Living with Josephine

Teresa Eckford

Teresa Eckford’s 2001 interview with SANDRA GULLAND.

Last October I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Sandra Gulland, author of the acclaimed trilogy based on the life of Josephine, born Marie-Josephe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie on the Island of Martinique.

The trilogy follows Rose in diary format from the age of 14 through to her death at the end of May in 1814. Our conversation covered a variety of topics, though much of the focus was on the Empress Josephine.

Having the chance to talk with Sandra was a treat for this history buff who counts the French Revolution as one of her favourite time periods. I learned a great deal, not only about Josephine, but about the writing and editing process, research as well as the history of the period.

Born in Florida, Sandra attended the University of California at Berkeley and graduated in 1969 with an Honours BA in English Literature from Roosevelt University in Chicago. She has lived in Canada for more than 30 years, 20 of which were spent working as a book editor. She credits the authors with whom she worked for teaching her a great deal about writing fiction people love to read. She has also taught in an Inuit village school, been principal of an alternative school and participated in amateur theatre and community projects – meanwhile, and always, writing. “I would rise an hour before the children and write in my journal. I wanted to write a novel ‘someday’, but it wasn’t until I turned 40 that I realized I wasn’t going to live forever and that ‘someday’ might well be ‘never’. I had a vision of my tombstone with the words, ‘She never got around to it’ etched on it.’ ”

While writing a futuristic novel about the end of the world, she had a dream about Josephine and Napoleon. Immediately she began research for a contemporary novel of manners about an elderly eccentric possessed by the spirit of Josephine, writing in her journal in 1989, “the problem is that I’m possessed with interest in Josephine’s life. I feel I just can’t get enough of it.”

When the futuristic novel failed, she decided to devote herself to Josephine. She wrote a short biography and, experimenting with voice, she wrote the first diary entry in Josephine’s words. “It was as if I had opened the door onto the 18th century. Suddenly, I was in Josephine’s shoes.” By the end of that year, she had 300 pages and sent a proposal to an agent who showed interest. A two-book series became a trilogy and The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. was published in 1995. After signing with HarperCollins Canada, she gave up her editorial and community work in order to write full-time. Research required knowledge of French, which she undertook on an on-going basis. As well, she travelled to France, Italy and Martinique, meeting and consulting with period scholars.

One of the first questions I asked was if, during her research, she discovered anything that surprised her. She explained that when talking with Dr. Maurice Catinat, a fellow Josephine enthusiast, the well-known image of Josephine as adulteress began to pale.  It seems that one of the letters to her alleged lover upon which the image rests, has never been seen.  Dr. Catinat, a medical doctor who works as a volunteer at Malmaison, is a collector of Josephine’s letters, and co-edited with Bernard Chevalier (the curator of Malmaison) her complete letters. “In my opinion,” says Sandra, “ he knows more about Josephine than anyone.” And he believes that Josephine was too ill at that point in her life to carry on an affair even had she wanted to.  Also the language of the letter didn’t strike either Sandra or Dr. Catinat as Josephine’s.

Josephine’s reputation as an adulteress was established early and during her lifetime she made no discernible attempt to refute the rumours that swirled around her.  Early historians of the period, especially Macon, were more focussed on Napoleon and, Sandra believes, did not think any woman could measure up to Napoleon.  Many have made assumptions about her behaviour and not considered other explanations. For instance, when Josephine went to Venice it has always been said she was unfaithful to Napoleon there and went only to carry on her affair. Yet a document clearly reveals Napoleon sent her to Venice on a diplomatic mission.

Dr. Catinat has also hypothesized that even if some of the love letters were authentic, their language has been interpreted incorrectly. The word lover has been taken too literally and could have meant something more innocent.  Sandra and I discussed, with reference to this, the way Jane Austen uses the word ‘lover’ in a less than literal context in Emma when Mr. Knightley says to the title character that he has been ‘… a very indifferent lover’ (page 342, Austen, Emma, NAL, Toronto, 1964). Anyone who has read Emma knows that up to this point, Mr. Knightley has barely even been a suitor to Emma, much less anything at all resembling a lover.

Another little surprising tidbit that came out during the research process was that it appears Josephine was a Freemason.  However, because of the secrecy that still surrounds the Order it was next to impossible to verify.

A symbol Josephine often used in front of her signature (three small horizontal lines) seems to indicate she was indeed a member of the secret society.  Because of the lack of concrete evidence, Sandra chose not to work too much of that aspect into her novels.

The diary format of the trilogy is extremely effective. I asked why she chose to use it. The answer was simple – because that’s how Josephine’s voice came to her, putting the author immediately into her emotions. Using the journal device allowed her to “see the dailiness of Josephine’s life”, and she found herself  “responding to things imaginatively in her shoes as they happened”.  And though there are tricky aspects to working in first person, she found it most effective, especially when broken up by letters from other people to Josephine. Judging from reader and reviewer reaction, her judgement was sound.

It can hardly come as a surprise that the conversation turned to the topic of research.  After all, for historical novelists more than any others, research is a vital part of the novel. How else can you learn all the details necessary to transport the reader back in time?  Sandra has spent years learning about the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. In fact, she kept on delving into the past well into the writing of the third novel. The centrepiece of her research is a 400+ page time line of Josephine’s life. You read that correctly: 400 pages.  It covers not only Josephine’s personal life and those of her friends and family, but all aspects of the period as well, including theatre reviews, battles, soirées etc., both in Paris and further afield. Every time she found a detail that was relevant, she would note it beside the date. Researchers should note that Sandra is making this time line available to those who have an interest in the period.

