The Rose of Martinique by Andrea Stuart
Prior to picking up The Rose of Martinique, I had never read a biography before. Like a great deal of nonfiction, it had just never appealed to me, but that was prior before I took on the mantle of The Literary Omnivore–now I take on books I’m ambivalent about to ferret out the good and make cautionary tales out of the bad! It was one of the first book recommendations I picked up when making my reading list from Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust, and when I needed something a bit more elevated to wash out the bad taste of Sisters Red, The Rose of Martinique was there for me at my local library.
Biographies of Josephine de Beauharnais, born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, have been written before. However, in The Rose of Martinique, Andrea Stuart sets out to frame Josephine’s life through her upbringing on Martinique and the French immigrant experience that Napoleon, born on the island of Corsica, experienced as well, a viewpoint that has been neglected over the years.
A good biography brings the subject to life the way you would actually encounter another human being, not being privy to their thoughts except what they expressed themselves; if you want to get into people’s head, that’s why we have fiction! And Stuart succeeds admirably here, presenting a fully realized portrait of Josephine throughout her entire life, from meek, unfashionable immigrant to the Empress of the French Empire to a divorcée wounded by life. In fact, Stuart succeeds so admirably that I came to a startling conclusion: I don’t find Josephine interesting. Her times, from the horrific lows of the Terror to the highs of Imperial life, interested me more than she did, an elegant and fashionable woman who, perhaps in contrast to her second husband, lacked any ambition beyond collecting art and settling down to a quiet life. Perhaps it’s because Josephine’s intelligence is social rather than, well, intellectual, but whenever figures such as the dashing Théroigne de Méricourt came into view, I wanted to go see what they were doing instead of Josephine, whose focus is on survival–a very admirable goal for which I cannot fault her, but not a terribly interesting one from my perspective as a reader. My next biography, I think, will require a subject with a little more fire in her eyes. (Like de Méricourt.)
The Rose of Martinique is very well-researched, incorporating letters, legal documents (particularly touching is Josephine’s first marriage certificate), the work of historians, and other documents to keep things moving along nicely. While it doesn’t approach the snappy use of primary documents found in The Devil in the White City, it manages the same balance between facts and emotions that makes nonfiction good. (To be honest, I often think of proper use of primary documents as cheese on a pizza–too little, and that slice isn’t going to go down easily.) It’s organized into particular periods of Josephine’s life, from her childhood on Martinique to her life in pre-revolutionary France to her life in seclusion after the divorce, as Napoleon’s second wife and the current Empress wishes to never encounter her. While the pacing is definitely ponderous, it’s never boring; right before you think things might start to drag, Stuart neatly steers you along to the next chapter in Josephine’s busy life. I would have appreciated, though, a more structured approach to Josephine’s name; she’s Rose right up until Napoleon names her Josephine, but there’s a few pages were it’s vague. (The same thing happens when Napoleon changes the spelling of his name to be more French.)
As I mentioned above, The Rose of Martinique interested me more as a social history than as a biography, simply because of a subject, and it succeeds wildly there. Without resorting to anything too flowery, Stuart vividly evokes bright Martinique (complete with its issues regarding slavery; how does one reconcile Josephine’s legendary compassion with the fact her family made their money on the backs of slaves?), filthy pre-revolutionary France, the terror of, well, the Terror, and the increasingly delusional grandeur of the French Empire. There’s never more than what you need to place Josephine firmly in her context, even when Napoleon enters the picture. While we follow him on campaign, we focus on how his military victories and losses affect his attitude towards Josephine. It’s interesting to see Napoleon in almost a solely romantic context, although the perpetually uneven power dynamic between he and Josephine is constantly addressed–Josephine starts with the upper hand, as a weary widow who feels perfectly justified in taking a lover, but, as Napoleon grows more powerful, watches her hold on him slip away. I almost wish I liked Josephine as a woman more to enjoy this biography, but I still found the social history fascinating, as both a reader and a Frenchwoman. (It was also useful in other ways; I finally settled on a setting for a writing project because of it!)
Bottom line: In The Rose of Martinique, Andrea Stuart succeeds so well at creating a vivid portrait of Josephine that I was shocked to discover that I’m not particularly interested by the woman herself, which is certainly no slam on Stuart’s considerable skills. She creates an equally vivid social history of a very interesting time in French history to place Josephine in her social context. I enjoyed it for the social history; if you like Josephine, you’ll enjoy it more.
I rented this book from the public library.