The Elba Intermission : Napoleon’s First Exile

Napoleon signs his abdication, April 1814 by Bouchot

Napoleon signs his abdication, April 1814 by Bouchot

I was reading Louise Allen’s book, The Earl’s Marriage Bargain, this week—much recommended—and it reminded me of the Elba intermission because the story starts in the summer of 1814, after Napoleon’s abdication. It’s such a useful period for Regency authors. It allows us to bring war heroes home and confront them with all sorts of society dilemmas that they’ve been missing.

In the Peninsula and then France, they’ve been in largely male company and they’ve been subject to the rigours of war. They’ve seen death and destruction. They’ve seen horrors that they can never share with their loved ones. And they’ve suffered fierce heat, bitter cold, privations and hunger, too.

Vauxhall Gardens - 1820.At home again, they have to try to be the kind of tonnish gentlemen who can make idle conversation with ladies in the ballroom. Yes, I know that Wellington insisted his young men should dance well. And I also know that there were females around, not all of them camp followers. But society, in the Peninsula, was not the same as coming back to Society, with a capital S, in England.

Napoleon’s return from Elba, by Charles de Steuben

There is also the added piquancy that, unlike the characters, we know that the Elba intermission will be short and the ending will be bloody. Napoleon will be raising his standard again in only a few months’ time.

If the story’s hero is a former soldier, he may feel it is his duty to return to the colours. We know he risks being killed or wounded in the carnage of the final battle. That may be why so many authors of Regencies set their stories in the 1814-1815 period. I’ve certainly done it several times, most recently with the new edition of My Lady Angel.

Napoleon and Elba

View of Portoferraio, Elba, with the Forte Stella and the Napoleon Villa

View of Portoferraio, Elba, with the Forte Stella and the Napoleon Villa

A few years ago, I blogged about Napoleon’s bees and included the new flag he designed for Elba, with three golden bees on a red diagonal stripe on a white ground. (Shown here in the Elba museum.)Napoleon's Elba flag

He was into that kind of detail.

It was his new principality and, in typical fashion, he was going to put the Napoleonic stamp on it. So he set about developing the iron mines—he needed the money from them—constructing new roads, overhauling the education system and much, much more.

Where did he live?

Elba Napoleon's Villa dei MuliniThis is Napoleon’s Villa dei Mulini (also called a Palazzina) in Portoferraio back in 2006 when I visited Elba. To me, it doesn’t look like a palace, not even a little one (though my Italian dictionary tells me a palazzina is a bourgeois house, not a little palace). And it looks to be much in need of a coat of paint, don’t you think?

To be fair, I’ve seen later pictures of the villa in which it has been repainted—bright yellow!

The Villa dei Mulini (or Villa des Moulins) has a garden overlooking the sea.

 Elba Villa dei Mulini garden overlooking sea  ITALY, PORTOFERRAIO - 4 july 2011: garden of Palazzina Dei Mulini, Napoleon residence in Portoferraio on the island Elba

And this is an image of the rear of the villa, before it was repainted. I’m sparing you the garish yellow. I think the muted terracotta colour is restful (though that bright yellow is also common on Elba).

How Napoleon lived in exile

He seems to have lived in some state at the Villa dei Mulini. He was Elba’s sovereign, after all. This is the grand state bed, sent from Paris to Elba by Madame Mère. It isn’t actually in a bedroom but in the grand reception room.Elba, Villa dei Mulini, state bed

Opposite the bed is an enormous gilt mirror, flanked by busts of Napoleon and a woman in antique dress, believed to be Napoleon’s sister, Pauline Borghese. (That’s the Pauline who sold her fabulous Paris mansion to Wellington. It became the British Ambassador’s official residence**)

Bust of Napoleon in Villa dei Mulini, Elba  Mirror in Grand Reception, Villa dei Mulini, Elba  Bust, possibly Pauline Borghese, in Villa dei Mulini, Elba

The interiors of the Villa dei Mulini seem very elegant. Pink and coral were favourites for walls.

