Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte, by Kate Williams

Eight stars

It cannot be said enough; strong women come in all shapes and forms. Kate Williams proves this in her thorough biography of Josephine Bonaparte, who is the latest in my list of subjects as I continue my journey over this two month period. Married to the (in)famous French general and Emperor, Josephine’s life proved to be packed full of interesting stories, offset with much angst and derision. Williams brings much of this to life in this piece that touches on a number of historic events, which provides a firm backdrop for the reader to better understand this life. Williams keeps the reader engaged and offers enough tidbits that the narrative flows with ease until the climax of Bonaparte’s life, letting the story tell itself at key moments. Curious readers will surely find something herein to keep them engaged, if only to shake their heads at Josephine’s choices.

Born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie on the island of Martinique, she found herself a member of a rich and highly prosperous white Creole family. The price and plentifulness of sugarcane in the region helped elevate their wealth, which was eventually dashed by numerous strong and destructive hurricanes. Marie found herself growing up with all the luxuries that life could provide on this small island, though the ability to forge a lasting aristocracy amongst such a small population soon left the family to look elsewhere. An aunt had arranged the marriage of Marie’s sister, Catherine, to the son of the Vicomte de Beauharnais, which would take the young girl to France and place her in a position of some esteem. However, Catherine’s death at the age of twelve left a vacancy and Marie saw her chance to leave the island and enter French aristocracy. Marie sailed for France, where she would meet and soon marry Alexandre. As with many aristocratic unions, it was good on paper, but the marriage saw Marie abused and troubled. The two children she bore Alexandre, Eugène and Hortense, proved to be the happiest part of her union, which was further troubled as the Revolution gained momentum and the de Beauharnais name became part of the old aristocracy that the people sought to abolish. Williams explores how Marie was able to see the classes crumble around her while the people sought to remove the aristocratic hierarchy and bring those accountable to bear for their crimes. Alexandre was taken into custody by the Committee of Public Safety during the infamous Reign of Terror. Marie was subsequently jailed as well, finding herself isolated from her children and left to fend for herself. Alexandre’s execution left Marie without a husband and forced to raise two children alone. Williams assures the reader that Marie did not pine too long. She was known for her romantic and sexual dalliances with men of power, having had affairs with those who found themselves on the right side of the revolutionary forces. These affairs helped portray Marie as a woman willing to do what it took to rise above the fray, which she did, leaving her more than ready when she encountered the young Napoléon Bonaparte, six years her junior. 

Already a man of much military prowess before meeting Josephine (who changed her name to something more regal than Marie by this time), Napoléon Bonaparte was said to be her one true love. As Williams explores this couple, their pairing seemed anything but smooth or filled with romance. The narrative explores the vignette of Napoléon refusing a formal and religious ceremony, turning instead to a civil union that might not even have been legal. Napoléon reminded his wife repeatedly of how he could dissolve their union as simply as it came together, a telltale sign that this was a power move more than anything else. Both Josephine and Napoléon had countless affairs and turned to specific lovers for periods of time, as if to compete with one another for the honour. Additionally, Josephine’s two children were at an age when they could consciously judge their step-father, who was brutal and focussed on his territorial acquisitions rather than fostering a cohesive unit. With the French Revolution complete and a power vacuum present, Napoléon sought to fill it and lead the country into the 19th century. He took the French military to the far reaches of Europe to create an empire all his own and drummed up support to do so. Josephine stayed behind and showed her support by turning to lovers, one of whom almost cost Josephine her marriage. Still, as Napoléon gained in power, Joisephine basked in it and gladly became Empress of France when the chance arose. Thinking back to her youth and the premonitions of a fortune teller on Martinique, Josephine prepared for the luxuries bestowed upon her. This fame and relative fortune did not quell the ongoing love triangle (or even trapezoid) with Napoléon, as Williams recounts the continual strain of Josephine not bearing her husband a child. Napoléon was determined to have an heir and sought his step-daughter, Hortense, to agree to a union ‘for France’. What muddied the waters even more was Hortense’s marriage to Louis Bonaparte, brother to Napoléon. As Emperor and Empress continued to live in ever-distancing spheres, an heir was not forthcoming (rumours abounded as to the father of Hortense’s son) and Napoléon continued to see the affections of others. Finally, in 1810, the Bonapartes divorced and Napoléon turned to a member of the Austrian Royal Family. Josephine remained an anchor for the Emperor, who wrote to her and kept her safely supported with money and lodging. When she entered the waning weeks of life, medical doctors diagnosed it as pneumonia but others wondered if Josephine might have succumbed to the angst and pain of losing her husband forever. Her death touched many and while Napoléon was eventually banished from France, he continued to hold her close to his heart. A woman whose power came more from her husband than her own doing, Josephine’s lasting impression might offer historians an out to promote her to a position of ongoing importance.

I chose Josephine Bonaparte not only because it was a buddy read, but also because I wanted to learn a great deal about this woman, whose past remained a mystery. Kate Williams does a wonderful job in laying the groundwork for this most interesting woman, from a childhood in the far off islands and capturing a perspective during the French Revolution. Williams’ attention to detail was great and her development of Josephine’s character was superb, though towards the latter half of the book, things became too diluted. I found the narrative straying into a history of Napoléon and his conquests, rather than life through the eyes of his wife. While I agree that there are times that women become secondary to their husbands in history’s documentation (and it is for this reason that it takes a special woman to shake off said shackles and rise above), it seemed as though Williams wanted to regale the reader with aspects that did not directly involve Josephine. Additionally, even in the epilogue, Williams refers to the Napoléon-Josephine relationship as one of the great loves in history. I found it to be stilted and more in line with two teenagers who continually toss themselves at one another, commit some relationship faux pas, and then dash off in the other direction until the next cycle commences. It is true that Josephine’s ancestry proved to be rich in European leaders, though her own power seemed to have been muted. Williams chose well to offer up a strong narrative, though I might have been wrong to call her a ‘powerful woman in history’ in the sense of control and independent victory. 

Kudos, Madam Williams for an enthralling piece about a woman whose life might have been defined by her choice of spouses. I learned much and am happy to come away with a deeper knowledge of the woman, the era, and all there is to know about the Bonaparte dynasty.