26 January 2014

Book Review ~ Josephine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon by Kate Williams


Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

I can’t remember ever approaching a historical biography knowing less about the subject.  In fact, what I knew about Josephine could fit comfortably on the back of a postcard and would include the immortal lines ’Not tonight, Josephine.’ This meant Josephine, the new book from Kate Williams, historian and award winning author of England’s Mistress, a biography of Emma Hamilton,  was a revelation with every page.

Arriving in pre-revolutionary France from Martinique, the young Josephine was almost illiterate and her front teeth were black from her father’s sugar cane plantation. This book tells the amazing story of how she prospered to became an Empress and one of the most powerful and influential women in Europe.

Kate Williams take us through an often harrowing yet very readable account of the French revolution and its aftermath. It seems something of a miracle that Josephine survived the revolution at all, to meet the anti-hero of the book Napoleon Bonaparte. Inevitable her story then becomes his. Through painstaking study of the many preserved letters between them, Kate tells a very personal and compelling story of how they fell in love and conquered Europe together.

Their later life was marked by astounding extravagance. While Napoleon’s soldiers were starving on the Russian Front, forced to eat rats (and each other, apparently) Josephine was being forced by Napoleon to never wear the same dress twice.  (In one year she bought nine-hundred dresses, five times as many as the unfortunate Queen Marie Antoinette.)

I was fascinated by Josephine’s home at Malmaison, (now a Museum) where she had at one time twenty ladies in waiting and over a hundred servants. Among the many surprising facts Kate uncovers is that Josephine was a talented botanist, introducing many exotic species, now well known,  for the first time to Europe. She also collected rare animals, including an Orangutang which she dressed in clothes for the delight of her many visitors.

The picture of Josephine which emerges is of an incredibly resourceful woman, capable of whatever she set her mind to. There is no question Napoleon would not have achieved so much without her skill at charming those he so casually upset. I am also convinced that he would have returned to her after his exile on Elba.

A real page turner, Josephine is everything I hoped it would be and has renewed my interest in this fascinating period of history. Highly recommended.  

P.S. I found that The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations attributes the phrase ‘Not tonight Josephine’ to a popular song from 1911 composed by Seymour Furth and sung by Ada Jones and Billy Murray.

About the Author

Kate Williams studied her BA at Somerville College, Oxford where she was a College Scholar and received the Violet Vaughan Morgan University Scholarship. She then took her MA at Queen Mary, University of London and her DPhil at Oxford, where she received a graduate prize. She also took an MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway. She now teaches at Royal Holloway.

Follow Kate on Twitter @KateWilliamsUK  and visit her website

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