Josephine: A Life of the Empress by Carolly Erickson

June 18, 2012

Summary (from the publisher): In 1804, when Josephine Bonaparte knelt before her husband, Napoleon, to receive the imperial diadem, few in the vast crowd of onlookers were aware of the dark secrets hidden behind the imperial fa├žade. To her subjects, she appeared to be the most favored woman in France: alluring, wealthy, and with the devoted love of a remarkable husband who was the conqueror of Europe. In actuality, Josephine’s life was far darker, for her celebrated allure was fading, her wealth was compromised by massive debt, and her marriage was corroded by infidelity and abuse.

Josephine’s life story was as turbulent as the age — an era of revolution and social upheaval, of the guillotine, and of frenzied hedonism. With telling psychological depth and compelling literary grace, Carolly Erickson brings the complex, charming, ever-resilient Josephine to life in this memorable portrait, one that carries the reader along every twist and turn of the empress’s often thorny path, from the sensual richness of her childhood in the tropics to her final lonely days at Malmaison.

Liked:

  • This seemed to be a fairly comprehensive look at Josephine’s life. As the description above says, the author starts with Josephine’s childhood and spans all the years to her death. I have never read another biography of Josephine, so I cannot make any comparisons that way; but strictly judging by what I would personally expect to be in a biography, I think this one covers the big stuff.
  • “Resilient” is a great word to describe Josephine. I mean, she was in prison and ready for the guillotine during the Reign of Terror, only to be spared and then rise up as Empress of France. That’s a pretty big swing in fortune, don’t you think? Wow!
  • I know it’s not really the biographer’s job to do this, but Erickson made me feel some compassion for Josephine. Despite the fact that she was a “kept woman”, that she spent eye-popping sums of money when she had none and when the country was in shambles, and that she shamelessly lied about her position and wealth in order to get what she wanted, Erickson was able to give some compelling reasons why Josephine did these things. They weren’t outright justifications, exactly, but Erickson certainly did not paint the Empress as a conniving monster.
  • Erickson spent a good amount of time covering Napoleon and his military campaigns, too. Obviously, this wasn’t as detailed a look as it would have been in a biography of the General himself, but there was enough info to provide some much-needed context.

Disliked:

  • Okay, this is entirely on me, not the author, but still: I had no idea that Josephine was born into the world as Rose Tascher! Throughout the first few chapters of the book, I kept thinking, “Who is this Rose person? She must be Josephine’s mother or something.” But as the author’s focus on Rose continued, I finally had a look at Wikipedia and discovered the truth. Boy, did I feel dumb!
  • I had a hard time imagining Josephine being the sexy, seductive temptress who always managed to entrap rich men so she could keep her high-class lifestyle going on. I think it was because of Erickson’s emphasis on Josephine’s teeth: they were rotten, blackened stumps by the time she was 25. How nasty is that???? I don’t understand how Rose/Josephine could smile, laugh, and otherwise be charming while hiding her teeth from view. Yes, dental standards were certainly different back then, but the fact that Rose tried to hide her teeth at all showed that she knew they were unsightly and gross. How did her men stand kissing her or being up close and personal? I don’t even want to think about that!
  • I was hoping that the Epilogue would show how Josephine’s children and Napoleon dealt with her death. A few short words would have gone a long way towards providing adequate closure after spending so much time with the book.

Rating:

Josephine: Life of an Empress by Carolly Erickson was a solid biography that provides a comprehensive overview of the Empress’s life. It is probably not the most detailed work available about this subject, but if you’re just looking to satisfy your curiosity rather than engaging in scholarly research, then this book is a good place to start. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

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