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Josephine: A Life of the Empress
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Josephine: A Life of the Empress

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by Carolly Erickson

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In 1804, when Josephine Bonaparte knelt before her husband, Napoleon, to receive the imperial diadem, few in the vast crowd of onlookers were aware of the dark secrets hidden behind the imperial façade. To her subjects, she appeared to vet hew most favored woman in France: alluring, wealthy, and with the devoted love of a remarkable husband who was the


In 1804, when Josephine Bonaparte knelt before her husband, Napoleon, to receive the imperial diadem, few in the vast crowd of onlookers were aware of the dark secrets hidden behind the imperial façade. To her subjects, she appeared to vet hew most favored woman in France: alluring, wealthy, and with the devoted love of a remarkable husband who was the conqueror of Europe. In actuality, Josephine's life was far darker, for her celebrated allure was fading, her wealth was compromised by massive debt, and her marriage was corroded by infidelity and abuse.

Josephine's life story was as turbulent as the age-an era of revolution and social upheaval, of the guillotine, and of frenzied hedonism. With telling psychological depth and compelling literary grace, Carolly Erickson brings the complex, charming, ever-resilient Josephine to life in this memorable portrait, one that carries the reader along every twist and turn of the empress's often thorny path, from the sensual richness of her childhood in the tropics to her final lonely days at Malmaison.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[Erikson's] scholarly insights combine superbly with a mastery of period manners more often found in the best historical fiction.” —Kirkus Reviews on Josephine

“Carolly Erikson tells [this story] with all the flair it deserves...Exquisite writing.” —Houston Chronicle on Josephine

“Carolly Erikson i a most admirable biographer, and this book is highly enjoyable as well as being reliable and acute; indeed, it is popular historical biography at its best.” —Christopher Hibbert, London Times, on Mistress Anne

“A book of considerable literary disctinction.” —Washington Post Book World on Bloody Mary

“A masterpiece of narrative, a story so absorbing that it is as hard to put down as a fine novel.” —Edmund M. White, Los Angeles Times Book Review on The First Elizabeth

“Erikson's fluid, captivating portrait reads like a first-rate historical novel.” —Booklist on Great Catherine

Los Angeles Times Book Review on The First Elizabe Edmund M. White
A masterpiece of narrative, a story so absorbing that it is as hard to put down as a fine novel.
Library Journal
Marie-Josephe-Rose de Tascher, better known as the Empress Josephine, first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, has not been treated kindly by most historians. Erickson presents a balanced account of the Martinique-born girl who gained notoriety for her amorous and financial intrigues in the France of the revolutionary era prior to her marriage to the rising young Corsican general. Erickson is the author of several previous books on European history, including biographies of Catherine the Great (Great Catherine, LJ 6/1/94) and Queen Victoria (Her Little Majesty, LJ 1/97). Despite Ericksons evenhanded treatment of her subject, the Josephine who emerges here remains a vain, shallow schemer. The book is clear and easy to read but offers no new information or insight. Furthermore, Ericksons occasional errors of fact cause one to question her grounding in the material. For example, she states that 300,000 people were executed during the Reign of Terror, whereas the actual figure was somewhere closer to 25,000. Not recommended.Thomas J. Schaeper, St. Bonaventure Univ., NY
Kirkus Reviews
An intimate, richly detailed, and candid portrait of the dramatic life and times of Napoleon's wife, Empress Josephine. Erickson (Bonnie Prince Charlie, 1989, etc.), with well-received books on the Tudor monarchs and Queen Victoria, has herself become the queen of royals' biographers. But queenship isn't always foreordained. The aristocratic (yet not high-born) Josephine Tasher de la Pagerie, for example, made her way to the top of Parisian society despite being born to a failed plantation owner in the colony of Martinique. Her biographer shows how this rough and sultry island background well served Josephine, molding her into a durable survivor. For all her power, grace, and charm, the empress emerges, too, as someone to pity. This woman who used men once wrote in a letter, "I will behave like the victim I am." And while a reader might sympathize with Josephine's circumstances-e.g., her barrenness and her struggles with her aristocratic heritage amid revolution-Erickson also unveils damning dismissals of the woman by some of those within and outside the Bonaparte clan who considered her "venal, calculating," and worse. Perhaps Josephine's flirtation with the swarthy, moody general of the republic was for her but a career move, with adultery an essential social institution that she could not ever give up, not even as an empress. Erickson's writing, sometimes dominated by details of the era's fashion and lavish imperial finery, is strongest when depicting the murderous frenzy of revolutionary times. The author's academic background in history helps to give weight and depth to her portrayal of a tumultuous period. The many notes and works cited attest to Erickson's exhaustive research.Moreover, her scholarly insights combine superbly with a mastery of period manners more often found in the best historical fiction. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen) .