Elba, Villa dei Mulini, interior

Below are the library (with eagle), the marble-topped desk, and (centre) another bed, possibly one that was actually slept in 😉

Elba, Villa dei Mulini, library with eagle    Elba, Villa dei Mulini, blue bed with canopy     Elba, Villa dei Mulini, desk

And when Napoleon left Elba?

This is one of the reception rooms at the Villa dei Mulini. The portrait in the middle of the wall is a copy of Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David. There are five versions of this portrait, all by David. (Napoleon liked the first 1801 version so much that he commissioned several more. Well, he was brilliant at self-promotion, wasn’t he? And as PR, this is pretty damn good.)  This one looks to be a copy of version number 4, dating from 1803; the original #4 (shown below right) is in the Belvedere in Vienna.

Elba, Villa dei Mulini, interior with David portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps   Napoleon Crossing the Alps by David, Belvedere version #3

When I visited the Villa dei Mulini, our guide pointed to the picture and told us that it was supposed to remind visitors of Napoleon’s arduous journey across the mountains after he escaped from Elba and landed in France to begin The Hundred Days. Appropriately heroic, n’est-ce pas? Then the guide (who was Italian and not a fan, I suspect) added that the heroic pose on horseback was totally wrong. Napoleon had indeed ridden some of the way—but on a donkey!

Not sure if the story was true, but it did make us laugh. Though I fancy the guide only used that story for non-French visitors, don’t you?

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland

Joanna, the Regency nut

** I have amended the reference to Pauline Borghese’s mansion, the Hôtel de Charost, at 39 rue du Faubourg St Honoré. I called it the British Embassy which it originally was. But nowadays, it’s actually the official residence of the British Ambassador; the British Embassy building is at number 35, though it wasn’t purchased until 1947.

8 thoughts on “The Elba Intermission : Napoleon’s First Exile

  1. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I really enjoyed this, Joanna. I’ve never been to Elba and now I really want to go! Looking at the magnificent furniture – particularly the beds – you don’t have to be a fortune-teller to see that no man who lived amid this amount of opulence would ever be satisfied with only a small island to rule. It was only a question of time …

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thank you, Elizabeth. I had forgotten all about my Elba trip (part of a Nelson cruise in the Med) until reminded by the Louise Allen book. Sadly, I was not very careful with my camera then. There is one more bed at the Villa dei Mulini: Napoleon’s camp bed on which he did apparently sleep on Elba. But my one pic of it is terribly out of focus and useless. Otherwise, I’d have included that one, too. Provides a huge contrast.

  2. lesley2cats

    I was going to say exactly the same, Liz. In fact, years ago, pre-marriage and children, I actually researched a holiday on Elba, but no-one would go with me. It’s also pushed the new edition of My Lady Angel to the top of my TBR pile!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thank you, Lesley. As we were on a cruise, we were only on Elba for a single day, as I remember. There’s a lot more to see but at least I did see Napoleon’s house. I hope you enjoy My Lady Angel which is set during The Hundred Days. Also (she says cheekily) the sequel, The Solway Bride, which is out at the end of the month 😉

  3. Liz Fielding

    I did enjoy the blog, Joanna. We have all heard about the problems soldiers returning from war zones experience and it certainly does provide great conflict opportunities for the writer. I have both The Earl’s Marriage Bargain and My Lady Angel on my kindle. Greatly looking forward to reading both of them.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Enormous ego, Rosemary. But I do think he was a natural when it came to PR. Reading about the Hundred Days, there was one place he came to, en route to Paris, where he was offered accommodation in the prefecture. He declined and stayed in the house of an old soldier. Everyone knew, and the soldiers saw it as a vote of confidence in them. Amazingly clever and brilliant PR for Napoleon. Oh and he wasn’t exactly all that small either. About five foot seven, I believe.

Comments are closed.