Shannon Selin’s Napoleon in America – A novel made in Marpole
By Katja De Bock
Photos: Courtesy of Shannon Selin
When Shannon Selin’s father took his daughter to the site of Napoleon’s 1815 surrender in Waterloo, Belgium, little did he know the trip would eventually result in a remarkable novel about the defeated emperor.
After three years of research and writing, Shannon Selin presented her novel Napoleon in America on April 6 in Marpole’s Historic Joy Kogawa house, with the renowned Japanese-Canadian author present at the launch party.
Incidentally, Selin lives only three houses away from the Joy Kogawa House, where Kogawa lived as a child. The historic residential building now houses a writer-in-residence program.
“The spirit of writing emanates from having Joy Kogawa so close – it just washes down the street,” Selin says of her prominent neighbour.
As you may remember from history class, Napoleon never made it to America, but died in exile at the age of 51 on St. Helena, a remote island in the Atlantic. But Selin, who was interested in the state of mind of the man who had achieved so much, yet was confined to a small island, chose his last months at St. Helena as the starting point for her book. The literary fiction genre in which historical events unfold differently than they did in real life is called “alternate history,” but Selin wasn’t aware of that when she wrote the book, at first purely for her own interest.
Selin starts the novel in February 1821. Asking “What if Napoleon escaped and made it to America?” she sets in motion a series of astonishing and amusing events. Shrewdly, she places Napoleon’s arrival in New Orleans on May 5, 1821, the official day of his death in real life, thus enabling the emperor a re-birth in the New World.
The author spoke to Kerrisdale Playbook about her inspiration for the novel and her admiration for the historical figure of Napoleon.
What was your inspiration to write this fictional, historical novel about Napoleon?
Four years ago my husband and I dined at a restaurant called Napoleon House in New Orleans. The restaurant is in a 200-year-old Creole townhouse that used to belong to a Frenchman named Nicolas Girod. He was the mayor of New Orleans during the Battle of New Orleans, which took place between the British and the Americans in 1815. Girod hated the British and was very angry when they imprisoned Napoleon on St. Helena. He fixed his house up as a residence for Napoleon, and plotted with some local pirates to go and rescue Napoleon from St. Helena and bring him to the United States. A day or two before they were to set sail, they learned that Napoleon had died.
I read this story – which is probably more fiction than fact – on the menu and said to my husband, “That would make a great book, if Napoleon had come to North America.” He said, “Why don’t you write it?” I said, “Me? Write about Napoleon?” Then I thought, “Why not?”
Tell us about your research process in finding out information about Napoleon and the plethora of supporting characters.
I wanted the book to be as plausible as possible, so I read a huge amount about Napoleon, the other characters, the settings and the period (early 1820s). In trying to get a handle on the characters’ personalities, I was interested primarily in things the characters had written themselves and in reports that were written by their contemporaries or by early biographers. Google Books was an excellent resource, as was the Internet Archive, the UBC Library and the Vancouver Public Library. I read a lot of old newspapers, which I was able to access online. I also looked at genealogical records, which are also available online. In all I consulted about 300 sources. It was like researching a history thesis.
How much resemblance does your Napoleon have to the real-life figure?
There are as many interpretations of Napoleon as there are books about him. Some people regard him as a hero who did little wrong. Others see him as a tyrant on a par with Hitler. Napoleon himself was the original spin doctor, who crafted a myth about himself, so it’s difficult to know what the “real-life figure” was like. My interpretation of him falls somewhere in the middle of the hero-tyrant spectrum.
How many of the supporting characters are fictional?
None. As part of my quest to make Napoleon in America believable, I used only characters who actually existed. I am writing blog posts about each of them at shannonselin.com, if you would like to read more about these historical figures.
You portray Napoleon as a caring father. Was this the case?
Napoleon loved his son, though he did not see him after January 1814, when the boy was not yet three years old. Napoleon viewed Napoleon II largely in dynastic terms, as the person who would inherit his legacy and – he hoped – the French throne. He wanted to make sure the child was raised to be a capable emperor. When Napoleon was on St. Helena he fretted that his son would be fed false ideas about him and might grow up hating him.
