No, Napoleon didn’t actually make it to America, though it would’ve been interesting to see what happened! That’s exactly what Shannon Selin’s book Napoleon in America imagines. What if Napoleon had escaped his captors and ended up in the U.S.? I can’t recommend the book highly enough. It was the first fiction book I had read in years and it was so engrossing, fun, and creative. As an American who loves Spanish/Latin American history as well as French culture, I found so many of my interests satisfied and engaged. Shannon graciously agreed to answer some questions of mine about the book below, so take a look!
1. It seems to me that historical fiction is a tricky balancing act- finding elements of fantasy and creativity that have to seem somewhat plausible and rooted in some historical fact. How do you find the right balance between fantasy and history?
I think the physical setting, the social customs and the details of daily life have to be depicted with reasonable historical accuracy. This helps the reader imagine the period and gives the novel an aura of plausibility. Since all of the characters in Napoleon in America are actual historical figures, I also tried to keep their words and actions consistent with my understanding of their personalities, as gleaned from my research. Within this scaffolding, the plot can be as fanciful as one wants to make it.
2. What kinds of sources did you use for your research for the book and what are some elements of the book that people might be surprised to find are true?
I started by reading biographies of Napoleon and the other major historical figures featured in the book. I also read about Napoleon’s time on St. Helena, and about the post-Napoleonic War years in Europe and North America. I then turned to relevant letters, diaries, memoirs, travellers’ accounts and newspapers of the time. Basically I read sources that helped me:
- identify the possibilities and constraints Napoleon might have faced if he escaped from St. Helena and went to North America;
- select people and events that might have been affected by such an adventure; and
- imagine what it was like to be alive in the early 1820s in the places where the novel is set.
I delved into more esoteric topics as I was writing each scene, e.g., early 19th-century medical practices, the history of voodoo in New Orleans, the diplomacy surrounding the Congress of Verona.
One of the things that surprised me was the extent of the Bonaparte family’s connections with the United States. Napoleon’s brother Joseph really was living in New Jersey in 1821. Napoleon had an American nephew, Jerome Bonaparte (the son of Napoleon’s brother Jerome), who – as happens in Napoleon in America – was considered a potential husband for Joseph’s daughter Charlotte. Another nephew who appears in the book, Achille Murat (the son of Napoleon’s sister Caroline), also moved to the United States.
A number of Napoleonic officers fled to the United States after Napoleon’s 1815 abdication, which explains why so many show up to help him in the novel. Also, France really did invade Spain in 1823, and a group of men led by Colonel Charles Fabvier really did attempt to subvert the French troops at the Bidassoa River.
3. Your book imagines how the Quebecois may have supported Napoleon’s return to power- to what degree was this based on historical fact? Was there Quebecois support for Napoleon during his reign?
One of the things I learned when I was researching Napoleon in America (and, as a Canadian, and the daughter of a history teacher, I feel rather guilty about not knowing this before) was that in 1805 some French Canadians wrote a petition to Napoleon asking him to help free them from British rule. This was a minority opinion, however. French Canadians were largely loyal British subjects, pro-Bourbon and anti-Napoleon. It was only after Napoleon’s death that general sympathy for him began to emerge in Quebec. I wrote an article about this. I also wrote a couple of short stories set in Quebec during the Napoleonic Wars, including one about that 1805 petition.
4. This was the first time in a long time that I’ve delved into a historical fiction book. Since I so enjoyed your book, do you have any recommendations for similar books I might try out next (while I wait for your sequel!)?
I’m a great fan of Penelope Fitzgerald and her four historical fiction books are marvelous: Innocence (set in Italy in the 1950s), The Gate of Angels (Cambridge in 1912), The Beginning of Spring (pre-revolutionary Russia) and The Blue Flower (late 18th-century Germany). If you’d prefer to read more about Napoleon, see my blog post about Napoleon in historical fiction.
5. You’ve said that you’re in the middle of writing a sequel to the book. Without giving anything away, can you give a hint of what we can expect next on Napoleon’s adventure?
Let’s just say that I’ve done a lot of reading about Mexico in the early 1820s, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing surrounding the Monroe Doctrine, and the 1824 US presidential election.
Historical fiction writer Shannon Selin is the author of Napoleon in America, which imagines what might have happened if Napoleon Bonaparte had escaped from exile on St. Helena and wound up in the United States in 1821. Shannon blogs about Napoleonic and 19th century history at shannonselin.com. She lives in Vancouver, Canada, where she is working on the next novel in her Napoleon series.