The Memorial: Chantal Prevot on the History of the publication, October 2017

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On the occasion of the publication of the original manuscript of the Emmanuel de Las Cases Le Memorial de Sainte-Hélène, discovered and commented on by four researchers from the Fondation Napoléon – Thierry Lentz, Peter Hicks, François Houdecek, and Chantal Prévot – we asked each of them three short questions relating to their field. 

Chantal Prevot is librarian at the Fondation Napoleon.

Chantal Prévot © Fondation Napoléon / Rebecca Young

1) How did Count de Las Cases recover his manuscript confiscated by the British government?

Chantal Prevot: After he was arrested on 25 November 1816 for attempting to smuggle two letters off the island to Europe, Las Cases and his son were expelled from St Helena on 31 December. His papers, including the Journal, were confiscated, sealed, and sent to England to be handed over to the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, Henry Bathurst. They were given back to him only five years later in September 1821, after the death of the Emperor. The employees at the Colonial Office therefore had every opportunity to copy the Journal in full. It is this copy, now preserved in the Bathurst archive at the British Library, which was “rediscovered” in 2005 by Peter Hicks.

2) Was the Memorial of St Helena a “bestseller”?

Chantal Prevot: When it was published in 1823, the work was an immediate success. The first reprint appeared between late 1823 and early 1824. The whole work was translated into English, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish. New editions continued to be printed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and in 1950, the Memorial entered the prestigious French literary collection of “La Pléiade”. It has often been said that it was the bestselling work in French 19th-century publishing. However, this is a bit of an exaggeration. Statistics published in L’histoire de l’édition française (The History of French Publishing) put the Mémorial in 23rd position in terms of sales between 1821 and 1825, creeping up to 22nd place between 1826 and 1840. Las Cases Junior, in a letter to General Bertrand dated 1840, refers to 44,000 copies sold since the first edition.

3) Did Emmanuel de Las Cases make his fortune?

Chantal Prevot: The royalties from the Memorial undoubtedly provided Las Cases with a tidy nest egg, but without making him a millionaire. He invested a large portion of the profits he made in the acquisition of land and the construction of four houses in the up-and-coming district of Bellechasse in Paris (now in the 7th Arrondissement). But he was over-ambitious; tenants were not forthcoming and the returns on his investment fell short of his expectations.

English translation by Rebecca Young

You can read an excerpt (in English) from the Introduction here.

See also

The Gospel according to Las Cases, by Thierry Lentz

The ‘discovery’ of the manuscript of the “Mémorial de Sainte Hélène”: Three questions for Peter Hicks, October 2017

Who exactly was Las Cases? Three questions to François Houdecek

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