Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.
It is rare for me to hand out 5 stars on Goodreads. I wish that there were half stars available (Note to Goodreads: add 1/2 stars!) but since there aren’t, books that should be 4.5 end up being a 4.
Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte by Kate Williams was not a 4.5 star book. It was a 5. Do you know what other biography I rated 5 stars? Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie. Just a reminder, Massie has won a Pulitzer.
Like when I read about Catherine the Great, I went into reading Ambition and Desire knowing next to nothing about Josephine Bonaparte. Hers is a name that I have encountered numerous times but always at the periphery of whatever I was reading about: a fictional account of the life of Desiree Clary, Napoleon’s fiancee who he left to marry Josephine and who eventually married General Bernadotte who became the King of Sweden (the current Swedish royals are descendants of this couple); Michelle Moran’s The Second Empress, a fictionalized life of Marie Louise, Napoleon’s second wife who provided him with the longed for heir; when I’ve read about any other Queen or Empress in Europe, she was always compared to the elegance of Josephine Bonaparte.
I’d always kind of assumed that Josephine must have been some kind of noble or minor princess, the kind of wife that would have leant legitimacy to Napoleon’s becoming an Emperorr. But no. She was born Marie-Josephe-Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie, on Martinique (modern day Haiti), the oldest of three daughters to island landowners. Her mother’s family had money and land but her father reduced their wealth considerably because he just couldn’t be bothered to manage their affairs properly. She was known as Yeyette and grew up running around freely on the island, with a maid who was likely her half sister, poorly educated, sucking on sugar cane that ruined her teeth (which is why she was always pictured with her mouth closed later).
She ended up in France because her aunt’s lover’s son needed a wife. In an effort to keep the money in the family, thereby securing her own future, her aunt decided that one of the La Pagerie girls should marry Alexandre de Beauharnais, Martinique brides being very much in fashion owing to their reputation as wealthy and wanton. Alexandre had originally wanted one of Yeyette’s younger sisters but their parents decided the other girls were too young and Yeyette really wanted to go to France. He basically left her to her own devices, disgusted by her lack of polish or education. They managed to have two children, Eugene and Hortense, but in the first four years of their marriage, they were rarely together. He also decided she should no longer be called Yeyette so she became Marie-Josephe.
And then of course the monarchy was abolished, the King beheaded and anyone who had ever had any dealings with noble families was in very real danger of being imprisoned and then guillotined.
There are many horrific epochs in human history. The Terror in France has always struck me as one of the most horrible. Williams spares no detail in describing the atmosphere in Paris at the time. One of the most gruesome images Williams leaves with readers is that all the starving and abandoned dogs left in the city were killed and their bodies piled up in the carriages taken from the noble families that had been executed.
Josephine and her husband were both imprisoned. Alexandre de Beauharnais was executed. On the day that Josephine was to be guillotined, the architect of The Terror, Robespierre, was himself killed and instead of it being the end of her story, she was freed and became one of the most celebrated women in the city.
Josephine spent the next few years as the mistress of various powerful men until eventually she met Napoleon. Theirs is one of the most celebrated relationships in history but it was also one of the most messed up. Napoleon was horribly jealous of anyone else near Josephine and she was very foolish, keeping lovers when he was on campaign. At one point, Napoleon found out about one of her relationships and wrote a letter to his brother about how humiliated he was and how she had broken his heart. This letter ended up being published in a newspaper and Napoleon turned into a laughing stock.
I was surprised that Josephine’s children were so lovely. Usually the children of massive historical personalities are idiots but both Eugene and Hortense adored their mother and she them. They did everything that was asked of them, even if it made them terribly unhappy. Once Josephine became Empress her life was basically sitting around waiting for Napoleon. She spent incredible amounts of money on clothes, accessories and homes. She had an incredible menagerie at her favourite home, Malmaison, including a female Orangutan who was able to eat with a knife and fork and wore dresses that she curtsied in. Napoleon also brought back incredible treasure for Josephine so that she had one of the best art collections in the world.
I didn’t expect to like Josephine but I did. Kate Williams has done an incredible job making her accessible to the reader. It is an incredibly thorough and intimate portrait of an incredibly famous woman. Even when Napoleon divorced her so he could have a chance at having a child, she stayed friends with him and eventually died of a broken heart when Napoleon’s second attempt at power failed.
This biography, coming in at 336 pages, could have been a lot longer. It ably covers the lives of a number of significant personages and doesn’t get bogged down in unnecessary detail. Napoleon’s military exploits are kept to a minimum – they are only mentioned as they are applicable to Josephine’s experience. I have a hard time with military detail so I appreciated this restraint. This will be the kind of book that I recommend to a lot of people. Even those people that think they don’t like biographies, that they are difficult to read, will like this book. Kate Williams has the gift of making non-fiction read almost like a novel. Happily Williams has a number of other books, including one that links Princess Charlotte and the reign of Queen Victoria so I will be reading more of her work in the near future!