In 1815, William Warden was surgeon of HMS Northumberland, as it transported Napoleon Bonaparte to his second – and hopefully final – exile. Warden, well aware that folks back home – or even, possibly, history itself – would be interested, took notes in an old surgeon’s log. This journal now resides at the Harry Ransom Center. It includes his daily observations of, and direct conversation with the Corsican Ogre, the Great, the Nightmare of Europe – Napoleon Bonaparte, himself. Supposedly.
On return to England from St. Helena, found himself so pressed by his friends for stories of Napoleon that “I may be said to have been in a state of persecution from the curiosity which prevails respecting that extraordinary character.” Stories, taken from the notes in his journal, filled the letters sent to his future wife, Elizabeth Hutt. Having no experience in publishing himself, and expecting to soon be sent away on active duty, Warden collected the letters and put them in the hands of a ‘literary gentleman’ for publication. Once in print, his stories about Napoleon set a scandal in motion.
The introduction of Warden’s book, Letters from St. Helena, assures his readers, “That every fact related in them is true; and the purport of every conversation correct. –It will not, I trust, be thought necessary for me to say more; –and the justice I owe to myself will not allow me to say less.” Its claims authenticity and first-hand experience as a selling point. It worked. The book, “owing to the intrinsic interest of the subject, ran through five editions in as many months.”
The Quarterly Review savaged both Warden and his book; the book was “founded in falsehood,” and had the potential to “poison the sources of history.” The book’s “falsehoods and flatteries” of Napoleon threatened to “obliterate from the minds of Englishmen the atrocities with which he had for twenty years ensanguined and desolated the civilized world.” The review describes several factual errors, which range from narrative quibbles, to the naïve repetition of the lies of others, to severe factual errors. The Quarterly’s first accusation, sure to “astound our readers, and, perhaps, decide the affair,” note that in the book, the ‘letters’ are undated, and without longitude and latitude. This, they assume is to disguise the impossibility of some of the events, most notably the repetition by Napoleon of “an infamous imputation” against Sir Robert Wilson that, given the timeline described in the book, contained details impossible for Napoloen (or Warden) to have learned about at the time the letter was supposedly written. At best, Warden was a dupe, who “brought to England a few sheets of notes gleaned for the most part from the conversation of his better-informed fellow-officers, and that he applied to some manufacturer of correspondence in London to spin them out into,” his book.
The Edinburgh Review, however admired Warden’s impartiality. This review asserted the book was “one of the few works on Napoleon, that is neither sullied by adulation nor disgraced by scurrility; neither disfigured by blind admiration of his defects, nor polluted by a base and malignant anxiety to blacken and defame a fallen man.” Faults in the narrative were blamed on both Warden’s unpracticed French and the inexactitude of working from memory.
News of the book traveled all the way to St. Helena. In a letter to Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of War, Sir Hudson Lowe, who oversaw Napoleon’s exile, reported that Napoleon denied saying anything like what Warden had recorded. Lowe’s letter also noted that Warden’s publication of commentary on the conduct and character of fellow officers constituted a breach of discipline. Such a breach warranted striking him from the list of surgeons.
So, Warden lost his job.
Temporarily, at least.
The case against Warden was not very clear. How much of the book, after all, was actually Warden’s work? Much of the blame fell on the mysterious ‘literary gentleman’ into whose hands Warden placed the letters. Another figure held responsible was the Count de las Cases, a member of Napoleon’s suite, later author of a fawning and untrustworthy biography of Napoleon, and Warden’s frequent interlocutor and presumed interpreter. Las Cases had, at best, limited English – to match Warden’s apparently limited French. Warden’s powerful patron, Sir George Cockburn, also certainly factored into his return to the Admiralty’s good graces.
Yet the lack of clarity both pardoned him, and condemned him. The scandal dominates – and perhaps justifies – his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, only to ultimately be swept aside by its author: “There is no reason to doubt Warden’s good faith, but his work has small historical value, for it is merely the ‘literary gentleman’s’ version of Warden’s recollection of what an ignorant and dishonest interpreter described Bonaparte as saying.”
The journal stored in the Ransom center offers tantalizing clues to Warden and his book. It sheds some light on the question of how much of the book was Warden’s work but it does not provide a definitive answer. The document lacks obvious indications of its creator or purpose, having no cover and no signature or other identifying mark that would tie it to Warden, except the labels provided by the Center, that it resembles surgeons’ journals of the period, and that is filled with observations and anecdotes about Napoleon.
Given that the letters intervene between book and journal, much of the journals’ text is remarkably faithful to that in the book. But since the journal is not complete, no full assessment of what might have been altered by the ‘literary gentleman’ can be made. The book, however, lacks both some of the harsher critiques of Napoleon, and some details perhaps too lurid to write to one’s future wife, evident in the journal.
For example, the book greatly softened an anecdote in which Napoleon and his suite observed a group of well-dressed women surrounding the Bellerophon (to catch a glimpse of Napoleon) while they remained at Plymouth. The daughter of General Brown, in the book, “is said to have fixed his exclusive attention, while she was in a situation to remain an object whose features could be distinguished.”
