Book Review:
Josephine: A Life of the Empress

By Carolly Erickson

Robson Books

This is a fascinating account of the Empress Josephine, born Rose Tascher on the island of Martinique (she was also known as Yeyette but was called by the name of Rose when she first married).

While the main theme of this book is the biography of Josephine, the story is set against that of the latter decades of the 18th Century. Josephine's life as a child on the Caribbean island, the daughter of an impoverished plantation owner, and then her journey to Europe to marry, are all related alongside the story of Martinique at that time, ravaged by hurricanes or blockaded by the British.

It was a precarious life, with morals and social behaviour quite different to that of today.

Her first marriage at age 16 to Alexandre de Beauharnais was one of convenience for them both. Rose married into the petty nobility to revive the family fortunes, while Alexandre married so that he would receive his inheritance and thus have an income.

The author relates that Rose was initially out of her depth in the social climate of late 18th century France, not helped by the fact that her marriage was doomed from the start, with the couple being undoubtedly mismatched. Despite this they had two children, Eugene and Hortense.

Alexandre took a mistress to compensate for the loveless marriage. While this would be intolerable today, it was a socially acceptable thing to do at the time, as long as the married couple were civil to each other and produced children.

Carolly Erickson puts all the incidents of Josephine's life into their historical and social context so that the reader may judge them by the standards of the time.

Alexandre developed a hatred of Rose, and they both furthered their separate lives although still married. He was a soldier and a social climber; she discovered her independence and gained social experience in the salons of France, although she was always short of money.

Rose moved to Fontainebleau where she was on the fringes of court society and here she took a number of lovers, which was a practical route to take to get men to protect and support her.

What comes through in this biography is that Rose did what was necessary to survive in turbulent times, and having socially-placed and wealthy lovers was her way of surviving.

Rose lived through the Revolution, and the author relates the story of this event and how it affected the people of France.

Alexandre was initially a fervent supporter of the Revolution, but during the Terror was arrested for his aristocratic connections and executed.

Rose spent some months in prison, which had serious effect on her health, and it is argued that this was quite possibly why she was unable to bear children later in life.

During her sojourn in prison she had a love affair with Lazare Hoche, and on her release entered into the revitalised social life of France, in which women were dominant and in which Rose Tascher was very prominent.

She obtained an income by joining with men who were able to buy and exploit army contracts.

While Rose was surviving and enjoying herself, Napoleon Bonaparte was dispersing the rebellious Parisians with cannon-fire and saving the Government, in the process becoming one of the most important men in France.

He felt that to cement his standing in social circles he needed a well-connected wife by his side.

Here the book relates Napoleon's character and story alongside that of Rose, as the two of them developed a genuine friendship and became lovers (although Rose was still the mistress of Barras at the time).

Rose saw Napoleon as an influential protector, while he regarded Rose as socially of benefit.

They married in 1796 and from then on Rose Tascher de Beauharnais became known as Josephine Buonaparte, as Napoleon insisted on calling her by this new Christian name.

The Bonaparte family was not invited to the wedding, as Napoleon knew that they would disapprove of his choice of bride.

One intriguing fact that emerges from this study is the hostility of the Bonaparte family towards Josephine, which caused her much upset in the years to come but she had the strength of character and kindly manner to rise above it.

The marriage got off to a bad start. Josephine had lied to Napoleon about exactly how wealthy she was, and he had her financial affairs investigated behind her back. The wedding ceremony was timed for 7.00, and the groom did not arrive until 10.00pm.

From the start Josephine realised that she would always be second to Napoleon's career and ambition. It was a marriage of convenience and both parties had lovers from the early days of their married life.

During the first six months of marriage, they were together for only three days while Napoleon was fighting in Italy.

Josephine: A Life of the Empress describes how Josephine coped with the social demands made upon her. As Napoleon's career expanded, so she was expected to launch herself into the social activities expected of a famous general's wife, which she found exhausting, especially as she suffered greatly with migraines.

The passion of the early months of marriage soon waned, and the one interesting fact that emerges from this study is that Napoleon told Josephine very early on that he would eventually divorce her. This was socially acceptable and very easy to do in the France of that time and reading this book one gets the impression that divorce was very much a natural thing as was getting married in the first place.

Josephine's children prospered through her marriage to the future Emperor. Eugene de Beauharnais became Napoleon's stepson and one of his most loyal subordinates, while Hortense married Louis Bonaparte and became Queen of Holland. Their mother was very much loved by and loyal to her family and grandchildren.

While her marriage was a great strain for her (more so when she became Empress) she dreaded divorce from Napoleon, as she was fearful for her financial security and that of her family.

If you are an admirer of Napoleon and his family then this book is not for you! The Bonapartes do not come across in a very good light according to the author, with the Emperor treating Josephine with disdain and impatience, and very often cruelty.

Caroline Bonaparte fuelled this antagonism by encouraging Napoleon in his many amorous affairs.

Despite this family hatred, she was popular as Empress, being kind, gracious, gentle and generous. However, Napoleon soon grew frustrated that she did not present him with an heir.

Divorce was inevitable, but it still came as a shock to her when Napoleon wanted to end the marriage to pursue a dynastic link with Marie Louise of Austria.

Josephine lived at Malmaison and interestingly, after the divorce Napoleon often came to visit her as a friend.

She died in 1814, but remained a loyal friend to Napoleon right to the very end. She was even popular and respected by Tsar Alexander and the supporters of Louis XVIII after the Emperor's first abdication.

Josephine: A Life of the Empress is a very readable biography covering not only Josephine's life but also that of the important people around her, set against the social and moral climate of the time.

Carolly Erickson has explained her subject's life and actions against this climate, to present a vivid and comprehensive study of the Empress.

This book, which has 391 pages and 12 black-and-white illustrations, is a very enjoyable and informative read and complements other studies of Napoleon's family life.

- Paul Chamberlain


(This review first appeared in The Waterloo Journal)



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