The ‘discovery’ of the manuscript of the “Mémorial de Sainte Hélène”: Three questions for… Peter Hicks, 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. This first one is with Peter Hicks, who found the incredible document.

October 2017

© Fondation Napoléon/ R. Young

How did you find the manuscript?

Peter Hicks: This ‘discovery’ happened way back in 2004, at a time when I was doing some research at the British Library in London for an article on Hudson Lowe (Governor of St Helena) to be published in the book edited by (inter alia) Thierry Lentz entitled Sainte-Hélène, île de mémoire (Fayard 2005). I mentioned to Thierry the existence of the the Mémorial copied into four manuscript volumes. We did some research on the history of the publication of Las Cases’s book only to discover that no one had noticed the existence of the manuscript…

Despite the fact that it was in full view in an internationally renowned public library?

Peter Hicks: The four volumes lay hidden amongst the Bathurst family papers until 1923 when the Historical Manuscripts Commission, a body whose job it was to list historical manuscripts in private hands, published a report on the Bathurst collection. At that time, any English-speaking researcher could have known of the existence of the manuscript. In 1965, the Bathurst family papers were deposited on loan at the British Library, thereby making them accessible to a wider public. Though the manuscript was consulted a few times in the following fifty or so years, no one really noticed its significance.

Why is that, do you think?

Peter Hicks: I don’t now, but you could perhaps construct the following narrative. The existence of the manuscript was publicised in 1923, but this was too late for the many British and French historians who marked the centenary of the Napoleonic episode with their publications. So too late for them. Furthermore, even if you had wanted to consult the document, before 1965, you had to go all the way to the Bathurst family estate near Cirencester (in Gloucestershire); not exactly close to London. As for why French historians didn’t mention the manuscript, one could say the British Library is not really your first port of call when studying Napoleon. So there you go. Here we are in the bicentenary, and the manuscript is relatively accessible in London.

 

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

See also

The Gospel according to Las Cases, by Thierry Lentz

Who exactly was Las Cases? Three questions to François Houdecek

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