Review | Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte – Kate Williams

About the Book

This is the incredible rise and unbelievable fall of a woman whose energy and ambition is often overshadowed by Napoleon’s military might. In this triumphant biography, Kate Williams tells Josephine’s searing story, of sexual obsession, politics and surviving as a woman in a man’s world.

Abandoned in Paris by her aristocratic husband, Josephine’s future did not look promising. But while her friends and contemporaries were sent to the guillotine during the Terror that followed the Revolution, she survived prison and emerged as the doyenne of a wildly debauched party scene, surprising everybody when she encouraged the advances of a short, marginalised Corsican soldier, six years her junior.

Josephine, the fabulous hostess and skilled diplomat, was the perfect consort to the ambitious but obnoxious Napoleon. With her by his side, he became the greatest man in Europe, the Supreme Emperor; and she amassed a jewellery box with more diamonds than Marie Antoinette’s. But as his fame grew, Napoleon became increasingly obsessed with his need for an heir and irritated with Josephine’s extravagant spending. The woman who had enchanted France became desperate and jealous. Until, a divorcee aged forty-seven, she was forced to watch from the sidelines as Napoleon and his young bride produced a child. 

384 pages (hardcover)
Published on November 4, 2014
Buy the book

I don’t know a whole lot about Napoléon. In fact, in all things Napoléon, I’m pretty ignorant. However, I was scrolling through my library’s stacks, and I saw this book and thought, “why not?” The thing is, while important men are fascinating, the ladies that rarely get as much stage time in the historical narrative tends to be just as interesting and powerful, if not more so. 

Enter, Josephine Bonaparte. 

It is important to understand a fact that this book will really drive home: Strong women come in many shapes and sizes. 

Born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie to a wealthy family on the island of Martinique, she lived a rather idyllic childhood, for her time. Her family made a lot of money off of sugarcane and slavery. She lived a life of luxury and plenty. However, soon enough a hurricane came along and wreaked havoc on her island home, and shortly thereafter she realized that this was the highest she’d ever climb in this place, and so she set out to points East, namely France, where she could continue her upward climb and become her own woman with more prospects than she’d ever have in Martinique. 

Soon after her arrival in France, she married well. The marriage was good on paper, but it’s likely that the union was actually abusive, and the children she bore during this time ended up being the happiest part of the relationship. 

Around this time, the French Revolution was brewing, and tensions were high, making an already frough situation that much more difficult for someone like Marie to navigate. Both Marie and her husband were imprisoned during the Terror. Her husband ended up being put to death. Somehow, using her wit and probably a good dose of luck, Marie survived, though her health never quite fully recovered. Left alone to care for her children, she didn’t mourn her children for long. Marie (who changed her name to Josephine, which she considered more regal) was known for having romantic relationships with wealthy, powerful men. This not only allowed her a modicum of security she would not otherwise have, but it also funded her rather lavish lifestyle. 

I should note, not all of this is about Josephine’s life. While she is the vehicle, a lot of cultural things are discussed in this book, small details that paint a colorful picture of the changing cultural norms of the day, as well as things as intimate as makeup, which serves to paint a very vibrant picture of not only Josephine’s life, but the wider world around her as a whole. 

“Unknowingly, Marie-Josèphe was covering herself with toxins, for the best rouge was made from vermilion, ground from cinnabar (mercury sulfide) or from ceruse, which was produced by dousing lead plates in vinegar.” 

Enter Napoléon Bonaparte. 

While the couple did likely feel some romantic and loving emotions toward each other, their relationship was anything but smooth. Josephine was prone to dramatics, and required a certain level of luxury. Napoléon was not above lording his power over her, and reminding her of her place in their union. Both of them had innumerable affairs, and side pieces. Furthermore, he was too embroiled in all matters military to really focus much on her children. As they grew older, they started judging him, which often created tension, and a distinct feeling of never being one cohesive family unit seemed to underscore everything. 

Napoléon would not have been an easy person to be married to. He was rigid, and always lost in his military might and his expanding empire. He was the sort of dude who seemed to think that rules were those things that applied to other people, and I think he likely had the personality of a rock. Josephine, by contrast, was vivacious, the center of attention, and always ready to enchant a crowd. There couldn’t have been two more mismatched people if you tried to find them. 

“I am not like other men, and the ordinary laws of morality and rules of propriety do not apply to me,” Napoleon vaunted.

When the opportunity for Josephine to be proclaimed Empress of France arose, she took it with both hands. This, essentially, was what she had been longing for since she was a child. Yet as time went by, both Josephine and Napoléon become more embroiled in their own spheres of influence, and less happy together. Divorce was inevitable. Despite going their separate ways, Napoléon always wrote Josephine and kept communication open, as well as supporting her financially. While their relationship seemed exhausting to me to read about, it was fascinating to see how this woman managed to use her own power, and the power of others, to make herself one of the most influential women of her time. 

Kate Williams did a marvelous job at bringing Josephine to life for readers. It’s easy to write women off, to ignore them as footnotes, and while Josephine did not lead armies she did become a focal point about which many in her world turned. While in the epilogue, Williams says that the relationship between Josephine and Napoléon was one of the greatest love stories of their time, I think I’d have to disagree. Perhaps I am not a romantic person (I’m not), but to me the constant tug-of-war between these two individuals was absolutely emotionally exhausting to read about, and I can’t imagine being one of the people who actually had to live through it. 

Josephine, however, was a rather amazing figure. She had a knack for sensing what the wind was blowing in, and a strength of will that allowed her to succeed, and even thrive, when a lot of people would not have managed it. Her stint in jail during the Terror, for example, was nothing short of harrowing, and while many didn’t survive it, she did. In a world where a woman couldn’t really live on her own, much less support children without a man, she figured out a way to do that as well. And somehow she survived her relationship with Napoléon. 

Josephine was a woman who lived during a time of great upheaval and change, and it was really interesting to be brought through all of this on the shoulders of a well-placed woman to all the chaos. Kate Williams brought Josephine to life in this biography by shining a well-deserved light onto one of the lesser-known, but more fascinating historical figures. 

4/5 stars


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