Talking Point with Michel Dancoisne-Martineau : Jacques Jourquin’s passion for the last passion of Napoleon

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There are some books that, as you reach the last page, you feel that you will never really close them properly. For me, La dernière passion de Napoléon, la bibliothèque de Sainte-Hélène [“Napoleon’s last passion, the library at St Helena”] by Jacques Jourquin, just published by Passés Composés Editions, is one of them. It is not only a wonderful book, it is also an essential resource for anyone interested in the Emperor.

Talking Point with Michel Dancoisne-Martineau : Jacques Jourquin’s passion for the last passion of Napoleon

Just as there are multiple ways of perceiving Napoleon, Jacques Jourquin has given us a book that can be understood on many different levels, and within its pages numerous discoveries and surprises await the reader, even one who thinks they know everything there is to know on the subject. It can be simply enjoyed as a good read or indeed it can be scrutinised in order to extract all the minutest details this study reveals, depending on the reader’s needs and preference.

Having spent several decades classifying, deciphering and then harnessing the full significance of the personal papers of the “Mamluk Ali”, Jacques Jourquin has succeeded in doing what had been considered impossible for two centuries: namely, establishing a comprehensive catalogue (Catalogue général renseigné) of Napoleon’s library on St Helena. Yet the way he presents this work reads more like a detective novel, as he reveals the painstakingly details of all the stages in the constitution of the library.

What’s more, this book will appeal to those who like to discover the “small picture” within the big one, because Jourquin explores the multifaceted and exceptional life of Louis-Étienne Saint-Denis, known as “Mamluk Ali”, who was it turns out “far from the exotic character that his nickname might suggest”.

What instinctively aroused my interest, when I first read this book, was the unlikely encounter between this Emperor (whose talents for organisation and decision-making are well-known) and this young man (who despite having being educated belonged to the ranks of servant), who now found himself carrying out and writing orders “that no longer concern the states and movements of army corps but [insead] battalions of books to be arranged and catalogued.” A surprising and unlikely duo.

The Emperor was of course Napoleon; the former mameluk and “porte-arquebuse” [“harquebus-bearer” was his function in the Emperor’s Household], came from a modest family in Versailles, who became a “Chasseur” and second-in-command and who would accompany his master in exile. There, the latter made him keeper of his books, “which could not have come at a better time, for in addition to being a book-lover, Saint-Denis was a conscientious and meticulous man”. On St Helena, the Empire was condensed into a realm of chimeras.

Throughout his life, “by means of books, precious and privileged sources of emotion or knowledge”, Napoleon had used his libraries as idea factories. The one on St Helena was no exception. In this book, as he gently pushes open the small door of the simple room where it was kept, Jacques Jourquin paints a new portrait of the Emperor. We see him, constantly adapting his working methods, day after day, according to the interests and objectives of the moment, whether it be the need for information from Europe or for the benefit of promotional, denunciatory, propagandist or editorial projects.

It is a simply fascinating read. You see the “database” slowly forming, allowing the Emperor to push back the limits of his thinking little by little. In this way, the hundred and fifty square metres of his prison may have seemed larger than they actually were. Between hopes, regrets and illusions, the Longwood library was formed with one constant parameter, namely, the frustration of not being able to get more books. Unlike all the libraries he had built up during his professional life, on St Helena Napoleon was no longer in control of the selection of books, whose deliveries were now dependent on the uncertain frequency of passing ships. There was another difference: at Longwood, there were no battlefields, no political decisions to be made, no administrative rules to prepare; the situation was no longer one of action, but of reflection. Apart from those used to ‘build a coherent history of his reign’, which he was preparing for posterity, the books in the Longwood library were more a remedy for boredom than anything else. And yet, even if he had ‘lost the library worthy of his rank, [that which was] indispensable to his meditations and the flights of his imagination’, we discover through these absences the inclinations of his mind.

This book is a must-read. The fact that the author Jacques is a lifelong friend – from the time even before I discovered St Helena, and that is saying something! – has nothing to do with it. I have been waiting for this book to come out for a long time. Patience and time are more important than strength or rage. Like the rat in Jean de la Fontaine’s fable, Ali in his time and Jacques Jourquin today put the lion in the spotlight in the only space of freedom he had left in St Helena: namely, reading.

What patience Ali Saint-Denis must have had, to survive his master’s impatience and satisfy the latter’s unquenchable thirst for books. And what perseverance Jacques Jourquin needed to decipher the librarian’s minuscule handwriting on the hundreds of pages of his papers.

This book is not to be missed under any circumstances.

September 2021 (translation RY)

Michel Dancoisne-Martineau is director of the French Domaines on St Helena

► Discover here a presentation in English of the book by Jacques Jourquin, La dernière passion de Napoléon, la bibliothèque de Sainte-Hélène, [Napoleon’s last Passion: the St Helena Library], Paris, Passés/Composés, 2021.

Find out more about the French Domaines on St Helena and the Longwood House restoration operation

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