The Diamond

The Diamond

by Julie Baumgold


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The Diamond is a brilliant, dazzling historical novel about a famous diamond — one of the biggest in the world — that passed from the hands of William Pitt's grandfather to the French kings and Napoleon, linking many of the most famous personalities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and serving as the centerpiece for a novel in every way as fascinating as Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover or Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Rich with historical detail, characters, and nonstop drama, the story centers on the famous Regent diamond — once the largest and most beautiful diamond in the world — which was discovered in India in the late seventeenth century and bought by the governor of the East India Company, a cunning nabob, trader, and ex-pirate named Thomas Pitt. His son brought it to London, where a Jewish diamond-cutter of genius took two years to fashion it into one of the world's greatest gems.

After hawking it around the courts of Europe, Pitt sold the diamond to Louis XIV's profligate and deeply amoral nephew, the Duc d'Orléans. Raised to glory by this fortune, Pitt's grandsons would rule England and devote their lives to fighting the very Bourbon kings who wore their diamond, the enduring symbol of the rivalry between France and England.

The diamond was worn by Louis XIV, Louis XV, and by Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. A beautiful blond whore placed it in her private parts to entice Czar Peter the Great on his visit to Paris. A band of thieves stole it during the bloodiest days of the Revolution. Found in an attic, it was pawned for horses for Napoleon's first campaigns. Napoleon redeemed the diamond and, though his wife Josephine craved it, set it in the hilt of his sword, where it appeared in many of his portraits. After his fall, his young second wife, Marie-Louise, grabbed it when she fled France. The Régent was hidden in innumerable secret places, used by Napoleon III and the ravishing Empress Eugenie to impress Queen Victoria, and finally ended up on display in the Louvre museum, where it remains today, then and now the first diamond of France.

Julie Baumgold, herself the descendant of a family of diamond merchants, tells this extraordinary story through Count Las Cases (author of Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène), who writes it in his spare time while in exile with Napoleon I. The book is in Las Cases's words, those of a clever, sophisticated nobleman at home in the old regime as well as in Napoleon's court. As he tells his story, with Napoleon prodding, challenging, and correcting him all the while, they draw closer. The emperor has a kind of love/hate relationship with the diamond, which represents the wealth and fabulous elegance of the French courts as well as the power for good or evil that possessing it confers on its transient masters. He thinks of it as his good luck charm, but is it? For the diamond has its dark side — murder, melancholy, and downfall ever shadow its light.

A glittering cast of characters parades through The Diamond: a mesmerizing Napoleon and the devoted Las Cases, stuck on Saint Helena with their memories; Louis XIV and his brother, the dissolute Monsieur; Madame, the German princess who married Monsieur; the Scottish financier John Law and Saint-Simon, who sold Pitt's diamond to Madame's depraved son; the depressed Louis XV; and Madame de Pompadour. Here too are the families, the Pitts in England and the Bonapartes in France; the men of Saint Helena; nobles and thieves; Indian diamond merchants and financiers — nearly everyone of interest and importance from the late seventeenth through the early nineteenth century.

Written with enormous verve and ambition, The Diamond is a treat, a plum pudding of a novel filled with one delicious, funny, disgraceful episode after another. It is grand history and even grander fiction — a towering work of imagination, research, and narrative skill.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781451623970
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 12/01/2010
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Julie Baumgold is the author of the novel Creatures of Habit. She is a former contributing editor of New York, Esquire, and Vogue. She has been an essayist (The Best American Essays 1996), poet (Mademoiselle Poetry Prize), and the columnist "Mr. Peepers" for New York and Esquire. She lives on Amelia Island and in New York.

Read an Excerpt

The Diamond

A Novel
By Julie Baumgold

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2005 Julie Baumgold
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0743264819

Chapter 1: My Mistake and Where It Led

On October 16, 1816, on the foul island of Saint Helena, in the middle of precisely nowhere in the South Atlantic Ocean, I watched the emperor's hair being cut. As the hairs floated to the floor, I was waiting my chance. The emperor seemed to be staring at a portrait of the King of Rome riding a sheep. Santini, the barber, had spread a cloth over his green coat and was holding the razor aloft. The window was open on the usual evening smell of something tropical and crushed.

