Désirée is a wonderful historical novel by Austrian writer Annemarie Selinko (1914-1986), which tells the story of Désirée Clary, a silk merchant’s daughter from Marseille who became Napoleon’s first love and, much later, Queen of Sweden. The novel was first published in German in 1951 and in English in 1953, and it was made into a film in 1954 with Jean Simmons as Désirée and Marlon Brando as Napoleon. The film follows the novel closely, although there is much left out, of necessity, since it is quite a lengthy novel (594 pages) and covers a long period of time.
The novel is written in the form of Désirée’s fictional diary, which somewhat limits what can be told: events at which she was not present can only be told second-hand. But it is an excellent format in terms of letting the reader get inside her mind, and seeing how her feelings, especially toward Napoleon, change over the years. In 1794, during the Terror, Désirée’s father gives her the diary. She is only fourteen at the time. Shortly afterwards, her father dies, and her mother and brother run the family’s silk business. Even though the family supports the French Revolution, Désirée’s brother is imprisoned because of a misunderstanding, and Désirée goes to the city hall of Marseille to get him released. There she meets Napoleon’s brother Joseph, who is a clerk at the city hall, and she thinks he will make a good husband for her sister. She invites him to dinner at her house, and he brings his brother Napoleon, a young general. Désirée and Napoleon fall in love at first sight, and eventually become engaged. (In real life, Napoleon was engaged to Désirée, but they probably did not fall in love at first sight, and she loved him more than he loved her. The version of events in the novel is highly romanticized, but it makes for such a good story that I did not mind.) Meanwhile, Désirée’s sister Julie marries Napoleon’s brother Joseph, but it is clear in the novel that he marries her for her dowry.
Shortly after he becomes engaged to Désirée, Napoleon is called away to Paris. Désirée travels there in secret and sees him at a reception, in the company of Josephine, a wealthy widow several years older than Napoleon. She soon finds out Napoleon has left her and gotten engaged to Josephine because of her connections in society. Heartbroken, she tries to throw herself off a bridge, but a tall, handsome man who had been at the reception, and followed her to the bridge, rescues her. He turns out to be Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, one of France’s leading generals. Eventually, Désirée falls out of love with Napoleon and in love with Bernadotte, and she marries him.
When Napoleon takes power in a coup d’état and becomes First Consul, Bernadotte opposes him at first, then reluctantly decides to support him. Napoleon and Bernadotte never did like or trust each other, not only because of rivalry over Désirée, but they needed each other: Bernadotte realized Napoleon was going to be the new leader of France, and Napoleon needed Bernadotte because he was one of his most successful generals. In the novel, as in real life, Désirée and Bernadotte spend much of the early years of their marriage apart, because Bernadotte is off fighting battles. He becomes a Marshal of France.
Even though she has fallen out of love with Napoleon, and is in love with her husband, Désirée is a frequent guest at Napoleon’s court because of her sister’s marriage to Napoleon’s brother. Napoleon has not forgotten their love, and it seems, at least to me, that he still loves her in spite of his marriage to Josephine. He seeks her advice at several important moments. Désirée is one of the first people he tells of his plans to declare himself emperor and, much later, he tells her about the planned Russian campaign which turned out to be disastrous for him, because he wants her to convince Bernadotte to join him on the campaign. The details of life at Napoleon’s court are wonderfully described. In particular, I loved the scene of Napoleon’s coronation, where his sisters complain about having to carry Josephine’s train, and Désirée is forced to carry Josephine’s handkerchief on a cushion. From what I have read, it really did happen more or less the way it is described in the novel. Selinko provides great insight into life in those times, including the food, the clothing, and the music. In one scene which I enjoyed very much, and which was not included in the film, Désirée and Bernadotte meet Beethoven when Bernadotte is serving as military governor of Hanover, Germany. Bernadotte has found a doctor who he thinks can cure Beethoven’s deafness, and the orchestra plays Beethoven’s Third Symphony. Beethoven tells Désirée and Bernadotte how he tore up the dedication to Napoleon.
In 1810, in an extraordinary set of circumstances, Bernadotte is unexpectedly given an offer to become Crown Prince of Sweden. The King of Sweden is old and childless, and the Swedish Parliament chooses Bernadotte to be his successor. Bernadotte takes up his new role and gives up his French citizenship to become Swedish, much to Napoleon’s fury. He and Désirée travel to Stockholm, but she hates it there because of the cold climate in winter, the long summer nights when it never gets dark, and especially because of the way the queen and the royal ladies treat her. They constantly remind her of her origins as a silk merchant’s daughter, and make her feel she is not worthy to be a princess. She also misses Paris very much. She goes back to Paris and stays there for years, apart from her husband. Meanwhile, as Crown Prince of Sweden, Bernadotte realizes it is in Sweden’s best interest to break his ties to Napoleon, so he joins the allies, opposing Napoleon during the Russian campaign and in other battles.
Désirée is present for many of the important events of the last years of Napoleon’s reign, including his divorce from Josephine. In the novel, Désirée goes to comfort Josephine after the divorce. In spite of Josephine’s responsibility for Désirée’s heartbreak, Selinko really makes the reader feel sympathy for Josephine. Also, there is a delightful scene, included in the film, where Désirée teaches Napoleon to waltz, shortly before his marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria. Napoleon’s downfall is told in detail, and Désirée is reunited with Bernadotte when he enters Paris with the allied troops. In a fictitious scene, but one which makes for a very good story, the leaders of the new French government ask Désirée to convince Napoleon to surrender. She does so, and he gives his sword to her. This is where the film ends, but the novel goes past the events of the film, into Désirée’s life as Queen of Sweden. Even after Napoleon’s fall, Désirée does not go back to Stockholm for many years, until a meeting with her son, Oscar (eventually King Oscar I of Sweden) convinces her to return. Désirée and Bernadotte are the ancestors of the current royal family of Sweden.
Selinko’s novel is highly romanticized, of course, but extremely entertaining, and goes into excellent detail about the times, and the lives of Désirée, Napoleon, and Bernadotte. And Selinko herself had an interesting and tragic life. She was born in Vienna and married a Danish diplomat. She and her husband joined the Danish resistance during World War II, and escaped to Sweden in a fishing boat. Tragically, Selinko’s sister was murdered by the Gestapo, and the novel is dedicated to her memory. In Sweden, Selinko worked as a translator with the Red Cross, which was under the patronage of a member of the royal family, and that is how she became interested in the origins of Sweden’s royal family. Selinko wrote other novels, but Désirée is by far the most famous. I highly recommend it, and the film, too, is definitely worth watching, especially for Marlon Brando’s performance as Napoleon.
Désirée is available from the Browsing Collection of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library. The film Désirée, starring Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando, is available on Blu-Ray from the Askwith Media Library.