Thomas B(ertram) Costain Millicent Taylor - Essay

Millicent Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thomas Costain's flair for bringing to life periods of history dominated by fascinating personalities takes us in ["The Last Love"] to St. Helena during Napoleon's final exile. It is mainly the story of a loyal and delightful friendship between the great Corsican—now a tragic and lonely figure—and the generous-hearted tomboy daughter of William Balcombe, a distinguished Englishman stationed there….

The book is frankly a novel, not a history—yet the story of this friendship is fact, and most of the characters are actual persons. In some extensive flashbacks the author gives historical and biographical background material leading up to St. Helena.

The main events of the story itself are substantiated in diaries and other records turned up by Mr. Costain's sound and indefatigable research. These include among others the feud carried on between the proud ex-Emperor and the governor, the visits without permits that Betsy managed, and the loan of Napoleon's horse to Betsy for the Deadwood races. All of it reads like fact, however, although as in any historical novel some of the characters are of course fiction, and some of the events. The additions, Mr. Costain states, are "concerned chiefly with detail."…

But inevitably it is Napoleon who dominates for the reader this absorbing account. Costain's skill at giving intimate insights into a great historical character has never been better shown….

It is the drama unfolding in vivid and convincing detail that fascinates the reader. An ex-Emperor shorn of position and power is seen here as a very human and attractive man, who in his final years of frustration and regret is enriched by and grateful for an unusual friendship with a young English girl—his "Betsee."

Millicent Taylor, "Napoleon and His English 'Betsee'," in The Christian Science Monitor, September 26, 1963, p. 13.