Webb adds new frisson to the often fictionalized travails of an unlikely empress.
Before she achieved the ultimate in distaff power, Josephine, nee Rose Tascher, was the least favorite daughter of a Caribbean sugar planter whose wealth was eroded by gambling. The death of a favored younger sister creates an opportunity for Josephine: In her sister’s stead, she is sent to Paris to wed Alexandre de Beauharnais. Her youthful expectations are soon dampened: While she gives birth to two children, Alexandre philanders. Fidelity in marriage is neither expected nor encouraged for either sex. (This is France, after all.) Josephine, schooled by her friend Fanny, hostess at one of Paris’ most illustrious salons, becomes an adept seductress. (In her 30s now, she is pressed for time.) Revolution interrupts her plan to be supported by a powerful man. Alexandre attempts to find his niche in the new regime, a strategy that will, eventually, lead straight to Madame Guillotine. Josephine languishes in a squalid prison for months. There, she meets Gen. Lazare Hoche, who becomes, pre-Napoleon, her first true love. Lazare engineers Josephine’s release, then departs for foreign service in the company of his new wife. Heartbroken, Josephine takes up with Paul Barras, Paris’ most notorious libertine and richest man, whose fortune derives from supplying revolutionary troops. He’s putty in Josephine’s hands until, all too soon, he’s not. Feeling more overshadowed than ever by time’s winged chariot, she takes up the military supply game herself and is almost ready to declare independence from men when she meets a certain height- and hygiene-challenged Corsican conqueror. After she finally succumbs to Napoleon’s persistent pleas for her hand, there is his large, scheming and vindictive family to contend with. Although the book covers the same ground as many other treatments of Josephine’s life and times, Webb’s portrayal of the range of Josephine’s experience—narrow escapes from bloodshed and disease, dinner-table diplomacy, and her helpless love for Napoleon, her children and a small dog—is exceptionally concise and colorful.
A worthy fictional primer on Empress Josephine.