Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Secret Life of Josephine

by Carolly Erickson

The Secret Life of Josephine was a delightful read. Carolly Erickson takes the life of Josephine Bonaparte and enlivens it with some very colorful characters and situations to make a wonderful story. This is not a biography, it is a very fictionalized view of Josephine's life. Erickson herself calls this an historical entertainment, not historical fiction. But, do not let that distract you from the fact that is it well written and a interesting story.

Josephine was born on the French colonial island of Martinque. She makes her way to France to marry her first husband, an aristocrat, who had no desire to marry, but must in order to receive his inheritance from his father. He basically ignores Josephine, except to impregnate her with two children who Josephine adores and their father basically ignores. Josephine eventually is legally separated from her husband and here her adventure begins.

To earn money, Josephine tells fortunes for money at several of the best salons in Paris. She takes many lovers and becomes involved with several men of promenience in France, several of whom end up supporting her and her children. At the time of the Revolution she even spends time in prison because she is an aristocrat. She is jailed with her ex-husband who eventually is put to death by guillotine. Josephine is saved by a kind doctor and finally released from prison.

The portion of the book portraying her relationship with Napoleon shows an unstable man infatuated both with Josephine and his own rising power. I did find Erickson's portrayal of Napoleon to be historically accurate based on many biographies I have read of him. He was truly heartbroken about putting Josephine aside to marry an Austrian princess. If Josephine had been of royal birth or have been able to give him a son, I believe he would have stayed married to her. On his exile island of St. Helena at his death, it was Josephine, long dead, that he called out for.

Probably the most captivating story lines in the book take place on Martinique. Although there is little historical background for it, Erickson has Josephine return to the island several times where she is involved in a slave rebellion and meets Donovan, a mysterious man who plays a long lasting role in Josephine's fictional life. In an historical study of the French Revolution, the French colonies are often overlooked with their all important trade and entrenched system of slavery.

I enjoyed this novel as much as I did Erickson's The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette several years ago. It was a quick read and fun.

I read this book as part of the Historical Fiction Challenge.

Rating - B


  1. This sounds terrific! The relationship between Napoleon and Josephine sounds very interesting.

    Thank you for your comment and the wealth of helpful information about what you offer your geography students. It helps me with homeschool planning. :-)

  2. yet another reminder of the the untapped list of French characters I could discover. Great review.