Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe is the second book, following The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., in Sandra Gulland’s trilogy about the Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon. The novels are written in the form of a diary by Josephine, interspersed with letters to her from Napoleon and others. While the first book told Josephine’s story from her childhood in Martinique to her marriage to Napoleon, this book covers a considerably shorter period of time: the first four years of their marriage, from 1796 to 1800. This is a time full of momentous events in Napoleon’s life, including his victories in Italy, his Egyptian campaign, and his seizure of power in a coup d’état in 1799, when he overthrew the government and became First Consul.
Many of these events are necessarily seen “off-stage,” since Josephine was not present at the scene, but Gulland brings Josephine’s pride in Napoleon’s achievements, and her worries while he is away in battle, vividly to life. They did not marry for love, as we see in the first book, but Josephine eventually comes to love Napoleon. She faces many tribulations of her own, beginning with Napoleon’s family’s hostility to her. They do not approve of his marriage to a widow six years his senior, with two children of her own. Several of Napoleon’s siblings intrigue against her, trying to find evidence of infidelity so Napoleon can divorce her. While Napoleon is in Egypt, rumors of Josephine’s affairs reach him, and he believes them. When he returns to Paris, without his army, which is stranded in Egypt because of the destruction of the French fleet by the British, he locks himself in his study and refuses to see Josephine. Her children have to persuade him to talk to her. In Gulland’s version of the story, the rumors of Josephine’s affairs are untrue. She enjoys a close friendship with a certain Captain Charles, who convinces her to become a partner in a military supply company, but, on Josephine’s side at least, it is only friendship. Napoleon does not approve of Josephine’s involvement with the company, since he thinks women should not do business. But Josephine feels she has no choice since she is deeply in debt. When her first husband was guillotined in the Terror, his property was confiscated, and her family’s plantation in Martinique is not making any money.
Most devastating of all is Josephine’s inability to conceive a child by Napoleon. She is badly injured in a fall from a balcony while receiving fertility treatment at a spa. Gulland’s descriptions of the “cures” of the time are vivid, and quite gruesome. They seem more like tortures than cures. Gulland thinks that Josephine went through early menopause because of her harrowing experiences during the Terror, and that the same thing happened to other women of her age who were imprisoned, or lost loved ones, in the Terror.
There is also an element of mystery in this novel, concerning the death of General Lazare Hoche, who had been Josephine’s lover before she met Napoleon. Hoche died suddenly, after being under suspicion of treason. Rumors spread that the head of the government, Paul Barras, was secretly in league with the royalists and had Hoche poisoned when he discovered a royalist plot. Josephine is a friend of Barras, who brought about her marriage to Napoleon, and does not believe the rumors at first. But Hoche’s family begs her to discover the truth, and there is just enough doubt in her mind that she decides to investigate. Eventually this part of the story is brought to a surprising, and devastating, conclusion. In real life, the true cause of Hoche’s death is still not known for certain.
Eventually, Josephine becomes involved in Napoleon’s plot to overthrow the government, but she is torn because she still feels a certain loyalty to Barras. Some of her friends in Parisian society, who were friends of Barras, turn against her because of her and Napoleon’s betrayal. Gulland describes the political intrigues surrounding Napoleon’s coup d’état in great detail, but clearly enough so that she never confuses the reader. The novel contains many details about the finance and politics of the time, which might seem boring at first, to readers who are not particularly interested in that, but Gulland writes in such a way that it becomes fascinating. She also writes vividly of the fashion, entertainments, and customs of the time, and makes everything come to life for the reader. I enjoyed the first two books in the trilogy very much, and I am looking forward to reading the third, The Last Great Dance on Earth.
Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe can be borrowed from the Browsing Collection in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.