One large tuft finally landed at my feet and I bent quickly to pick it up and slip it into my pocket.

"What are you doing, mon cher?" Napoleon asked.

"I dropped something, sire."

"You too, Las Cases?" he said and leaned forward to twist my ear. The pinch was a bit harder than usual, but like his other men here, I had learned not to flinch. He knew and now almost accepted that all of us had begun to collect pieces of him as relics. Still, I had to distract him from my blunder.

In the strange way that a mind in panic will disconnect and leap back to some random moment in time, I remembered a conversation we had at the summerhouse. I had just found a miniature of him dressed as first consul and asked what became of the big diamond in his sword -- a famous stone known as the Regent. He had been about to reply when we were interrupted. Now, again, I asked him what had happened to that diamond.

"Are you trying to divert me? Your face has gone red," the emperor said, shifting suddenly and swinging his legs. This evening he was still in his white swanskin pantaloons with feet, streaked black on the pocket where he had wiped his pen.

"Sire, please do not move," said Santini as a damp wind seized snips of the precious hair.

"The empress carried it off and I never saw it again," the emperor said. "That diamond brought its misfortune to all who possessed it. It was my enemy Pitt whose family brought it to light. I should have considered its source."

He was silent then as Santini finished and swept the hairs carefully from the floor. He tied them into a square of linen and withdrew, looking back at me, triumphant in his malice. A rat crossed the floor by the silver washstand.

"The diamond was named for the regent, a libertine cradled in depravity," the emperor said, "but then you, Monsieur le Comte, are our historian."

"One might almost believe the stone was cursed," I said.

"Curses are just excuses for the bad behavior of men," he said. "Discord followed the owners of that diamond -- madness, too, in all the Pitt family. Once I thought it brought good fortune; it was then my talisman. Man is ever ready to chase the marvelous, to abandon what is close and run after what is fabricated for him."

"What became of the Regent?" I pressed him.

"It has a long history. Open the door and let us walk in the air which God made."

We left the room, where the curtains had already blown to rags. Five portraits of his son, the King of Rome, stood on the gray wood fireplace, next to which hung a watch on a chain of the last empress's hair.

"It is a bad haircut this time, is it not?" he said, rubbing his head as we passed a mirror already pitted and misted by the weather.

In the room where I take his dictation (for what I shall call my Memorial of Saint Helena), his large creased maps fluttered to escape their colored pins. He picked up the billiard cue that he uses as a stick and a measure, and we entered the darkening garden. Immediately, the guards raised the yellow flag that meant the emperor was outside, and one of the English "dogs" appeared.

He took my arm.

"You wish to know more. You are always seeking the genealogy of things," he said.

The emperor was right. I now had a mighty curiosity to know all about this diamond from his sword, a jewel of the first water, the size of a small fat plum. The Regent was the first diamond of France, known as our National Diamond. I thought of the kings who had worn it and at once began to see how a chronicle of the ancient diamond could be the story of us all, our lost France and how we came to be here. Could I find this story and tell it?

"I will help you," said the emperor.


We crunched over the whitened bones of the sea that once had covered this part of the island -- razor clams, tubes long hollowed of life, mounds of silvery silt that had drifted from far away. In the distance, green clouds had collapsed on Diana's Peak. We walked out into the leftovers of the volcano -- the chopped black rocks, charred ravines and gorges, one of the "dogs" still following.

"I can tell you my part in the diamond's history from when I first possessed it to the time Louise fled," said the emperor, gripping my arm so that I felt a bruise begin.

"I took all the papers regarding the imperial jewels so I might prove my case on what they owed me. Some may still be in my trunks, though they were so plundered I scarcely know what I have or lack. I once had records of those who stole the jewels, and even many papers from the Pitt ancestor in Engleesh."

