Welcome! Tell us something about where you live.
Well, that’s half my story, isn’t it? I’m stranded 5,000 miles from Paris on the miserable British island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. Charles de Montholon—my (third) husband, a marquis and general, but poor as a beggar’s brat—and I followed Napoleon Bonaparte here into exile after his loss at Waterloo.
Are you envisioning white sand beaches? Think again, dear friend. This desolate volcanic island’s all hills and valleys, except for the rain-soaked, windswept plateau at its top. There, the British confine us in dilapidated Longwood House. Napoleon, naturally, has the best chambers, but between the dust and rats, those hardly befit an ex-emperor. Charles and I bunk on cots in the paltry library room. Oh, I shouldn’t complain. I pleaded to accompany Napoleon here.
Is there anything special about your name? Why do you think you were given that name?
Merci for asking. No one ever does. Albine means “white,” which is amusing when you consider the—shall we say?—enterprising life I’ve led. No, do not judge me. During the French Revolution, an aristocrat’s daughter couldn’t afford morals, not if she wanted to survive. Yet for all my sins, now that I’ve turned forty, a part of me yearns for the purity my name implies.
Do you have an occupation?
An occupation? Goodness, no. It’s 1818, and I’m married to a marquis, however impoverished. That’s not to say that I don’t pick up some coin here and there. Plus, I admit to a bit of harmless spying for the British. Payment for that comes as letters from my beloved son who’s in school in Switzerland. Can you blame a mother? Wouldn’t you do the same?
And then there’s my relationship with my long-time hero Napoleon. Don’t be shocked: Charles and I have a practical marriage. He encourages me to “keep company” with Napoleon. For Charles, it’s about ambition and greed. Maybe that’s how it started out for me, but now I love the lonely emperor for himself.
To pass the time, I help Napoleon with the romantic novel he’s writing. (Yes, Napoleon writing fiction!) It’s an old manuscript he started when he was young and idealistic. Now he wants to finish it. You see, Napoleon, like me, has a son, one who was taken from him. The book’s a gift for his “Eaglet,” a way to teach the boy about love, betrayal, and ambition. Perhaps you could call me a writing coach?
Who are the special people in your life?
My son Tristan comes first, of course, but due to our separation, he’s more in my heart than my life.
For years, Napoleon was my idol. I thought if I could get close to him that his glory, power, and wealth would rub off on me. I never knew him—understood him—until now. By hearing my story, you, too, have a chance to know him as I wager you do not.
To complicate matters, I have a new admirer: an almost-handsome British lieutenant, Basil Jackson, who would like to make an honest middle-class woman of me. Can you imagine? And yet . . .
On a different level, there’s Napoleon’s page, little Tobyson. He’s the only person on this island who notices when I’m sad. His father’s an enslaved man whom Napoleon befriended and tried to free. Some scheme’s going on between those two.
What is your heart’s deepest desire?
I want to see my son Tristan again. Even more important, I want to know that he is happy. With 5,000 miles separating us, a mother can only pray.
Beyond that, I crave love. I’d settle for stability. But what’s the best way to achieve either? Should I attach my star to Napoleon? Go to England with almost-handsome Basil? Reconcile with my husband Charles? I had almost decided when suddenly everything changed. I have a child growing inside of me.
What are you most afraid of?
Hunger. Prison. Have you known them? Did you, too, survive the French Revolution? No? Have pity on those of us who cannot forget our terror. Here, slip your hand into the secret pocket in my skirt. Touch the bread crusts I can never be without. Feel my fear.
Do you have a cherished possession?
I wear a necklace with my son Tristan’s portrait inside.
What do you expect the future will hold for you?
Now that I am pregnant, the British may let me return to Europe. I am torn between conflicting loyalties as Napoleon, Charles, and Basil each urge me to turn on the others, while I only wish to protect my baby.
What have you learned about yourself in the course of your story?
I learned that when you touch greatness, you don’t change it as much as it changes you. I hope finally to be able to temper my ambition and seek a contented life. Most of all, I have learned to live with grief and to find joy in the love that preceded it.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you?
I am a survivor. History may forget me, but I am woven in its fabric. I was the last woman Napoleon Bonaparte loved.
About the Author:
Margaret Rodenberg’s passion for French history began when she lived in France as a young teen with her US Navy family. An avid traveler who has visited over sixty countries, she has journeyed more than 30,000 miles to conduct Napoleonic research, including to St. Helena Island in the remote South Atlantic. She’s a former businesswoman, an award-winning writer, and a director of the Napoleonic Historical Society, a non-profit that promotes knowledge of the Napoleonic era. New York Times best-selling author Allison Pataki called her debut novel, Finding Napoleon, “beautiful and poignant.”