Wednesday, August 03, 2005


A few days ago I finished reading Josephine: A Life of the Empress by Carolly Erickson. One thing you might not know about me is that I have an odd fascination for royalty -- particularly queens, princesses and empresses. In the past, I've mostly read about English royalty (especially Elizabeth and Henry the VIIIths six wives), but after reading A Tale of Two Cities last month, I felt like I needed a little more French Revolution. This book did not disappoint.

Truth be told, its a lot more like a novel than a history book, which probably isn't good if you are looking for some solid, impartial, historical facts, but which is good if you just want to get an idea about Josephine and her life, and you don't already know much about French history. It is also good if you want some juicy descriptions of parlor life shortly after the Terror:

"Dancing became a kind of exorcism in which the horrors of the recent past were conjured away. At the Victim's Balls, relatives of guillotine victims scoffed at death, wearing red ribbons around their necks as reminders of the bloody chop of the blade, bowing their heads jerkily in imitation of the falling heads, clothing themselves in bloody scarlet."

The general story is that Josephine grew up in Martinique, the eldest daughter of a down-on-his-luck plantation owner and minor French aristocrat. She went to Paris when she was 17 and married her step-cousin, who had inherited money but needed to be married to begin to spend it. The marriage didn't really work out, but they did have two kids. Like many upper-class Parisians of the time, they also both had lots of affairs. The French Revolution came and first things were okay, then bad, then both of them found themselves in prison awaiting execution -- Josephine made it through but hubby did not. After the Terror calmed down, there were more affairs and the salon life, before Josephine met this up and coming Italian general named Napoleon. Napoleon won more and more battles, the group governing the country was shaky anyway, and before anyone knew it, he was crowned Emperor with Josephine as Empress. Before they even got there, though, their marriage had practically fallen apart.

Josephine is interesting in that she was a woman who did not seem all that smart, or beautiful, or rich, but she was ambitious, and she did know how to take care of herself and get what she wanted. People often commented on how nice and good-natured she was, although she also seemed to be very emotional and physically weak. Her story is interesting to me, because she became royalty without being born into it, partially from her own work, partially from her husband's success in battle, and mostly because Napoleon looked like a national hero right when France really wanted someone to focus on.

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