How did Las Cases end up on St Helena?
François Houdecek: Las Cases came from an old noble family and was late to rally to the Empire (1809). He had trained as a sailor and spent part of the Revolution as an émigré in England, during which time he published an Atlas whose success allowed him thereafter to live comfortably. After volunteering to participate in the defence against the British landing at Walcheren in 1809, he was appointed Chamberlain to Napoleon and auditor at the Conseil d’État. His position meant that he frequented the imperial court and became quite attached to Napoleon. He showed his fidelity to the Emperor when he refused to sit on the Conseil d’État during the First Restoration. When Napoleon returned from Elba, Las Cases immediately resumed his position. After Waterloo, as chamberlain, he followed the large entourage which accompanied Napoleon from Rochefort onto Bellerophon. His knowledge of English made him almost indispensable during those few days. He therefore naturally found his place amongst those chosen to accompany the fallen sovereign to St Helena.
How did Las Cases work with Napoleon?
François Houdecek: On his journey to St Helena, Napoleon began to dictate his Memoirs and began to converse more freely with his traveling companions. He soon became close to Las Cases, who became the favourite partner for these imperial conversations, thus creating some jealousy among the exiles! On 21 June 1815, aboard Northumberland, Las Cases began making notes about the events which were taking place before his eyes, and he continued this ‘journal’ later on St Helena, undoubtedly with a view to using it later in some form or other. After each conversation with Napoleon, Las Case would transcribe his notes, and every day his son Emmanuel would put these notes into a legible form. This job of “cleaning up” was all the more necessary since Las Cases suffered from very bad eyesight. Like everything that took place at Longwood, Napoleon was perfectly aware of this work, and he encouraged it. Las Cases was able to give him excerpts from the ‘journal’ to read, and in this way the Emperor gave his assent to its future publication.
How did Las Cases prepare his manuscripts for publication?
François Houdecek: In 1821, when Las Cases was finally able to retrieve his papers which had been confiscated by the British when they expelled him from St Helena in 1816, he decided that the manuscript as it stood needed padding out and decided to resume his work. With the help of notes he had probably made and also things committed to memory, by conversing with his former companions in exile and also consulting the memoirs of O’Meara [the first doctor on St Helena to attend to Napoleon] published in 1822, he endeavoured to expand and develop the text. Taking care not to offend the French Royal government, he added anecdotes, and indeed whole pages of text inspired by Napoleon’s own memoirs on the Directory, Italy, or Egypt. In addition, Las Cases added personal memories of his time as an émigré during the Revolution or his Atlas, giving the impression to the reader that it was Napoleon who always wanted to know more about the life of his secretary. But Las Cases went further and attributed to Napoleon many maxims that now have become part of the Napoleonic legend – words which are absent from the manuscript at the British Library. Did Napoleon really say “My life, what a novel!” or should this aphorism rather be credited to the genius of the wordsmith Las Cases? For the moment, it is impossible to say.
[English translation by Rebecca Young]
You can read an excerpt (in English) from the Introduction to the new edition here.