Virginia Rounding in The Telegraph:
In this new biography of the Empress Josephine, first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, Kate Williams (whose previous biographical subjects have included Emma Hamilton and the young Queen Victoria) embarks on a whirlwind tour of French history. She covers the conditions of slaves in Martinique, the turmoil of the Revolution and subsequent Terror, and the rise, apotheosis and downfall of Napoleon, in just over 300 pages. If the breathless pace of the writing does not entirely lend itself to in-depth analysis, it does suit the heroine of the tale. For Josephine, like Napoleon, leaves one somewhat breathless. As Williams summarises her existence, she was “a mistress, a courtesan, a Revolutionary heroine, a collector, a patron and an Empress… in the words of one of her friends, 'an actor, who could play all roles’.” For all the tempestuousness of the relationship between Napoleon and Josephine, they were a supremely well-matched couple – not only physically (it was sexual love that really bound them together) but also in their daring, their self-invention, their attainment of dazzling success out of humble beginnings. Williams has made extensive use of the voluminous correspondence of both of these larger-than-life characters, from which it is clear that part of their mutual fascination was indeed this similarity of character.
Born Marie Josèphe Rose (it was Napoleon who later chose to call her Josephine) in 1763, into the sugar-plantation-owning Tascher de la Pagerie family, Josephine was no natural beauty nor endowed with any obvious talents. Her education was desultory, and she appeared destined to stay on Martinique and marry another plantation-owner. But Josephine had other ideas, and opportunity presented itself in the shape of a young man three years her senior, Alexandre de Beauharnais, the son of her aunt’s lover.