Napoleon walked through the chandeliered room, uttering words he intended to be pleasant for each lady, but which, for the most part, had the opposite effect. He asked a fat woman if she liked to dance. He asked another if her husband was jealous of her beauty. He told a divorced lady that the pleasure of a happy marriage was written on her face. To plain Jane Biddle, he said, “Madame, that is a pretty dress, but we have seen it before.” (from Napoleon in America, p.75)
Your Napoleon has an awkwardly direct way of addressing women. Is this in line with the real-life Napoleon?
It is. Napoleon did not have a high opinion of women and displayed a boorish attitude towards them. He regarded women not as men’s equals, but as machines for making children. The highest compliment he could pay a woman was to say she had a man’s head on a woman’s body. He said this of his mother, the woman he most admired. Though Napoleon exercised a magnetic charm over men, for the most part he left women cold.
I wrote the book in the style that I like to read, and my tastes tend toward literary fiction by such authors as Penelope Fitzgerald, V.S. Naipaul and Evelyn Waugh. In addition, since my research immersed me fully in 19th–century language, it sounded wrong to use anything but period dialogue when trying to bring the characters to life.
Instead of focusing on a small selection of characters, you chose to portray a wide range of characters in different countries, and illustrate the different opinions about Napoleon at the time. Why so?
Napoleon lived on a world stage, and his escape from St. Helena would have had repercussions going far beyond his personal circle of family and friends. I’m a political scientist by training, specializing in international relations, so to me it was interesting to ask: what would the British, French and American governments have done? Thus there are scenes in London with the Duke of Wellington and Lord Liverpool; in Paris with Louis XVIII and his family, as well as with Napoleon’s supporters, who expect their Emperor to return to them; in Vienna where Napoleon’s son is in the care of Emperor Francis I, who can’t stand Napoleon; and in Rome where Napoleon’s family is living. And, of course, there are scenes in Washington, where President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams are intent on staying out of European politics. Napoleon landing on their soil is their worst nightmare.
What can a modern audience learn from studying Napoleon?
It is impossible to study Napoleon separately from the French Revolution, as he could not have risen to power without the Revolution, and it framed what he did subsequently. Within this context, Napoleon shows how a single person can play a decisive role in history. Through will and skill, he achieved an unprecedented dominion over men, territory and imaginations. As one of his early biographers, Lord Rosebery, wrote: “Mankind will always delight to scrutinize something that indefinitely raises its conception of its own powers and possibilities…. No name represents so completely and conspicuously dominion, splendor, and catastrophe.”
Ironically, Napoleon’s civic achievements have lasted longer than his military ones. His centralized administrative structure and system of state dirigisme live on in France and its former colonies. His system of law – the Napoleonic code – influences civil law in much of continental Europe, as well as in Quebec, Louisiana and some Latin American and Middle Eastern countries.
How does your book reflect the modern dichotomy debate between the “Old Europe” (coined by Donald Rumsfeld) and the New World, North America/U.S.?
Stereotypes about the “Old” and “New” worlds prevailed even 200 years ago, along the lines of the Old World being a land of cultural sophistication prone to despotism, and the New World being a land of liberty, but also of money-grubbing. Characters in Napoleon in America often reflect these ideas, as when Napoleon comments that Americans are interested only in making money, and when his brother Joseph talks about the lack of fine arts in the United States. From the other side, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, the American ex-wife of Napoleon’s brother Jerome, writes to her father that Europeans are “utterly destitute of anything like moral feeling,” and the Baltimore newspaper Niles’ Weekly Register talks about Europeans loving kings more than freedom.
As for the Canadian, provided that he makes a living, he is content. He will stick there; he has not the least ambition. He is fond enough of money when he possesses it, but is altogether unacquainted with overreaching, and if he attempts to cheat, he knows not how. He enjoys whatever comes his way, thanking the good Lord, the Virgin and the saints for everything. While the peasantry of Normandy have changed many of their habits, the Canadians have retained them: honesty, chastity, piety and superstition. (from Napoleon in America, p.111)
What was your inspiration for the humorous description of Canadians?
This passage was based on a Montreal newspaper article from 1819. The article was written by a French Canadian who was adversely comparing his countrymen to the Americans.
Where can readers purchase the book?
For those who cannot get enough of Shannon Selin and Napoleon, Napoleon in America is planned to be part I of a trilogy. To be continued!