From CNN’s official royal historian, a highly praised young author with a doctorate from Oxford University, comes the extraordinary rags-to-riches story of the woman who conquered Napoleon’s heart—and with it, an empire.
Their love was legendary, their ambition flagrant and unashamed. Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife, Josephine, came to power during one of the most turbulent periods in the history of France. The story of the Corsican soldier’s incredible rise has been well documented. Now, in this spellbinding, luminous account, Kate Williams draws back the curtain on the woman who beguiled him: her humble origins, her exorbitant appetites, and the tragic turn of events that led to her undoing.
Born Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie on the Caribbean island of Martinique, the woman Napoleon would later call Josephine was the ultimate survivor. She endured a loveless marriage to a French aristocrat—executed during the Reign of Terror—then barely escaped the guillotine blade herself. Her near-death experience only fueled Josephine’s ambition and heightened her determination to find a man who could finance and sustain her. Though no classic beauty, she quickly developed a reputation as one of the most desirable women on the continent.
In 1795, she met Napoleon. The attraction was mutual, immediate, and intense. Theirs was an often-tumultuous union, roiled by their pursuit of other lovers but intensely focused on power and success. Josephine was Napoleon’s perfect consort and the object of national fascination. Together they conquered Europe. Their extravagance was unprecedented, even by the standards of Versailles. But she could not produce an heir. Sexual obsession brought them together, but cold biological truth tore them apart.
Gripping in its immediacy, captivating in its detail, Ambition and Desire is a true tale of desire, heartbreak, and revolutionary turmoil, engagingly written by one of England’s most praised young historians. Kate Williams’s searing portrait of this alluring and complex woman will finally elevate Josephine Bonaparte to the historical prominence she deserves.
Praise for Ambition and Desire
“Not just a scholarly work, but a page-turner . . . Williams 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. . . . This engrossing and accessible account is for all readers who enjoy historical biography.”—Library Journal
“[A] riveting account . . . Williams perfectly illustrates all that was bizarre and maddening about French life during the reign of Josephine and Napoleon Bonaparte.”—Publishers Weekly
“Intelligent and entertaining.”—Kirkus Reviews
“An in-depth portrait of the substantive woman behind the throne.”—Booklist
“Reading [Ambition and Desire] is like watching Silk Stockings, the 1957 Hollywood masterpiece with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. The book flows and jumps, taking the reader by the hand through tormented times in French history without ever letting you go or losing itself in the intricacies of French politics.”—The Times
“A sparkling account of this most fallible and endearing of women.”—Daily Mail
“A whirlwind tour of French history.”—The Telegraph
From the Hardcover edition.
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About the Author
From the Hardcover edition.
Read an Excerpt
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?”1 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.”2 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.”3
Yeyette, the future empress of France, had, as she herself claimed, a “spoilt childhood.”4 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.5 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 1765.6 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.
From the Hardcover edition.
Table of Contents
1 La Pagerie 7
2 Sophistication 22
3 "Beneath All the Sluts in the World" 34
4 Revolution 45
5 "The Height of Good Manners to Be Ruined" 64
6 "What Strange Power You Have over My Heart" 75
7 "The Single Object in My Heart" 90
8 A Million Kisses 100
9 "I Am So Distressed at Being Separated from Him" 113
10 "All I Have Suffered" 131
11 "He Owes Me Everything" 141
12 "The Most Beautiful Thing in the World" 163
13 Scenes with Bonaparte 179
14 "My Stepfather Is a Comet" 195
15 "Your Imperial Majesty" 214
16 "The King of Diamonds" 225
17 "I Have Fulfilled My Destiny" 250
18 "I Wish You Would Be More Reasonable" 265
19 "Cold and Often Embarrassed" 275
20 "Like a Wounded Soldier" 290
21 "More Full of Charm" 320
Illustration Credits 367
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Very detailed but entertaining as well