A Perfect Biography – Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte

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!


Review – Charlotte & Leopold: The True Story of the Original People’s Princess

While I’m not officially participating in Non Fiction November, all this talk of reading non-fiction this month has definitely had an impact on my own reading. Looking over my list, I see that 2014 hasn’t been a non-fiction heavy year; I’ve only read 13 of them. And three of those have been memoirs written by funny women, which is technically non-fiction and they’ve been filled with nuggets of wisdom that I’ve taken away, but I never feel like its proper non-fiction.

You know what I mean?

Confronted with all the riches at Powell’s last month I decided to look for this one book that I’ve never been able to find anywhere: Charlotte & Leopold: The True Story of the Original People’s Princess by James Chambers.

They did not have it. A rare miss I think.

But then my husband, who had been roped into my quest, found it online and surprised me by ordering it for me.

I’ve read about a lot of different British royals: Queen Victoria, Princess Louise, George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth I, Henry VIII (and his wives), George III’s daughters…you get the idea. One royal that I’ve always been curious about but only ever read about in passing was Princess Charlotte.

And now I know the whole story.


Princess Charlotte was the only legitimate child of the future George IV. In fact, out of over 50 grandchildren of George III (the crazy one), she was the only legitimate one. Her mother and father hated each other and didn’t live together for basically her entire life. They used Charlotte as a kind of pawn in their vindictive relationship. Her father basically shut her up in country estates, not allowing her to be seen in public very much.

And the people noticed. She was beloved. Because even though she was horribly treated by her parents, she was a really lovely person. Very thoughtful and polite and understood her role and her importance to people. Her father had raised her to be a Whig, and she was one, wholeheartedly. But along the way her father’s allegiances had changed and he punished his daughter for espousing the views that he had taught her to value. How different the world might have been: way back then she supported the right of the Irish people to govern themselves and thought that if they weren’t given that right, bad things would come to pass.

Eventually she came to understand that she would only ever be free of her father (and thus able to appoint her own household and not live with his spies) if she got married. Her father wanted her to marry the Prince of Orange and they were engaged for a time but eventually she married a German prince, Leopold.

Here’s the tragedy of Princess Charlotte: after fighting so hard for her independence and finding happiness with Leopold, she died shortly after giving birth to a stillborn son. She was just 21.

Her death meant that there was no legitimate heir and sent her royal uncles on a quest to see who could marry and produce that heir first. The Duke of Kent became the winner, fathering a Princess Victoria.

Leopold was devastated by her death (as was the public. Shopowners closed their stores for two weeks after her death as a sign of respect) and even though he remarried years later his second wife always knew that Charlotte was first in his heart. He eventually became King of the Belgians and advised his niece, Queen Victoria on matters of state.

This biography was a fast paced page turner. But I have one qualm: it is technically the biography of two people but we spend almost the whole time with Charlotte. Leopold’s life only matters insofar as he is with her. When she dies, his life is wrapped up in a couple of pages.

Other than that, it was worth the wait and has filled in a royals knowledge gap I had long wanted to address.


Seriously, I’m Having Book Troubles.

There seems to be a theme on the interwebs today: book abandonment.

Tanya at 52 Books or Bust had to give up on a book that she really wanted to love; over at Another Book Blog, we discussed how many pages you gave a book before ultimately walking away; and Lindsey from Reeder Reads did some scientific (twitter) research to find out what makes people break up with their books.

If you’ve been kicking around here for a while, you know that I love biographies about women, especially royal women. They are my cat nip. Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great, Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Devonshire,  the six wives of Henry VIII, the five granddaughters of Queen Victoria – these ladies are my jam. I can’t get enough.

A couple of weeks ago I turned my attention to a biography of Lucrezia Borgia. I thought it would be right up my alley: beautiful, powerful family, some intrigue and scandal. This should have been my thing. And it just was not. I struggled to get through 150 pages and then realized that it wasn’t going to get any better and I needed to stop. Note to self: biographies of women from the 1400s will tell their story based on the men in their lives.

queen anne

On the same library trip when I picked up the Borgia biography, I carried out Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion. The portrait that they used for the cover is beautiful and with a title like that, one that held all the promise of scandal…well I was pretty sure that this was going to be a delicious read.

