Historical Notes: Was Josephine the key to Napoleon's power?

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IN WRITING, I seek answers. Curiosity is my muse. But now, after a decade of researching and writing a trilogy of novels based on the life of Josephine Bonaparte, I begin to understand that I may never know the answers to some questions.

The first of Josephine's mysteries concerned destiny. When a girl on Martinique, Josephine was told that she would become queen of France, "more than a queen." As the unmarriageable daughter of impoverished nobility, she was an unlikely candidate. However, the prediction came true.

There are many who accept that there is a destiny and that destiny can, by mysterious means, be foretold. But it is difficult to believe that there might have been a masterplan in which a girl on the island of Martinique is tagged to become empress of the French.

Was it true? Should we believe all that we read? The history of the Napoleonic era is rife with myth: Josephine enjoyed a good story and Napoleon knew the value of propaganda. In later years, historians and biographers explained the "facts" with sometimes rather creative interpretations. Yet the evidence indicated otherwise. A number of references were made to this prediction before it ever came to pass.

If you were to accept the fact of this prediction, other questions arise. If Josephine, as the chosen one, was destined to be queen, then would not her partner become king? Of course, we answer, thinking of Bonaparte (always Bonaparte). Yet there were other men in Josephine's life, and each became, after aligning themselves with her, a candidate for a crown. Her first husband, Alexandre Beauharnais, was for a brief two weeks during the Revolution considered the man who ruled France. And then there was Paul Barras, the man who ran the fledgling republic with Josephine as his partner. (Perhaps a platonic one, but a partner nonetheless.) And then, of course, there was Napoleon, an unemployed Corsican officer. A little over four years after he married Josephine he took control of France. The rest, as they say, is history: he crowned himself and Josephine as well. As empress of the French she was indeed "more than a queen." Five years later Napoleon divorced her and his downfall began.

Coincidence? Was Jose-phine the key to Napoleon's power? Napoleon's power was indeed great and very much his own, yet most historians will acknowledge that Josephine was a significant (and even essential) part of Napoleon's rise. Yet not only Napoleon, but other men in her life came to power after aligning themselves with her. Was she destined to be queen, her partners king?

It is tempting to resist this interpretation of history, but it cannot be ignored that both Josephine and Napoleon, and to a great extent the public, at the time believed it to be true. Napoleon claimed that Josephine was his lucky star. Many soldiers held that Josephine was the key to Napoleon's extraordinary good luck on the battlefield. After Napoleon divorced her, he was plagued by bad luck: people said that it was because Josephine was no longer with him.

But the question remains: why Josephine? She was a fairly simple woman of great heart. Although intelligent (quite), she was not a great intellect. Her virtues were simple ones: she was an exceptional mother, a good friend, a caring employer, a loving wife. She knew how to be a good hostess. She had a weakness for hats. But somehow, too, she knew how to be an empress. How does one go about such a thing? There are no "how to" books on the subject, not many classes one can take. Yet she stepped into the role easily and with tremendous grace and humanity.

It was, it was said, as if she had been born to the role: and the truth was, she believed it. She believed it was her destiny.

Sandra Gulland is the author of `The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B' (Review, pounds 9.99)

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