I feared we might come to the subject of the English lessons I was trying to give him. The emperor's progress had been slow. He blamed it on his mind being too old to learn a new tongue. I suspected it was rather his ill health, lack of sleep, and the pestilence of the winds here on Deadwood Plain.

The emperor then began to speak of phenomena and ghosts and how long ago Josephine had gotten him to read palms for her friends. He would look at their faces and just make up their fortunes. He said General de Montholon now believed there was a ghost in our house, Longwood.

"I am their only ghost," he said. "We always seek to place blame on things -- on a jewel, or the maledictions of spirits, when the fault lies in the natural progressions -- youth to age, pleasure to disappointment, fidelity to betrayal."

"Then you do not think your good fortune deserted with the stone?"

He made no response. The wet air clung to our faces as a permanent sweat. Often we would lie motionless on our sofas as pearls of warm dew skittered across the stunted lawns. The crosswinds blasted dry all that should have been lush. All that might have grown had been forced down or askew. We had yellow skies, blue nights, and red dawns, forests of coromandel ebony, and lavender misted mornings streaked with marigold. If they were beautiful, no one noticed. The English here made boundaries for him who once drew his own.

I asked the emperor if I might search the trunk where he suspected the documents lay hidden.

"It was only in getting rid of the diamond that I was victorious at Marengo," he said, "for we rode on horses the diamond bought when it was pawned. If you wish to put together a brief history, I will search out the papers, but it must not outweigh your attentions to me or your son."

I readily agreed. I almost never disagreed.

We walked along a bit in silence. A cloud of fat blue flies rose from the gum trees to nibble at us. Even on the brimstone, heading to nothing, the emperor moves fast, his gait between a stride and waddle, for he has spent much time mounted. I could scarcely keep pace though we are almost the same height.

Actually, the emperor is taller than I am by several inches. When we walk side by side, however, I have caught him rising to the balls of his feet when he pauses and turns to address me. I have scrunched myself even lower so as to obviate this need of his, but he only seems to rise higher. At those times, I must try to remember all he says until I can race to the nearest ink pot. As though he knows this, he seems to say the most interesting things then. When a gentleman is taller than the emperor, he does not look up, and I have seen many men contort themselves to gain his eye.

Suddenly, the emperor's attention was drawn to a captain he particularly disliked, one who always followed too close upon his boots. This guard was too attentive to the emperor's every pause and glance, even when he just bent to inspect some foliage or a snail.

"One escape is never enough," said the emperor, reversing course to Longwood, his prison and mine. From his room I heard the sounds of his metal trunks being moved and opened amidst the most terrible oaths, and the thump of his fire poker on one of the rats. The hair in my pocket was soft as a child's hair.


Eventually, he emerged, disheveled, with a great bundle of papers, some still bearing thick seals with the crests of ancient houses and the governments of the Revolution upon them. Wax splinters from the cracking seals fell onto the floor.

"The Regent was a thing of the kings. I should never have brought it back," he said then, and allowed me to take the papers.

I began to think how I might write this history in the evenings as a diversion from my endeavor to tell the emperor's life for my Memorial. At such times he would be absorbed by the Iliad or Odyssey, Herodotus, Pliny, or Strabo. He read of past thrones and ancient wars, of dead heroes and conquerors almost on a par with himself. He read of families turned upon one another. Sometimes he told stories of his past or read plays aloud, taking all the parts, and we listened together, our jealousies and conflicts forgotten.

"Shall we go to a comedy, or tragedy, tonight?" he would say, then send my son, Emmanuel, for the play. More often than not it was a tragedy.

Unless invited to sit, we stood or leaned against the damp walls, and in this invisible etiquette, he found the last trace of his power. The valets in full livery passed among these generals and marshals of France with bad coffee, their silver lace as tarnished now as the braid of the uniforms. Sugar burned in vermeil bowls to correct the air. We had stopped mixing with our English jailers, for those of any note refused to call him "sire" and he would see no others.

