There are presumably two reasons for telling a life-story: either that it is archetypally informative about a given subset of humankind; or that it is entirely extraordinary. And the alleged existence of some 60 biographies of the first empress of France would seem to place her firmly in the latter category.
Joséphine de Beauharnais (one of whose given names was Rose) was born in Martinique, brought to France after a faute de mieux marriage to a man she did not love, separated from him, sent to a convent, imprisoned, remarried to a man whose megalomaniac ambitions led him to be the de facto ruler of much of western Europe, and divorced by him on the grounds of her inability to give birth to an heir. She seems finally to have achieved a degree of serenity in the years before her death in 1814 at the age of 50. The question might still remain as to why there needed to be a 61st account of her life.
Andrea Stuart gives a partial answer in her assertion of the personal identification she feels with a fellow Caribbean woman forced to "find (her) way in a society brutally different from the one (she) had left behind", and united in an outsider's sense of exile with her second, Corsican, husband. This is an attractive hypothesis but it does not receive a great deal of systematic treatment in the body of the text beyond the bald statement of compatibility. Somewhat more sustained is the proposition that Josephine was "a uniquely modern woman", a view ratified by the account of her growing sense of independence and social poise, leading among other things to a Creolisation of the Directory; and, certainly, her role as an arbiter of fashion is undeniable.
If Stuart writes "a general biography with a new accent", it is initially apparent in the degree of emphasis on Josephine's early years, captured in an evocative picture of the privileged and superficially idyllic setting in which she grew up on the sugar plantations in Martinique, in a society fatally scarred by slavery (a practice condemned in 1794, and reinstated by Napoleon).
Given the historical backdrop against which Josephine led her life, the reader is provided with an incidental account of the fast-moving events in France as it swerved from the ancien régime through the revolution and the terror to the consulate and ultimately the first empire, and Stuart is careful to present all this material through the prism of her subject. The depiction of Paris society is lively, and ranges from luxurious salons, through convent life, to the inhuman conditions in the revolutionary prisons. There are colourful accounts of the elaborate imperial ceremonial, and of the lavish redecoration of the succession of houses of which Josephine was châtelaine , including her beloved Malmaison, reminiscent perhaps of her childhood home of La Pagerie in Martinique.
Stuart is also refreshingly ready to indulge her readers in an entertaining myth (about the imperial couple's first meeting, for example, or their wedding night), before countering it with a more historically sober version of events. But there is a near total dearth of international politico-military background, and the reader finishes this study, with its frequent evocations of the battlefield, without any clear elucidation as to why the Napoleonic campaigns were ever undertaken.
More serious reservations concern the degree to which this is a scholarly work. It contains a full and accurate account of source materials, yet there is no explicit discussion of how it engages with them, and the footnotes often reveal that what are apparently quotations from original texts are in fact simply borrowings from a previous biographer (apart from the translations of the two sets of marital correspondence, and of certain contemporary memoirs); and there are frequent passing references to "a number of" variously unidentified historians.
The style is consistent and readable, despite an early tendency to folksiness (this is a world of "plump-limbed toddlers", "grey-faced servants" and "dewy-skinned debutantes"), balanced by the occasional passage of purple prose in Stuart's description of Martinique. Overall, it is a committed and atmospheric study that is a readable and informative compendium rather than a scholarly and ground-breaking reappraisal.
Richard Parish is professor of French, Oxford University.
The Rose of Martinique: A Life of Napoleon's Josephine
Author - Andrea Stuart
Publisher - Macmillan
Pages - 455
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 333 73933 7