Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte by Kate Williams – book review

by Edith Cody-Rice

Ambition and Desire - The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte2014 marked the bicentennial of the death of Josephine Bonaparte, wife of General Napoleon Bonaparte, successively wife to Alexandre Beuharnais, widow, revolutionary prisoner, courtesan,  queen, empress and divorcée. A more dramatic tale of rise from modest beginnings to the pinnacle of power would be difficult to imagine. Kate Williams, historian, CNN commentator and chronicler of the life of 18th and 19th century women (she has penned biographies of Emma Hamilton and Queen Victoria) has added her contribution to the some 20 new biographies featuring Josephine. She is an accessible populist author and appears to be a relatively uncritical fan of Josephine. To be sure, the woman was remarkable but one questions whether she really was a unfailingly elegant, gracious, compassionate, and diplomatic as repeatedly described in this biography. Still, there is no doubt that she, as empress, was beloved of the French people and a valuable diplomatic asset to her rude, brusque and frequently cruel husband.

Her beginnings were inauspicious. A child of a relatively well to do planter family in Martinque, a French colony, she was born in 1763 into an idyllic childhood, notwithstanding the fact that her father was a hopeless plantation manager. She was pawned off in marriage to the son of a self made French Marquess by her paternal aunt who, living as his mistress in France, was trying to secure the loyalty of her lover into her old age (she succeeded – after  the death of his wife, he married her in 1796).The marriage was not a success. The young and feckless husband, Alexandre Beauharnais, found his  new wife plump, clumsy and ill educated and deserted her for his older more elegant mistress. After trying to find cause to blacken his wife’s reputation, he ordered her into a convent, although he had given him two children, a daughter Hortense and son Eugene. It was probably one of the best things that could have happened to Josephine who was then known as Marie Josephe. She and her aunt chose the convent carefully, selecting one that catered to aristocratic women. Women in convents (apart the nuns) were free to do pretty much as they pleased and the contact with upper class French women constituted a finishing school for the young Marie-Josephe. She emerged a slimmed down, elegant and alluring young woman. Her husband refused to pay the maintenance he was ordered to contribute so knowing she had only her wits to sustain her, Marie-Josephe joined a circle of young aristocrats and became, effectively, a courtesan to older men. Then came the French Revolution and her errant husband, now a military leader,  rose to the occasion becoming president of the National Constitutent Assembly, but like many revolutionary leaders, he was eventually imprisoned, as was Josephine in 1794. He was guillotined  during the Terror and she missed death by just a few hours. One of the remarkable vignettes in the book is the way she learned that Robespierre, the brutal leader of the Terror in France and responsible for many aristocratic deaths, was himself dead. Having been condemned, she looked out the prison window with a friend to see a woman in the street signaling to her by lifting her dress. Finally she determined that the woman was signalling “robe” (French for dress or skirt). The woman then picked up a stone (“pierre” in French) and drew her finger across her neck. Robespierre had been guillotined and Marie-Josephe, among others, was saved.

Marie-Josephe became the toast of Paris, as the widow  of the martyred Beauharnais, a former prisoner and particularly because she had not been presented at court, therefore was also identified as a commoner. She continued to use her graces to attract suitors. It was as the mistress of General Barras, a French military leader, that she met the 26 year old Napoleon Bonaparte, then being promoted by her lover. Bonaparte, then rude, ugly and ill mannered, was not considered a catch by her friends but he wanted to marry her and he thus offered her security and a measure of wealth. Napoleon renamed her Josephine and so she became known to French history. By the time of Josephine’s marriage,  Napoleon had become relatively wealthy through his military conquests. He was certainly smitten and wrote a continuous stream of letters to her during his Italian campaign. She was busy entertaining another lover and rarely wrote back. Such was the inauspicious beginning to their triumphal relationship. Napoleon idolized her but when he discovered her infidelity, the spell was broken. He began to pursue a long string of mistresses and Josephine, entirely dependent upon him, was terrified that he would leave her, particularly because his family hated her, calling her La vieille (the old lady) as she was several years’ Napoleon’s senior and because she could not produce a male heir. Nonetheless, as Napoleon’s wife, she was feted throughout Europe and rose with him to become Empress when he had crowned himself Emperor in 1804.Her own great legacy was her country home (purchased while Napoleon was away on  campaign) Malmaison, outside Paris where she became an outstanding botanist and kept a menagerie of exotic animals brought home by French expeditions.

In the end, though, she fell from grace because of her infertility, although not, according to the book, from Napoleon’s affections. One of the most dramatic scenes in the book is the scene of their divorce in December 1809. It was a grand occasion at the Tuilleries where they lived. While saying goodbye, they trembled with affection for one another.

Napoleon was obsessed with the need for a male heir and shortly after the divorce, married the Austrian Duchess Maria Louise, a teenager who produced a son, just as  Napoleon was falling from power. In 1814, after his disastrous invasion of Russia, Napoleon was pursued by foreign armies to Paris and forced to abdicate. Josephine, while well treated, became a spoil of war, just as Cleopatra had been in Roman times, basically being put on display at Malmaison for foreign dignitaries. she died of a cold turned fatal in 1814 and did not see her former husband’s final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. One of her ladies wrote that she “died of grief”.

For those who have not read a great deal about Napoleon, this is an illuminating read, one of the few books that gives some insight into his domestic life. While of great intelligence, he was vain, narcissistic and had a sense of grandeur out of all proportion to the ideals of the revolution. In the end, he cared little for the sufferings of the French people and even his army and wanted to out king the Bourbons, which he did, until his fall. Josephine, although a pathological spendthrift,  emerges as the ideal wife and queen. Ironically, Josephine’s grandchild by her daughter Hortense, became Napoleon III and ruled France in the mid 19th century and the progeny of her son by Beauharnois, Eugene, married into the major royal families of Europe. Napoleon’s own family, a mother, four brothers and three sisters, after having usurped thrones and senior positions in the conquered nations, died in relative obscurity. His son by Marie-Louise, was raised by the boy’s grandfather in Austria and died at the age of 21.

Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte is published by McClelland & Stewart