In the journal, the anecdote is considerably longer, and less romantic. Napoleon asks if the people surrounding the ship are shopkeepers; the journals recalls, Napoleon “often called us a nation of shopkeepers.” Later, it goes on:
Bony remarked one young lady in a most particular manner, a daughter of General Brown – he kept his eyes fixed on her for half an hour […] Bony remarked that he never beheld women with such beautiful bosoms – This he most particularly admired and I firmly believe he would anxiously have kissed many who were there…
Likewise, the Quarterly Review’s objection that the book is too fawning is certainly not reflected in the journal, which offers the observation that: “no woman will fall in love with Napoleon while his hat is off – he has very little the appearance of a gentleman when uncovered.” In the journal, Warden also condemns the French character as “insufferably vain,” and says of the French officers aboard: “Their Gasconadry is a tissue of arrogance and falsehood – but I really think they talk in this childish manner that they actually /often a time/ [slashes original] believe their story to be truth.” If there is a naiveté to be found on Warden’s part, per the Quarterly Review’s accusations, it seems to lie primarily in the act of publishing in a contentious political atmosphere.
As for observations of the character of his fellow officers, little exists in the journal, except praise of Admiral Cockburn’s virtuous exploits. Whatever observations lie in the book can’t be confirmed to be his by the section surviving. Not unlike Las Cases, Warden would later go on to attempt to write a biography of his powerful patron. This became his second, and safer, foray into publishing.
As Stuart Semmel has argued, the predominant sentiment in the British press at the time was one of opposition to and demonization of the current leader of the nation with which they had been so long at war. Napoleon, however, defied easy categorization, and therefore became both a “lens through which to scrutinize the failing of the British government – and a cudgel with which to beat it.” The mixed reception to Warden’s book, reflects this conflict. The fact that he was struck from the lists indicates the perils inherent in wading into that battlefield unprepared.
The mode of Warden’s book was a popular one, and perceived to be an important means of understanding and learning from the past, as, “Anecdotes of the private life of remarkable persons are one of the most amusing and not least valuable departments of history[…].” Napoleon and the wars which sometimes bear his name were more than political or martial events. Historian David Bell has argued that the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were the inception of ‘total war’ – the attempt to involve every resource and every person in the realization of a military goal – which heightened their social and cultural impact. Napoleonic battles were spectacles, consumed in newspapers, literature, and as picnic diversions. Many of the major figures of these conflicts became larger-than-life – or, like naval hero Lord Nelson, apotheosized in death.
The temptation to relate such a near brush with great figures of the day is perhaps, understandable, but Warden’s attempt to shed light on the Man of Destiny instead reflects the complicated relationship of power, popularity, and politics that at once put Napoleon at the fore of popular culture as both epitome and antithesis of the spirit of the age. If the question of Warden’s journal is what can be known of Napoleon, the answer may be less than we hoped for. The trouble of historical times is precisely the awareness, the mirror of observation of both present and future weighing on both texts and authors – and the immediate impulses of fame and fortune. Perhaps the Introduction to Warden’s book was too optimistic in asserting its total truth; perhaps, retrospectively, Warden might feel he ought to have said less.
 With special thanks to Ransom Center librarian Elizabeth Garver, who found the journal and directed me towards it.
 William Warden, Letters Written on Board his Majesty’s Ship the Northumberland and at Saint Helena; in which the Conduct and Conversations of Napoleon Buonaparte, and His Suite, During the Voyage and the First Months of His Residence in that Island, are Faithfully Described and Related, 2nd edition (London: R. Ackermann, 1816), v.
 Warden, Letters Written, vii.
 J. K. Laughton, “Warden, William (1777–1849),” revised by Andrew Lambert, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/view/article/28719, accessed 3 April 2021
 Emphasis original. Croker, “Warden’s Conversations,” 209, 224.
 Ibid., 224.
 Ibid., 209-210.
 Ibid., 211.
 “Letters from St. Helena, by William Warden,” The Edinburgh Review Vol 27 (Dec. 1816): 460-461.
 “Letters,” 461.
 Laughton, “Warden, William.”
 Laughton, “Warden, William.”
 Warden, Letters, 70.
 This is, in itself an interesting case of potential misattribution. At the time, the British press did report that Napoleon called Britain a ‘nation of shopkeepers, but nothing in the French press or other sources close to Napoleon record him as having used the phrase. The 1822 publication of Napoleon in Exile, or a Voice from St. Helena, by another surgeon, Barry Edward O’Meara, records Napoleon as having attributed the phrase to himself, though some doubt the complete veracity of O’Meara’s bool, as well. Regardless, the phrase itself was well known at the time, and may have originated in print in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776.
 William Warden, The Diary of William Warden, Saturday, 19th August, 1815, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.
 Warden, Diary, Monday, 15th August, 1815.
 Stuart Semmel, “British Uses for Napoleon,” MLN 12:4 (2005): 735.
 John Wilson Croker, “Warden’s Conversations with Buonaparte,” The Quarterly Review 16: 31, Article 10 (October 1816): 208. Attribution information via Romantic Circles: https://romantic-circles.org/reference/qr/index/31.html
 David Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), 9.
 Jan Mieszkowski, “Watching War,” PMLA 124:5 (Oct. 2009):1656