and one took me for a coffee before deciding the subject was too specialist for a wider audience and that my treatment of it – not sensationalising any aspect of the story, for example – would make it a difficult sell.

I sat on the book for a few years and got side-tracked by my Shakespeare´s Moon series, which took up most of the last two years. Right now I´m in the middle of book two and three in the series and this summer I decided to have another look at This Ghastly Rock and see what I could do with it.

I liked what I read and made some fresh enquiries about publishers to experts in the field. The general consensus was that I might be better off self-publishing the books and, happy to get things done quickly, that´s the route I´ve taken.

Instead of one big tome, my idea is to publish, in ebook form for now, the book in instalments. I have a long term plan to make a really nice hardback and paperback edition available in the next couple of years, definitely in time for the bicentennial of Napoleon´s death in 2021.

Why did you call it The Napoleon Diaries? Did Napoleon write a diary? Is the book based on Napoleon´s diaries?

No, the book isn´t based on Napoleon´s diaries because he didn´t keep one. He dictated, though, almost all the time he was on St Helena – certainly every day – to one of his suite, albeit his doctor or one of his aides. I decided to call the book The Napoleon Diaries because it is based on those dictations and on various diaries and accounts published by everyone around him, including the British, at that time.

Is the book an easy read? Or is it just for specialists?

I wrote the book to explain what happened for myself. I am not an expert, although I like history and I´m interested in reading and knowing about history. Certainly there is a big cast of characters but that´s just the way it is: there were two large groups of interesting people on the island – the French at Longwood, who numbered just under thirty, and the British at Plantation House and everywhere else, who numbered hundreds. Within only those two groups there are thousands of interesting subplots and stories. What I did was to tell as many as I could wherever there was a connection to Napoleon himself: he was the spider in the middle of the web.

How did Napoleon die? Was he murdered?

No, I don´t think so. Stomach cancer, I think, like his father. Although his behaviour during his captivity – his refusal to take exercise and keeping himself cooped up – didn´t help him at all. Neither did the state of Longwood House, or the fact he was exiled on the middle of a rock in the south Atlantic, or the poisons in the paintwork in the old, mouldy house.

Why did the British send him to St Helena?

For its remoteness. They wanted him away from the world so the world might forget about him. He´d been sent away once, to Elba, but had got back, so this time the British were very careful: the precautions were incredible.

Do you think he was fairly treated whilst on St Helena?

Ha! The million dollar question. Yes, in a strange way I think he was. The problem was that Napoleon could never be satisfied with anything he was given on St Helena because he was furious that he´d been exiled there in the first place. He´d given himself up to the British and had wanted to be left to live alone,  in England even, as a private person. As soon as he saw where he´d been taken he threw a wobbly and it lasted until his death. He fought in every conceivable way he could manage.

What´s your opinion on Sir Hudson Lowe and his treatment of Napoleon?

Sir Hudson was on a hiding to nothing. I think he did all right under the circumstances. He was very much the opposite to Napoleon in character – a stickler for rules, dry, precise, with an unglittering military record – but it wasn´t his fault Napoleon died there. Lowe was very much hung out to dry by the establishment after Napoleon´s death – a scapegoat, really. I found him and his wife fascinating characters and they play a large role in the book.

A word on the cover image. Who did it and what is it?

It´s by my brother, Ben Hartley, and it´s a painting made on ceramic.  He calls it a coloured ceramic slip. The original is amazing. I have it at home. Its based on Napoleon´s death mask. He paints for himself and does commissions – click here.

The Napoleon Diaries Book One: Imperial Exile will be released on Amazon Kindle on August 15th 2017, Napoleon´s birthday.

Here is Chapter One.


Albine de Montholon sat naked before the attic window with her chin raised to the balmy, tropical breeze. The Atlantic rolled out to a hazy, bright horizon. Gun puffs of cloud dissipated in the high, aquiline sky as the Emperor´s child slept snug in her belly.

“Ah! So this is where you´ve been hiding.”

Albine continued to stare out at the Roads, ignoring her husband. She had pretty eyes, splintered stained glass in almond ovals, protected by dark, proud eyebrows. She would not turn for him.

