Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe is Sandra Gulland’s second of three novels about Josephine Bonaparte, Napoleon’s first wife and the first Empress of France. I read the first book of the trilogy, The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. about a year ago, and I liked the second novel better than the first. Still, I think it’s good to read them in order because the early life of Josephine and her friends and lovers are referred to without much explanation in the second, plus her later life seemed even more incredible knowing what she’s already been through.
It was fascinating to learn about this woman’s crazy life during such a pivotal time in history. You get the sense that history is sweeping Josephine along, that she’s not really in control of her life. Born in Martinique to a family with a sugar plantation, she moved to France to marry Alexandre de Beauharnais, was arrested and imprisoned during Robespierre’s reign of Terror in the French Revolution, took several extremely well-connected lovers and ended up the wife of the Emperor.
Despite the wealth and luxury, you also see how dangerous everyday life was. Health conditions were awful — smallpox strikes her niece and Jospephine’s own illnesses are misdiagnosed. Travelling — something I often take for granted — was hardly a walk in the the park. When crossing the mountains to reach Napoleon in Italy, Josephine and her carriage are carried on mules along tiny little paths over the mountains.
I have to say that something didn’t quite come alive for me. Maybe it was that Josephine’s writing (the novel is journal entries) portrayed her understanding of situations or people to be a bit clueless or simple at times, but her actions were proving she was anything but. It’s obvious that Josephine is by no means naïve, and is instead opportunistic and a rather good liar. She has a good heart but is also driven by financial concerns, trying to provide for her two children by her first husband since Napoleon insists for a long while on keeping their expenses separate even though his campaigns are raking in millions.
All in all, a nice read if you like historical fiction focused on female characters.