Sunday, 21 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 44: "Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte" by Kate Williams

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: True Story

From Goodreads:
Their love was legendary, their ambition flagrant and unashamed. Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife, Josephine, came to power during one of the most turbulent periods in the history of France. The story of the Corsican soldier’s incredible rise has been well documented. Now, in this spellbinding, luminous account, Kate Williams draws back the curtain on the woman who beguiled him: her humble origins, her exorbitant appetites, and the tragic turn of events that led to her undoing.

Born Marie-Jos├Ęphe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie on the Caribbean island of Martinique, the woman Napoleon would later call Josephine was the ultimate survivor. She endured a loveless marriage to a French aristocrat—executed during the Reign of Terror—then barely escaped the guillotine blade herself. Her near-death experience only fueled Josephine’s ambition and heightened her  determination to find a man who could finance and sustain her. Though no classic beauty, she quickly developed a reputation as one of the most desirable women on the continent.

In 1795, she met Napoleon. The attraction was mutual, immediate, and intense. Theirs was an often-tumultuous union, roiled by their pursuit of other lovers but intensely focused on power and success. Josephine was Napoleon’s perfect consort and the object of national fascination. Together they conquered Europe. Their extravagance was unprecedented, even by the standards of Versailles. But she could not produce an heir. Sexual obsession brought them together, but cold biological truth tore them apart.

I knew virtually nothing about Josephine Bonaparte before I read this book. I had no idea she was born in the Caribbean. I didn't know that she had been married and had a son and a daughter before she ever married Napoleon. I didn't know how unhappy her first marriage was, or how she had to keep adapting and changing everything about herself to survive the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.

The woman who became known for her style and wit throughout Europe started out as illiterate, provincial and clumsy, but abandoned by her first husband, spent a lot of the time on her hands educating herself and learning how to be entertaining and pleasing, to both men and women. Once her husband died, the only way she was going to be able to support herself and her children was by acquiring a wealthy protector and she made sure she was a desirable mistress for increasingly more powerful men.

Napoleon Bonaparte was not a particularly impressive general by the time he first met the woman he would call Josephine, but unlike most women, who seemed utterly repulsed by him, she actually seemed interested in him when they conversed and listened intently and treated him well, so he became utterly obsessed with her. Did you know that before he became a successful general, Napoleon wanted to write romantic novels? Yup, Napoleon Bonaparte, the man who conquered most of Europe and took multiple battles to fully defeat - his early career was spent writing romance. I certainly had not expected to learn that.

Josephine clearly did not have an easy life, either before or after she shackled herself to Napoleon. I'm sure no one would be surprised to hear that he was a tyrant not just to his military troops, but also at home. In their early life together, he adored and was utterly obsessed with Josephine, much to the dismay of his utterly horrendous family (who were all greedy, scheming, odious, power hungry ingrates). Then it was proven conclusively that she'd had a lover when he was off conquering somewhere, and his rose-tinted view of his wife appears to have altered somewhat. He still wanted and needed her, but started taking mistresses of his own, while Josephine had to put up with it and coped with her sorrows by spending truly mind-boggling amounts of money.

Despite their rather tumultuous relationship, the couple seem to have genuinely loved one another. Sadly, due to the starvation and hardships Josephine went through during the Terror, she was incapable of having more children. She spent much of her time travelling to various spa resorts around Europe, trying all manner of treatments to conceive a child. Eventually, Napoleon's scheming relatives and his advisers managed to convince him that he had to divorce Josephine and marry another, so he could provide an heir to his empire.

Historical biographies can be rather dry and boring, but once I got past the rather slow section of Josephine's early life, I was pretty much hooked and kept picking up the book every chance I got. I got through this book in just under a week, which I hadn't expected. Again, it didn't surprise me that Napoleon was a horrible person whose views on consent were utterly non-existent, but it was fascinating to read about the woman he chose to spend much of his adult life with.

A lot of the time, I listen to historical biographies in audio, but this I read as an e-book. The Napoleonic era is a very popular setting for historical romance novels, but it was fascinating to discover more about one of the most famous actual romances of the period. I can happily recommend this book.

Judging a book by its cover: Josephine Bonaparte was not considered one of the beauties of her time, rather she was described as striking and handsome, and apparently had great charisma. Of course, when you are the empress of France, you have the opportunity to influence fashion trends to they flatter you as much as possible. If the portrait they've used for the cover is at all accurate, then I agree that Josephine wasn't exactly a stunning woman, but it's not like she was some hideous troll either.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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