Seeking Josephine in spirit world
Writer uses medium in ‘biography’ research
By Philip Marchand for The Toronto Star, July 11, 1995
Biographers will sometimes go to great lengths to feel close to their subject – think of the dogged Norman Sherry trying to visit every place on earth the late, globe-trotting novelist Graham Greene ever set foot on. But to use a channeller to contact the departed spirit of your subject – that’s serious.
Of course, strictly speaking, Sandra Gulland is a novelist, not a biographer. But she has been working on her fictional trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte – the first installment, The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., has just been published by HarperCollins – for two decades.
She’s gone to her subject’s birthplace in Martinique. She has pored over primary historical documents and corresponded with scholars and done everything a non-fiction biographer could think of doing.
Including going to that spirit medium. She is mildly embarrassed to reveal this episode, and will only say, “I found it useful. Oh, how can I put this – writing is such an intensive, meditative experience that I find it useful to explore all avenues – the esoteric as well as the academic.”
There was something fitting about trying to penetrate the spirit world, as it were, in the case of Josephine Bonaparte, a woman who had her own brushes with the occult. It was a very popular thing to do during her era-the late 18th century – both in her native Martinique and in Europe. Gulland, in fact, begins her novel with an episode – apparently well documented – about Josephine’s encounter with a voodoo practitioner who told her she would be a queen.
“I’m intrigued because I find it hard to believe that there is such a thing as destiny, that there is a master plan, that one person on the little island of Martinique, an unmarriageable daughter of a bankrupt sugar planter, should be destined to be Queen of France,” Gulland says.
“When you see it all play out, it gives you something to think about. And I know, from Josephine’s point of view, and Napoleon’s as well, it was important. It gave her courage to accept her fate gracefully.”
Josephine, in fact, was divorced by Napoleon in 1810, partly because she failed to provide him with an heir. Emotionally, she never recovered from this repudiation and died in 1815, in her early 50s.
Gulland has been fascinated by Josephine since she first read a slim volume about her more than 20 years ago.
“I was thunderstruck, really, by the story of her life, the magic and the drama of it, and the romance of it,” she says. “I became obsessed with finding out as much as I could about her. I started to write about her at that time, but I realized that it would take many more years of research and also that I had to mature as a writer before I could take on the story.”
Gulland, at that point, had been in Canada for only a few years. She had grown up in the politically turbulent atmosphere of Berkeley, Calif., and was dismayed by the violence around her. The assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 compelled her to emigrate.
“I wanted to come to Canada,” she says. “I was seeking a more peaceful nation.”
She taught for a time in an Inuit village in Labrador before settling in Ontario. She now lives near Ottawa, with her husband, a businessman, and their two children. When not researching her novels, she works as a book editor – but there is no doubt that Josephine is at the center of her imaginative life.
“I would like to think it helps me to think that Josephine’s spirit is hovering around me,” she says. “It’s almost – you know how it is when children have imaginary friends. In that 20-year period before I actually began writing, Josephine was very inspiring to me.
“She was almost a private saint, so to speak. I would think of her when I required courage. And now, as well, I think of her and think, ‘If she could do it, I can do it.’ This sounds terribly corny. But she is a very inspiring woman.”
Despite her reputation as a sexual intriguer, Josephine was distinguished by a business acumen unusual among women of that era, according to Gulland. She was never afraid to be out of step with fashionable view – even her devotion to her children (from marriage before Napoleon) was contrary to a then-prevailing tendency to devalue family ties.
Gulland is fascinated with the culture and politics of Josephine’s era. “I thought there was a lot of correspondence to the ’60s,” she says. “That whole back-to-nature movement with Rousseau. It became a fad for parents to name their children Magnolia Blossom, or Carrot Seed, or some fruit or vegetable. There was a belief in a more natural form of life.
“Everything became much freer. The women began to wear flat-heeled shoes. The corsets went. You even had something that was very similar to our punk style of clothing.
“Politically, they were dealing with a real deficit problem, an unstable economy, controversies around free trade and constitutional problems.
“All of these things seem to correspond to the things that are going on now.”
© The Toronto Star