In the times he would not receive, when he was ill, had scratched to blood the itch that always plagued him, or lay with cold cloths on his great aching head (a head that grew still larger every year), I would put together the story of this bright and cursed object. I remembered the diamond the size of my thumb and index finger meeting in a circle. Also it was very deep.

To find it I would have to pull a string through history much as I had done in my Atlas historique, chronologique et geographique. I would follow it through my time back to times way previous and places unknown. Even as the emperor and I felt ourselves fading into the dim unworldliness of this island, the diamond stayed in the world, permanent as all things. A porcelain cup, a plate, a sugar bowl with scenes of Egypt from the Sevres factory, a table with all the imperial palaces depicted in marble -- all these things would outlast us.

I began to see how my task could be done with the documents at hand. I could make up the rest as a fiction. Since I had spent ten years on my Atlas, I knew many of the facts, but now I might free myself of charts and maps. Because of the unrelenting nature of my work with the emperor, I needed a diversion, a way to go outside the situation that had been imposed on us.

I needed to travel from this island as I did in telling the emperor's life. I wanted, in contrast to the emperor, something inert, the very opposite of the man who engaged my best hours -- something that was acted upon. In any case I have always had an interest in jewels. The emperor has called me his magpie because I am drawn to small shiny things. As we walk, I am the one to pick up the mica rocks, the lava-crusted pebble, while he taps the small rosebud of his shoe in impatience.

"You never put down anything you have picked up," he said to me once.

The Regent had been found, then lost, hidden, stolen, then retrieved. It was back to glory in the world and I doubted either of us would be. At times, I felt my position keenly as the prisoner's prisoner, and I had forced my son, Emmanuel, who is but fifteen, to this as well. By exposing him to the emperor, by making him part of his daily life, letting him copy down his words and receive his fond taps and hard pinches, I had changed his destiny. I had jeopardized Emmanuel even as I enriched him beyond all measure.


Long ago, desperation became despair, then quickly enough turned to resignation among those of us who followed the emperor to this island. I was not alone in feeling I was living my life inside this larger, uncomfortable life. This feeling had been shared by his soldiers, servants, and wives, for whom the life before and after him was all preface or afterword.

To be always aware of the wounded creature in the house, to hear its rasped breathing and feel its torment, to know that misery, was to live ten years in every one on the island. Thus, we all aged at an unnatural rate, as did the objects around us, for already our collars had been turned and the women's dresses had lost their fresh elegance.

As we worked, I sat to the emperor's right, Emmanuel next to me as he dictated. At the dining table, he sat in the center with Dimanche, the dog, warming his feet; I again to his right; then Emmanuel; Count de Montholon; the ample presence of Montholon's wife, Albine (who always seemed to be wearing red even when she was not); sometimes Grand Marshal Bertrand and Fanny up from Hutt's Gate; Gaspard Gourgaud, the other captive general -- all but my son resenting me, for I was the one the emperor preferred. We nudged our way into the room still fighting over precedence and seating. Each meal, none lasting for him more than twenty minutes, was a competition to be first to lift the pall.

There was never complaint from him (though often observations). Soon enough, however, we saw with his eyes. We were all too attentive. We heard his boots -- lined with silk, soft as slippers -- whispering on the wooden floors. At night, he moved from one iron field bed to its twin in the adjoining room. When he had not slept, his tread was heavy. We waited to be summoned. We waited for the steps. When they did not come for us, we hated those who were called. We kept restless watch on one another as the English kept watch on us.

Disappointment would come upon us suddenly in the night and proceed in familiar stages to horror. Then, in pain, I knew the emperor would wake his valet and begin to read or ask for a bath to be drawn in this large wooden trough he now uses. (Contrasts are the real poison to us here.) I would arise and, tiptoeing round my boy asleep on the floor, tour the silvery rooms until it was calm. In front of his door, the last Mameluke half raised his head like a dog disturbed and, until he could make me out, reached for his saber.

