You will be unhappily wed.
You will be widowed.
You will be queen
To the fourteen year old Rose, eldest daughter of a poor plantation landlord, the fortuneteller's prophecy is both thrilling and laughable. Poorly educated and without a dowry, it seems unlikely that she will find any husband - much less a king. But history tells a different tale, for Rose not only marries into a wealthy aristocratic family, she survives the French Revolution, outlives her first husband and is one day known as Josephine Bonaparte.
In this beautifully crafted novel, Sandra Gulland pulls back the veil of history to reveal an extraordinary life. From her simple childhood on the French island of Martinique to her first heady experience in French revolutionary Paris and her unhappy marriage to the unfaithful Alexandre, Rose's destiny lives with a man determined to rule all of France, determined to make her Queen.
The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B is the first book in the incredible trilogy inspired by the life of Josephine Bonaparte.
On the odd occasion that I have read books that are in diary format, particularly historical fiction, they haven't necessarily worked for me, so if I had of realised that this was the format of this book, I probably wouldn't have picked it up. This is, however, one of those books where the diary format really, really works.
We meet the legendary Josephine Bonaparte when she is Rose, a young planter's daughter who lives in Martinique. She visits a fortune teller who tells her that she will be married unhappily, she will be a widow, and she will be a queen - all very unlikely given that she is uneducated, and from a poor family. Following tragedy within her family she is however betrothed to a man she has never met before and therefore has to make the trip to France - a country in uproar.
She marries Alexandre, Vicomte de Beaurharnais, and eventually provides him with two children, but the marriage is an unhappy one, and he is unfaithful to her many times. Eventually they undertake a legal separation, but there are many custody issues, particularly around their son, Eugene.
All of this takes place against a background of revolution, and eventually Josephine has to try and walk the fine line between being a revolutionary (necessary if one wants to keep one's head intact), but still being loyal and doing all she can to save her aristocratic friends. As Alexandre becomes more and more important in government, Rose finds herself under more and more scrutiny because she is still his wife, and when the tide turns against Alexandre they both find themselves in Carmes prison. Even during such a worrying time as that, Alexandre and Rose still find ways to torment each other, until finally Alexandre's name is on the list - which means that he is on his way to meet Madame Guillotine. Rose's name is also called, but she is deemed too sick to be killed, and luckily, through her influential friends, she is released, thus narrowly avoiding the same fate as her husband.
Once out of prison, life in post revolutionary Paris begins, and Rose, now a widow, becomes the mistress of several men. Whilst never rich, she does have influence, and does seem to fraternise with many men who form part of the new government. It is through these men that she meets Napoleon. At first, she is unimpressed, but as he pursues her, she eventually begins to see some advantages to being linked with this man.
This book is the first book in a trilogy, and focuses mainly on Rose's life prior to meeting Napoleon. He only appears in the last few chapters of the book, presumably as a kind of teaser for the next book in the series. And if that was the intention then it definitely works, because I have already requested the next book in the series.
Gulland is very successful at giving some idea of what life must have been like for people in France during this turbulent time - never knowing whether or not your neighbour that you have known for years might be the one person who will turn you in for disloyalty, not knowing if each time you see your friends may be the last time you see them, struggling to provide food and education to your children.
Through it all Rose manages to maintain her dignity, humour and grace. Overall, this was a very entertaining read, about a very interesting woman who lived in very turbulent times, and is still remembered today.
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