Possessed by Josephine
Napoleon’s wife holds author enthralled
By Paul Gessell for The Ottawa Citizen, Wednesday, June 3, 1998
Sandra Gulland started writing a novel eight years ago about a woman from the backwoods Ontario community of Killaloe who was possessed by the spirit of Josephine Bonaparte.
The novel, as it turns out, was suspiciously autobiographical.
Gulland also hails from Killaloe, a whistle stop 100 kilometers west of Ottawa on the road to Algonquin Park. Gulland is also possessed by the spirit of Napoleon’s wife.
How else to explain the last 20 years, much of which has been spent sleuthing through history to learn everything possible there is to know about Josephine? How else to explain why Gulland has just completed the second part of a three-part semi-fictional biography of Josephine entitled Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.)?
Gulland does not look like a woman possessed. She has long, wavy blond hair, an engaging smile, a great sense of humour, a propensity towards intelligent conversation and civilized table manners.
But two decades ago, while living in Toronto and researching possible subjects for a series of biographies aimed at young adults, Gulland picked up “a little book” about Josephine. She was immediately hooked and began taking books out of the library to learn more about the woman Napoleon ordered to take baths after, not before, sex.
“I knew I would write something about her some day, but I knew it would take a long time to be ready to do that.”
The years sped by. Gulland was involved in other projects in her career as a book editor, and then, nine years ago, she had a dream. Actually, she recalls, it was more of a nightmare.
“It was a dream about a theatrical troupe where the main characters were Josephine and Napoleon-they turned into Josephine and Napoleon when they put on their costumes. I jumped out of bed trembling and I had this feeling of a glass ball in my stomach. Then, I decided to write a contemporary novel about a woman who was possessed by the spirit of Josephine and I worked on that for about a year.
“Josephine was starting to take over the novel so I said: ‘I have to get her out of my system, I’ll just take a month, I’ll write a short biography of her life-a young adult book.’ That’s how it began.”
But forget the notion of “a short biography.” First came the 1995 book The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., which takes us from Josephine’s childhood in the 1770s in the French colony of Martinique, to her move to Paris to marry her cousin, Alexandre de Beauharnais, the birth of their children, Eugène and Hortense, the French revolution, the death of Alexandre and her marriage to Napoleon.
Now, we have Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe, in which Josephine becomes a war profiteer, almost commits adultery and is the subject of constant smears by a pack of unfriendly Bonapartes.
By 2000, we should have The Last Great Dance on Earth, which takes us to Waterloo, banishment and Josephine’s death. Gulland is still working out the plot for that one and has not yet started to write it.
The first two books are both written as if they were part of Josephine’s actual diary.
They could be described as “women’s books” in that they are written by a woman, about a woman and focusing on the concerns of upper-class women of that era. There are more scenes describing clothes, servants and tittle-tattle than there are about cannon-fire, dues and strong brandy.
Gulland says she is fascinated with Josephine because of her courage, generosity and perseverance in the face of adversity. Some other historians have pained a less flattering portrait of Josephine, believing her to be more of a greedy schemer who two-timed Napoleon.
“I like to give her the benefit of the doubt,” says Gulland. “I’m presenting a thesis, in a way, in fiction.”
In Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe, Josephine flirts outrageously with one Capt. Hippolyte Charles, a confidant and partner in a war profiteering business. But the two never consummate their relationship in the book although some history-minded gossips insist the two carried on a passionate affair.
Gulland says there will be life after Josephine. And there will be more books, also on French history.
But until then, there is a third book on Josephine to prepare.
“I’m really looking forward to the next one,” Gulland says, as her eyes sparkle and her voice assumes the intensity of a woman possessed.
© The Ottawa Citizen