Though she lives in a small town in Ontario, her research was not as limited as you might think. She used inter-library loan, the research library at Carleton University and now has access to a larger university library network through her status as a continuing education student. The Internet also played a part in her research. She subscribed to a French history list and posted to several Napoleonic history message boards and also took advantage of some of the electronic texts that are available on the Net, including the memoirs of Napoleon’s valet. And, of course, like any historical fiction writer, she has built up a large research library of her own. The latter was enhanced considerably when a Napoleonic scholar offered her his entire library.

One of the biggest challenges for most historical writers is incorporating all that research without overwhelming the reader and Sandra was no exception.  She found it was not easy to cull the right details when she was so immersed in them and wrote some scenes knowing they might need to be cut because they were there simply to incorporate bits and pieces of research. Those that detracted from the main story were eliminated. A compromise was the footnotes she included throughout all three novels. They were chock full of interesting tidbits for the history enthusiast, though she revealed that some readers weren’t so thrilled by them.

This led into a discussion of the writing process itself.  The only way Sandra found to ultimately decide what should stay and what should go was to write draft after draft, leaving adequate time in between. Her drafts tend to be fast, then slow, fast, then slow, cutting and expanding.  In some cases she found she’d cut too much instead, and it would often take up to six drafts to really see what should and shouldn’t be included.  She keeps her cut files and acknowledges that “sometimes you have to write the extraneous stuff to help you get into the story.” Because of her extensive research and numerous drafts, it generally takes her three to four years to write a book as she’s discovered she can take what appears to be a simple concept and make it very complex.

An unusual aspect of Sandra’s writing process is that she has a specific group of readers, as well as family and friends, evaluate her manuscripts in progress. She says she prefers to hear the complaints about the weaknesses while she’s in the draft stage, when it’s still fixable. The thought of a reader struggling does not sit well with her. She asks her readers to tell her five things they liked about the manuscript and five things they didn’t like.

This approach grew out of her work in her previous career as a book editor, when she set up a reader group for teens to evaluate manuscripts for a series aimed at reluctant teen readers. They were asked what they thought of the book, what they liked and didn’t like and whether they thought it should be published or not. On one occasion they recommended a manuscript the editors were set to reject. The reader group’s judgement proved to be correct.

For those writers who are aghast at the thought, Sandra did make it clear that in the end she believes that writers have to learn to interpret criticism and look for signals that some aspects of their writing aren’t working and, most important of all, that writers have to trust their own instincts and learn which critiquers to trust.  She found that her reader group acts as a safety valve, in that it helps her to discover what elements of her work people enjoy.

The road to completing the trilogy was bumpy at times.  Something that had started out as a simple short biography (a research tool for another story entirely) soon grew into a 10-year marathon of research, writing and editing. Like almost all writers, Sandra experienced panic and anxiety, doubting her ability to finish, having had no idea when she started just how large a subject Josephine’s life was. She also found it physically exhausting living through Josephine, who had such a hard life, full of turmoil, both emotional and physical. Her devotion to Napoleon, especially after the divorce, was almost unhealthy – she would sit at the window throughout the day, waiting just to see him for even a moment. Some readers grew impatient waiting for the second novel, Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe, even going so far as to send angry letters to the author, asking to know when it would be available.

On the other hand, she also receives many wonderful letters from her readers, saying they feel like they’re really back in the past while reading her books. It always makes her so happy when they tell her that they don’t want to put her books down, something she for which she strives. It’s not only regular readers who have been so enthusiastic about her work, but reviewers and at least one French academic. She would not be surprised that now the trilogy is complete, the novels might receive more attention from historians.

For those who are wondering what’s next for Sandra Gulland, she hopes to set her next novel in the court of the Sun King, though leaving the era of the French Revolution won’t be easy for her. She found it a fertile period that had so much for a writer to work with, though at times it made her feel ill too. Still, even as she was writing Josephine’s story, Louise de la Vallière began to demand her attention and she believes that the Sun King’s mistress may indeed prove to be the heroine of her next novel. However, she will likely not employ the diary format again, and will have to accustom herself to writing in third person as she feels she can’t really follow up the trilogy with another book written in first person point-of-view. She has renewed her French studies in anticipation of this, as certain sources are available only in French.

We also touched briefly on the topic of historical fiction in general. It may surprise some of you to learn that until she became obsessed with Josephine, history had been of little interest to Sandra. She does feel, however, that historical fiction plays a significant role in interesting people in history, that it’s one of the best ways of doing so, and loves that people go from reading her books to researching Josephine. Yet another reason why it will be difficult to let go of the woman who has occupied so much of her time for the last decade.

The Josephine Trilogy comprises The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe and The Last Great Dance on Earth (all Headline Review UK/HarperCollins Canada/Scribner US).


Teresa Eckford is a member of Romance Writers of America.  She is a history graduate and has written romantic fiction and historical non-fiction and teaches a class on Researching the Medieval through

First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, Issue 9, Spring 2001.

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