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Into the Wind-House

There was a stillness in the heavy, humid air and smoke from the cooking fires rose slowly straight upward into the cloudy sky a long way before drifting off sharply to the north. The trade winds had ceased. No comforting puff of air stirred the thick leaves of the breadfruit trees, and in the cane fields, where a hundred near-naked slaves bent to the work of harvest, slashing at the cane stalks with long sharp knives, the heat by mid-morning was like an oven.

    It was the thirteenth of August, 1766, a month into the hivernage, the season of storms and rain. On the craggy, mountainous island of Martinique in the western Antilles, four hundred miles from the Guinea coast, clouds were piling up and an eerie darkness was gathering. In the slave quarters there were whispers that a bad storm was coming, for the Carib chiefs had announced that the skies were ominous and everyone knew that on the night before, at sunset, a blood-red light had been glimpsed at the horizon in place of the usual emerald green — a portent of death.

    "It is the ioüallou," the slaves told one another and their creole masters repeated the warning in their own tongue. "It is the ouracan."

    Out in the wide bay of Fort-Royal, the clear turquoise water had turned opaque, and by noon the ocean was choppy with whitecaps and an angry surf crashed noisily on the beach. Ships riding at anchor at the harbor mouth began to dance crazily in the swell, and nearer the shore, fishermen hurried to bring their boats ashore, dragging them up far from the beach and tying them to the wide stalks of palm trees with thick ropes.

    By early afternoon a leaden twilight had descended, and a harsh wind off the ocean had begun to whistle through the cane fields. Cows bellowed and pawed the earth restlessly, chickens deserted their coops to seek refuge amid the rocks on the mountainside. Seabirds flocked together and flew toward the center of the island, away from the coast, and the brackish streams were full of fish swimming up from the ocean, seeking protection from the churning waters.

    Though the overseer had not yet given the order to stop work the field hands paused in their labors and sniffed the air. It reeked of sulphur. They looked up, and saw, threaded among the thick dark clouds, fine streaks of silver lightning. Then the first large drops of rain began to fall, spattering on the red earth with a sound so loud it made talk impossible.

    In the plantation of Trois-Ilets on the lower slopes of Morne Ganthéaume, Joseph Tascher decided that it would be unwise to wait any longer. He had to get his family to safety. His wife Rose-Claire was in no condition to undergo hardship of any kind. For several weeks she had been in bed expecting to deliver her third child — a child Joseph fervently hoped would be a son. The black midwives were in attendance, prepared to deliver the child if the doctor from Fort-Royal was unable to arrive at the plantation in time, and both the baby's grandmothers, the aristocratic Françoise Tascher and the iron-willed Irishwoman Catherine Brown, who on her marriage had become Catherine des Sannois, had made the trip to Trois-Ilets in order to be in attendance when Joseph's heir was born.

    Joseph ordered a cart brought from the stable and helped his anxious wife into it, along with his daughters Yeyette and Catherine, aged three and not quite two, who clutched their slave nursemaids in fear, and his mother and mother-in-law, and the six-year-old boy Alexandre who had been living with the family since his birth. Into the cart went a few belongings, the women's jewelry and the few heirlooms they had thought to snatch hurriedly on their way out. Joseph took one last look around, then ordered the driver to go as quickly as possible to the wind-house.

    Every plantation in Martinique had a wind-house, an all but impregnable structure with stone walls six feet thick and no windows, built deep into the hillside where no storm, no matter how fierce, could penetrate. Massive wooden doors, made from hardwood cut in the rain forest higher up on the slopes, opened into a dark, cavernous room that could hold several dozen people and supplies of food and water. In this refuge, secure behind the stout wooden doors, they would wait out the storm.

    In the high watchtower at the edge of the cane fields, the bell began to ring, sounding the alarm. Work ceased, and the field hands rushed at once to their huts, gathered their children and a few provisions, and made their way to the sugar mill. The other buildings on the plantation were dilapidated and neglected, but the stone-walled sugar mill, built several generations earlier in more prosperous times, was still sturdy. It would stand up to the ioüallou.

