Recommended to me by a girlfriend with impeccable reading taste, I was still, for some reason, somewhat reluctant to read this book. I knew very little (or cared – I am ashamed to admit) about Josephine or Napoleon (apart from “not tonight, Josephine” – I don’t even know what the context for that is!) and felt there were too many other figures from history that I wanted to learn about and experience through fiction or non-fiction to invest in a three book series. Well… excuse me while I go and eat my words.
From the moment I picked up this book, I was hooked. Written in the first person (it’s presented as though it’s Josephine’s diary), it commences when Josephine is 14-years-old and then called Rose, the daughter of slightly impoverished landed gentry on the island of Martinique. Of Creole heritage, Rose has dreams and these are fuelled when a fortune teller informs her she will be a queen one day.
When her younger sister dies, Rose becomes a substitute bride and undergoes the long sea voyage to France to take up her position as a minor noblewoman as the wife of Alexandre de Beauharnais. But life as Alexandre’s wife is not what Rose expected and as she bears children and is given entrée into Parisian society, she also has a front seat to her husband’s infidelities and indifference and the French Revolution – the latter which unfolds swiftly as the Terror descends. The Ancien Regime is collapsing, allegiances shift daily, and Rose has to find a means to protect her children, her greater family and friends, and above all herself.
Beautifully written and impeccably researched, I couldn’t put this book down. Gullard spent ten years researching this trilogy (of which this is the first book) and it shows, but not in a didactic way. Martinique and the customs and culture of the indigenous and their French colonisers, and their differences to their France-based counterparts is wonderfully realised. As we see, smell and are inculcated into the island culture, so too, through Josephine’s naïve and fresh eyes, we see France and Paris. We enjoy the beauty, the sophistication, the fashion and habits, but also deplore the filth, poverty and later, blood and cruelty. Some events take place “off-stage” and those that don’t are given the personal touch through being viewed and oft-times experienced by Josephine or a close friend. The fear and concern, the drop in fortunes, the confusion as titles change, even days of the week and festivities are renamed and those once lauded as heroes of the revolution are killed as traitors is palpable.
Through all this, Josephine, as a woman, mother, “citoyen”, shines. Her care for others, her love for her children and theirs for her; the lengths she will go to in order that justice is served, are heart-wrenching and brave. As a reader, you are filled with wonder for this woman. It’s only towards the end of book that the ambitious Napoleon enters the story and I loved that he remains a peripheral character, even as he woos her, for this is Josephine’s tale and it is her voice we hear.
The footnotes that accompanied my kindle version were terrific and enhanced my reading pleasure. At first I thought they might encumber the story, but they don’t. They are like discovering a chocolate under the pillow as you open the reference, read and appreciate the way a fact has been woven into the narrative – seamlessly, always.
Gullard is a masterful storyteller who brings Josephine and the events in which she finds herself to life – better still, she engages the reader’s heart and head and in doing so creates an unforgettable interpretation of a remarkable woman and time.
For lovers of great fiction, historical novels interwoven with fact, love-stories and those that recapture women’s experiences and give them voice, I cannot recommend this highly enough.