Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte

Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte

by Kate Williams, Corrie James

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Josephine de Beauharnais began as a kept woman of Paris and became the most powerful woman in France. She was no beauty, her teeth were rotten, and she was six years older than her husband, but one twitch of her skirt could bring running the man who terrorized Europe. The tale of Napoleon and Josephine is one of the most famous love stories in the world. With


Josephine de Beauharnais began as a kept woman of Paris and became the most powerful woman in France. She was no beauty, her teeth were rotten, and she was six years older than her husband, but one twitch of her skirt could bring running the man who terrorized Europe. The tale of Napoleon and Josephine is one of the most famous love stories in the world. With Josephine, Napoleon became the greatest man in Europe, the Supreme Emperor. And yet, envisioning Josephine as the calm consort on the sofa obscures many of the most fascinating aspects of her story. How did she rise to such an astonishing position? How did she perfect the art of the beautiful, sweet chameleon-and thus fool so many? France in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was a country in such extreme flux that everything was accessible-and possible-but it took an incredible woman to seize the opportunities. Ambition and Desire shows how the little girl from Martinique became the Queen of France.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A sparkling account of this most fallible and endearing of women." —Daily Mail
Publishers Weekly
Though the romance of Josephine and Napoleon Bonaparte is known by many, Williams (England’s Mistress and Becoming Queen) combs through their history in her riveting account of their 14-year marriage. She begins with Josephine’s childhood; Marie-Josephe, affectionately called “Yeyette” grew up on the island of Martinique, a “paradise of pleasure.” Her future on the island seemed uncertain, and she quickly fulfilled her dream of living in France by marrying her aunt’s stepson Alexandre de Beauharnais. Williams details Josephine’s fraught first years as a young wife as well as her precarious status throughout the bloodiest years of the French Revolution. Battered and bruised, Josephine survived prison, starvation, and her husband’s death, only to find herself at the forefront of Parisian society where everyone “wanted to meet a victim, especially a pretty one without a husband.” For a time the mistress of General Lazare Hoche, Josephine’s life changed forever when she was introduced to the young and restless Napoleone Buonaparte. Their love was suffocating, and their marriage exhausting. Williams addresses Napoleon’s obsession with and mistreatment of his wife, as well as his family’s political intrigues against her. Williams perfectly illustrates all that was bizarre and maddening about French life during the reign of Josephine and Napoleon Bonaparte. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Inseparable from Napoleon throughout history, Josephine Bonaparte (1763–1814) has a story worthy of a treatment all its own. Williams (history, Oxford Univ; England's Mistress) is no stranger to creating works on strong and influential women, and, as in those works, here she does an admirable job of demystifying Josephine. Ultimately, the author provides the reader with a sympathetic portrayal, yet she doesn't shy away from some of Josephine's flaws, including her questionable morals, excessive spending, and long periods of debt. Williams also describes Josephine's manipulative political ambitions while married to Napoleon, such as coercing her husband to marry his stepdaughter Hortense to his brother Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland. Working from many primary and secondary documents, the author produces not just a scholarly work, but a page-turner, taking the reader from Josephine's childhood in Martinique to the Reign of Terror within the French Revolution and on to her role as the most powerful woman in Europe. VERDICT On the 200th anniversary of Josephine's death, Williams succeeds in composing a fuller and more honest portrait of this enigmatic woman. Although at times repetitive and often containing information found in other volumes, this engrossing and accessible account is for all readers who enjoy historical biography. [See Prepub Alert, 6/2/14.]—Maria Bagshaw, Elgin Community Coll. Lib., IL
Kirkus Reviews
A British historian's capable account of Josephine Bonaparte (1763-1814) and her tumultuous relationship with the celebrated French general and political leader Napoleon. Born in Martinique to a family of planters, Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie, whom Napoleon would later rename Josephine, dreamed of escaping to the colorful world her father, a former page at the court of Versailles, had told her awaited in Paris. The opportunity to leave for France came in the form of marriage to a wealthy but dissipated young seducer, Alexandre de Beauharnais, who ridiculed his new wife mercilessly for her "thick Creole accent and clumsy manner." Only after de Beauharnais divorced her four years later did Josephine begin her transformation into one of the most desirable women of her age. Determined to find a place among the glittering French nobility, she became a courtesan; through a combination of political savvy and luck, she managed to survive the French Revolution and its bloody aftermath. Liaisons with important leaders eventually brought Josephine into contact with the hero of the French counterrevolution, Napoleon, who fell passionately in love with her. Against the wishes of the socially ambitious Bonaparte family, the pair married in 1796. For the next eight years, the balance of power between them favored Josephine, who took lovers while her husband gloried in his military conquests. But as the ungainly Napoleon grew more desirous to become the new European Caesar, that balance shifted decidedly in his favor. Josephine—who was unable to bear her husband a child—eventually found herself displaced by hordes of mistresses and eventually, a second empress, Marie-Louise of Austria. Yet, as Williams (Becoming Queen Victoria: The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte and the Unexpected Rise of Britain's Greatest Monarch, 2010, etc.) ably shows, beneath the lust for power and prominence each shared, a remarkably durable passion bound them together to the end. An intelligent and entertaining biography of "the Empress whom France never forgot."

