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Becoming Josephine: A Novel Paperback – December 31, 2013
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“With vivid characters and rich historical detail, Heather Webb has portrayed in Josephine a true heroine of great heart, admirable strength, and inspiring courage whose quest is that of women everywhere: to find, and claim, oneself.” --Sherry Jones, bestselling author of The Jewel of the Medina
“A fast-paced, riveting journey, Becoming Josephine captures the volatile mood of one of the most intense periods of history—libertine France, Caribbean slave revolts, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars—from the point of a view of one of its key witnesses, Josephine Bonaparte.” –Dana Gynther, author of Crossing on the Paris
"Vivid and passionate, Becoming Josephine captures the fiery spirit of the woman who stole Napoleon’s heart and enchanted an empire. –Susan Spann, author of The Shinobi Mysteries
“Spellbinding . . . Heather Webb’s novel takes us behind the mask of the Josephine we thought we knew.” –Christy English, author of How to Tame a Willful Wife and To Be Queen
“Enchanting prose takes the reader on an unforgettable journey . . . Captivating young Rose springs from the lush beauty of her family's sugar plantation in Martinique to shine in the eighteenth century elegance of Parisian salon society. When France is torn by revolution, not even the blood-bathed terror of imprisonment can break her spirit.” –Marci Jefferson, author of Girl on the Gold Coin (Thomas Dunne Books, 2014)
"Webb's portrayal of the range of Josephine's experience--narrow escapes from bloodshed and disease, dinner-table diplomacy, and her helpless love for Napoleon, her children and a small dog--is exceptionally concise and colorful. A worthy fictional primer on Empress Josephine."--Kirkus Reviews
"Webb holds up a light into the inner recesses of a fascinating and contradictory woman . . . Becoming Josephine is an accomplished debut."--New York Journal of Books
"Heather Webb's deft storytelling sweeps the reader into the world of Rose Tascher, the Creole girl who would become the Empress Josephine Bonaparte. Rose leaps to life from the first page, a lovable, believable character who must seek her own place in a tumultuous, almost unbelievable era in France. Her compelling tale, enriched with sumptuous detail, dazzles. Don't miss it!" --Lynn Cullen, bestselling author of Mrs. Poe
About the Author
Heather Webb is a former French teacher, a blogger, and a member of the Historical Novel Society. She lives with her family in Connecticut.
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According to the “Author’s Note,” most of Josephine’s story has been “documented in tireless detail,” but she’d rather “know [Josephine’s] heart…her secret desires,” and emotions she felt during each stage of her life. She says her novel is based “largely in fact,” but it is “ultimately a work of fiction.” She has chosen to preserve momentum by highlighting details for narrative effect or compressing them to emphasize the “theme of [Josephine’s] inner growth.”
An author of historical fiction, no matter how fictional she claims it to be, must have a rudimentary grasp of relevant, well-known facts. No matter how vehemently the author—and many readers—shout that “It’s just fiction!” and “It’s for entertainment!” whenever someone points out historical inaccuracies, the fact remains that history does not need to be dumbed-down. Facts don’t need to be ignored or replaced with “modern” interpolations and salacious imaginings because history is already replete with drama, violence, and sex, but an author has to take the trouble to research it.
I found blatant historical and other blunders from the time Josephine leaves Martinique until Napoleon divorces her. I was consistently thrown out of the story by ham-fisted misuse of language and the bête noire of amateurs, anachronisms in dialogue and scenes. This novel is replete with 21st century slang in the mouths of real late 18th and early 19th century characters. The social, political, and cultural milieu of Paris from 1779, when Josephine arrives, until 1809, when she retires for good to Malmaison, is scarcely recognizable. The book can speak for itself, however, because it has a wealth of examples illustrating Bad Dialogue, Implausible Social and Cultural Issues, Odd Use of French, and Truly Bizarre—and Incorrect—History.
