Josephine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon by Kate Williams

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Josephine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon by Kate Williams

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The biography of Josephine, born on Martinique, the often-overlooked woman who married Napoleon Bonaparte and became Empress of France.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 357 Date: June 2014
Publisher: Arrow
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780099551423

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Until reading this biography, it had never really occurred to me just how shadowy a figure the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the best-known European rulers of the age, really was. It may be common knowledge that her name was Josephine, but few of us perhaps really know anything of the woman behind the name.

For the woman born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie in 1763 on the island of Martinique, life was almost literally a rags to riches story. In her teens, still a plump unsophisticated girl with a strong Creole accent, she was sent to Paris on the recommendation of her aunt who suggested an arranged marriage with Vicomte Alexandre de Beauharnais, the son of her lover. As was so often the case in those days, financial considerations played a role, as the Tascher family’s fortunes had been virtually lost after a hurricane destroyed their estate. The wedding took place and resulted in a son and daughter, before the reluctant husband returned to the mistress he had briefly relinquished, and demanded a separation. When the French revolution came in 1789 both were arrested and imprisoned; he went to the guillotine, and she was at risk of sharing his fate, but became one of the few fortunate ones to be released.

One year later she met Napoleon Bonaparte, six years her junior, at the time a comparatively unimportant Corsican soldier. For him, it was virtually love and first sight, while she was initially unimpressed. However as her prospects were less than dazzling, she became his mistress, and within a few months they were married, to the consternation of most of his family. Two days after the ceremony, he went to lead an Italian military campaign at the head of his army. Although he wrote her many love letters during their separation, she began an affair. News reached him, and he too enjoyed several extra-marital relationships. From then on the marriage became a stormy one, as he threatened to divorce her because of her inability to provide him with a heir, but she pleaded for forgiveness.

Though the affairs continued, the marriage endured, long enough for them to be crowned Emperor and Empress, and he agreed to make her little grandson by her first marriage his heir. Her fate was sealed when the boy died at the age of four, and Napoleon told her that he would have to divorce her in order to remarry and provide France with an heir. Nevertheless, even after his second wife had presented him with the long-awaited son, he insisted that Josephine should retain the title of Empress. Yet by now time was running out for her and in 1814, four years after the divorce, she died of pneumonia.

As a personality who was closest to such an important person, it was high time that somebody shone the spotlight on Josephine as clearly more than just a decorative cipher in the background, and Kate Williams has done her a service in placing her centre stage. Being one of Napoleon’s wives and living up to the expectations of the Bonaparte family was always going to be a thankless task, particularly for a widow of the revolution, some of the events of which are chronicled in all their horror in these pages. Having to fight for her rights and for those of the children by her first marriage made her life a tougher one still. The author’s prose conveys the sense of struggle, while painting a vivid picture of the charm and resourcefulness, to say nothing of the love of a woman or her husband who was however not beyond the occasional affair herself. At the same time she reveals something of the woman who was one of the most renowned botanists of the age, the passionate lover of roses who oversaw the planting of a magnificent garden into which she introduced many species to Europe for the first time.

Moreover, in an age of extravagance Josephine could live and spend like the best of them. It was reported that she bought nine hundred dresses in one year, five times as many as Marie Antoinette ever did, at a time when French soldiers on the Russian front were having to resort to rats in order to keep starvation at bay, and also employed twenty ladies-in-waiting and over a hundred servants.

Not surprisingly the book demonstrates considerable admiration and sympathy for its subject, as well as a skilful balance of biography and the contemporary historical background. If it has a fault, it is that it tends to paint Napoleon in an unduly negative light. There is no doubt that he was never the most fair-minded of husbands, obsessed with his own ambition and ego, and at a time when women who had minds of their own were obliged to keep quiet and do as they were told. Too little perhaps is made of the fact that he always remained devoted to her, even after the divorce. There is a touching symmetry in that when she succumbed to pneumonia, his name was on her lips, while when he died seven years later, his last words were said to be ‘France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Joséphine’ – in that order. Nevertheless the drama of a rollercoaster life at a time of tremendous upheaval is well conveyed here.

Suggested further reading:

I Wish I'd Been There: Twenty Historians Revisit Key Moments in History by Byron Hollinshead and Theodore K Rabb (editors)

Buy Josephine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon by Kate Williams at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Josephine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon by Kate Williams at

Buy Josephine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon by Kate Williams at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Josephine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon by Kate Williams at


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