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Ambition and Desire

The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte

By Kate Williams

Random House LLC

Copyright © 2014 Kate Williams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-345-52283-2


La Pagerie

One day in the spring of 1763, a young woman climbed to the top of a hill on a plantation in the south of the island of Martinique. Six months pregnant with her first child, Rose-Claire de Tascher de La Pagerie was twenty-six, a scion of one of the greatest families on the island, and not easily intimidated. For the last seven years of her life, she had watched the British and French war for control of the island. French forces had filled the nearby port, Fort-de-France, and both sides had fought bitterly. The French settlers on Martinique huddled in their homes, terrified of losing their land to soldiers or slave rebellions. Rose-Claire's handsome husband, with whom she was deeply in love, was among those who had defended the island. Finally, in early 1763, the British and French signed a treaty—Martinique would remain French. Clambering up the hill, accompanied by her slaves, Rose-Claire watched the British ships on the horizon sail away. She patted the swell of her stomach, convinced that she was carrying a boy.

Three months later, on June 23, 1763, Rose-Claire's first child was born. The child who would later be empress of France had only narrowly avoided being born British. "Contrary to our hopes, it has pleased God to give us a daughter," wrote Rose-Claire on the occasion of the little girl's birth. "My own joy has been no less great. Why should we not take a more favourable view of our own sex?" But Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie was a terrible disappointment to the rest of the family. Rose-Claire's husband, Joseph de Tascher de La Pagerie, desired a boy who one day might gain greatness for his line. Her family wished for a boy to take over the land. As a girl, Marie-Josèphe was not valuable, intended at best for an early marriage to one of the local landowners and life as a busy matron to half a dozen children.

Martinique was tiny, barely forty miles across and fifteen miles wide. It was four thousand miles and several weeks' sailing from France—and both culturally and geographically remote from the motherland. The French fought for its lush lands but saw the place as a cash cow and the people who lived there as provincial and ill educated. Some families came out from France to make their fortune there, but rather ashamedly, for the capital, Fort Royal, now Fort-de-France, was no bastion of culture. "Everyone hurries to get rich in order to escape a place where men live without distinction, without honor." The women were indolent, while the men struggled to resist the temptations of drinking island rum, gambling, and dueling. Children were raised to take over plantations, as masters or wives, and few left the Caribbean.

Josephine was the name that Napoleon would give her. Marie-Josèphe was known to her family as Yeyette, or Rose when they were being very formal. She was born into a dynasty in decline. Her mother, born Rose-Claire des Vergers de Sannois, was a member of a wealthy plantation family and a descendant of both Pierre Bélain d'Esnambuc, who had established the first French colony on the island in 1635, and Guillaume d'Orange, who had defended the colonials from the Dutch navy's attempt on the island in 1674. Rose-Claire was a proud member of an elite family—the Sannoises owned swathes of land on Martinique, and her father was a true grand blanc, one of the prosperous landowners who retained near-absolute control over the island.

Rose-Claire should have married a son of another wealthy family. But she was still unmarried at the shockingly advanced age of twenty-five, when most other girls had been wed for eight or so years and were already mothers. So when the rather poor Joseph-Gaspard de Tascher de La Pagerie asked for her hand, she was delighted at the prospect, and her parents had no choice but to agree. Joseph was a charmer with an eye for the ladies. His father, Gaspard-Joseph, had been a steward on the plantations, with a reputation for irresponsibility and hedonism. Thanks to his skill at making connections, Gaspard managed to secure his son a position at the French court, as a page at the Palace of Versailles. The young man returned after three years, elegant, polished, and in search of a rich wife.

