The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte

Caroline Weber in The New York Times:

JosephineThis year marks the bicentennial of the death of Josephine Bonaparte, but Napoleon’s empress has been having a moment for some time now. In the past two decades, she has starred in at least 20 new biographies, six museum exhibitions and six novels. Three editions of her correspondence have also appeared during this time, as have many more studies (of Napoleon and other Bonapartes) in which she features. The latest addition to this corpus is “Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte,” by Kate Williams, a biographer of Queen Victoria and Emma Hamilton. Beyond her appreciation for “flawed, vulnerable, engaging, powerful” women, Williams does not seem to have a compelling reason to tell this story. In the absence of new material or a new approach, she offers a breathless paean to the woman who, while “no great beauty,” could with “one twitch of her skirt . . . enthrall the man who terrorized Europe.”

Born in 1763 to a clan of blue-blooded French colonists on Martinique, Marie-Josèphe de Tascher de La Pagerie grew up “in a paradise of pleasure,” where she “splashed in the sea like a dolphin” and “sucked on sugarcane plucked from the fields.” In 1779, her family shipped her off to Paris to marry the self-styled Vicomte Alexandre de Beauharnais, a “languidly aggressive” blackguard by whom she had two children before separating from him in 1785. (Fond of alliteration, clichés and mixed metaphors, Williams indulges in all three when noting that “hotheaded Alexandre also had to eat humble pie.”)

More here.