Désirée: The Bestselling Story of Napoleon's First Love

Désirée: The Bestselling Story of Napoleon's First Love

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by Annemarie Selinko

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An epic bestseller that has earned both critical acclaim and mass adoration, Désirée is at once a novel of the rise and fall of empires, the blush and fade of love, and the heart and soul of a woman.  See more details below


An epic bestseller that has earned both critical acclaim and mass adoration, Désirée is at once a novel of the rise and fall of empires, the blush and fade of love, and the heart and soul of a woman.

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Marseilles, at the beginning of Germinal, Year II (The end of March, 1794, by Mama's old-fashioned reckoning)

A woman can usually get what she wants from a man if she has a well-developed figure. So I've decided to stuff four handkerchiefs into the front of my dress tomorrow; then I shall look really grown up. Actually I am grown up already, but nobody else knows that, and I don't altogether look it.

Last November I was fourteen, and Papa gave me this lovely diary for my birthday. It's a shame to spoil these beautiful white pages with writing. There's a little lock at the side of the diary, and I can lock it up. Even my sister Julie won't know what I put in it. It was my last present from dear Papa. My father was the silk merchant François Clary, of Marseilles; he died two months ago, of congestion of the lungs.

"What shall I write in that book?" I asked in perplexity when I saw it on the table among my presents. Papa smiled and kissed me on the forehead. "The story of Citizeness Bernardine Eugénie Désirée Clary," he said, and suddenly he looked sad.

I am starting my future history tonight, because I'm so excited I can't get to sleep. So I slid softly out of bed, and I only hope Julie, over there, won't be awakened by the flickering of the candle. She'd make a frightful scene. The reason why I'm excited is that tomorrow I'm going with my sister-in- law Suzanne to see Deputy Albitte and ask him to release Etienne.

Etienne is my brother, and his life is in danger. Two days ago the police suddenly came to arrest him. Such things do happen these days; it's only five years since the great Revolution, and people say it's not over yet. Anyhow, lots of people are guillotined every day in the Town Hall square, and it's not safe to be related to aristocrats. Fortunately, we haven't any fine folk among our relatives. Papa made his own way, and he built up Grandpa's little business into one of the biggest silk firms in Marseilles. Papa was very glad about the Revolution, though just before it he had been appointed a Purveyor to the Court and had sent some blue silk velvet to the Queen. Etienne says the velvet was never paid for. Papa almost cried when he read to us the first broadside giving the Rights of Man. Etienne has been running the business since Papa died. When Etienne was arrested, Marie, our cook, who used to be my nurse, said quietly to me, "Eugénie, I hear that Albitte is coming to town. Your sister-in-law must go to see him and try to get Citizen Etienne Clary set free." Marie always knows what's going on in town.

At supper we were all very dismal. Two places at the table were empty-Papa's chair next to Mama and Etienne's next to Suzanne. Mama won't let anyone use Papa's chair. I kept thinking of Albitte and crumbling my bread into little balls. That annoyed Julie. She is only four years older, but she wants to mother me all the time and it makes me wild. "Eugénie," she said, "it's bad manners to crumble your bread."

I stopped making bread balls and said, "Albitte is in town."

The others took no notice. They never do when I say anything. So I said it again. "Albitte is in town."

At that Mama said, "Who is Albitte, Eugénie?"

Suzanne was not listening, she was sobbing into her soup.

"Albitte," I said, proud of my knowledge, "is the Jacobin Deputy for Marseilles. He is staying a week and will be in the Town Hall every day. And tomorrow Suzanne must go to see him; she must ask him why Etienne has been arrested, and insist that it must be a misunderstanding."

"But," Suzanne sobbed, looking at me, "he wouldn't receive me!"

"I think-I think it might be better," said Mama doubtfully, "for Suzanne to ask our lawyer to see Albitte."

Sometimes my family make me sick. Mama won't have a jar of marmalade made at home unless she can give it a stir. And yet she will leave a matter of life and death to our silly old lawyer. I expect many grown-ups are like that.

"We must see Albitte ourselves," I said, "and Suzanne, as Etienne's wife, is the one who should go. If you're scared, Suzanne, I'll go, and I'll ask Albitte to release my big brother."

"Don't you dare go to the Town Hall!" said Mama at once. Then she went on with her soup.

"Mama, I think..."

"I do not wish to discuss the matter further," said Mama, and Suzanne began sobbing into her soup again.

After supper I went upstairs to see whether Persson had got back. You see, in the evening I give Persson French lessons. He has the sweetest old horse-face imaginable. He's terribly tall and thin, and he's the only fair-haired man I know. That's because he is a Swede. Heaven only knows where Sweden is-somewhere up by the North Pole, I think. Persson showed me once on the map, but I forget where. Persson's papa has a silk business in Stockholm, and the business is somehow connected with ours here. So Persson came to Marseilles for a year to be an assistant in Papa's business. Everyone says you can only learn the silk trade in Marseilles. So one day Persson came to our house. At first we couldn't make out a word of what he said. He declared that he was talking French, but it didn't sound like French at all. Mama got a room ready for him on the top floor, and said that in these unsettled times it was better for Persson to live with us.

