Exploring one of history’s most famous duos:
Area writer pens second novel about Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte
By Andrew Wagner-Chazalon for The Daily Observer, Wednesday, May 13, 1998
On the morning after her wedding, a young woman wonders if she has made a mistake. Beautiful and intelligent, she has just married a boorish soldier whom she barely knows.
The woman’s name is Josephine; the new husband is Napoleon Bonaparte.
The day after their wedding is the opening scene in Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe, the second novel from Killaloe-area writer Sandra Gulland.
The first book in the trilogy, The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., was published in 1995 to great acclaim: Quill & Quire called it “a fascinating read from beginning to end,” Books in Canada said it was “utterly absorbing,” and the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star both put it on their top choice lists. English and Italian publishers are releasing it later this year, an American release is scheduled for 1999, and there is even talk of a movie.
“It’s really, really exciting,” said Ms. Gulland.
It is also, she admits, a little surprising. A freelance editor by trade, she spent years researching the Many Lives & Secret Sorrows, driven by her own fascination with Josephine Bonaparte. The novel that resulted was written as much for its own sake as out of a belief it would be published.
“I thought ‘who’s going to be interested in this?'” she said. “I thought I might not even be able to get it published.”
Now Ms. Gulland has given up editing, and is writing and researching full-time. “This is extremely time-consuming,” she said.
Although she has extensive knowledge of the period, researching the second novel presented some unique challenges. Tales of Passion is set in between the French Revolution and the beginning of the empire, a time of wrenching transition in French society. The nobility has fled or been executed, France was almost constantly at war, inflation was rampant and a new middle class was coming into existence.
“It was a period of tremendous instability,” said Ms. Gulland. That instability complicates the researcher’s job, since many people were too busy trying to survive to worry about keeping copious journals.
“They weren’t yet aware that they were creating history,” Ms. Gulland said.
On top of that, before she could write the book Ms. Gulland had to solve a murder. When Josephine’s lover General Lazare Hoche died, it was widely rumored that he had been murdered. In order to write about that period, Ms. Gulland had to come up with a convincing suspect.
She won’t identify the culprit, since Tales of Passion is partly a mystery story, but she did check her scenario with a Napoleonic historian who acts as her consultant. “It’s a viable thesis,” Ms. Gulland said.
In all her books Ms. Gulland has had to overcome the fact that much more has been written about Napoleon’s exploits than about Josephine’s. “He really is so interesting, and what he’s doing is very dramatic,” Ms. Gulland said. “But Josephine is right in the thick of it. She’s not just sitting home and knitting.”
Josephine was particularly important to Napoleon’s career during the time covered in Tales of Passion. While he was preparing for and eventually leading a military coup, she was exerting vital influence, even betraying very close friends for his sake.
Much of the action in Tales of Passion is set in Italy, so Ms. Gulland had to learn some Italian as part of her research. She learned to read French in order to research The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows, and she suspects she’ll have to learn some German to research the third novel.
She also traveled to Europe again to follow in Josephine’s footsteps. Visiting the places where Josephine stayed brought some surprises. “I was often shocked at what I found, because it completely changed what I had imagined it to be.”
Some palaces that were described in contemporary accounts as magnificent and glittering, Ms. Gulland found to be small and dark. Another palace in Italy barely merits a description, yet Ms. Gulland was astonished by its beauty. “I couldn’t believe how grand it was. It must have overwhelmed her to be mistress of such a place,” she said.
Ms. Gulland also traveled to a health spa which Josephine visited, and received some of the same treatments Josephine had. In her acknowledgements she thanks “the men and women at Plombliere-les-Bains who enthusiastically subjected me to a variety of water treatments.”
While researching The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows, Ms. Gulland tried on period clothing, and even consulted a medium to try and contact Josephine’s spirit. All of this is done in order to get inside the mind of her heroine, to present her story in rich, authentic detail.
Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe was officially launched on May 2; on May 1, Ms. Gulland began work plotting the third novel, The Last Great Dance on Earth, which is scheduled for release in fall 2000. After that, Ms. Gulland is considering other historical periods. She may go back another hundred years to write about Louise de la Vallière, the love of “The Sun King” Louis XIV. Other historical figures that interest her are St. Vincent de Paul and Eleanor of Aquitaine.
“I have a long list of novels I want to write,” she said.
© The Daily Observer