Book Review, History

Women’s History Month Book Review: Josephine by Kate Williams

As you can probably tell from previous posts on this blog, I have a tremendous interest *cough*obsession*cough* in the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. My bookshelves are packed full of biographies, studies of his campaigns and historical fiction set in the period in which he changed the face of Europe forever.

However, March is Women’s History Month and so this week I’ve been reading about his wife instead, in a fascinating biography by Professor Kate Williams. It made an interesting follower to last week’s biography of Marie Antoinette; containing as it did so many contrasts, similarities and parallels.

So often Josephine de Beauharnais is summarised only as the chief love of one of the world’s most extraordinary men, but she was an extraordinary woman in her own right. In many ways, she was a tremendously modern woman – someone who knew how to use what she had to get what she wanted, and someone who learned how to survive in a man’s world during one of the most tumultuous periods in French history.

Josephine was an extraordinary woman in her own right.

Professor Williams charts the meteoric rise and fall of the French Empress from the Island of Martinique, where Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie (it was Napoleon who decided to call her Josephine) was born, to the beloved chateau of Malmaison where she died aged 50. Josephine’s own correspondence is frequently used and so presents a wholly personal insight to her thoughts, feelings and emotions.

Like Marie Antoinette, Josephine arrived in France to be married as a replacement for a deceased sister. The book initially outlines her deeply unhappy marriage to Alexandre de Beauhairnais. This miserable life was brutally interrupted by the French Revolution, which saw both husband and wife imprisoned. Alexandre went to the guillotine but Josephine luckily escaped a similar fate thanks to the timely fall of Maximilien Robespierre. With two young children to support, she became a virtual courtesan in post-Terror Paris and it was there that she met Napoleon Bonaparte, an awkward Corsican soldier with a huge amount of ambition.

Entwined as their stories inevitably are, the last three quarters of the book also function as a quasi-biography of Napoleon (not, it must be said, a particularly sympathetic one!). Professor Williams lays bare the passions, emotions, highs and lows of a couple who are often represented as one of history’s great love stories. Though it was her own ambition that initially drove Josephine to wed Napoleon and she was shamelessly unfaithful early on, she became unquestionably devoted to him as their marriage went on. For Napoleon, Josephine was his life’s great love – while dying on Saint Helena in 1821, her name was the last thing he ever said.

josephine 2
A very modern woman.

It was a biography that didn’t strike me as being overtly pro or anti-Josephine; instead walking the line of detached objectivity with particular care. It discussed in turns her various strengths but also her considerable faults. One thing clearly highlighted was her very real skill with diplomacy and what we would effectively call public relations – she was certainly far more than Napoleon’s trophy wife, as the author makes clear.

Josephine’s role as a passionate patroness of the arts was also explored, with discussion of the many pieces of jewellery, paintings, sculptures and furniture she bought or commissioned throughout her life. The book also acknowledges her contribution to horticulture in the grounds of Malmaison.

Her most famous fault – her extravagance, similar in some ways to that of Marie Antoinette, is also discussed in depth. Josephine was profligate in the extreme; spending enormous amounts of money. Seeing a summary of just some of her purchases in black and white was astonishing! Even being fairly well up on the period, I still did a double take at some of the amounts she blew on things like gloves and stockings.

The twilight of Josephine’s life was discussed with some poignancy, and a summary of the fates of her chief connections and rivals helpfully provided in the epilogue. It is of course of one history’s chief ironies that while Napoleon divorced Josephine for her inability to conceive, her descendants by her son Eugene are to be found in multiple Royal Families of the world, while Napoleon’s only legitimate son died tragically young and so never fulfilled his father’s dynastic dreams.

To summarise, it was a well written and fascinating study of a woman who went to hell and back again during the revolution and who rose to preside over a time of huge cultural development in France. She and her children were always loyal to Napoleon, far more so than his unanimously-useless and ungrateful siblings were, so it perhaps no surprise that the young Napoleon II remarked:

“If Josephine had been my mother, my father would not have been buried at Saint Helena, and I should not be at Vienna. My mother is kind but weak; she was not the wife my father deserved.”

Thoroughly recommended if you are into Napoleonic history! Super excitingly, it is being made into a TV series in conjunction with Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great (my favourite bio of Napoleon). I can’t wait to see who they cast!

My rating: 4/5



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