I’ve never really read biographies, I have to admit. But in my quest to expand my literary horizons (oh, as if I can resist a pun like that), there are several biographies that have found their way onto my reading list. Today, we look at two biographies that look at two very different women.
Dragon Lady by Sterling Seagrave
The author of The Soong Dynasty gives us our most vivid and reliable biography yet of the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, remembered through the exaggeration and falsehood of legend as the ruthless Manchu concubine who seduced and murdered her way to the Chinese throne in 1861.
I came across this book in a bookstore in New England, knowing absolutely nothing about the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi. It’s very sad to me that the last empress of China was mostly remembered for utterly fictious scandal propagated by Westerners for their own ends, and so a biography of her that debunks such urban legends sounds a good place to start to learn about the Dowager Empress.
Penelope Fitzgerald at The Independent admires Seagrave’s research but finds it exhausting. Since this is an older book, reviews online are few and far between, but Dragon Lady currently is rated 4 stars on Amazon. While I hope Fitzgerald is wrong about Dragon Lady being exhausting, I’ll look at this a bit warier from now on.
Dragon Lady was released on May 5, 1992.
The Rose of Martinique by Andrea Stuart
Josephine Bonaparte was one of the most remarkable women of the modern era. In this acclaimed biography, Andrea Stuart brings her so utterly to life that we finally understand why Napoleon’s last word before dying was the name he had given her, Josephine. Using diaries and letters, Stuart expertly re-creates Josephine’s whirlwind of a life that began with an isolated Caribbean childhood and led to a marriage that would usher her onto the world stage and crown her empress of France. Josephine’s life gives us a picture of the terrible vicissitudes of the times. She managed to be in the forefront of every important episode of her era’s turbulent history. After the Terror in Paris, the brilliant corrupt director Paul Barras rescued her from near-starvation. She epitomized post revolutionary Paris with its wild decadence and love of all things exotic, and it was there as its star that she first caught the eye of a young Corsican general who was to become the colossus of the age, Napoleon Bonaparte. A true partner to Napoleon, she was a political adviser, hostess par excellence, his confidante, and passionate lover.
Like the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, I don’t know much about Josephine Bonaparte, although I know a bit more–she collected lovely artwork and cheated on Napoleon, right? The Rose of Martinique was recommended to me by Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust. Josephine’s life certainly sounds fascinating enough, so I hoped to get the best biography of her that I could.
Michèle Roberts at the Independent thoroughly enjoyed it as a social history of post-Revolutionary France, but thought the relationship between Josephine and Napoleon was handled poorly. Anne Beston at the New Zealand Herald enjoyed it, but points out that Napoleon dominates the latter half of the book. Still, I think it’s going to be a rewarding read.
The Rose of Martinique was released on March 5, 2004.