I found Persson had come in; really he is such a respectable young man, and we sat down in the parlour. Usually he reads to me from the newspapers, and I correct his pronunciation. And once more, as so often, I got out the old broadside about the Rights of Man that Papa had brought home, and then Persson and I listened to each other reciting it, because we wanted to learn it all by heart. Persson's old horse-face grew quite solemn, and he said he envied me because I belonged to the nation that had presented these great thoughts to the world. "Liberty, Equality, and the Sovereignty of the People," he declaimed, sitting next to me.

Then he said, "Much blood has been shed to establish these new laws, so much innocent blood. And it must not have been shed in vain, mademoiselle."

Of course, Persson is a foreigner, and he always calls Mama "Mme Clary," and me "Mlle Eugénie," though that is forbidden; we are both just "Citizeness Clary."

Suddenly Julie came into the room. "Would you come for a moment, Eugénie?" she said, and took me to Suzanne's room.

Suzanne was sitting hunched up on the sofa, sipping port wine. Port is supposed to be strengthening, but I am never given a glass, because young girls do not need strengthening, Mama says. Mama was sitting next to Suzanne, and I could see that she was trying to look energetic. When she does that, she looks more frail and helpless than ever; she hunches up her narrow shoulders, and her face looks very small under the little widow's cap she has worn for two months. My poor mama reminds you much more of an orphan child than a widow.

"We have decided," said Mama, "that tomorrow Suzanne will try to see Deputy Albitte. And," Mama added, clearing her throat, "you are to go with her, Eugénie!"

"I am afraid to go alone, among all the crowds of people," Suzanne murmured. I could see that the wine had not strengthened her, only made her drowsy. And I wondered why I was to go with her, and not Julie.

"Suzanne has made this decision for Etienne's sake," said Mama, "and it will be a comfort to her, my dear child, to know that you are with her."

"Of course you must keep your mouth shut, and let Suzanne do the talking," Julie hastened to add.

I was glad that Suzanne was going to see Albitte. That was the best thing to do, the only thing, in my opinion. But they were treating me, as usual, like a child, so I said nothing.

"Tomorrow will be a very trying day for us all," said Mama, getting up. "So we must go to bed soon."

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Meet the Author

Annemarie Selinko was born in Vienna in 1914. She was a successful journalist and novelist. In 1938 she moved to Copenhagen, and subsequently lived in Stockholm, Paris and London, before returning to Copenhagen. She died in Copenhagen in 1986.

Annemarie Selinko was born in Vienna in 1914. She was a successful journalist and novelist. In 1938 she moved to Copenhagen, and subsequently lived in Stockholm, Paris and London, before returning to Copenhagen. She died in Copenhagen in 1986.