It started out that way. Queen Anne’s father, James II, caused a scandal by marrying beneath him in secret and then when his new wife was pregnant with his child and they had to come clean about the secret marriage, he thought he could get out of it and denied she was his wife. So those were her parents.

This time the problem is not one of a lack of researchable materials. Anne Somerset has done an impeccably thorough job of putting together the life of Queen Anne. The problem is that Queen Anne was kind of an asshole. And not in a good way. She picked fights, she was sulky, she could barely walk before she was 40 because she was so fat, and she was not well educated. She was pregnant 17 times and none of her children survived past the age of 10. Actually only one of them even made it past the age of 2 or 3.

I’m also finding myself wandering off when I read because so much has to be explained about the time and the politics that were causing such upheaval. In trying to describe Queen Anne’s reign, we have to understand the political climates and ruling personalities in Spain, France and the Netherlands. Entire books can be written about the politics of any one of these nations – it’s too much.

I really want to finish this book but I’ve been working on it for days and I’m only just into the 200s of a 500+ page book. I would probably have fewer reservations about walking out on Queen Anne if I hadn’t already done it to Lucrezia Borgia a couple of weeks ago.

My bad book luck is apparently not quite through with me.

Would you keep going or walk away?


The Mystery of Princess Louise

Once I made my way through Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, I thought it was probably a good idea to remind myself how far women have actually come.

Perusing my shelves, I decided to read Lucinda Hawskley’s The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter.

Promising title right?

If you watched The Young Victoria with Emily Blunt (I did. Loved it) you’d be forgiven for thinking that Queen Victoria was a loving, open-hearted woman who adored her family because you would be wrong. Queen Victoria adored her husband and resented anything (her children) that took her time away from him. She detested the business of actually having children and begrudged those of her children who wished to have their own lives (the nerve!).


Princess Louise was the 6th of her children, after Victoria, Albert (Edward VII), Alice, Alfred and Helena, before Arthur, Leopold and Beatrice (when you win Trivial Pursuit because you read this, you can thank me). I will admit to being personally delighted with this book right away – Princess Louise and I share a birthday and that has never happened with any biography I’ve read before. Her mother thought she was stubborn and rebellious, although she would admit that she was quite good looking. Louise was close to her brothers Albert, Arthur and Leopold but would spend a lifetime at loggerheads with one sister or another, usually coddled baby Beatrice.

Lucinda Hawksley (a great-great-great-great granddaughter of Charles Dickens) became interested in Princess Louise after researching biographies of notable Victorian artists (like Kate Perugini, a daughter of Dickens’) and seeing her name everywhere. When she went to look into her life further, she found that a lot of the documents relating to her were locked up in the Royal Archives without access.

Bucking trends would become a lifelong habit of Princess Louise’s. She became the first royal daughter to be educated at a public school. She became a sculptor of some talent, even getting her mother to agree to setting aside studio space for her. She was very active in the artistic community of the day and was a supporter of the suffrage movement as well. These activities, especially any to do with Women’s Rights, became complicated by her mother’s total disagreement with the cause – for Queen Victoria, a woman’s place was in the home.

It would appear that before Louise married she became involved with a tutor of her brother’s and may have had an illegitimate child. According to Hawksley, this child grew up aware that she was his mother and the ties between the adoptive family and the Royal family were inexplicable otherwise.

Louise refused to marry a foreign prince, making her the first British princess to marry a “commoner” (he was a Duke) since the 1500s. She endeared herself to the British people but her family thought she was marrying down, bringing common blood into the royal family. She travelled all over the world with her husband, especially North America after he (the Marquess of Lorne, later Duke of Argyll) was appointed the Governor-General of Canada. Rumours of his homosexuality have plagued the couple for generations.