The most inexcusable aspect is Bad Dialogue, or the rampant use of what I call “Tweet-Speak,” as if Josephine and her friends/lovers/husbands/acquaintances are all tweeting each other or texting on their IPhones. I highlighted more than ninety examples in my Kindle version, but I only need a few here. Who in the 18th or 19th century ever said that something or someone “did not disappoint?” Who “gifted” Josephine with anything, really? Do we believe Josephine would say to friends, “I’m so glad you could make it,” while her servant asked, “Care for a drink?” I’m still mystified by the amazing “tropical themed party” at La Chaumière, an event you’ll never find in any historical record older than last year. All Josephine’s friends are “stunning,” including herself, and she’s reassured how stunning she is by a male admirer who actually says: “You’re perfect, darling. Not to worry.” Other examples include “End of story,” “a great perk for the wife of a famous general,” a “fashionable property on the rue Chantereine—a dream location,” “I’ll see you after the show,” or ”before the show” when referring to various entertainments at theaters and the Opera, none of which ever produced anything called “a show.” A surprising number of people go on or take “vacations,” a word and concept completely unknown in France at the time. Josephine says she “can’t wrap [her] mind around” something, but might be able “to work through” anything unpleasant, and frequently laments, “That doesn’t sound good,” or “I guess we both needed a break.” She tells her daughter, “Hortense, say hi to Millie,” and complains, “Good timing, Maman.” General Hoche promises “to lobby for” her release from prison, while her husband Alexandre gives her his “gold pinkie ring” as a token. Josephine’s dialogue with Bonaparte is equally strange. She thinks “Another winning comment from the general,” when Bonaparte tells her that Barras will discard her soon, and Bonaparte says, “I’m not having this conversation again, Josephine.” My favorite anachronistic comment is this one: “Bonaparte’s support grew as he built schools and museums and, above all, created jobs.” Not only is it pure 21st century political-speak but also wrong on other levels.
The anachronisms and other blunders are not limited to dialogue but spill over into social and cultural areas, as well as permeate the details of daily living. As awful as many of them are, the closest I came to throwing my Kindle against the wall was when I read the description of Josephine seducing Paul Barras on his black satin sheets in the Palais-Égalité, the same man who gave her “the most expensive undergarments money could buy. He made no secret of his lust for lacy things and I did not disappoint.” Not only is this a major historical blunder but also a teenager’s hackneyed sexual fantasy. There were never any satin sheets—or silk ones, for that matter—on a single bed in all of France or the rest of Europe during this period. Yet Josephine puts them on the beds in the Lombard palace at Mombello, she has them in her house on the rue Chantereine, and there are red silk sheets in the Tuileries Palace. There were definitely no undergarments either, lacy or otherwise, until well into the 1820s. Josephine shops for gowns in a boutique near Les Halles, although ready-made gowns were unheard of at the time and “boutique” meant any sort of shop at the time, not one specifically for non-existent prêt-á-porter gowns. Had she been able to find any, she certainly would not have carried them—or anything else—home in “shopping bags.” The “grand boulevards” she strolls along on with her friends did not exist until they were created by Baron Haussmann in the 1850s. Why is it apparently so easy to forget that the physical, social, and cultural surroundings must be in keeping with the historical facts in the novel?
The proper use of names and titles also falls by the wayside. No matter the person’s rank, it seems everyone is on an immediate first-name basis with Josephine, from the duchesse de Beaune to General Lazare Hoche, and all manner of persons in between. The French were extremely formal in the latter half of the 18th century and jealously guarded their titles and other indices of distinction and position up to and past the eve of the Revolution. I came away from reading about Josephine during this period thinking I’d just encountered a series of outings by the local Junior League or a contingent of giggling, empty-headed sorority girls heading for the nearest mall. The depiction of society during the Consulate and the Empire does not improve much, although by virtue of her status, Josephine does not embark on quite so many implausible outings, although the problems with names, titles, and society in general continue unabated.
The author’s use of French is correct for the most part, but it is decidedly odd. When a book is about French people living in France, I don’t need to be hit over the head with French words, phrases, and sentences to remind me. I don’t need a string of sentences in English that abruptly end in French, nor do I expect to see an English sentence with a French phrase awkwardly inserted in the middle. What is the point of this, for example?—“I wanted to invite you á la chasse and an evening of dining…at the chateau I’ve rented in town.” Why shout at your horse, “Va, Sable, va!” when the English equivalent would sound far less pretentious, and stupid. Then there is the exchange between Josephine and Therèse Tallien: “Merveilleux,” I said…Regarde! Theresia pointed…I clapped. Magnifique.” Bonaparte actually says, “And je t’aime,” after two previous sentences in English. There’s the shotgun use of “mon amour” for lovers, husbands, and children. That was not a term commonly used at the time, and certainly not in reference to children, and in many cases, not even for husbands. Finally, there is the whopper of misused French—another instance of almost against the wall with my Kindle—referring to Josephine as madame la Consulesse. Yes, that is the correct word for a female consul, but such a word was never used for Josephine, ever. During the entire Consulate, from its formal creation on December 26, 1799, until the advent of the First Empire on May 14, 1804, she was never anything other than Madame Bonaparte. Therefore, this sentence was too funny—and too incorrect—for words: “Ladies and gentlemen,” a minister said to gain the guests’ attention, “introducing, the First Consul and Consulesse Bonaparte.” No minister, dignitary, or servant would ever make an announcement like this during the Consulate. There is a considerable difference between knowing grammatically correct French and knowing how it was used—and when, and by whom—in the era of one’s novel.
