cover image The Secret Life of Josephine: Napoleon's Bird of Paradise

The Secret Life of Josephine: Napoleon's Bird of Paradise

Carolly Erickson. St. Martin's Press, $24.95 (328pp) ISBN 978-0-312-36735-0

Erickson's third foray into what she calls, in a note to the reader, ""historical entertainment"" (following The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette and The Last Wife of Henry the VIII) presents a compelling if occasionally fanciful first-person account of Napoleon's legendary first wife. As a child, the future Empress of France was known as Rose Tascher, a girl of ""good breeding but no money"" on the island of Martinique. At 15, Rose departs Martinique for Paris and an unhappy arranged marriage to Vicomte Alexandre de Beauharnais. Several years after their divorce, Rose encounters the ""rather odd-looking, dark little officer"" who will rechristen her Josephine and eventually make her his reluctant empress. As Madame Bonaparte, Josephine's public life and private life alike are filled with controversy as she copes with the scrutiny of the public eye, the ire of Bonaparte's family, and Bonaparte himself, whose feelings for her range from codependency to contempt. As he often did in life, Bonaparte upstages the other characters whenever he appears on the page, and his interactions with Josephine are among the most captivating scenes here. Josephine, however, emerges a dynamic and complicated heroine, and holds her own before and after her short-lived marriage to Bonaparte. While Josphine's Gone With the Wind-esque escape from her family plantation during Martinique's civil war and an implausible episode at the tale's climax may rankle sticklers, Erickson has deft hand with psychological portraiture and historical detail. She strips away the romantic idealism with which the empress's life is often distorted.