Living in Canada, I was delighted with the Canadian connections to Louise. Canadians wanted to name a Western territory after her, so she suggested they use her middle name, Alberta. After she had left, Lake Louise was also named in her honour.

Princess Louise lived a good long time – she died in 1939 at the age of 91.

Hawksley’s biography of Princess Louise is a thoughtful well researched (especially considering all of the roadblocks she encountered) account of one of the most interesting princesses of her day. Because of the secrecy surrounding so much of her life, Princess Louise has dropped off as a notable person of her day but Hawksley’s work should go a long way to bringing her back to the fore where she belongs.


Wallis Simpson

Apologies for not being all festive and posting about a Halloween read. Being scared is just not my thing!

I’ve mentioned here more than once that I’ve been meaning to read That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor by Anne Sebba, for quite a while now.

I finally read it!

And. I’m not totally sure how I feel about it.

On the one hand, I kind of knew what was going to happen and apparently I’m really familiar with that segment of society in England in the 1930s. So a lot of it wasn’t new. And I still don’t think that I liked her very much. Or him really.

On the other, it did offer a better understanding of the motivations behind what ultimately transpired.


Wallis’ father died when she was just a few months old and for the rest of her childhood she and her mother were dependant on various family members for looking after them financially. The stress of it made her forever after constantly concerned about money. Predictably, soon after finishing school she married the first man to ask her in the hopes of some pecuniary stability. Well he hit her and she had enough backbone not to put up with that, so she got a divorce.

I didn’t know that she actually did care for her second husband, Ernest Simpson. They seemed to have a good thing going, even if he did prefer to sit quietly at home in the evenings while she needed to entertain or go to parties constantly.

When she ended up getting involved with the Prince of Wales, Mr. Simpson kind of went along with it. That is, he wasn’t totally unaware and he didn’t fight it. But Wallis herself always assumed that it would peter out and life would go back to normal between them.

We all know that this is not how things happened. I was surprised at the characterization of the Prince of Wales, ultimately King Edward VIII and then, of course, the Duke of Windsor. In other books that the abdication figures in, he’s always characterized as selfish, used to getting his own way, kind of a d*ck. But in That Woman, Sebba paints a picture of a man desperate for approval who allows Wallis to tell him what to do and how to behave. More pathetic than selfish. Reading this book you get the feeling that Wallis and the Duke of Windsor spent a lifetime together kind of regretting that they took things so far.

Sebba did make an excellent point in the end though. I was trying to decide if this book changed my opinion of Wallis when Sebba points out that had Wallis not stepped in and been so irresistible to the King, he would have been the King during the War and his loyalties probably shouldn’t have been tested so far. In the immediate aftermath of his abdication, Winston Churchill had to reprimand him several times for not representing the position of the English government accurately, given as he was to making seriously suspect friends.

Ultimately Wallis was left a pathetic old woman, basically completely alone, having no children or living relations and still frozen out by the Royal Family. She was blind, bedridden and confused most of the time. Probably more than enough penance for a woman that caused so much upheaval.


Charles Dickens as a Dad

As you may or may not know, Charles Dickens and I have had our ups and downs. We finally came to an understanding when I read (and loved) A Tale of Two Cities but before that, aside from the delight that is A Christmas Carol, I wasn’t sure that we would ever get along. I mean seriously, Hard Times?

Dickens' kids

According to Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, his children had a similar relationship with him.

To be fair, he did have nine children (he blamed his wife for the number of children they had, like he had nothing to do with it) that survived to adulthood. Maybe he was just overwhelmed with numbers.

So he had nine children, two daughters (Mamie and Katey) and seven sons (Charley, Walter, Alfred, Francis, Sydney, Henry, Plorn). Seven sons! What Henry VIII wouldn’t have given for seven sons. He was pretty decent towards his daughters, they really had no major complaints. But those sons of his – he was a hardass dad.

I don’t know much about Charles Dickens’ childhood but I know that he basically grew up in a workhouse and through sheer determination (and a whole lot of talent) he became the most famous novelist, possibly ever. His children, growing up wealthy with little to worry them, lacked that same gumption and it really bothered Daddy Dickens. So he shipped his sons all over the world and withheld his approval.