Union flags cracked above the men-of-war in the bay, black dots scaling the riggings, anchor-chains glinting. Her husband, in full military dress, took off his hat as he ducked to enter the room. He paused, patting down his hair and whiskers, giving Albine a little more time to acknowledge his entrance but she remained detached, unmoved and remote. Such a welcome raised a smile on the Count´s handsome face. This one would never change. “Are you not excited to see your new home, my love?”

“Excited?” Albine stood up slowly, a hand on her belly, and tutted. “Hardly”. A shrill wolf-whistle rang out from the street below. She pulled a shawl off the back of the chair and draped it over her shoulders.

They heard a cart passing along the narrow street below, hooves clopping down to the quay. A Scottish voice cursed and someone laughed heartily.

“I´m hungry. What time is it?” Albine walked across to the door, yawning, and picked her silk slippers up off the chest of drawers at the end of the unmade bed. She was yet to make eye contact with her husband but she could feel him watching her, confused, provoked.

“Are you going to tell me what the matter is?”

“I don’t know what you´re talking about.” Albine was careful to control her breathing as she pulled on her slippers. He was watching her, staring at her, standing so near she could smell his cologne. Her shawl had fallen off and she knew he was staring at her body. She stood and leaned across him, very close, and plucked a silk robe from where it was hanging on the back of the door.

“You were sick again this morning,” Montholon told her quietly, enjoying the shape of her hips and legs through the silk. “I heard you.”

“Oh, you were back by then, were you? Well, it was nothing. Shellfish. I could kill Le Page. He´s worse than useless.” Albine tied the gown at her waist and made a sort of sigh, as if to announce she was ready to leave. She glanced very quickly into her husband´s amber eyes. “He´s an incompetent drunk.” She began to descend the creaking stairs. “Perhaps you could kill him, Charles? I don´t know. Someone kills him, that´s all that matters. I don´t know how much longer I can abide his awful food.”

Montholon, stroking a long pink ostrich feather which decorated the hat in his hands, cleared his throat. Albine stopped on the stairs, her pretty hands pressed against the uneven white plaster walls. He waited until she turned to look at him over her shoulder. “Yes?” she asked. “What is it?”

“I am to see His Majesty this morning. To aid the transition.”

“Yes, I know. You said.”

“Will you come?”

“To The Briars? God, no. I´m sick to the back teeth of the place.” Albine blew a hair out of her eye and blinked quickly, wafting a hand. Her hair did not bother her: rather wanted to avoid looking at her husband directly. She felt she had almost won the game. Turning back to look down the steep, winding staircase, she said, in a light, weary voice: “No, but I will go to the new lodgings with the children before lunch. They want to see it. You take care of what you have to do this morning.”

“And we shall see each other later?”

Albine floated off downstairs, fingertips on the walls as she coiled away. “Oui.”

Montholon remained in the attic room. He crossed the threadbare rug and groaning floorboards to lean and peer out of the window. The scent of his wife lingered, thickening the air around the chair and again he grinned. The woman had a grip on his darker soul, a hand around the throat of his life-force, which he knew he would never be able to completely shake off. And now she had some secret which she wanted him to crave to know. Nobody revealed their darkest, deepest thoughts, Montholon knew. The worst things they kept hidden for ever. They were the things all human´s guarded most carefully: their deepest, darkest desires. They were the things most frightening and treasured to people, the things they could never share with anyone; the things they loved most in the world. But this: this was a trifle, something Albine wanted him to know, something she was desperate for him to guess at, to be jealous of.

He knew instinctively she had taken another lover. And this was why he smiled. He had a good idea who it might be.

Silhouettes were drifting across the glittering bay. Montholon looked down at the roofs of the narrow houses nearest the harbour. A battleship was at anchor, barges buzzing in and out from its side, the quayside busy with men and cargo.

“Aye, aye!”

Two grinning redcoats waved up at him from the street below. As Montholon peered down, unamused, one shouted. “Put your wife back on, man! We were enjoying that!”

The Count made a gesture with his fingers. “Va te faire voir!”

“Sorry, chum. Don´t speak frog!”

Checking himself in the long, slim, smudged glass by the doorway – a deep breath, a lick of a finger, a smoothing of dark eyebrows and drooping whiskers – the Count ducked under a low rafter and began to descend the rickety stairs.

“Shellfish,” he muttered, shaking his small, tidy head. “C´est bon. C´est tres bon.