Mud Baths & Dusty Coffins:
In Search of Josephine B.
A writer’s obsession with Josephine Bonaparte has taken her through palaces and battlefields – and to a historic spa in the mountains southeast of Paris.
Published in The Globe and Mail, July 25, 1998.
Over two decades ago I was rather bitten by a curiosity bug: Josephine B., it whispered. As in Bonaparte. As in wife of Napoleon. As in, simply, Josephine.
The symptoms of this affliction are obvious: books, overflowing shelves, curious gathering dust, obscure portraits covering the walls of my house.
It was a case both chronic and acute: I gave up my day job as an editor and crossed the line, as they say on The X-Files, to the other side. I became an author.
My obscession took me into the palaces and battlefields of Europe. It has spawned, so far, two novels based on Josephine’s life. The first, The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., was published three years ago; the second, Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe, appeared this spring. I am starting the third book now.
Seeking Josephine has been an adventure on a global scale. Researching the first book took me on missions to Paris and Martinique, where Josephine was born and raised. For this second, I traced her voyage through northern Italy and into the Vosges Mountains of France.
Among the places I travelled to was Mombello, Josephine and Napoleon’s summer residence during the first Italian campaign. Described in other books as palatial, the villa surprised me by it’s small proportions. What was their bedroom is now a school lunchroom, a plaque on the wall: the only evidence that they were ever there. In Milan, their Palazzo Serbelloni was also a far cry from the glittering confection commonly described. Now it is a government office building. In Josephine’s suite, the rooms were small and dark. No wonder she was unhappy here, I thought.
The sumptuous villa Manin de Passariano, northeast of Venice, on the other hand, stunned me with its majesty. It was there that Josephine smoothed tempers as Napoleon negotiated a peace treaty with Austria.
But nowhere revealed more to me about Josephine than the tiny spa of Plombières-les-Bains in the mountains southeast of Paris.
I arrived there at night. Immediately I opened the doors to the balcony facing out over the village. The ancient grey houses clustered along a mountain valley, “as if they had tumbled into a crevice and were too weary to rise,” I had Josephine describe it in the novel. She loved Plombières, as had her daughter Hortense and Hortense’s son Oui-oui (more commonly known as Napoleon III).
Doctors had recommended that Josephine “take the waters” at Plombières because she’d been unable to conceive a child with Napoleon. (Today the waters are believed to cure intestinal problems and rheumatism, although not infertility.) As modest as the village is, it had been visited by almost all the royals and demi-royals of Europe of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Its appeal, and its history, can be traced to the Romans, who had also come for the hot mineral water that surges through the rocks under the village.
In the morning I presented myself at the deluxe Thermes Napoleon, where I managed to convey that I wished to try a variety of water treatments such as those Josephine herself might have taken in the late 18th century. An amused nurse ticked off a number of items on a card. Then, in blue plastic pantouffles and a white terry robe, I shuffled through the vast, wet marble halls to my first treatments: bain radio-gazeux (a Jacuzzi gone mad), and compress thermale (a series of steaming towels). For my third treatment I was encased in a heavy cocoon of warm mud followed by a vigorous massage under a shower.
After a few inquires, I located where Josephine had stayed nearby. The former inn was smaller than I’d expected. I looked up at the windows to her corner room (now a dentist’s office), examined the height of the balcony that had given way under her, the fall nearly crippling her. Immediately after her fall, a sheep was slaughtered and she was wrapped in its skin. Musicians had seranaded her as she healed, likely standing on the very cobblestones I myself was occupying.
Days later, I left Plombières for Paris, from where I immediately set out for Malmaison, Josephine and Napoleon’s home in nearby Rueil-Malmaison. I walked through the familiar, elegant rooms, imagining. At closing I set out on foot for the village. I was in luck: The church was open. I bought a rose at the florist’s shop across the square and once inside the empty church, stood before Josephine’s tomb. I’d gone to mass in the church of her childhood; this was the church of her death. Both were small, village churches. In-between she’d been crowned Empress of the French in the cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris.
Overcome with a feeling Josephine might have called melancholy, I lay the rose on top of her tomb, took a few swipes at the dust, and left. I knew I would return.
Now, preparing to write The Last Great Dance on Earth, the last of my Josephine B. novels, I’ve spread out the maps once again. I’d like to visit Evreux, northwest of Paris, where Josephine was often obliged to live after Napoleon remarried. I’d like to see the castle of Laeken near Brussels where she consoled her grief-mad daughter, struck dumb by the death of a son. I know the facts, but the facts are not enough. The places reveal so much more.