x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Marriage built on melodrama

Kate Williams examines the inexorable rise and inevitable fall of Napoleon’s wife in Josephine.

Philip Trotter

The inexorable rise and inevitable fall of Josephine, the last empress of Europe, makes for a biography of excess, intrigue and sexual obsession to rival any fiction.

The Creole girl from Martinique had arrived in Paris with a marriage already on the rocks. Yet despite the revolution and its bloody aftermath she had proved a popular, resourceful courtesan a few years later when, in 1795, she met and encouraged the attentions of a diminutive and gauche Corsican soldier.

Wed in whirlwind fashion, her glamour, diplomacy and courtly charm made the perfect foil for her husband’s more bullish ambitions, and together they swept Europe before them.

More interestingly, Kate Williams’ well researched volume reveals a marriage built on melodrama that was both passionate and deeply deceitful, but somehow endearing. A life of unlimited opulence beckoned until Josephine failed in the one task Napoleon insisted upon – to produce an heir. Yet on his deathbed divorced Napoleon’s last word was Josephine. A book difficult to say “not tonight” to.

ptrotter@thenational.ae