Newly married, the ill-matched pair settled in their home, the place where Rose-Claire had lived for most of her life, a large and beautiful plantation near the little village of Trois-Îlets in the southwest of Martinique. Habitation de La Pagerie, as it became known, was 1,230 acres of highly fertile land, bordered by lush hills. Cocoa, coffee, cassava, and cotton flourished on the slopes, while sheep and cows grazed on rich green pastures and field after field of sugarcane surrounded the house. A small river—also named after the family—snaked through the grounds. Like most plantations, La Pagerie was self-sufficient and had its own carpenters and ironmongers, as well as a flour mill, sawmill, and hut for treating injuries and illness. Over three hundred exhausted, often sick slaves tended the sugar, the cows, and the cocoa, all of them crammed into poky hovels near the main house. Yet almost as soon as Joseph turned his hand to management, the plantation's fortunes began to decline. "He means well," his brother said of him, "but he must be pushed."

Yeyette, the future empress of France, had, as she herself claimed, a "spoilt childhood." Her parents, grandparents, and unmarried aunt let her do as she pleased. Her home was a large plantation house, a single-story white wooden dwelling with large open windows, without glass. Like all plantation houses, it was in the center of the grounds, to allow the owner to oversee the labor of his slaves. There were more than four hundred plantations on the island, and La Pagerie was comparatively small and humble, though pretty to look at—for the white inhabitants, at least. Nestled against three sides of the house was a sheltered veranda decked with blossoms. Around it were the outbuildings and a pretty garden, overhung with tamarind, mango, and frangipani trees and surrounded by a floral hedge. Today all that remains of the domestic buildings is the kitchen, for, as was customary, it was built of stone rather than wood. It is now part of the La Pagerie Museum in Martinique, and without all the paraphernalia of saucepans and pots, its sheer size indicates how much food even a small family and their attendants would require.

Yeyette grew into an engaging, happy child with limpid amber eyes and a fine complexion. Like all plantation children, she had a black wet nurse (a custom that shocked the French). The little girl spent her days with her nurse, Marion, and her maids, Geneviève and Mauricette, who devoted themselves to her care. Anxious to preserve their position as house servants, they obeyed Yeyette's every whim and treated her like a princess.

"I ran, I jumped, I danced, from morning to night; no one restrained the wild movements of my childhood," Yeyette rhapsodized. Her sister, Catherine, arrived on December 11, 1764, and the two were companions, playing hide-and-seek among the bushes and making toys out of sticks. Few other inhabitants on the plantation were so free. Sugar was an exacting master—as soon as one crop was harvested, it was ready to be planted again. The underfed slaves worked from six in the morning until seven at night throughout the year, digging, planting, reaping, and then beginning once more. They toiled under the broiling sun and were treated harshly, punished with the lash of the whip. As soon as the sugar was harvested, they had to extract the juice, a process that had them working up to eighteen hours a day. In the sugar mill, at the center of the property, female slaves pushed the cane through rollers to crush it. Cutlasses were kept on hand, for the slaves frequently caught their arms in the machinery and the quickest way to free them was to cut off the arm. Elsewhere, in the sucrerie or purgerie (the sugarhouse), the slaves struggled in the terrible heat of the boiler room to press the juice into thick sugar syrup.

Martinique was the third stop on the well-traveled French slave trade route. African men and women were captured and sold on the Ivory Coast in exchange for gold, tobacco, guns, gunpowder, or cloth, and were then crammed into ships bound for France. In France, the ships took on supplies required in the Caribbean and set off, full of slaves and books, gowns and furniture. When little Yeyette went to the port, she saw the slaves being taken off the ships and hauled to market, branded, shackled, and then sold. Emptied of their human cargo, the ships were loaded up with bundles and crates and sent back to France, where eager ladies awaited sugar for their tea and cocoa for their stores.

The children of slaves were the possession of their mother's owner. Slaves were not permitted belongings or even to pass down a family name. The punishments allowed in colonial French society were severe—ranging from brutal beatings to brandings to being burned alive. Slaves could be covered in honey and placed on anthills to be stung to death, shot (although owners thought this a waste of bullets), drowned, or thrown into ovens. The average life expectancy of a slave was twenty-five.

As she skipped in the garden, Yeyette often heard the slaves cry out. When she and her family sat indoors, dining on fish, roast meats, pastries, and sweet fruit, the red flames of the slaves' night fires shimmered at the windows, and their songs rang through the darkness. The air of the plantation was always slightly sweet, and during syrup-making time, it was thick with the smell of burned sugar. Typically, Yeyette played with the slave children who were her own age: She was especially fond of one- legged Boyoco and weak, often sick Timideas. Yeyette's daily life was bound up with the slaves, and she did not question it. Slaves, she thought, were the way of the world.

