In THE EMPEROR’S LAST ISLAND, Blackburn leaves behind Napoleon’s military career and concentrates instead on his time in exile. After an introductory chapter, Blackburn briefly describes the natural and human history of St. Helena before Napoleon’s arrival. When he came in 1815, Napoleon found an island scoured by wind, scorched by heat, and largely denuded of its forest cover. His first few months there were made bearable by his stay with the Balcombe family and in particular by his playful friendship with the young Betsy Balcombe. But after some months Napoleon’s true captivity began when he and his entourage were forced to move into Longwood, a shabbily built house with many rats. Blackburn provides plenty of details about Napoleon’s subsequent troubles with the sentries and with the island’s British governor, Sir Hudson Lowe. She presents Napoleon as a pathetic man who could still wear his old uniforms, be addressed as “His Majesty,” and have formal dinners on Imperial plate, but who could never escape the dinginess and boredom of his surroundings until his death.
Blackburn from time to time digresses from Napoleon’s sad history at St. Helena to discuss her own journey there. These diversions, along with vivid descriptions of the flora, fauna, and people of the island (past and present), add charm to the book. Blackburn offers no speculations about the cause of Napoleon’s death and does not address the allegations that he was poisoned. The work is not scholarly in presentation or intent, but its engaging style and sincere pathos should give it an appeal to a wide audience.