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The Josephine B. Trilogy

The whole of the Josephine B. Trilogy: The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B; Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe; The Last Great Dance on Earth.

The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. is a sweeping, dramatic tale of romance, heartbreak, and political intrigue set during the tumultuous times of the French Revolution. Combining meticulously researched history and superb storytelling, author Sandra Gulland provides an intimate look into the lives of the men and women behind the revolution and relates Josephine Bonaparte’s marvelous, perilous rise from an innocent girl to one of the most sophisticated and powerful women in history.

The story opens in 1777 on the island of Martinique, where the young Josephine hears three predictions about her future: she will have an unhappy marriage, she will be widowed, and she will be Queen. Soon after, Josephine is sent to Paris to marry Alexandre de Beauharnais, and there her fortune unfolds.

Through her fictionalized diary entries, readers learn of the birth of her two children and the dissolution of her marriage due to her husband’s indiscretions. She tells of her days of imprisonment during the bloody French Revolution and of the fall of the French monarchy. Finally, she writes of her husband’s execution and of her fateful meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte with whom she will fulfill her destiny as Empress Josephine.

A richly detailed story, filled with the emotions of a young woman and a country under siege, The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. takes readers on a fascinating journey into the heart of one woman whose destiny became inextricably entwined in the history of a nation.

Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe begins on the day after Josephine’s marriage to the “Corsican” Napoleon, a mournful woman, beset by doubts, fearful of her children’s reaction to her marriage and what the future may hold for all of them. For France is in a state of flux. Though the dreaded Reign of Terror was ended and its architect Robespierre was dead, political intrigue is a plague on the land. Only two days after their marriage, Napoleon leaves Paris to take command of the Army of Italy; a month later in April 1796, he opens his Italian campaign and ultimately proclaims six victories.

Josephine writes of her husband’s triumphs and defeats, but it is the stresses of daily life that occupy her: the welfare of her children, aiding friends who plead for the benefit of her political contacts, the running of the household and the constant need for money to support the life that is appropriate to a woman of her station. Her marriage was little help in this regard; though Napoleon provided some funds for the running of the household, Josephine was expected to contribute the rest from her own pocket. She is further cursed with Napoleon’s family: a mother-in-law who despises her, three selfish sisters-in-law and four greedy brothers-in-law.

Though she attempts at first to charm them, it is quickly evident that nothing can defang this nest of vipers with their thinly veiled insults regarding the six-year difference in age between Josephine and Napoleon, he being twenty-six and she thirty-two at the time of their marriage. Perhaps most cruel of all is her inability to conceive a child, an issue that will eventually threaten her marriage.

One of the most startling aspects of Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe is its many parallels to late-twentieth-century life. The manners and morals of the time, the political machinations and intrigues, the profligate spending without thought of tomorrow are all mirrored in the events we see today. Here are moralists and the licentious side by side; here friendships are cast aside in favor of political power; here true friends of the republic fall as opportunists rise. But beyond politics and at its core, Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe recalls the extraordinary love story of the remarkable woman who captivated the man destined to change the world.

The Last Great Dance on Earth is the triumphant final volume of Sandra Gulland’s beloved trilogy based on the life of Josephine Bonaparte. When the novel opens, Josephine and Napoleon have been married for four tumultuous years. Napoleon is Josephine’s great love, and she his. But their passionate union is troubled from within, as Josephine is unable to produce an heir, and from without, as England makes war against France and Napoleon’s Corsican clan makes war against his wife.

Through Josephine’s heartfelt diary entries, we witness the personal betrayals and political intrigues that will finally drive them apart, culminating in Josephine’s greatest tragedy: her divorce from Napoleon and his exile to Elba. The Last Great Dance on Earth is historical fiction on a grand scale and the stirring conclusion to an unforgettable love story.

Chapter 1

From The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., the first in the trilogy:

In which I am told an extraordinary fortune


June 23, 1777 — Trois-Ilets, Martinico.


I am fourteen today and unmarried still. Without a dowry, what hope is there? Mother says the wind takes hope and dashes it into the sky, just as the big wind took our house, picked it up and dashed it, leaving nothing but debts in its place.