There are many people familiar enough with the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras to spot historical mistakes, and who usually loathe a book riddled with them because there aren’t that many historical fiction accounts of the period, in contrast to the done-to-death Marie-Antoinette or those tiresome Regency novels. There are also many people who simply don’t care if historical fiction is permeated with glaring errors, as long as the plot barrels along and the heroine is compelling, with plenty of beautiful gowns and jewels, and a wealth of sexual encounters. However, major historical events that are well-documented should not be tampered with. There’s room for some leeway, some bending of the rules in historical fiction because, after all, it’s fiction, right? There are others, myself included, who believe that even in a work of historical fiction the historical part should be more correct than not. Sadly, I found a world of historical bloopers here that could have—and should have—been avoided with more careful research. I came away with the impression that the more titillating—and generally false—aspects of Josephine’s life came straight from a couple of earlier fictional accounts that emphasized alleged sexual exploits to the detriment of more substantive—and historically correct—periods of her life. I also found it unfortunate that the entire arc of the French Revolution, the Directory, Consulate, and Empire periods were riddled with mistakes, from large to small and all ranges in between.
For example, regarding the fall of the Bastille, Josephine hears it described thus: “The king’s prison was burned to the ground, Swiss Guards decapitated, and the frenzied crowd massacred innocents in the streets.” Quite dramatic, but factually wrong in every respect, since the Bastille was stone, did not burn, and was taken down, block by block, by a professional demolition crew that used the blocks in other building projects in Paris, including what would become the Pont de la Revolution, nowadays the Pont de la Concorde. No Swiss Guards were involved, with or without their heads, and no frenzied mob killed anyone but the Marquis de Launay and the prison garrison. The same is true of alleged “vagabonds raiding chateaus in the country and ransacking towns” in 1790. There was the July 1789 Great Fear, where some peasants—not vagabonds—attacked some chateaux in the countryside, but not towns. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were not held by the Committee of Public Safety after their apprehension at Varennes in June 1791 because the committee in question was not created until April 1793. There were never any “foreign guards patrolling the boulevards of Paris,” and there was certainly no “German guard to monitor our papers” at any time, much less some unspecified date in 1793. How could there be when the Legislative Assembly had declared war on Austria in April 1792? At no time do we ever get a sense of time to correspond with the events being described, and there is absolutely no distinction among the various historical names of the governmental entities in France from 1789 through 1796—here it’s all one “Assembly,” rather than the three very distinct National Assembly, Legislative Assembly, and National Convention.
The Revolution is mangled from an historical perspective, but the years with Bonaparte fare even worse. The event that brought Bonaparte to prominence occurred in October 1795, which earned him the nickname General Vendémiaire, a fact the author mentions. However, it was not until after his marriage to Josephine in March 1796 and his departure for Lombardy that the book claims that further unrest in Paris led to the creation of the Directory, which in fact was established in November 1795, a month after Bonaparte dispelled the royalist insurgents with his “whiff of grapeshot.” There are more mistakes in the chapter covering Josephine’s trip to Lombardy, some of them significant, some simply annoying. Why on earth would Josephine claim, for instance, that fireflies “did not exist in France,” when they certainly do, and how do we explain the odd demotion of Andoche Junot, who had been Bonaparte’s secretary and aide-de-camp since after the siege of Toulon in December 1793? Poor Junot appears at one of Barras’s interminable social occasions as a general, then he’s a captain at Josephine’s wedding in 1796, and then merely an officer when he escorts her to Lombardy a few months after her marriage. Sometime in 1797, after their return from Lombardy, Josephine says that Barras was sending Bonaparte to England to “assess the English ports for a possible invasion.” Barras did not send him anywhere. Bonaparte went to the Pas-de-Calais in February 1798 to inspect French coastal defenses. Perhaps a minor point, but France had been at war with England since 1793, so a visit to English ports was clearly impossible. When Bonaparte went to Egypt in June 1798, why would Josephine go to a dinner at the Luxembourg Palace, with Barras, Joseph and Julie Bonaparte, and Joachim Murat and his wife, Caroline Bonaparte? Murat was in Egypt with Bonaparte at the time, and he and Caroline were not married until January 1800. Minor, yes, but again indicative of sloppy or nonexistent research. The entire pivotal coup d’état of 18 Brumaire that made Bonaparte head of the government was glossed over so quickly that it was almost a non-event, and what there was of it was incorrect, especially the part about the amorphous “assembly” electing Bonaparte “sole consul.”
