An Improbable Marriage
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In her first book, historian Bruce reconstructs the lives, courtship and marriage of Napoleon and Josephine with a wealth of details.

In 1796, the luxury-loving Josephine, born to an aristocratic family and widowed as a result of the French Revolution, accepted the awkward, newly renowned Napoleon with reluctance. Initially "an improbable marriage,'' it evolved into a reflection of French society under the Empire, characterized by unbridled ambition, reckless politics, hypocrisy, and sycophancy. Napoleon's misogyny surfaced in his many liaisons and cruel comments ("Two things become a woman: rouge and tears''); Josephine found solace in the accoutrements of power and a handsome cavalry officer. Using their private correspondence, Bruce reveals the psychological hold that each had on the other. Napoleon's letters from the field are sometimes playful, often pleading, and occasionally erotic. Although he once wrote to her, "I have always been able to impose my will on destiny,'' there is an undercurrent of despair in the letters that a separation from her would entail catastrophe for his own fate. In the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Terror, France yearned for order and peace. Napoleon paid lip service to the ideals, but his real goal was total mastery over France and Europe. Bruce's portrait of Josephine as petty, vain, and frivolous is just as unsympathetic. After Napoleon seized power in 1799, the dynamics of their relationship were reversed: Realizing that the failure to produce a male heir put her at risk of divorce, Josephine became pathetic in trying to retain her position. Their divorce in 1810 signaled, as Napoleon had foreseen, the end to his brilliant military and political victories. In truth, his fall was caused by his suppression of liberalism and nationalism--the two most powerful ideologies of the 19th century.

Bruce's parallel biography is an intricate and intimate profile that reveals a charismatic Napoleon obsessed with glory and the all-too-human Josephine desperate for love.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-02-517810-5
Page count: 544pp
Publisher: Scribner
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1995


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