Oh, what a black mood has possessed me. Is not the celebration of one’s birthday supposed to bring one joy? After dinner, after eating too many doughnut fritters with guava jelly, I took my leave and climbed up to my special place in the kapok tree. It was cool in the shade of the leaves. I could hear Grandmother Sannois and Mother arguing in the front parlor, the slaves chanting as they pushed the cane stalks through the rollers in the crushing hut, a chicken scratching in the honeysuckle bushes. I felt strange up there — peering out at my world, enveloped in gloom on my happy day.


It’s the voodoo, surely, the bitter-tasting quimbois Mimi got me to drink this morning, a drink of secret spells. “Something manbo Euphémie made for you,” she whispered. She’d knotted a red and yellow scarf tight around her head.


“Euphémie David — the teller of fortunes?” The obeah woman, the voodoo priestess who lived in the shack up the river.
Mimi pushed the coconut bowl into my hands. “It will bring you a man.”
I regarded the liquid cautiously, for it smelled vile.


“Quick!” She glanced over her shoulder. For Mother doesn’t hold with voodoo. Mother says the Devil speaks through the mouths of the voodoo spirits. Mother says the Devil is hungry for girls like me. Mother says the Devil sent her too many girls and is hungry to get one back.


So this is confession number one in this, my new diary, sent to me all the way from Paris by my beautiful Aunt Désirée: I drank a magic potion and I’ll not tell Mother. I drank a magic potion and I’m filled with woe.
A note Aunt Désirée enclosed with her gift read: “A little book in which to record your wishes and dreams, your secret confessions.” I shook the book over the table. Ten livres fell out.


“Confessions?” my sister Catherine asked. She is twelve now, almost thirteen, but even so, always into mischief. At convent school the nuns make a fuss over Catherine. They don’t know it is Catherine who lets the chicken into the rectory, that it is Catherine who steals the sugar cakes before they are cooled. Catherine has the soul of a trickster, Mimi says.


“Tell us your wish,” my youngest sister, Manette, said, lisping through the gap in her teeth. I was saddened by the light in her eyes, for she is only ten, young enough to believe that wishes are granted.


I shrugged. “My wish is the same every year.” I glanced at Father. He had started the day with rum and absinthe and followed it with ti-punches all through the afternoon. “To go to France.” Send Rose to France, My beautiful Aunt Désirée would write every year — send her to me, to Paris.


Father looked away. His skin was yellow; it is the malaria again, surely. So then I felt bad, for is it Father’s fault he’d inherited only debts? Is it his fault he has been cursed with three daughters and no son, that Mother’s dowry turned to dust in his hands, that his dream of sending me to France had never materialized for want of the price of passage?


“France!” Grandmother Sannois pushed her two pug dogs off her lap. “I’d keep that girl well away from Madame Désirée.” Grandmother Sannois doesn’t approve of Aunt Désirée, or any of the Taschers for that matter (especially Father). “What’s wrong with that boy over near Laniantin,” she said, downing her laudanum: seven drops in a jigger of brandy. “What’s wrong with that Beal boy?”


Algernon Beal! The fat boy we all call Algie.
“Monsieur Beal requires a dowry,” Mother said.


“Monsieur de Beal, I believe it is now,” Father said, “the manufacturer of shackles and branding irons, the owner of three gilded carriages, twenty-two fighting cocks, an English Thoroughbred stallion and one dim-witted son.” Father coughed and emptied his glass. “Monsieur de Beal and I had occasion to converse at the slave auction in Fort-Royal last month. He told me at length and in great detail how large a girl’s dowry would have to be, how noble her bloodline, how abundant her bosom and intact her maidenhood even to dream of marrying his pimple-faced boy — ”


Manette had her napkin stuffed in her mouth to keep from laughing.
“Well, there’s always the convent,” Grandmother Sannois said.


The convent. Always the convent. Is this to be my future? I yearn for so much more! But it’s too late now, I know, for on this, my fourteenth birthday, Aunt Désirée made no offer, and, for the first time since I can remember, Father made no promise…and I liked it better before, to tell the truth, with glittering false hopes to brighten my day.


June 24.


This morning I gave my ten livres to the slave-master to divide among the field-hands. I am grown now and more aware of the sufferings of the world.