As I walked, I would hear the words he had spoken the previous day and relive his dreadful glory. I turned from his words and vowed to begin the story of the stone, and on the next day, almost as an omen, he spoke again of the diamond.


The emperor had been dictating all that morning. As in the early days, he spoke so rapidly I needed someone to relieve me with the dictation, for I was always a sentence or two behind. Great long paragraphs reeled from him this day, which I wrote in code for Emmanuel or the valets Ali or Marchand to recopy. As usual, he wore his green coat faced with the same green and trimmed with red at the skirts, and the stars of two orders. We were both uncovered and he held his hat under his left arm. His hand raked at his snuffbox long after it was emptied. He scooped absently, placing nothing to his nose and sneezing merely from habit. He took a licorice pellet from the tortoiseshell box that held the image of his runaway wife, the empress Marie-Louise, and their son, Napoleon II, born the King of Rome.

"You wish to know the treasures of Napoleon? They are immense, it is true, but they are not locked away," he told me just as Frederick the Great's clock chimed. He had begun this catalog in response to the English newspapers newly arrived that claimed he had concealed vast wealth. He wished to dictate his response right then.

"They are the noble harbors of Antwerp and Flushing, which are capable of containing the largest fleets," he said; "the hydraulic works at Dunkirk, Havre, and Nice, the immense harbor of Cherbourg, the maritime works at Venice, the beautiful roads from Antwerp to Amsterdam..."And on he went through a list of roads and passes, of bridges, canals, and churches rebuilt, the works of the Louvre, the Code Napoleon, and so many treasures and achievements that my hand cramped at the size and scope of the wonders this man had wrought.

"Fifty millions expended in repairing and beautifying the palaces of the crown...sixty millions in diamonds of the crown, all bought with Napoleon's money -- the REGENT itself, the only diamond that remained of the former diamonds of the crown, having been withdrawn by him from the hands of the Jews at Berlin, with whom it had been pledged for three millions..." With this he looked significantly at me and then continued.

It was the diamond again, this royal jewel seized by various monarchs as they fled. I felt it was an indication now to begin my labors. And as the emperor observed that the physical powers of men were strengthened by their dangers and their wants -- so that the desert Bedouin had the piercing sight of the lynx, and the savage could smell the beasts of prey -- so too we, doomed to this island, watched and wanting, living within a camera obscura, perhaps had gained the power of re-creation and remembrance.


The emperor says of himself, "Men of my stamp never change." I, not of that stamp, have changed much. I have changed my identity, danced and hidden behind masks, and taken other names. Born into the ancien regime, I became an emigre who fought my native land, a father who left his family to go into exile forever with one who had been my enemy. I was a naval officer, a tutor, an author, the emperor's chamberlain, and councillor of state. A collection of professions, a collection of selves. Dislocation forced and chosen -- departures and brief returns, launches pulling to new shores. And yet, have I changed that much more than others? As the emperor has said, no one can know another's character, only his actions. All is complication and contradiction, and everyone is filled with secrets.

In my ten years of exile in London, I had studied the history of the English. William Pitt the Younger was our hero then, and I had traced his family back to Governor Thomas Pitt, never imagining that I might interest myself in the Indian diamond that once bore his name. I now have found among our few thousand books the inventories that the emperor ordered made on the provenance of all the imperial jewels. I also found Pitt's own chronicle and the histories of the French kings, without which I could never begin this diversion to make a fiction out of fact too often remote.


"If I were you, I would begin with Madame," the emperor told me the next week. "Otherwise, how could anyone understand the courts of France -- even you, who were presented and lived among them? And to understand the diamond, you must understand the setting, no?

"You must travel with a stranger, this young German princess, into this court. To understand their foreign ways, you must start with her. Madame, my wife's ancestor, was the mother of the regent who bought the diamond. She wrote to every court in Europe, and fed all her royal cousins with gossip. Those who say the diamond brought its mischief and harm into France do not understand how deep the rot went, even in the court of Louis XIV."