    More cartloads were sent to the wind-house, full of candles and lanterns, baskets of salted fish and cassavas and loaves made from manioc flour, large red earthenware vessels full of fresh water and molasses beer. The midwives brought their knives and cords and charms made of dried palm leaves, blessed by the healers, to ward off zombies.

    By early evening the plantation was in total darkness, and the rain was falling in sheets, swelling the streams and flooding the fields. Hour by hour the wind grew in force and violence, churning the bay into high waves and surging breakers. In the shelter where the Tascher family and their house slaves were waiting out the storm, the thick wooden doors began to bulge outward and tug against the ropes that restrained them. Joseph and the other men took turns pulling on the ropes with all their force, fighting the terrible outward sucking of the wind.

    So loud was its roaring that they could barely distinguish the sounds of destruction outside — the crashing of the huge trees as they fell to earth, the flying apart of the two-story plantation house, the mowing down of the cane fields and plantation gardens. The wind had become a great scythe, sweeping across the land, cutting down everything in its path, while rain lashed at the devastated earth and washed the debris into the swollen rivers.

    Joseph, nearly at the end of his strength, listened to the thunderous noise of the wind and despaired. Everything he owned was being carried off, and there was nothing he could do to prevent it. He had no money, he was deeply in debt and his health had been poor ever since the previous year when he had nearly died of a malignant fever. He was only thirty-six, but felt much older, worn down by the weight of his failure, and by the continuing nagging disappointment of his unhappy domestic life.

    He had been struggling fitfully since his marriage five years earlier to make the plantation a success. Trois-Ilets, its buildings and its hundred and fifty African slaves had been a wedding present from Rose-Claire's parents; Joseph had an obligation to make it profitable. But well-intentioned though he was, he was ineffectual; he lacked the energy and capability to manage a large estate. Neither manly nor masterful, as his younger brother Robert was, Joseph could not seem to find the discipline or the skill to increase the plantation's output of sugar. He was reasonably intelligent, but pleasure-loving and easily distracted. He preferred spending time at Fort-Royal to meeting with his overseer Blacque or listening to the complaints of his unhappy wife, whose task it was, in his absence, to run the plantation.

    Life was so much easier at Fort-Royal, the chief town of the island and the center of its social life. There he could sleep until noon, meet with his friends in the evenings to dine and play cards, visit his beautiful mulatto mistresses and pretend that he was a man of substance and breeding instead of a near-bankrupt and the son of a disreputable father. In recent years he had been spending less and less time at Trois-Ilets, letting his responsibilities go. Times were hard, what with the British blockade making it all but impossible to sell what sugar the estate produced; it hardly seemed worthwhile to keep trying. And the longer Joseph stayed away, the more run down Trois-Ilets became, the buildings falling into disrepair, the fields only partially cultivated, the slaves dwindling in numbers as their absent master failed to provide for them.

    Now, of course, none of that mattered. The hurricane was sweeping everything away. Everything but his family, that is. He still had his daughters, and the son he and his wife were expecting. At least the family name would be carried on, even if there was only a ruined plantation and a thick sheaf of debts to go with it.

    There was a boy attached to the family already, of course. Little Alexandre, who had lived with them for all of his six years, was a sort of surrogate son. A tall, dark-haired, good-looking child, well-spoken and good at his lessons, Alexandre had been born in Martinique and given to the Tascher family to raise — a temporary arrangement, it was understood, but one that did not seem likely to end soon. Alexandre was the son of François de Beauharnais, former governor of the Windward Isles, who now lived in Paris with his married mistress, Joseph's sister Edmée. Alexandre's mother, who was in poor health, also lived in France but apart from her husband, and apparently did not mind living apart from her son as well. So little Alexandre continued to be raised as a creole, along with the Tascher children Yeyette and Catherine, spending time with grandmother Tascher and grandmother de Sannois as well as at Trois-Ilets, never having known his parents. In every respect but that of blood kinship, he was one of the family.

    Throughout the night the storm continued, save for an hour of unnatural calm — the eye of the hurricane — when the wind dropped suddenly and all was still. For that brief interval the victims of the storm, crowded together in the wind-house, tried in vain to rest. But the respite was brief. Soon the assaulting gusts returned, and so greatly did their force build that for a time it seemed as if the mountains themselves would be shaken into the ocean. Once again the doors of the wind-house bulged outward, and the weary occupants, exhausted from their long vigil, said their prayers and clutched each other in fear.

