Walking in Josephine’s Shoes
Sandra Gulland is so obsessed by Josephine Bonaparte that she sometimes writes cheques with the date 1800. She tells Alexandra Gill how her best-selling trilogy about Napoleon’s wife changed her life.
By Alexandra Gill for The Globe & Mail, Saturday, November 4, 2000
The guests at the front desk of Toronto’s King Edward hotel turn and stare as Sandra Gulland strolls by in a long, flowing, late-18th-century-style gown. Gulland bought the gown from the wardrobe department of the Toronto production of “Napoleon,” Andrew Sabiston’s and Timothy Williams’s 1994 musical. “Just a moment,” Gulland instructs the photographer, as she hops up onto a narrow marble ledge in the upper atrium and rearranges the billowing layers of brocaded silk. “My slip is showing.”
Yikes! One small misstep in her satin ballet slippers or yank on the wrong fold of her lace train, and Gulland could easily crash to the lobby 30 feet below.
“That would be an interesting story, don’t you think?” Gulland laughs, as she leans back against a pillar. The more telling question might be: What won’t the 56-year-old author of The Last Great Dance on Earth, the third in her trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte, do for her heroine?
The Last Great Dance marks the end of a passionate project that has consumed Gulland for more than two decades. So much so that she sometimes finds herself writing out cheques with the date 1800. But Gulland isn’t alone in her obsession with Josephine, Napoleon’s consort. With books published in eight countries, the trilogy has garnered a cult following around the world. Her U.S. publisher has already ordered a third printing of the latest title, even before its official release date this month. And Gulland, who says she once loathed historical fiction and knew nothing about the Napoleonic era, has become a recognized authority on the subject.
Perhaps Gulland’s success can be attributed to her zeal for investigating the small, obscure details. She’s even resorted to spiritual channellers and tarot card readings to supplement her academic research. “I was willing to look into anything that could help me understand Josephine: academic work, consulting with historians, traveling, talking to psychics. It didn’t matter. I would take from it whatever it gave me,” she says.
Gulland first got hooked on Josephine 20 years ago, after reading a slim biography of the impoverished girl from Martinique who would grow up to become Napoleon’s wife. She devoured every book she could find on the subject, collected tacky memorabilia, grew teary on the cobblestones of Paris and travelled to faraway museums. “I wanted to take her crown and feel what it felt like,” she says. “Or crawl into her bed and have a little nap.”
Gulland grew up in Berkeley, Calif., and emigrated to Canada in 1969. She spent a year teaching Inuit children in Labrador and then later moved to Toronto. By 1989, she was living with her husband, a clothing manufacturer, and two children in Killaloe, Ont., a small town about 100 kilometers west of Ottawa-and she was still fixated on Josephine.
Intimidated by the thought about writing about a historical figure and with little knowledge of French, Gulland instead began writing a contemporary novel about a woman from the backwoods of Ontario who was “inconveniently possessed” by the spirit of Josephine Bonaparte. She worked on that for nearly a year, but found that Josephine was taking over the novel. She switched to a fictional autobiography, in the form of a diary, thinking it would take her a month. Five years later, Gulland published The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., the first novel of the trilogy that traces Rose Tascher’s childhood in Martinique, her move to Paris and her eventual marriage to Napoleon, the Corsican soldier who would become emperor and rename her Josephine.
Does Gulland ever wish she had fallen for a slightly more obscure character? She sighs wearily. “If I had known what I was getting into, I would never have begun. You’d have to be, well, you’d have to be what I was-fairly naïve.”
Her portrait of Josephine is vastly more sympathetic than that of the weak, frivolous, manipulative adulteress most historians have painted. “I chose to give her the benefit of the doubt,” Gulland says.
On her first trip to Paris, Gulland met her two main consultants: Bernard Chevallier, the curator at Château de Malmaison, a Napoleonic museum in Josephine’s and Napoleon’s restored home, 45 minutes outside of Paris, and Dr. Maurice Catinat, a Josephine scholar who also works at Malmaison.
“Was she promiscuous?” Gulland asked them, referring to a biography that listed Josephine’s many alleged affairs. “They said much of it was made up. Until then I had been naïve enough to assume that everything I read was true. From that point on, I began to read more critically, looking for the evidence on which historians based such judgments. And once you start to look at the evidence, an entirely different image of Josephine comes through.”
Much to Gulland’s surprise, her interpretation of Josephine has been warmly embraced in France. When a PBS crew was interviewing French historians for a Napoleonic biography, which begins airing Nov. 8, they suggested the producer interview Gulland. They did. More recently, Gulland discovered that the BBC “History” Magazine has listed The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. in its list of top 10 historical novels. And now she has finalized an agreement that will see the backbone of her research-a thick, meticulously footnoted timeline that details Josephine’s daily movements, and those of her family and friends, plus the developments on the battlefield and in Paris (right down to the flu viruses that were plaguing the populace in any given year)-entered into the library at the University of Florida.
Her fans are even more enthusiastic. While writing this last book, Gulland regularly received mail from anxious readers demanding to know when it would be published. A friend reading a draft was accosted by readers who wanted to get their hands on it. And Gulland was recently told about a rural community in Pennsylvania where the books are so popular that when a reader finishes one, she simply puts it into her mailbox for the postman to deliver to the next box down the road.
For her next novel, Gulland will travel back in time to the court of the Sun King and his first love, Louise de la Vallière. “She was an extraordinary athlete, quite a horsewoman. She could outride and outhunt the men. That, combined with her portrait as a timid wallflower, really interests me.”
The research-which will involve learning to ride sidesaddle, dance lessons and the mysteries of horse whisperers-appeals to Gulland. She isn’t so enthused about the fashions of the era. “It’s very heavily corseted,” she says, looking down mournfully at her comfortable loose gown. “I don’t think I’ll be doing this again.”
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