The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. is the first in Sandra Gulland’s trilogy of novels about the Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon. Gulland tells Josephine’s story in the form of fictional diary entries. Josephine was born Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie and is referred to as Rose throughout the novel. Napoleon called her Josephine when they were married, but she herself disliked the name and preferred to be called Rose. The novel begins in 1777, when Rose is fourteen years old and living on her family’s sugar plantation on Martinique. She receives a prophecy from a voodoo priestess, who tells her that she will be unhappily married, she will be widowed, and she will be queen.
At sixteen, Rose is sent to France to marry a young nobleman, Alexandre de Beauharnais, whom she has never seen before. He was originally supposed to marry her sister, who died very young. Rose feels awkward in the sophisticated society of the nobility of France, and Alexandre keeps trying to educate her. She bears two children, but she is hurt by his infidelities, and eventually sues for a legal separation and wins her case, which was very unusual in that society. As the French Revolution breaks out, Rose goes back to Martinique for a while, but leaves under cannon fire during a slave rebellion which was inspired by the French Revolution.
Rose finds the France she goes back to very different from the France she left. Families are divided between royalists and revolutionaries, and people cannot trust their neighbors or their servants. Gulland conveys the fear experienced by those living in Paris during the Terror very well, as people are betrayed by those once close to them and sent to the guillotine. Rose’s husband, Alexandre, becomes the president of the National Assembly and then a general in the revolutionary army, but most people in his family do not approve of his activities, and his brother is a royalist and eventually leaves the country. After Alexandre loses a battle, he falls under suspicion of treason and goes to prison. Rose, although legally separated from him, is also imprisoned just for being his wife. The prisoners live in daily fear of being sent to the guillotine. Alexandre is guillotined only a few days before Robespierre’s fall, and Rose’s name is on a list of people to be guillotined, and only Robespierre’s downfall saves her life.
After her narrow escape, Rose finds herself penniless, since Alexandre’s property was confiscated, and she struggles to support her two children. She relies on friends for help. One of these friends, Paul Barras, becomes a leader in the new government and helps Rose get her properties back. She helps the families of people she knew who were guillotined, and she pleads for the release of friends who are still in prison. Rose finds love with a young general, Lazare Hoche, but he is married and will not divorce his wife. She becomes a salon hostess and an important figure in society after the Terror. Eventually she meets Napoleon, a rising general. Napoleon is introduced only in the last 50 pages of the novel. It is clear that Rose does not love Napoleon, but she has a sense that he has a great destiny ahead of him, and she marries him because she wants her children to have a father. Napoleon marries her because Barras has promised him command of the Army of Italy if he does, but it is also clear that he loves her more than she loves him. The novel ends with their marriage, in 1796. The story is continued in the next volume, Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe.
Gulland writes very well about life during the French Revolution, and makes Rose’s character come alive through the fictional diary entries. She conveys a sense of the fear people felt during the Terror especially well. Also fascinating, in this volume, were her descriptions of life in the slave-owning society of Martinique. She makes Rose extremely sympathetic, and you understand her reasons for marrying Napoleon. I am looking forward to reading the next two volumes of the trilogy, Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe and The Last Great Dance on Earth.
The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. is available from the Browsing Collection of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.