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Desiree 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 28 reviews.
LauraFabiani More than 1 year ago
Désirée is an epic and sweeping historical novel written as the diary format of Bernardine Eugénie Désirée Clary, Napoleon's first fiancée. It covers the period from 1794 to 1829 when Napoleon is a young dirt-poor soldier who meets Désirée, the 14 year-old daughter of a silk merchant, to his rise and fall as the Emperor of France and her coronation as the Queen of Sweden and Norway. This book fascinated me. Initially it was slow and sometimes the political and military details were extensive, but overall I loved the story. Halfway through the book, the political intrigue grew and I looked forward to picking up where I left off reading, as the events became more suspenseful, especially during the Hundred Days. Because it is written in the first person, I quickly was attracted to Désirée's voice, her innocence and her eventual transformation. She was sensible, with a head on her shoulders, a quick wit and a sense of humour. I was swept away into her world as I read her intimate thoughts, her desires, her insecurities, her intelligence even as a young girl and on into womanhood. There are many characters in this novel, many of them based on historical figures. We get an insider's view of the Bonaparte family, since Désirée became Napoleon's sister-in-law when her older sister, Julie, married Napoleon's brother, Joseph. Initially, Désirée is devastated when Napoleon marries Josephine, but later she becomes friends with her. The book depicts Napoleon as ambitious and self-centered, fighting for the freedom of the French people more for glory and fame than true love of the cause. From beginning to end, it is clear that Désirée loves her country and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which her father taught her to understand and respect. This theme runs throughout the book and influences Désirée's decisions and actions. The novel covers a lot of history, but the account in never dry. Actually, history is brought alive through the eyes of a woman caught in the middle of it. Sometimes, though, I found there lacked emotion in the accounts, such as when she is reunited with her son and later, her husband. The period of the French Revolution was a time of much political unrest, and I really liked reading the perspective of Désirée, who married Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte. He later was adopted by the childless Swedish King Karl XIII and became King of Sweden and Norway and subsequently transferred his family to Sweden. This is where I had a hard time with Desirée's decision to leave Sweden, her husband and young child shortly after she arrives because she felt she was not wanted by the Swedish aristocracy and people. She went back to Paris where she unselfishly helps her family, particularly Julie, who was weak and whiny. Although she and Jean-Baptiste love each other, they accepted this long-distance separation, and remained married and loyal to one another. This book sparked my interest so much that I did extra research on the Internet, and I now want to see the 1954 movie Désirée starring Marlon Brandon and Jean Simmons. If you are a historical fan, this book will not disappoint. Selinko's writing is captivating. You will be drawn to Désirée, a commoner who was a part of the life of Napoleon, helped establish the Bernadotte dynasty in Sweden and ruled as Queen without forgetting her humble beginnings.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is the basically factual story of a merchant's daughter who, after being scorned by Napoleon in favor of Josephine, goes on to marry one of Napoleon's generals, Bernadotte, who actually becomes the King of Sweden. My great-grandmother told me this story years before I read the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Desiree is an interesting book. It is written in the style of a journal from Desiree's point of view. Her journal describes her life from her teenage years to her old age. She takes you on a ride through her engagement to Napoleon Bonaparte, her attempted suicide because of the broken engagement, and her hasty marriage to another young general. Desiree exploits the gossip and politics of the age of Napoleon. I loved the historical insight and added fiction. Although it is long you will quickly be drawn in and won't come out until you read the last page.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My latest purchase is great! I have always loved the movie "Desiree", however hadn't read the book. As always, the book contains much more material and deviates somewhat from the movie, I love getting the whole story. Fascinating!
gl More than 1 year ago
I expected Desiree to be another wonderful escape into historical fiction with a complicated plot, historical characters, much romance and drama and found it to be even better than I'd expected. Selinko does introduce Desiree to Bethoven, the leaders of the French Revolution, the Jacobines, Robispeare, Talleyrand. Desiree approaches them as ordinary people, regular citizens, albeit more powerful than most. Reading Desiree's impressions of them, we see these characters from the point of view of an ordinary woman, one who isn't interested in power but is painfully aware of what effects that powerful people have on the lives of everyone around them. The relationship between Desiree and Napoleon is based on far more than their early romance. Through Napoleon's special relationship with Desiree, we imagine how he might have been with a loyal friend that knew him when he had no money, few contacts, but great confidence and ambition. In the early years, Desiree and her prosperous middleclass family helped the Bonapartes. When Desiree's sister Julie married Napoleon's brother, her dowry and their business provided the Bonapartes with resources that helped Bonaparte rise in politics and the army. I particularly enjoyed the way that Selinko captured the unique and powerful link that we share with old friends and the way that she showed this in the relationship between Desiree and Napoleon. Though Napoleon and Desiree were secretly engaged, this was an early love. Napoleon was subsequent married to Josephine and Desiree married Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, another general in the French army. Bernadotte was loyal to the Republic and faced considerable trials because of his refusal to bow to Napoleon's wishes. His independence, integrity and superb tactical skills result in unexpected recognition and responsibility for Bernadotte. But his professional successes take a toll Desiree. Desiree, Jean Baptiste and their son make sacrifices for the countries that they love and their very humanity makes this story even more remarkable and moving. I thoroughly enjoyed Désirée: The Bestselling Story of Napoleon's First Love and would recommend it to anyone fond of historical fiction or the Napoleonic period or looking for an engaging and moving read. ISBN-10: 1402244029 - Paperback Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark; Reprint edition (October 1, 2010), 608 pages. Review copy provided by the publisher.
bridget3420 More than 1 year ago
I'm a sucker for a good love story but I also like for there to be some substance when it comes to the plot. Desiree is pure perfection! The writing is amazing and the characters will tug at your heart. It's a really great story!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is amazing. A friend's mother found it and gave it to me because my name is Desiree. I'm sorry to say that it took me 2 years to start reading it, but am trying to figure out why. I have now read this book twice and plan on reading it again.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is one of my all time favorites and it's not just because it is exciting, adventurous and has a true heroin that we would all love to be like. It is because I was named after this book and I am lucky enough to have a copy of the first publication.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love this book! I'm not quite finished with it, but I don't want it to end! The writing is done so wonderfully, the reader never wants to put it down. I love that it's based on historical facts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bookworm1951 More than 1 year ago
A Historical Fiction Classic. The author expertly integrates historical fact with fiction and romance. I read this book many years ago. I found it just as wonderful the second time around. A great story about first love, coming of age and how life experiences help weave the tapestry of life. Anyone interested in French history, Napoleon or romance will enjoy this book. Highly Recommend. Originally published in 1953.
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Kacy_L More than 1 year ago
I read this book as a teenager and enjoyed it, but now that I know a lot more about the world, and politics, I found it to be truly outstanding. It was one of the most engaging books I have read recently. I would like to know even more about the history of many of the characters.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read it many times since it was published. And still enjoy reading it, a definate favorite!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book for the first time when I was sixteen and loved it. I am so happy to have found this for my "Nook".
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