Marie-Josephe Rose de la Pageries, known to the world as Josephine Bonaparte, was born in Trois-Isles, Martinique, in a sugar cane plantation. At fourteen years-old (1777), the time when the story begins, Rose is being groomed for marriage, and with her father being a gambler of the family fortune, she has neither a dowry nor prospects to accomplish it.
A household slave named Mimi, of whom Rose is very attached, brings her to the house of a soothsayer by the river who predicts among voodoo chants that Rose will marry, she will be unhappy in her relationship, will become a widow and finally, that she will be Queen. Despite the improbability of marriage at that point, Rose loves what she hears.
Rose has always dreamed of Paris, always waiting for an invitation from her father’s sister, Désirée, to visit. Then Désirée sends a letter to Rose’s father requesting the hand of one of her nieces in marriage to her husband’s son, a certain Vicomte Beauharnais, a dashing youth who is to inherit a fortune provided he marries one of la Pageries girls. The candidate the family instantly thinks of is Mannette, Rose’s youngest sibling, but since Mannette is eleven plus years-old and she refuses, Rose gladly takes her place. Her dream of living in Paris finally comes true.
Rose and Alexandre de Beauharnais get married, but soon reality intrudes for life as a married woman is not as happy as she envisioned; for starters, the Vicomte is a military man who under that pretext spends long periods away from home. The other more pressing issue is that he has a roving eye and several mistresses who give him children along the years, causing suffering to his wife, the Marquis, and aunt Désirée.
In 1789 the Revolution erupts, the monarchy is dethroned. The ensuing years bring chaos and uncertainty as The Reign of Terror unfolds under the leadership of Robespierre and thousands upon thousands are incarcerated then guillotined, Alexandre among them. Robespierre is killed but the unrest continues as French citizens have become suspicious of each other, and group into factions. The former bourgeoisie has lost the power but not the relative comforts enjoyed under the Ancien Regime.
Finally in 1795, Rose meets young General Napoleone Bonaparte, a Corsican many in the circles of power distrust for being a Corsican, and for being ambitious and an opportunist.
Napoleon courts Rose for several months, knowing that the union will benefit them both, only he falls madly in love with her…
The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. by Sandra Gulland is the first installment in a trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte. The first installment is fascinating, magnetic even, but so many things happen in the book that it feels long, longer than its four hundred-ish pages. The title couldn’t have been different; it pays homage not to a life but to the journey of a woman of modest beginnings who became extraordinary during the times and suffering she endured.
I acknowledge that since the book more or less started with a prophecy I was desperate to see it play out, so much so that when the book became serious—too much so describing the events during The Reign of Terror and Rose and her friends’ incarceration—I felt tempted to leave it aside. It was a history lesson let me tell you, and not the pretty kind. It was ugly and messy and plain terrifying. The Many Lives…feels slow at times, particularly in the parts I have talked about, but it’s so meticulously researched and narrated in first voice –through fictionalized journal entries and family letters-- that it lends a more human perspective to the historical events and figures Gulland describes. The result is historical fiction at its best.
I really liked that Gulland divided Josephine B.’s life in more or less three stages: the early years until she meets Napoleon, the marriage to Napoleon and what happens after. I really liked Josephine, or rather, Rose. Is it wrong that I also liked the Napoleon we got to know here?
In summary, Sandra Gulland’s The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. is vast in scope and scale and meant to be savored as one of the best that historical fiction can offer.