Tag: France

Napoleon in America

Napoleon in America

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.

The Discovery of France: An interview with Graham Robb

The Discovery of France: An interview with Graham Robb

Recently I had the pleasure of reading what is now one of my favorite books, The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. It is a book about the hidden side of France- outside Paris and outside your history textbooks. It is a whimsical book filled with curious stories, not something you typically associate with non-fiction histories. And that is what makes it so delightful. Robb does an amazing job of weaving narratives together and giving you a more full picture of the country we call France but all too often just equate with Paris. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you want to have an adventure with a new culture from the comfort of your living room, give this a read. Below is my unedited interview with Mr. Robb, with special thanks to Claire Aasen and Cara Jones for helping me to arrange it and Mr. Robb for being so generous with his time:

1. In your book, you mention that in 1880, only about 20% of France spoke French comfortably (pg. 52). This was an exciting but astonishing figure to me. Today obviously the situation has changed considerably. What do you think are the prospects for reviving non-French languages and “patois” in France?

The spectacular example of Wales shows that `minority’ languages which seemed moribund can be revived, though for this to happen, the language must be standardized to some extent (which is what the French Academy did to what we now call French). Nostalgic or political campaigns in certain French regions seem to have had little effect, though the extent to which dialects are spoken is probably underestimated. One commonly hears forms of Breton, Alsatian and Languedocian spoken in France today, as well as some dialects which their speakers do not consider to be dialects. However, new forms of French are forming all the time, especially in the big conurbations.

2. Local culture is a theme of your book. How does understanding France outside of Paris change your perspective on the country?

It suggests that Paris is still a nation in its own right, and that the relation of the regions to Paris is in some respects that of provinces to an imperial capital.

3. As you biked around France, what was the most surprising thing you learned about the country and why?

Simply that, apart from specialist studies, certain guide books and self-consciously quaint `celebrations’ of `rural’ France, there was very little information on a vast proportion of the country. Most general histories of France are still almost exclusively histories of Paris.

4. In your book, you mention that the start of World War I was the first event whose news reached the whole country in one day. The idea that this didn’t happen until last century astonishes me. What changed in France to make this more rapid communication possible? And why didn’t it happen until the 20th century?

Relatively rapid communication already existed (telegraph, post, railways), but there was not necessarily a corresponding appetite for instant information. Also, this was a very simple piece of information (France was at war and there was mass conscription). Even today, with newspapers, radio, tv and the Internet, the comprehension of certain events of national importance in certain regions owes a great deal to rumour. (I was in a small town in Savoie when 9/11 happened, and a local woman told me and my American wife, `They’ve blown up Manhattan’.)

5. You talk a lot about the historic divide between Langues d’oc and Langues d’oïl – in what ways do we still see this divide in France culturally, linguistically, politically, or otherwise?

I’m afraid that’s too big a question – even for a whole book!

6. What do people outside of France most misunderstand about the country? And what do people who are French most misunderstand about their own country?

I was struck, when I talked about the book in the United States, by the number of people who were pleased to learn that the French had not always been `sophisticated’… The French are often the first to say that no one (especially Parisians) knows France.

7. Even though modern communication, war, and movement of people have changed the local cultures of France, are you optimistic about the survival of local traditions and culture?

As soon as a local tradition becomes conscious of itself as `local’, it no longer exists in the same way. France is fortunate in having a large immigrant population (including expatriate British!) which can bring new life to regions which were stagnating. A big problem in many parts of France is the continuing rise of industrial-scale agriculture and the depopulation of small towns and villages.

8. I’ve now read The Discovery of France and am working on Parisians. Do you have any thoughts about which book of yours I should read next?

You could try my biography of Rimbaud (same publishers). There’s quite a lot about Paris and the provinces. Rimbaud came from near the Franco-Belgian border and, unlike almost every other successful French writer, never became a proper Parisian!

9. Your most recent book is The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts. Any ideas for your next project? As an American francophile, can I convince you to bike around Quebec?

That’s a tempting idea! I’m writing a book which I hope will be published in 2017. The subject is British, but it may have some resonance in Quebec.

Photo credit: Philippe Matsas
Photo credit: Philippe Matsas

Graham Robb is a former Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (since 1998) and a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The Mayor of Paris awarded him the Grande Médaille de la Ville de Paris in 2012 after the publication of the French translation of Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris.

His three biographies (Balzac, Victor Hugo, Rimbaud) were New York Times `Best Books of the Year’. Victor Hugo won the Whitbread Biography Prize and the Heinemann Award, and Rimbaud was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize.

The Discovery of France (Ondaatje Prize, Duff Cooper Prize, Lire magazine `History Book of the Year’) was inspired by several thousand miles of velocipedal research. The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe opened up new ways of understanding the world of the Celts and made several important technical and historical contributions to the study of cartography.