Animating History; The Challenges of Writing a Historical Novel about Josephine

From a speech given to the Napoleonic Society of America (now the Napoleonic Historical Society); Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario; July 10, 1993

Before I begin I would like to say that serious research for my novel began here, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, almost four years ago, at the home of deceased Napoleonic Society member David Goudy, in his charming home bursting with Napoleonic memorabilia, every wall a bookcase—the living room, the hall, even the kitchen was a library.

He talked with me for the whole of an afternoon, giving me valuable advice, inspiring me with his boundless enthusiasm, and, in the end, insisting that I take home an enormous box of reference books.

If spirits do exist—and I think they might—no doubt David Goudy is with us today, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank him … for two weeks ago I had the great satisfaction of handing 538 pages of manuscript to my agent: volume one of a very long novel, the fictional diaries of Josephine Bonaparte.

I am here today to talk to you about the challenges I have had to face in writing (or rather, in learning to write) historical fiction, and specifically the challenge of writing about Josephine.

I didn’t set out to write historical fiction. I didn’t say: I’m going to write a novel…

  • set in a period in history about which I know absolutely nothing;
  • in a culture that is totally foreign to me;
  • requiring knowledge of a language I failed repeatedly in High School;
  • about a woman who was partner to one of the giants of history.

No—in fact, not only did I loathe history as a student, but I disliked historical fiction!

So, given all this, what brings me here today, standing before you as a quote/unquote “historical novelist”? The answer is simple. What brings me here today, what launched me into this challenging and life-consuming work (and what, I dare say, brings you all here today as well), is obsession.

Over fifteen years ago, in the course of my work as an editor for a book publisher, I read a short biography of Josephine’s life. I was overcome. In joking, I sometimes say it was as if lightning struck, but it was, in truth, a turning point for me. I was captured (or, should I say, kidnapped) by Josephine—her heart, her intelligence, her grace, her courage.

For me, the desire to learn about Josephine—to understand her—took all the predictable forms:

  • I spent too much money on books;
  • I collected tacky memorabilia;
  • I traveled long distances to go to museum shows;
  • I grew teary-eyed on the cobblestones of Paris…

… for eventually (and inevitably) the desire to learn about her led to the impulse to write about her, just to find out: What was it like, for her? What did it feel like, being her?

So I proceeded, one page at a time. Had I known what I was getting into, I would never have begun. Only a fool would undertake a work of this magnitude knowingly.

The first challenge, of course, was the research. Obviously, I had to learn about the times—all of the times: from the Old Régime, the Revolution, the Terror, the days of Thermidor, the Consulate, Empire—I had to come to grips with not only the waves upon waves of political upheaval, but also, of course, the finer details of dress and deportment, of manners, food and transportation. I had to research not only the life of Josephine but also the lives of all of the significant people in her life.

The second challenge, for me, was (and continues to be) learning the French language. I thought, when I began, that there was enough available in English to keep me in libraries for a lifetime. I was right—there is—but eventually, as my research became more specific, I needed to consult works that were only available in French. I also have to be able to pronounce my characters’ names! (This continues to be a problem for me.)

The third challenge was trying to figure out what actually happened. Both historians and novelists create stories to link fact A to fact B. As all of you know, histories conflict, experts differ. As a novelist I can’t say: “Exactly why Josephine returned to Martinique is not known.” I have to create a reason. I have to make a statement.

But harder than sorting out facts has been wading through the interpretations historians have made about Josephine—their assumptions, which over time have come to be regarded as fact:

  • If she spent time with a man, it was assumed she was sleeping with him.
  • If she said she was ill, it was assumed she was lying.
  • If she bought works of art, it was said she was a “hoarder” or a “spendthrift”—instead of a “collector” or a “patron of the arts.”
  • If she wept, it was said she was frivolous, or weak, or manipulative.