About forty slaves had the better luck to work directly for the family as maids, cooks, laundresses, and manservants. For the families, they were both friend and foe, the serpents in the bosom they feared might turn to poison or the knife in a moment of rage—or, for the women, seduce their husbands. Female slaves were accepted as a sexual resource for the colonial men. Some of the slaves closest to Yeyette were probably also her relations. Her devoted mulatto nurse, Marion, could have been the daughter of her grandfather or perhaps the overseer, and her delicate maid, Euphémie Lefèvre, who traveled with her to Paris and whom she supported for the rest of her life, was very likely the daughter of Joseph, her father. Euphémie was her day-to-day companion, her maid, and her friend.

The slave owners lived in fear that their slaves would rise against them. They worried about the runaways, who hid out in the hills and plotted revenge, and they fretted about murder—indeed, Yeyette's mother would later prosecute one of her house slaves for attempting to poison her. The news of the abolitionist movement, gaining credibility in France, infuriated the grands blancs, who became increasingly defensive of their way of life. Across the rest of the world, there was a growing sense that slavery was unfair and cruel. The British and French economies were reliant on the produce of the Caribbean islands, but Quakers and other religious groups had long been suggesting that the price was too high to pay. One later cartoon showed drops of sugar as slaves' tears in ladies' cups of tea. In 1771, John Somersett, a slave who had been brought to Britain by an American customs officer, escaped and was recaptured. After a highly publicized trial, it was declared illegal to hold and remove him against his will. In Britain (if not the wider British Empire), a man could not be a possession. The question of whether slavery should be abolished was swirling in settler society, even though many tried to ignore it.

Creoles, the name given to whites born in the Caribbean, had a reputation in France for being pleasure-loving, lazy, sensual, capricious—and possessed of arcane sexual skills. As an adult, Josephine traded on her reputation as seductive—but the other characteristics were true of her as well. She had scant discipline as a child. While she was running wild on the grounds of La Pagerie, her future friends in France were strictly educated in chilly houses, dressed in stiff frills for show, always told to sit up straight, and kept to a rigid timetable of lessons and a diet of plain food.

Rose-Claire had little time for educating Yeyette and Catherine. They lived in a paradise of pleasure, and their lives were unintellectual and free. Yeyette dashed about with Euphémie and Marion, wearing the loose cotton dresses that were customary for colonial children, and discovering lizards and butterflies, picking flowers and the fruit that hung heavy on the trees. As she grew older, she rode around on her Spanish pony, took long walks to the hills and splashed in the sea like a dolphin. She sucked on sugarcane plucked from the fields, and drank the syrup so enthusiastically that she gave herself a cavity in her front incisor. In adulthood, her teeth gave her pain; to hide them, she smiled with her lips pressed closed, looking enigmatic and mysterious to those who did not know the truth.

She adored her home, but her father was less content. After living off his father for years, he had expected to be cosseted by his wife's family. To his horror, he found that Rose-Claire and her parents wished him to be the head of the family, stewarding La Pagerie through crises and devoting himself to their care. He was incompetent and unlucky at business, with no aptitude for the dreary tasks of supervising the overseer, checking the books, and keeping careful accounts of what was bought and sold, and he was uninterested in befriending fellow traders. His health was poor, he hated the heat, he suffered frequent bouts of malaria, and he resented his wife for not having a son. Marooned owing to bad roads, La Pagerie received few visitors outside of feast days, and Joseph became consumed by nostalgia for the balls and soirées of Versailles. Soon he was hardly ever at home, throwing himself into gambling at cards and nights with mistresses in the capital. "He spends his time in his charming Fort Royal where he finds more pleasure than he does with me and his children," Rose-Claire wrote to Edmée, her husband's sister, in 1765. She was pregnant again and yearning for a boy. "I hope with all my heart that it will be the little nephew you desire; perhaps that will give his father a little more love for me," she said.


Excerpted from Ambition and Desire by Kate Williams. Copyright © 2014 Kate Williams. Excerpted by permission of Random House LLC, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kate Williams is the New York Times bestselling author of The Storms of War, Josephine, Becoming Queen Victoria, and England's Mistress, which was short-listed for the Marsh Prize for Biography. She is CNN's in-house expert on British history and has covered many royal events for CNN, as well as BBC and other channels.

Corrie James has worked on both sides of the Atlantic in theater, radio, and audiobooks. She credits growing up listening to the BBC for her love of the spoken word.

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