"But sire, I believe this takes place before the stone was discovered," I said, for I had begun my researches. "When Madame came to France the great diamond was still buried..."

There was no turning the emperor.

"She kept records, as did the duc de Saint-Simon and Louis XIV's mistress Athenais de Montespan, and I have their court histories and volumes of their letters here in my library."

No turning him, ever.

And so I will leave the Regent buried. It has already waited through deluge and explosions, through aeons and the earth's turmoil for volcanic pipes to squeeze it to the surface. It will soon be discovered in the Indies, cut in England, and find its way to the crown of France. In this vanished thing I see the fall of the kings and the empire. I suspect the history of the diamond is the history of us all -- the Mamelukes drawn far from Egypt, the remaining Corsicans, our English jailers, and misplaced generals. It is the story of the two William Pitts, raised up by the diamond to oppose us, defeat us, and send us here to the rim of no place.

Thus I begin this part of my story with Elizabeth Charlotte von der Pfalz, Liselotte, she who became the duchess d'Orleans, and was known as "Madame" in the court of Louis XIV. Liselotte lived and died in almost the same years as Governor Thomas Pitt, but their course and place in life were very different. She was enslaved by the strictures of high rank and normally would never have been exposed to a man such as Governor Pitt -- and yet she was, just once, because of a single fabulous diamond.

Copyright © 2005 by Julie Baumgold


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Diamond 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
joririchardson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Spanning two centuries, this book tells the story of the famous Regent Diamond, and the many historical figures involved with it, including Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie Antoinette, and Louis XIV. The diamond is discovered by a miner in Africa, and falls into the hands of the Pitt family. After cutting the diamond into perfection, the Pitts have a hard time finding a buyer. The stone is so priceless, even kings are unable to afford it. When the stone is bought at last, it goes to France. Going from a court wonder to gathering dust in the treasury numerous times, the Regent survives the French Revolution (when it is stolen by commoners) and the Napoleonic Wars.This book was written very factually, which an incredible amount of detail. You can tell that little of this book is fiction, and it very often reads like a history book. All of the history fascinated me, and I personally love books presented like this. However, if that is not your taste in reading, this probably is not the book for you.In the beginning, this book was very interesting. The complex historical depth, with just the tiniest dash of fiction, was very well done. However, the other three quarters of the book grew dull, and there were only a few scenes here and there that interested me. The description of the French Revolution was very good, but it is bordered by pages and pages of yawns.This isn't exactly a long book, but that doesn't stop it from feeling like it, and the author was often going nowhere. I know that with this type of story, it is not realistic to expect a conventional plot-line. However, this book also lacked vision.I wanted very much for the Regent diamond to become a sort of character in the book, like the Ring in "The Lord of the Rings." We are always, always aware of the ring's presence in the story. Here, nothing even close. Often, we would be shown events that had little or nothing to do with the diamond, except that such and such person had seen it once in their lives, or something so insignificant as that. I never actually cared enough about the diamond. It almost seemed that the author had used the diamond to just write an account of France's history, and wasn't actually concerned all that much with the jewel.The Regent was at first portrayed as possibly cursed, which was what intrigued me the most when I read the inside cover. The slave who steals the diamond from the mines cuts his leg open and hides the diamond inside, only to be killed by a man who wants it for himself. At this point in the story, the author says that the diamond "already had blood on it." A curse is mentioned here and there, but this possible aspect of the story dwindles away after a few pages. All in all, this book was a little below average.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
having read Las Cases biography of Napoleon I was totally impressed with the style of this book. It truly sounded like conversations between him and Napoleon.It was easy to get lost in the narrative as it was so believable. The stories and the history of the diamond were fascinating and as a lover of historical fiction especially of this period I commend the author's knowledge attention to accurate historical detail..All in all a great read