Sweet tart with a heart

This is my review of Josephine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon by Kate Williams.

The unsophisticated daughter of a Creole family whose Martinique sugar plantations ran on slave labour, Josephine was shipped to France for what proved a tragic and short-lived arranged marriage. Widowed with two young children in the dangerous and unstable world of the French Revolution, she soon acquired the requisite skills to become the mistress of a succession of wealthy and powerful men, culminating with Napoleon.

Her extravagance was shocking in its excess, her behaviour manipulative and devious, perhaps the most appalling example being her eagerness to marry her daughter off to one of Napoleon's least appealing brothers, in an attempt to compensate for her own inability to provide the French leader with a son and heir.

Despite all her faults, the author is clearly on Josephine's side, and emphasises the qualities which made her attractive to men and popular with the public: she was graceful, a good listener, and kind to those in trouble. Her main achievements seem to have been providing an attractive figurehead to offset Napoleon's boorish and intimidating image, her public relations role in organising social events and dealing with people, and the private passion for gardens, including, exotic plants, birds and wild animals imported from abroad, which led her to develop the beautiful estate of Malmaison.

This is an entertaining biography with some moments of real poignancy, as when, having at last steeled himself to announce his divorce of Josephine, Napoleon still hankers for her company so much that he cannot resist coming over to Malmaison to walk with her in the rain.

On the other hand, the somewhat tabloid style and focus on the more sensational aspects of Josephine's life made me wince at times, or feel the need to look to other sources to verify the author's interpretations, particularly of Napoleon. She presents him as a capricious and crude megalomaniac, chronically indecisive at times, but over-prescriptive at others, a shameless sexual predator once success provides the confidence to demand "droits du seigneur". I agree with the reviewer who has criticised the "one-dimensional" portrayal, which gives an inadequate impression and exploration of his greatness.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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