A sometimes florid but engaging life of Napoleon’s true love, a woman ill served by circumstances.
Marie-Josèphe-Rose-Claire des Vergers de Tascher de la Pagarie was born on a plantation in Martinique, “a complicated place during a tumultuous time,” a voluptuous island that had just narrowly escaped becoming a British possession: “In a treaty concluded with Britain in 1763, when presented with the choice of holding on to Canada . . . or to the commercially and strategically important ‘sugar islands’ . . . the French chose the latter,” writes Critical Quarterly fiction editor Stuart (Showgirls, not reviewed). The French decision was fateful, for it kept Martiniquaise society well within Paris’s orbit; thus it was that young Rose came to France, “plump, provincial, and adolescent,” intended for the nobleman Alexandre de Beauharnais, whom students of French literature remember as the model for Valmont in Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons. It wasn’t a happy marriage, writes Stuart, but it brought Rose into the best circles of aristocratic Paris, a dangerous place to be in revolutionary times—“it is hard to imagine that she escaped the profound disturbances which beset her contemporaries, many of whom reported a litany of psychological and physical disorders including nightmares, sleeplessness, anxiety and depression,” Stuart writes—but a good place to be noticed. Notice her Napoleon Bonaparte, himself an island-born outsider, did, and Stuart writes lucidly of their seemingly improbable romance, improbable, perhaps, because the young woman whom Napoleon would call Josephine had become a beauty, whereas Napoleon was a “small, sickly man” who was, a contemporary said, “given to inappropriate outbursts of laughter which did little to endear him to others.” Romance became partnership, and Stuart credits Rose/Josephine for her enlightened influence over the dictator, who famously divorced her while in exile on Elba for her inability to produce an heir to the throne.
Unfailingly interesting: a sturdy life of a woman often overlooked in the vast library of Napoleonic studies.