The is a refreshing narrative of a well known, but often misquoted, non-fiction subject. Andrea Stuart has researched and written an energetic biography of Josephine Bonaparte, from the cradle to grave. Never a dull moment, I learnt a lot about the period and politics. I was also reminded that human nature hasn't changed. Very enjoyable.
Andrea Stuart's new biography on the life of Napoleon's most famous mistress, Josephine, is a complete and captivating story of one of France most powerful women at a time of social and political upheaval as France sought to reestablish its identity at the heart of Europe and the New World. It is a rich biography, expanding to discuss in depth the political and social reality of the time and the nature and actions of those personages that influenced Josephine the greatest. The story commences with the birth of Marie-Josephe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie on the island of Martinque, After delving into her childhood, Rose's life truly commenced with her enagagement and subsequent marriage to Alexandre de Beauharnais - often pointed to as the galant, de Valmont, of Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses. After a rocky marriage as her overly florid and highly unsuited to marriage husband took a multitude of lovers, charmed his way through Parisien society and ended up accusing the innocent Rose of adultery whilst he on a trip back to Martinque and she in Paris, Rose found herself with two children, separated and in a the convent of Panthemont. It was to prove a turning point as, just before the French Revolution ignited she returned from new new home at Fontainbleu to Martinque. Whilst there she did not escape the violence of it as Martinque was one of the first colonies to follow the mainland and she was forced to flee the island of her birth forever. She returned to a Paris where republicanism was the new `word' . In the meantime her husband, Alexandre, had risen to prominence amongst the new wave of political power and was actually President of the National Assembly the month Rose returned. As a result of her husband's fame, so Rose grew in recognition by association. As Alexandre presided over the capture of the fleeing King the event polarized the camps into the Feuillant party against the Girondists and Jacobins and Alexandre, for a time became the de facto ruler of France. It was a fortunate time for Rose as her husband's position enabled her to make friendships with France's new elite and to find time for amorous pursuits. However, come Louis XVI's execution and England's declaration of war, Alexandre's ineptitude in his new position as commander of the Rhine armies and his libertine nature led to his downfall under the Law of Suspects and Rose's subsequent arrest. After several months of imprisonment at Les Carmes Alexandre died at the guillotine days before Robespierre and days after Rose was released. By 1795 she had come to meet the man who would eclipse her - Napoleon. At his point Stuart digresses onto a quick recount of Napoleon's life and career before Rose engaged on her relationship. Napoleon was smitted and proposed, Rose only accepting after realising Hoche was no longer available to her. It was at this point Napoleon renamed her Josephine. What follows is a period as Napoleon swept all before him in Italy whilst all the time writing letter upon letter to her in fits of passion alternating between over-eloquent expressions of love and frustration at her seeming coldness. It was a reversal of roles from Josephine's first marriage, but as Napoleon's fame and power grew, so did hers. Stuart does well here to interpose love letter text with historical action and emotional frenzy, sweeping the reader along on the tides created by the future emperor. As Napoleon aged and his power increased there came the inevitable shift in power each held in their personal relationship forced along by Josephine's relationship with Hippolyte Charles eventually culminating in the very public knowledge of the problematic state of their marriage while Napoleon was in Eygpt and the now somewhat embellished episode at the house at rue de la Victoire. What follows is a recount of Napoleon's rise to fame, Josephine's active participation in the conspiracy that secured his position within the Consulate and her transformation from `decadent Directoire godess into virtuous, restrained statesman's wife" (p270). Josephine's social skills soon translated into the highest political weapon as she presided from her Yellow Salon providing support for the emigres but not yet extending to the exiled Louis XVIII. However, she retained a loving family atmosphere with her two children and Napoleon despite their lack of children together. Eventually, Napoleon acclaimed himself Emperor of France in 1894 and Stuart treats us to a lengthy discourse on Josephine's battle with Napoleon's family, her final spiritual marriage to him and their coronation. As Empress of the French the rest of her life was played against the tumult of several legendary European battles with conquests of great nations, yet done in a manner that meant she retained her regality. As Empress her life was rigorously dictated, protocol dominating her every move, her life peripatetic. Stuart illustrates this with a detailed look at a typical day following with how she influenced French society, patronaging the arts and acting as the gentle foil to Napoloeon's rudeness. However, it all fell apart when Napoleon divorced her on Dec 15, 1809 and she spent the rest of her life either touring France or at Malmaison. Acclaimed as a generous host she spent four years playing this part as Napoleon's Grnad Empire began to fall apart and it all ended suddenly in 1813 with Napoleon's exile on Elba and Josephine succumbing, aged 51, to her final moments. Andrea Stuart's biography of France's most celebrated Empress is effortlessly written, evoking an emotional reponse full of admiration for this woman who transformed from the rose of Martinque to one of the most powerful and loved women of the time. Whilst popular history may relegate her to the boudoir with the infamous phrase of `Not tonight, Josephine' from Napoleon, what this effort has done is draw attention to a woman who place in history is very much assured. Highly recommended.
This biography reads like a novel -- a beautifully written novel. It's breathtaking and the scholarship is impeccable. And Josephine was a magnificent human being. She lived in a time when, just to survive, a girl had to do what a girl had to do, and Josephine did everything better than anyone else.