He also separated from his wife to set up a home with his mistress, and took the children away from her. If the children went to visit their mother, he barely spoke with them. Kind of manipulative really.

Considering this book covers nine people’s lives, it’s really short. Just 239 pages. It’s well written and actually a fairly straightforward read (I read it in a day, really helped pad my reading stats) but I couldn’t help feeling like it only scratched the surface. One of his daughters (Katey) ended up becoming a rather famous artist, while one of his sons (Henry) was a well respected judge (the only one of his children he ever felt amounted to anything) but their lives are still condensed into a few pages. Two of his sons died in the navy, two made a go of things in Australia and one of them was even a Canadian Mountie!

I’d say the best thing about the Dickens’ offspring is their names. Their first names are ordinary enough but their middle names! Tennyson, D’Orsay, Fielding, Haldimand, Bulwer, Lytton, Landor and…Jeffrey. I should point out that the youngest son, Plorn, was actually called Edward but Dickens’ nickname for him stuck so he was forever after known as Plorn.

Honestly I was surprised that Charles Dickens was such a tough and critical father but I guess he was a Victorian so maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising. It’s definitely made me want to read more about him – Claire Tomalin’s biography of him has been on my list for ages so maybe it’s time to look for that one a little more actively.

Did you ever read about someone famous and come away surprised by the reality?


The Churchills

A few years ago I was abusing the generosity of the library, taking out 6-8 books a week. I wasn’t working at the time, and despite searching for work most of the time, I found I still had a lot of time on my hands. One of the best books that I read during that time was Mary S. Lovell’s The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family.

If you’ve been around here for a little while, you will know that among my favourite books to read are biographies about women. The Mitfords were a family of SIX sisters (and one brother who was killed in World War II) who all went on to create havoc in the early parts of the Twentieth Century. One was in love with Hitler, one married a rather famous Fascist leader (Oswald Moseley), one became the Duchess of Devonshire and they all dabbled in writing.

It was a fantastic, gossipy, informative read.

I recently picked up The Churchills: In Love and War. I’d been wanting to read it for a long time but finally took the plunge when I found it in paperback recently. I think I was about a third into it when I realized that this Mary S. Lovell was the same one that wrote the book about the Mitfords. Terrible, I know.

Well Lovell did it again. She managed to create a compulsively readable biography of an entire family. While Winston Churchill definitely looms large in this one, Lovell devotes equal time to the lives of his other relatives. Did you know that his cousin, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, married a Vanderbilt? Their marriage was a disaster. Churchill’s mother Jennie, was also an American, thought to be the first of the “Dollar Princesses” who were married to English lords so that their fortunes could keep the families afloat (think Cora Crawley on Downton Abbey).

Winston’s father Randolph contracted syphilis at some point and thereafter refused to have sexual relations with his wife. It ended up killing him, and his wife, Jennie, married 2 more times to much younger men. While there were a lot of unhappy Churchill marriages, it seems that Winston and Clementine actually cared for each other very deeply. It was a fairly unconventional marriage by modern standards (they took a lot of separate vacations) but it seemed to work for them.

Reading about a family like the Churchills is like reading about the Kennedys. You know about the big events, but the smaller every day stuff is all new to you. There was actually quite a bit of overlap with the Mitfords (related to the Churchills through Clementine) and the Kennedys also come up a few times (Winston’s daughter-in-law Pam was good friends with Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy and was actually invited to fly with Kathleen and her new husband on the day that they died in a plane crash).

For someone that had such an appreciation for history and especially his own family history, it must have been somewhat gratifying to find out that Churchill died 70 years almost to the hour that his own father had died.

Lovell’s thorough research and incredible skill at wading through all of the stories and characters to come up with a streamlined story of this famous family is unparalleled. For me, she joins the ranks of Robert K. Massie and Julia P. Gelardi as one of my favourite biographers.