    Not until dawn did the ceaseless roaring and shrieking of the wind begin to die down, and it was mid-morning before Joseph Tascher cautiously opened the thick wooden doors and peered out at the blasted landscape.

    A pale sun shone down on a sea of mud that had been the plantation of Trois-Ilets.

    No trees were left standing. The two-story plantation house, with its wide veranda and its straggle of outbuildings, had vanished, along with the rose garden and the wide courtyard with its fine avenue of tamarisks. The bell tower had gone, the rows of slave huts had been demolished, and in the fields stretching away from where the plantation house had been, no stalk of cane was left upright.

    The quiet was unnerving. There were no birds to sing, no frogs to croak, none of the everyday animal and human sounds that were the familiar backdrop to plantation life. Even the hum of insects had been stilled, for the clouds of mosquitoes, which had been unable to escape the cruel wind, had perished in their millions.

    One building still stood. The refinery appeared to be untouched by the storm, and when Joseph and his family left the wind-house and made their way to it, they found within its spacious interior, amid the machinery and rows of barrels and freshly cut cane stalks, most of the field hands and their families.

    Over the following weeks the slow, dispiriting work of restoration began. Debris was sorted and cleared away, fallen trees were chopped into timber to build new sheds and huts and carts and a new bell tower. Dead cattle were buried, along with a number of slaves, for as always happened following a severe storm, there was an outbreak of fever and many did not survive it.

    Gradually news reached Trois-Ilets from other plantations, and from Joseph's brother Robert in Fort-Royal. The devastation had been island wide. Fort-Royal itself had been badly damaged, and many smaller settlements had all but disappeared. Out in the bay, hundreds of ships had sunk, with a very high loss of life. It had been, everyone agreed, the worst storm anyone could remember.

    In the refinery, Rose-Claire Tascher lay on a makeshift bed, watched over by her mother and mother-in-law and the black midwives. She was past her time.

    She had no privacy. The entire population of the plantation slept in the same large but crowded room, the master and his children and other relatives, the slaves, many of whom lay stricken with fever, the overseer and the few visitors who arrived with supplies and messages from outside.

    On the oppressively hot night of September 2, three weeks after the storm struck the island, Rose-Claire went into labor. She was prayed over, massaged, protected with amulets and given rum to drink when the pains became too great to be endured. Finally, on the following day, her baby was born. Everyone in the community, caught up in the drama, listened for the cries of the newborn infant, and smiled when they heard its first thin wails. The birth was an omen of better times to come, they told one another. The hurricane had brought death, yet despite its ravages, new life was coming into the world.

    But Joseph, haggard and careworn, turned his face away from his child and tried to hide his tears of disappointment. He had another daughter.

Meet the Author

Distinguished historian Carolly Erickson is the author of Rival to the Queen, The Memoirs of Mary Queen of Scots, The First Elizabeth, The Last Wife of Henry VIII, and many other prize-winning works of fiction and nonfiction. Her novel The Tsarina's Daughter won the Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction. She lives in Hawaii.

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Josephine: A Life of the Empress 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is beautifully written, unbiased and thoughtful. It's wriiten in a language uncommon to most biographies. I read the first half in a matter of hours I was so captivated by Erickson's prose. I have an unnatural fascination with the French revolution, the Bonaparte's and especially Josephine and I appreciated the view that Erickson took in portraying Josephine. Most biographers don't take such a fair and unbiased view towards Josephine. I recommend this book to anyone. Now I'm off to read the rest of her books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book. Carolly Erickson is a wonderful writter. She really brings you into the book. I recommend this book to anyone who likes to read about amazing people.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was wonderful. It was very well written. The auther did a great job. The book was full of wonderful information, and I recomend this book to someone interrested in learning more about history.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book ,to say the least, is not worth reading. It took me TWO months to read this book, and it was because I had to. I would usally finish a book as thick as this is one to two weeks if it is even remotely intresting. Her life is just filled with misery and woe that she inflicted herself. Plus she is a hypocrite. If you enjoy a life bursting how poor someone is because she made retarded choices and cheated on men for her own gain, go for this book. Also the book is way to confusing!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book gives you information about Josephine's life and some information about Napolean.