Gourgaud’s Journal, duly bowdlerised, was published twice, first by Gourgaud’s descendants (at the end of the 19th century) and secondly by Octave Aubry, fifty years later. The words, ideas and deeds that might have shocked were quietly omitted, including some particularly ‘unfiltered’ opinions either of the Emperor’s or amongst those of his First Ordnance Officer. The deposition of the general’s papers at the Paris Archives Nationales about ten or so years ago has made it possible today to publish a complete authentic edition that matches the original. And in this edition prepared by Jacques Macé, the surprises come thick and fast. In the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, published in its proto-form two years ago, the tone was steadfastly epic (at least for the most part), restrained, politically engaged (though occasionally politically incorrect!), with one eye on a potential future. Las Cases admired Napoleon and wanted to help him establish his reputation for posterity, or possibly even, if the text had been published before 1823, to facilitate an gentler exile in Britain or the United States.
Nothing of this sort can be seen in General Gourgaud’s diary. His almost head-over-heels love for the Emperor and the envy he felt towards Las Cases and the Montholons was clear in the preceding editions. These features are even more evident in the complete Journal, to the point that it is almost embarrassing. We see his jealousy mutating into a bitter hatred of his rivals, even on occasions of the Emperor himself, who, we must not forget, never ceased from teasing and belittling Gourgaud, even pushing the latter to request his own departure from St Helena. The opinions on events and people, scattered throughout the conversations, emerge in a cold light, coarse and harsh. It is like being transported back two hundred years to Longwood House and hearing a recording of the exchanges, with all the not-for-polite-society language typical of the private conversations of us all, even the greatest amongst us (here of course I am talking about Napoleon). Here we have two soldiers reminiscing, with sharp judgements, and nicknames (for example: “cette salope de Montebello” (‘That bitch Madame Lannes, Duchesse de Montebello’), Napoleon’s words, or the “pute” (‘whore’) Madame de Montholon, as Gourgaud called her). The daily life of St Helena now occupies a greater part of the Journal, even down to the smallest details. Las Cases and Montholon only interacted with the highest-ranking officers and noblest figures of the exile period. They filtered and accommodated their writings given that they had time to write calmly with an eye on history, and long after the events described. Marchand and Ali had a servant’s admiration for their master. Even in his tachygraphic scribbles, partly transcribed in the 1950s, Bertrand did not really let himself go. Gourgaud was a younger, stronger, outdoor soldier who was not held back by any politeness or sense of propriety. What is more, he met, spoke to, and made judgements on, literally everyone, from Governor Lowe right down to the lowest petty officers, not to mention anonymous walkers, tradespeople and the prostitutes in Jamestown. His account shows not only the obsessions, the close physical contact, the simmering hate, but also his affections and affairs (the General was a great lover…frequently head over heels).
Beware all you who begin this complete version of Gourgaud’s Journal de Sainte-Hélène. Version intégrale. You are in for a remarkable, and occasionally rocky, ride around the island at the end of the world!
Director of the Fondation Napoléon
PS: In sequence after the proto-version of the Mémorial, Gourgaud’s complete Journal, the «Bibliothèque de Sainte-Hélène» will have two more volumes: rare and previously unpublished British accounts of Napoleon on st Helena (publication: October 2020, by Peter Hicks); and an unpublished part (1820) and a revised, corrected part (first six months of 1821) of the original manuscript of the Grand-maréchal Bertrand’s Cahiers (‘notebooks’) (parution: February 2021, by François Houdecek).
► Jacques Macé on La saga des Gourgaud, de Yerres à la Fondation Napoléon, 1857–2019 (in French)