Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Josephine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon - A Review


Title:  Josephine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon
Author: Kate Williams
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Hutchinson (7 Nov 2013)

I've been waiting to read this biography ever since it was announced that Kate Williams' next book was going to be a biography of Josephine Bonaparte.  I devoured her  biography of Emma Hamilton, and her dual biography of Princess Charlotte of Wales and Queen Victoria. I think she is one of the best biographers around and not just because she has lovely curly red hair.

Even though I saw the book in Waterstones when I was in London in December, I waited until I got back to order it. My suitcase was heavy enough as it was. So I ordered it from Amazon. It was the perfect companion to Heather Webb's novel BECOMING JOSEPHINE. By the time I was finished, I felt that I had a true portrait of the former Empress of the French.  Although Josephine grew up on a plantation, her family were not wealthy. At one point, the family were actually living in the sugar house after a hurricane destroyed their house. It's no wonder that Josephine spent so wildly when she had the opportunity. No one in her family seems to have any business acumen whatsoever. When you read about her early life, it seems incredible that this young creole woman with only her charm and her beauty to recommend her, managed to rise so high in the world.

Williams doesn't shy away from detailing the years when Josephine's only means of survival was to become the mistress of wealthy men. Paul Barras was not the only man who enjoyed her charms. The years during the Revolution and the early years of her marriage to Napoleon, for me, were the most interesting to read about. Reading the biography, I couldn't help but wonder if Josephine hadn't cheated on Napoleon would things have been different between them? Or would Napoleon's ego still gotten too big for his britches? Although her infidelity hurt him, I think that he still would have cheated. A man like Napoleon, who had been rejected by women, who suddenly had women throwing themselves at him, it would have been hard to turn down even for a man with a smaller ego.

Although I can't say that I loved Josephine by the time I finished the book, but I felt I had a better understanding of her character. In certain ways, she reminded me of Marie Antoinette (I found it fascinating that Napoleon recreated her wedding to Louis for his wedding to Marie Louise). I felt for Josephine when Napoleon decided to divorce her, his good luck charm. Although I'm sure she must have been relieved to no longer have to deal with his wretched family anymore.

Verdict: Definitely one for the keeper shelf, right next to BECOMING JOSEPHINE

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