But Mother found out and got cross, accusing me of being like Father. “Generous” Father who would let his family starve to feed a friend. “Crazy” Father with his wild stories and dreams of glory. “Dreams from the rum god,” she cursed. “Promises like clouds on a summer day.”


Father who is never home. Already he’s off to Fort-Royal — “to play games with the Devil,” Grandmother Sannois said.
“To play games with the she-devils,” Mother said quietly under her breath.


Sunday, June 29.


Dear Diary, I have been giving thought to my sins, making repentance.
I am guilty of wishful thinking, of extravagant imaginings.
I am guilty of gazing at myself in the pond.
I am guilty of sleeping with my hands under my bedsheets.
There, it is written. The ink is drying as I write. I must close this book now — I cannot bear to look at these words.


Sunday, July 6


“Mademoiselle Tascher,” Father Dropper called to me after church this morning. “Your grandmother asked me to talk to you.”
I fingered the pages of my missal. Outside I heard a horse whinny and a man shouting.


“You are coming to an age of decision,” he said. His big nose twitched.
“Yes, Father.” I could see the outline of his vest under his white frock.
He paused. “I advise you to bend to God’s will, to accept a life of service.”
I felt my cheeks becoming heated.


Father Dropper handed me a handkerchief. “The life of a nun might satisfy that hungry heart of yours.”
Through the high open window I could see the head of the statue of Christ in the cemetery, His eyes looking up at the clouds. The hunger I felt was for fêtes and silk slippers, for the love of a comely beau.


He bent toward me. “I was young once, too,” he said. I could smell rum on his breath.
“I would die in a convent!”


Forgive me, Father. I backed away. At the door I turned and ran.


July 24.


This afternoon Mimi and I were playing in the ruins when Mimi saw a spot on my chemise.
I twisted and pulled my skirt around. Blood?
“It’s the flowers,” Mimi said.
I didn’t know what to do.
“Tell your mother,” she said.
“I can’t do that!” Mother is proper.


So Mimi got me a rag which she instructed me on how to use. She told me she washes hers out in the creek, early, when no one is around to see.
“Where we bathe?” How disgusting.
“Farther down the river.”


I move around the house aware of this great cloth between my legs, thinking that surely everyone notices. This is supposed to be the big change in me, but all I feel is ill.




Mimi is teaching me how to tell the future from cards, how to lay them out, how to know the meaning. Today we practised on my sister Catherine. The card in the ninth place was Death.


Catherine protested.
“It’s not really death,” Mimi said, taking up the cards. She sniffed the air.


Later, I questioned her. “Why did you stop?”
“Didn’t you smell cigar smoke?” she whispered. “The spirit of Death is a trickster. Never believe him.”


Thursday, July 31.


Dear Diary, something terrible has happened; it hangs over my heart like a curse.
It began with a lie. I told my little sister Manette that Mimi and I were going to the upper field to see if Father’s ship was in the harbour yet. “You stay here,” I told her.


Mimi and I headed up the trace behind the manioc hut, but at the top of the hill we took the path that led back down to the river, toward Morrie Croc-Souris. We hadn’t gone far when Manette caught up with us.
“I told you to stay,” I told her.
“You lied. You said you were going up the hill.”
Mimi glared at her. “Can you keep a secret?”
“I never tell!”


It was dark by the river; the moss hung thick from the trees. We heard a chicken squawking before we came upon the fortuneteller’s shack.
“That’s where the werewolf lives,” Manette said, taking my hand.
I looked at Mimi. “Is this it?”


In front of the hut was a charcoal brazier. The air was thick with the smell of roasted goat. In the shadows of a verandah roofed over with banana tree leaves, I saw an old Negro woman sitting cross-legged. Euphémie David — the voodoo priestess.


As we approached she stood up. She was wearing a red satin ball gown fringed with gold, much tattered and stained and too big for her. Her hair was white and woolly, standing out around her head like a halo. A rusty machete was propped up against the wall behind her.


Mimi called out something I couldn’t understand. The old woman said something in the African tongue.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“Come,” the old woman said. A puppy came out of the shack and growled at us.
“I’ll stay back here,” Manette said.
Mimi pushed me forward.
“Aren’t you coming too?” I asked.
The two of us approached. What was there to be afraid of?


