Publication Date: April 1, 1999
Length: 400 pages
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐☆
This is the third biography by Carolly Erickson that I've read. She is one of my favorite authors for narrative non-fiction, meaning books that are true but feel much like a novel. Her research is always solid and includes a multitude of primary sources, diary entries, and little tidbits of information that really make one feel like she is in the mind and personal life of her subject.
The book is divided into Josephine's early life, her marriage to her first husband, Alexandre de Beauharnais, son of the French Governor of Martinique and a member of the French nobility, her marriage to Napoleon, and later, her life as the divorcee former Empress of France. She was born in the year 1763 on the island of Martinique to impoverished sugar planter parents, Joseph and Rose Tascher who struggled to make ends meet. Living in near poverty and existing alongside the African slaves on the plantation, Trois-Ilets, Josephine and her siblings grow up with the slow, languid style of island life which stays with them throughout their lives. As children, they are free spirited and often unsupervised, learning the customs and ways of those around them. With their father unable to send them off to more polished, sophisticated schools where they could hone their common edges, the Tascher siblings find themselves caught between two worlds: that of the island and that of the future expectations awaiting them in France.
Her first marriage to her aunt's godson and the son of Alexandre de Beauharnais is lonely and troubling for Rose (her name until her marriage to Napoleon). Unused to sophisticated Parisian ways, she is often insecure in the forced social settings and must cope with her husband's lack of interest in her and his overwhelming loyalty and obsession with his mistress. They manage to produce two children during their tumultuous marriage, although Rose finds she is helpless when Alexandre decides to assert his rights as guardian and at one point even removes her son from her care.
As the French Revolution heats up and the Reign of Terror begins, Rose is forced to confront the fact that she is powerless as a member of the nobility and throughout imprisonment and some of the most trying circumstances of her life, her fragile yet kind nature is revealed. Although she is often unscrupulous in her willingness to seek refuge from her despair, Rose manages to maintain her sanity and emerges with a determination to start a new life.
Meeting Napoleon Bonaparte charts a course for her that will take her from poor impoverished daughter of the West Indies, to Empress of the French and throughout she uses her charm and survival instincts to thrive in a world that is constantly changing and challenging her ability to live the carefree life she craves.
Without giving away the entire story, it is fair to say that Erickson does her best work during the chapters on the French Revolution. She evokes the misery and degradation suffered by the imprisoned, helpless citizens caught up in the frenzy of madness and I found myself seeing, hearing, even smelling the sights and sounds of what it must have been like. Each day crowded into cells with strangers, not knowing if you will be taken out to lose your head clearly left indelible scars on Josephine.
Napoleon enters the book about halfway through and I found his family dynamics absolutely fascinating, including their total disdain for his wife and Napoleon's inability to defend her against his unforgiving Corsican relatives. He comes across as an incredibly odd and socially awkward man who alternates between total obsession for his wife romantically with disregard for her feelings. Although Erickson explains the history behind the wars and battles he led, her focus is more on her subject and the nature of her relationship to Napoleon himself.
Throughout the book, Josephine is often presented as sexually promiscuous to a fault, although one almost forgives her as it is framed within the loose social mores of the times, especially her life in Paris during the marriage to her first husband and during the Revolution, when all decency ceased in the chaos of the time. She still manages to come across as a sympathetic figure, and in light of her two disappointing marriages and inability to be with her true romantic lovers, one understands that she was using whatever she had in her arsenal to make ends meet and provide for herself and her family. She makes no pretense about wanting to live the comfortable life and uses her charm and grace to her advantage.
I enjoyed this book and although I'd have preferred a bit more history behind Napoleon and the political dynamics of the day, Erickson does a good job of including just enough to keep one informed. But it is clearly focused on relationships and romantic intrigue so if you are looking for a biography with more historical depth, this probably isn't the place to start. There is a lot of emphasis on fashions of the day and the lifestyles of the rich and famous French aristocracy which might turn off serious history buffs. I found that part interesting but sometimes tedious and could have done without so much of it. But overall, a solid four star work on the life of a fascinating, flawed lady.