Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe
Frèderic's insouciance in the face of an early death from Hodgkin's disease, almost as if his death were a nuisance, a badly dressed, boring (his favourite word) dinner-party guest, makes me suspect that [Sandra Gulland] got the tone of her novel exactly right. [Josephine Bonaparte], like Frèderic, is passionate to the death about France, sentimental beyond words.
The second volume in Sandra Gulland's projected trilogy about the private life of the Bonapartes is a grand confection of a novel. TALES OF PASSION, TALES OF WOE
Living life to the hilt with Nap and Josie
By Sandra Gulland
HarperCollins, 368 pages, $28
SANDRA Gulland writes like an old-fashioned master pastry chef, the kind to which wealthy parents used to send their about-to-be-marriageable daughters. Her prose is so light and delicately layered it evaporates in the wisp of a breath like fine-sugar-spun candy. Death, ill health, infertility, dismemberment, betrayal, war and mass death, all melt into a distracting cobweb of shopping, assignations, palace decorating, passionate marital sex and parties. Such was the life, so Gulland would have us believe, of Josephine Bonaparte, in Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe ,her second novel in a trilogy based entirely on the life of the Grande Merveilleuse of Revolutionary Paris and subsequent Empress of Imperial France.
I used to have a friend, a petit chevalier of France, who -- in 1999! -- would shudder when I drove him through Trafalgar Square, shield his eyes dramatically as we passed Nelson on his column and protest vociferously when I (slyly) suggested going home over Waterloo Bridge. He nagged incessantly: Perhaps it would be " bet-tere " if I waxed my eyebrows and, Dieu en ciel , would I ever learn to use a blow drier properly?
But Frèderic's insouciance in the face of an early death from Hodgkin's disease, almost as if his death were a nuisance, a badly dressed, boring (his favourite word) dinner-party guest, makes me suspect that Sandra Gulland got the tone of her novel exactly right. Josephine, like Frèderic, is passionate to the death about France, sentimental beyond words. She works furiously hard, pretends to be a fool, is very obviously not one, and more than anything else, lives life as if elegance, lightness of heart, caring about one's friends' welfare to the point of rashness and the spending of more money than one can possibly lay one's hands on, were the highest possible virtues.
"I fear I've made a mistake," reports Josephine to her diary the night of her wedding. It is clear she has married to clear her debts and pay the school fees of her children; equally clear that Napoleon sees her as his (usefully well-connected) trophy. But slowly she falls under Napoleon's spell, overwhelmed by his passion for life, and we see the man of history as he perhaps would have liked to be seen -- a man who loves to do things, who wants to improve on life, to consume its very essence, to die sated, never to be forgotten. Through the book, he conquers Italy, Austria, Egypt and Portugal, strewing bodies behind him.
Josephine, left at home mostly, often ill and desperate to conceive, fends off lovers and debtors and treacherous servants (this is the very stuff of women's fiction), takes fertility treatments and counters the destruction Nap inevitably leaves in his wake. Her ghastly in-laws plot her downfall; her best friend, Paul Barras, director of the Republic, is betrayed by her husband and she moves into the Tuileries, a distinctly uneasy Queen of France, setting us up for the third and final volume in Gulland's trilogy.
Even Gulland's former profession as a book editor (she is a long-transplanted American who makes her home in small-town Ontario) does not prepare one for her command of her subject and invariably surprising research. She almost had me until I began to suspect she had fallen into a new habit of intelligent popular-fiction writers, that is, using the voice of a woman who is a nostalgic totem, a pure, virtuous woman, self-deprecating, witty, humble, good, above all good, with only annoying little faults, not the big ones of, say, out-sized ambition, greed, envy or raging appetite, all of which Josephine must have had or she would not have found herself intimate with the two most powerful men in France at a defining moment of history, and maintained that position while the one betrayed the other. Gulland's Josephine is a petite bourgeoise ,a Joanna Trollope heroine promoted by accident, acted upon, harassed by too much domestic responsibility, trying to have a little sex on the side and spend money on the house without her husband's knowledge. It is as though we are trying to correct the excesses of embittered political correctness (all that unseemly complaining!), crawling back to a time when sweetness and light were the exclusive purview of women, rather than forward to a place where women are fully rounded characters capable of all human vice and virtue.
Nevertheless, this is a big gorgeous mille feuille of a book -- and we all know how difficult that particular pastry is to make. Next time I'm at a beach near a decent bookstore, I am going to read the first of this trilogy and court adult-onset diabetes of the brain by reading it all in one day.