The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B.

Reviewed: July 3, 2008
By: Sandra Gulland / narrated by Louise Pitre
Publisher: BTC Audio Books
3 CDs, 4 hours, $29.95

The title of this novel is sort of a giveaway. Josephine B has to be Josephine Bonaparte, and yet we get to almost to the end of the story before that name makes its appearance.

We first meet her as Marie-Josephe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, a creole girl barely into her teens and growing up on a sugar plantation on the island of Martinique. Her father has the ill luck to combine poor management skills with a penchant for gambling, and the family finances are fragile.

A hint of her future is given to her when a voodoo priestess prophecies that would be unhappily married, would then be widowed, and would become queen.

Rose is bewildered by this and knows nothing of the family’s situation, but merely dreams of growing up and getting married, so when a marriage is arranged for her in order to bring some financial stability into the estate, she happily relocates to France and marries Alexandre de Beauharnais, heir to the fortune of his father, the Viscount. Rose and Alexandre have two children, but he is not a faithful husband. Rose’s older cousin was his mistress before his marriage and he has other women when he is posted to North Africa.

It takes some years before Rose is settled enough and has shed enough of her colonial naiveté to act on her own behalf. In an unusual step for the time, Rose files for and obtains a separation from her husband. That she succeeded says a lot about her but also speaks to the low opinion de Beauharnais had acquired due to his lifestyle.

The story, told to us in diary form, takes through the last years of the old regime before the French Revolution, through the first hopeful years of that upheaval and the through the terror.

Rose has to fight many battles during this period, Her husband tries to reclaim the children and, reforming himself, rises to a position of some power within the decaying French government, even reviving the military career he had thrown away earlier. She, along with others of the aristocracy, is arrested and lives for some time under sentence of death. While in prison she does what she had not done before and takes and lover, a famous general who had fallen from favour.

As luck would have it she survives the Terror as a widow and lives to become one of the key people in the revival of French high society that follows this period. It is in this role as a chatelaine and key player in salon culture that she catches the eye of the ambitious young military officer, Napoleone di Buonaparte.

Buonaparte doesn’t like the name Rose, and insists on calling her Josephine, reinventing her in the image of the woman he thinks she can be, even as he later reinvents himself; the Corsican becoming more French that the French and changing his name to show it.

In spite of her initial repugnance for the little man, Rose finds herself becoming more and more attached to him. Perhaps it is that he, like herself, has struggled against his colonial background and has conquered the snobbery of French society, Perhaps it is because he has such a high opinion of himself and yet sees her as a worthy mate, where always before she had been treated as second class. She found that she wanted to be the Josephine that he saw her as.

The book, volume one of a projected trilogy, ends in 1796, with their wedding.

For me, this book succeeds because Rose grows so much during the diary entries, facing many obstacles with courage and tenacity and refusing simply to accept the various roles that others have picked out for her. In the end I think she accepts Napoléon’s vision of her because it fits so well with the one she has been growing into during her first 33 years of living. It is a role in which she is not diminished.

Louise Pitre provided an excellent reading of this book. While I can see that this is a book I might not have chosen to read to myself, it was one that I thoroughly enjoyed hearing.