The Game of Hope: Sandra Gulland’s Young Adult Fiction Debut
Sandra Gulland’s Josephine B. Trilogy—the first volume of which was published more than two decades ago—remains one of the top fictionalizations of the French Revolution and Napoleonic era. The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B (1995), Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe (1998), and The Last Great Dance on Earth (2000), were considered, by the author, to be her completion of Josephine Bonaparte’s story.
Gulland states, “When I finished the Josephine B. Trilogy, I felt lost for a time. I had been deeply immersed in Josephine and her world for well over ten years. Eventually, I sold my extensive collection of books on the Napoleonic era in order to make room on my shelves for books on other subjects. Needless to say, years later, when embarking on a novel about Josephine’s daughter, Hortense, I regretted selling those books. Fortunately it wasn’t difficult to track down the texts I needed or find them online. Also, fortunately, I still had my extensively detailed timelines and notes for the trilogy on my computer. They were an excellent resource. I was thankful that I had carefully noted the book and page number for each reference, so I could easily find what I needed.
“It was a delight to be back in that world. The Napoleonic era was so modern—it felt like home to me—and it was wonderful to engage with all those familiar characters again. It was also a delight to get to know some of the characters better (such as the amazing educator Madame Campan) and to meet new ones (such as the composer Hyacinthe Jadin). Best of all, I found it captivating to view this world form Hortense’s unique perspective.”
Time would prove that she wasn’t entirely finished with this story—particularly that of the younger generation. Both of Josephine’s children, Eugène and Hortense, feature in Gulland’s young adult novel, The Game of Hope, as does Napoleon’s younger sister, Caroline.
“When I put the Josephine B. Trilogy behind me all those years ago, I thought that the only character I might be interested in exploring further was Caroline,” Gulland says. “She was, as we would say today, ‘quite a piece of work.’ The Game of Hope would have been a different story from her point of view, and possibly quite a good one—overtly sexy, a ruthless me-against-the-world struggle as told by a devious and unreliable narrator. In fact, the more I think of it, the more I’d like to read it.”
It’s Hortense, however, who narrates the author’s spinoff, beginning with her schooling under Madame Campan shortly after living through The Terror. Her mother is married to Napoleon, and already having problems. It’s no wonder young Hortense dislikes her stepfather. He seems the natural antagonist—but, as with any volatile relationship, it’s complicated. Gulland explains, “In writing the Trilogy, I came to see Napoleon through Josephine’s eyes—and she loved him (eventually). I became attached to him as well, without a doubt. He was so intelligent and driven, his emotions and thoughts very much on the surface. I’m not saying he didn’t make serious errors, but in my opinion, he wasn’t an ogre, as the English-based world [tends to] portray him.”
On further musings of Hortense’s adversaries, Gulland says, “As for members of his family, I heartily detest them, but in a rather amused way. As in: really? They were eccentric and exasperating, selfish and manipulative—all excellent fodder for a writer. Napoleon’s sister, Caroline, is Hortense’s initial antagonist in The Game of Hope—as well as her stepfather, Napoleon, and the rest of that large and overbearing family—but duty will be her adversary in the long run. On a more psychological level, the antagonist is Hortense’s own reverential view of her father and her stubborn refusal to accept her stepfather. Her childish tendency to judge people as all good or all bad gives way over time to accepting (and forgiving) human imperfections. She learns to open her heart, to accept and even appreciate Napoleon. In doing so, she learns that she is not, in fact, besmirching the memory of her father.”
Switching from adult fiction to young adult was a challenge for Gulland, but one she came to embrace. “The Game of Hope was going to be a young adult novel from the start, in large part because it had been suggested to me as such by Penguin. I don’t think I would want to write a full biographical novel about Hortense because her adult life was so sad. Writing about her as a teenager interested me very much, however. I’ve long been curious about what teenage life was like historically. Also, I read young adult fiction and love it. Too, I edited young adult fiction for over a decade, back when I was a book editor. Even so, I found writing a young adult novel a challenge—but what novel isn’t? The process was surprisingly similar to writing an adult novel. Certainly, it took just as long to write and involved just as much research. The writing process is one of immersion in a character’s point of view and it doesn’t really matter whether that character is 60 or 16 years of age.
“Writing this novel has been a fantastic experience for me. I will continue to write young adult fiction, or even perhaps what is now called ‘new adult.’ It’s such an exciting stage of life. For me, looking back from my seventh decade, it’s invigorating to reconnect with that energy. Also, the world of young adult fiction is wide open to new ideas. It’s stimulating creatively because anything is possible.”
Having successfully branched out to juvenile fiction, Gullan says readers can look forward to more from her soon. “I am now preparing to write another young adult historical novel, and I’m thinking of including a touch of fantasy in it. Although it is based on a historical person, there is scant evidence of this person’s existence, so it will not be a biographical novel in the strict sense. This will allow for more creative freedom. As well, it’s going to be about a girl falconer in Elizabethan England, so I will be crossing the Channel for the first time and delving into another historical period. All extremely interesting, as well as challenging—but then, that’s what appeals to me!”
About the contributor: Arleigh Ordoyne has worked in the book industry for more than a decade and is an active member of the book blogging community with her website Historical-Fiction.com. She has been reviewing books online for 12 years and with Historical Novel Society since 2011.