Then there is the Empire, where Josephine is addressed as “Her Imperial Highness,” rather than her correct title of “Her Imperial Majesty.” The Imperial Highnesses were Napoleon’s sisters and Joseph’s wife, Julie Clary. Napoleon was never Emperor of France, either—he was very careful to emulate Charlemagne’s title, as well as the particulars of his coronation. Napoleon was “Emperor of the French,” which should be clear enough from a positive avalanche of historical documents, paintings, monuments, and inscriptions. I have no idea where “Empress Bonaparte” comes from, other than someone’s odd imagination. It is difficult to tell from the narrative and the rather unhelpful dates at the beginning of the chapters which of the several coalitions against France Josephine describes in the last couple of chapters, but most of these details are simply wrong. Josephine did not go to Bavaria, serve as the emperor’s “correspondent,” and tend to the wounded while Napoleon concocted some bizarre agreement with the Prussians to “divide the Russian forces.” Her son Eugene did not “march” anywhere with Napoleon. This convoluted mess is supposed to be the War of the Third Coalition, begun in 1803 when the British broke the Peace of Amiens, and involved England, Austria, and Russia against France. Eugene had been appointed Viceroy of Italy in the spring of 1805, and would not only remain in Lombardy for the next several years but also not fight anyone anywhere until the spring of 1809, and Josephine got no closer to Bavaria than the French city of Strasbourg. Just as absurd is the brief mention of Napoleon going to Poland—which ceased to exist in 1796—to fight the Russians and encounter very beautiful Polish women, the latter of which seemed to be Josephine’s major concern. Then Napoleon returns from whatever he was supposed to be doing in Poland, without a mistress, although no mention is made of the lovely Marie Walewska, who would have a son by him. Three months later Napoleon leaves “to address the riots in Spain.” He tells Josephine that “My brother has made a mess of things and he’s threatening our alliance. The Spaniards detest Lucien.” The real story is this: Napoleon returned from signing the Treaty of Tilsit with Tsar Alexander in August 1807, and did not leave France until he met with Charles IV of Spain and his son Ferdinand at Bayonne in May 1808. He placed his brother Joseph on the throne of Spain, not Lucien, with whom he had a strained relationship since 1803. Lucien had lived in exile in the Italian States since that time with his mother, Madame Mère. Josephine did not help secure any alliance with Spain, nor did she persuade Napoleon to “take a vacation” and spend a few days “enjoying the beach.” The chapter on the divorce reads like a soap opera script. “The entire court attended in silver and gold lame gowns…” when lame was unheard of before approximately 1922, and Napoleon’s siblings continued to behave in their usual repulsive, over-the-top, but not entirely accurate manner.
Finally, there is the whole premise of “becoming,” an idea ill-used when, in this case, Josephine does not become much of anything. Her story is flawed, trivialized, and about on a level with a reality show like “Jersey Shore.” There is no discernible transformation—there is only Josephine’s desire for lovers, protectors, money, expensive gifts, prestige, and yes, safety for herself and her two children. Yet nothing transformative stands out, not when she is shown going from one man to the next, beginning with Guillaume in Martinique when she’s fifteen, and the unfounded sexual relationships with Barras and Hippolyte Charles. Her escapades with Thérèse Tallien [she was Spanish nobility and her name was Teresa, not Theresia (!), which she didn’t use living in Paris], are ludicrous. By this time Josephine was already known for her grace, charm, and elegance, so she would not “chuck” a half-eaten plum onto a tray, “plunk down on a sofa” with Thérèse, “swig from” her wineglass, “smirk,” or smile or speak “coyly.” She would not “jump from the coach and skip up the walk.” And she would not think that “shocking the crowd was too much fun” to cover her “heaving breast” with a fichu. Madame Tallien was outré, to be sure, but she was not the utterly lascivious woman depicted here. Josephine’s relationship with Paul Barras was not sexual—he actually preferred men, but would take a mistress occasionally for show—it was a symbiotic arrangement wherein Josephine lent him her charm and her upper-class contacts, and he gave her entrée into business circles so she could establish her fortune. But why rely on facts when it’s more fun to emphasize the “black satin sheets” aspect of Josephine’s life? This novel thus becomes nothing but a very shallow and lengthy edition of The National Enquirer, and first cousin to Carolly Erickson’s abysmal The Secret History of Josephine: Napoleon’s Bird of Paradise.
If you really want to know Josephine, the real woman, read Sandra Gulland’s Josephine trilogy. Those novels are beautifully written, comprehensive, historically accurate on all fronts, yet they are still fiction. They do not show the painfully shallow understanding of important historical events, nor trivialize such an important—and very human—historical individual as this novel so clearly does.
I ended up disliking both Napoleon and Josephine, which was not surprising. It's challenging to write a book with a protagonist like her and I believe the author succeeded well.
Recommended for readers who enjoy history and fiction rolled into one, and for those who like high tension and pace throughout.
I received a complimentary copy of this book via the Goodreads First Reads program.