During her months in prison, for example, she is portrayed as weeping uncontrollably, demoralizing the other inmates. Historians neglect to quote accounts of her courage in prison. They neglect to mention that the one woman who complained of Josephine is Delpine Custine, who Josephine nursed through a violent bereavement and who recovered sufficiently to fall into the arms of Josephine’s husband Alexandre. I’m not sure, under the circumstances, that Delphine had a right to be critical of Josephine, and I resent that Delphine’s words have been passed on unqualified for hundreds of years.

Another weeping episode you are all familiar with is that of Josephine leaving Paris to join Napoleon in Italy. It is true—she did weep. The traditional explanation for her tears is that she couldn’t bear to leave the gay life of constant parties and theatre in Paris.

What is not mentioned is that:

  • Josephine, at the early age of thirty-two, was apparently going through menopause, brought on by the stress of her prison experience. One can only imagine the emotional confusion—the nightmare—of dealing with an early menopause in an age that knew little about menopause at all.
  • Furthermore, she had developed complications of “a feminine nature” and was, in fact, quite ill.
  • Also, in leaving Paris, she was leaving behind one of her dearest friends, who was dying.
  • Too, she was leaving behind her two children, at the delicate ages of thirteen and fifteen. When would she see them again? What mother would not be distressed leaving teenagers behind?
  • Also, her daughter was just about to be confirmed, and she, the mother, would not be there. This was tantamount, at the time, to not being present at a daughter’s wedding.

Given all this, then, I believe it safe to say that Josephine had very good reasons for weeping.

In general, my feeling is that Josephine has been harshly judged. Few seem willing to question the assumptions that had been made in the past. Few seem willing to try to see things from her perspective, to walk in her shoes, to give her the benefit of the doubt. And that, precisely, was one of my intentions when I began my novel—to give Josephine a chance to speak, to give her a voice.

Which brings me to the greatest challenge of all: writing the novel.

The main problem with writing historical fiction about a person’s life is: creating drama, dramatic tension.

  • A life does not unfold in chapters. (You may have noticed this.)
  • A life does not have “a message,” an underlying theme. Yet a novel must.
  • A life does not build slowly but steadily to a climax.
  • A life is rarely restricted to three main characters.

With this last draft, I was asked to include a Cast of Characters. I was shocked and depressed to count eighty significant people in Josephine’s life—and this before her life with Napoleon began!

Which brings me to another problem—nearly everyone, it seemed, was named François or Marie or both. Imagine a novel swarming with characters named François!

Another, more serious problem is wanting to put something in a novel just because it is exciting new information. For example, when I met with Bernard Chevallier and Dr. Catinat at Malmaison, both of them were quite excited by a new discovery: that Josephine had been a Freemason. Through the Freemasons, she had met influential and wealthy bankers from the Islands. This put her in a powerful position—rather like being on a first-name basis with Conrad Black. Specifically, Josephine was able to introduce Barras to these men. Dr. Catinat was of the opinion that in the exchange of money and favours between Josephine and Barras, Barras came out to the good. Furthermore, he believed (and I concur) that Josephine and Barras were not lovers.

Increasingly, through new research, I get the sense of Josephine as a rather “modern” woman: not a promiscuous woman at all, but rather, a woman who had many male friends; a woman who “networked” with men, who was comfortable in the working world of men; a woman who had financial dealings with men in an age when women did not work at all, much less handle money.

But the problem, for me, is: I want to put all this in my novel, but I can’t. I can’t see how. About Josephine’s involvement in the Freemasons—it is next to impossible for me to find specific information on secret societies. Regarding her banking wheeling and dealing: when was the last time you read a good novel about borrowing money? No, sadly, rising and falling interest rates do not make for good reading.

The point is: a novel has to work on its own terms. A novel that is merely a dramatized account of historical facts will never come to life. And bringing history to life is what it is all about.

Which brings me to the last and most frightening challenge: What right have I to make a statement about Josephine? The most difficult challenge has been finding the gall, the courage to take on this subject. How would you like to have Napoleon as a character in a novel you were writing? It’s frightening!

I have a card pinned up over my desk, next to my computer, a quote by Beckett. It says: How can I do this? The answer is: Yes, and how can you not.