Napoleon’s Willow

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Napoleon’s Willow is a beautifully-written historic novel that follows a young French whaler, an Englishwoman and a respected local Maori man, as their paths lead them to the same place  – Akaroa circa 1840.

Their lives become entwined in an intense story of adventure, love and loss as they forge new lives for themselves in a new land. (click on Description tab below for more details)


In 1837, on remote St Helena’s Island, Frenchman François Lelièvre searches for a willow beside Napoleon’s grave, a tree in which he believes Napoleon’s spirit is alive, inspiring ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood. This will grow in Akaroa, New Zealand, in a time of conflict, as the French and British compete to colonise the land.

From England a young schoolteacher, Marianne, sets out on a troubled path that will lead her to the same place, looking for her own sense of liberty. Meanwhile, a Maori of the region – Manako-uri – must face his own challenges as the newcomers plant their hopes and dreams in his land.

Based on real events and people from our colonial past, this impeccably-researched and dramatic adult fiction follows the lives of the main characters as they become entwined together in an intense story of adventure, love and loss. This novel explores not only an important chapter in New Zealand’s history, but also the deep and sanguine forces that drove the early settlers and pioneers to leave safe and familiar Europe to etch new lives for themselves in the far-away, unknown and often-treacherous corners of the world.


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Author Bio

Joan Norlev Taylor is a New Zealander of Anglo-Danish heritage currently living in Wivenhow, England. Her writing has been published in the UK, USA, Australia and NZ.

Her published fictional work is Conversations with Mr Prain, 2006 & 2011 and kissing Bowie, 2013.

In addition to fiction and poetry, she has written a narrative history of the travels of Elizabethan merchant adventurer Henry Timberlake (The Englishman, the Moor and the Holy City, 2006) and edited and annotated a 19th-century Danish memoir (Cecile Hertz, Livserindringer: Memories of my Life, 2009). She also writes academic non-fiction in her specialist fields of ancient religion, history and archaeology. Having taught at Waikato University in the departments of History and Religious Studies, she now works at Kings College in London.

Editorial Reviews

Napoleon’s Willow is brilliant. It’s intelligent, engaging, richly emotional and deep. It’s really a historical and artistic gem !”

– Christine Leunens (author of Caging Skies and A Can of Sunshine)

Napoleon’s Willow Review in the NZ Herald Canvas magazine

From the sure hand of historian Joan Norlev Taylor comes the tricky manoeuvre of binding fact and fiction into a convincing historical novel.

As a New Zealander teaching at King’s College London, Taylor’s book suggests a loyal interest in the colonial settlement of her own country where, in the mid-1800s, international claims to land titles were widespread and specific.

She has sensibly taken a bite-sized approach, exemplifying the battle for land rights on Banks Peninsula, centering her characters in Akaroa amid displays of cunning and manipulation between the French and English, with native Maori holding their own. The reader can be impressed by the perfect chronology of the events, but layering on a cast of factual and fictitious characters relies on impeccable social research and imagination. Taylor has managed this seamlessly so the reader would likely not know who and how much of a character is real.

When speaking of her principal female character, Taylor makes the point ” … she is a creation since adequate information about ‘ordinary women’ … is scarce”.

Marianne Blake comes fully fleshed, but with an inconsistent array of traits which weakens her credibility. She’s in the company of French blacksmith Francois Le Lievre, who, in reality, would became a founding father of Akaroa and the Maori “Manakao-uru called Matthieu Le Bon”.

He is positively luminous, the most compelling character and essentially fictitious. However, the thread of the story hangs from a willow tree which grew beside the grave of exiled Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte on the island of St Helena. In September 1837 Francois Le Lievre, a staunch Bonapartist, stole two willow slips and a slice of bark from the tree, certain it held Bonaparte’s spirit and should be transplanted far from his hero’s prison. The willow shoots made it to Akaroa, where one flourished and spawned, some think, many descendants in Canterbury.

Taylor works the willow to advantage as it travels tenaciously through the story; appearing in various haunting guises, but its omnipresence is often forced for continuity’s sake. Still, this is a feverishly colourful story. It contains the requisites – love, sex, adventure and politics. And really, it’s a clever conceit.

Reviewed by Lyn Loates. NZ Herald Canvas magazine, 28th May 2016


A young Frenchman steals a cutting from the willow planted on St Helena by Napoleon. He then travels to New Zealand and plants his cutting in Akaroa, amidst the battle for sovereignty between the French, English and the local Maori.

A young Englishwoman seeks independence and safety away from the social strictures of England. She too, travels to New Zealand. While this might seem the preamble to a standard romance, it is far more.

This is a novel which shows meticulous research, enabling an accurate retelling of the events which took place in Akaroa in the 1840s. The setting, the characters and the events are engagingly portrayed. You really get a sense of the complexity of the issues with agendas involving land and law. The Maori perspective is clearly stated, as is the spirituality of the native New Zealanders. Bishop Pompellier is accurately shown as a complex man with a deep understanding of the need for diplomacy and concession.

The story of the willow is widely known and yet details are few. The author has interviewed the descendants of the French sailor, Francoise Le Lievre, and used historical records to flesh out this gripping tale. My family have a long association with the area, and I know many of the places mentioned. It has given me another layer of understanding of the establishment of the Akaroa settlement.

This book is more than a romance novel. It is a piece of solid research about a fascinating period in colonial New Zealand. I read it in Akaroa and had to ignore the beauty of my surroundings to finish reading the book.

– Reviewed by Kathy Watson – Booksellers NZ, 6th May 2016

Marianne is a young English woman who sails to Sydney and then on to New Zealand after tragedies in her personal life. Francois is a young French blacksmith who crews on French whaling ships in the South Pacific. In 1837 he plants sprigs from the willow tree at Napoleon Bonaparte’s grave on St. Helena on Banks Peninsula. Manako-uri/ Matthieu is a high-born Maori from Banks Peninsula who travels far beyond his tribal lands as a harpooner and a seeker after European medical knowledge. These lives intersect at Akaroa in 1840.

Napoleon’s Willow is an especially well researched historical novel set in the year of New Zealand’s founding. An academic as well as a fiction writer, Joan Norlev Taylor explores in some depth conflicts in this historical situation: British-French competition for sovereignty, conflicting British-Maori understandings of the Treaty and European-Maori misunderstandings over early land transactions. It is sound history, abreast of research on the Treaty over the last generation. Indeed, this novel would serve well as a very appetising primer on the challenges facing New Zealand at the time of its birth. However, at times, Norlev Taylor runs the risk of elevating the research over the creative re-enactment.

The story is kept moving at a brisk pace, often with the help of over-arching narration. The Maori protagonist is less than entirely convincing, but is a good characterisation of Maori responses to European contact: willing engagement, adaptiveness and curiosity toward the learning of Europe. Otherwise, the Maori presence is kept in the background.

Napoleon’s Willow is a worthy addition to our substantial library of historical fiction. It deserves to be read widely in Akaroa and Christchurch –and to receive attention throughout New Zealand. I was delighted to learn that the willows on the Avon River in Christchurch may derive from Napoleon’s willow on St. Helena.

– Reviewed by Paul Monin – Historian and author of Hauraki ContestedMatiatia: Gateway to Waiheke and a chapter in The New Oxford History of New Zealand. 25th April 2016

Complimentary First Chapter

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Read Napoleon’s Willow – First Chapter (PDF opens in new tab).