Josephine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon

Written by Kate Williams
Review by Sarah Bower

The endpapers of Kate Williams’ new biography of the Empress Josephine are decorated with cartoons in the style of Gilray showing the empress at different stages in her life – the planter’s daughter, the countess, the widow, the prisoner, etc. This seems apposite for a book about a woman who was nothing if not a continual performance of herself. Born into genteel poverty on the Caribbean island of Martinique, Josephine married into the French aristocracy, survived the Terror and rose to become the first Lady of France, a status she somehow managed to retain even after her divorce from Napoleon. Williams shows her as an elusive, contradictory mix of sentimentality, flirtatiousness, extravagance and political ruthlessness.

Neither Josephine nor Napoleon emerges from these pages as particularly likeable or attractive, even though Williams is at pains to stress Josephine’s sexual allure and Napoleon’s genius. Perhaps she overstates her case, leaving the reader feeling compelled to believe in these attributes even though the evidence is far from convincing. Despite many remarkable anecdotes – the favourite of Marie Antoinette whose head was sent to the hairdresser’s before being mounted on a pike, for example, or Josephine’s pet orangutan, which ate at table with a knife and fork – I was left with a sense of the thinness of this book. While Williams is to be praised for not allowing Napoleon to hijack his wife’s story, I would also have liked a little more substance around his military career and rise to power.  An enjoyable enough read, but lacking in that sense of total immersion in the life of the subject that can be derived from the best biographies.