Entering the shade of the verandah, I was surprised how small the old woman was, not much bigger than Manette. Her loose black skin hung from her neck. She held a shell bowl in one hand — pigs’ knuckles and coconut, it looked like — and was eating it with her fingers. She threw a bone to the puppy to finish. The old woman and Mimi began talking in the African tongue. I looked back over my shoulder. Manette was standing by a calabash tree, watching. A crow called out warning sounds.
Mimi touched my arm. “She says your future is all around you.”
“What does that mean?”


The old woman went into the shack. She returned with a basket which she pushed into my hands. In the basket were a gourd rattle, a wooden doll, a stick, two candles, a bone, bits of frayed ribbon and a crucifix.
The old woman said something to Mimi.
“She wants you to pick out three things,” Mimi told me.
“Anything?” I took a candle, the doll and the crucifix out of the basket. “She wants you to put them down,” Mimi said.
“In the dirt?”


The old woman began chanting. I looked to see if Manette was still by the calabash tree. I shrugged at her. I remember thinking: See, there is nothing to fear.
The old woman began to moan, rolling her head from side to side, the whites of her eyes cloudy. Then she looked at me and screamed — a sound I will never forget, not unlike a pig being stuck.
“What is it!” I demanded. I was not without fear. “Mimi! Why is she crying?”
The old woman was shaking her head and mumbling. Finally she spoke, slowly, but strangely. “You will be unhappily married. You will be widowed.”


I put my hand to my throat.
The old woman began to shake. She shook her hands, crying out words I could not understand.
“Mimi, what is she saying!”
The old woman began to dance, singing with the voice of a man. I backed away, stumbling over a gnarled tree root. I fell in the dirt and scrambled to my feet.
You will be Queen, she said.


Copyright © 1995 by Sandra Gulland

“What a joy! Historical fiction with equal measures heart, soul, and intellect. With complete authority and searing intimacy, Ms. Gulland has captured and delivered to us the voice of one of history’s most fascinating women. Thoroughly compulsive reading.” —Robin Maxwell, author of The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn

“The rich tapestry of this trilogy is not to be missed.” —The Historical Novels Review

“A three-part beach book with brains and style.” —The Toronto Globe & Mail

“With spare yet elegant prose, Gulland transports the reader back in time.”—Theresa Eckford for the Historical Novel Society

“A spellbinding journey of Josephine’s life”—San Benadino Sun

“From the opening sentence until the very last word, I was captivated.”—Bygone Days

‘This is a truly glorious trilogy. Impeccably researched and beautifully written, Sandra Gulland really gets beneath the skin of her subject, creating a truly empathetic portrait of one of modern history’s most fascinating women.’ —Andrea Stuart, author of the biography Josephine.

From readers:

I get notes from readers through email or Facebook or Twitter. Each one touches me greatly. Here are quotes from a few:

I devoured all three books in a week and loved every single word.

“One warning: These books are addicting and your children may suffer from neglect for a couple of days while you read.”

“I just finished your trilogy today and could not put the last book down until it was done. My entire day at work, as a bank teller, was completely CONSUMED with Josephine. I cried all day long.”

“With a history degree and two English degrees under my belt, it’s safe to say I’m a big fan of historical fiction. It’s also safe to say that the best histfic I’ve ever read is Sandra Gulland’s Josephine trilogy.”

“In this first of three books inspired by the life of Josephine Bonaparte, Sandra Gulland has created a novel of immense and magical proportions.” **highly recommended**

“I have never emailed an author before, but I just have to thank you for writing the Josephine series. … I’m afraid to finish…I will feel like I’ve lost a great friend.”

“I just wanted to tell you that you are by far my favorite author. You made the mystery of Josephine come alive for me.”

“I have already heard from many of the women who have said they couldn’t put the book down – I’m SO not surprised! I basically touted it as the historical novel for people who don’t generally like ‘historical novels’ – It’s sort of a sure thing!”

“Your book is so good! I read it by mistake at a friends house and was over-whelmed! i’m eleven.”

“Somehow Gulland is able to almost immediately create a bond (esp. for me) between reader and characters.”

“I just finished your Josephine trilogy, and I found it absolutely fascinating.”

“I am totally blown away by your magnificent Trilogy on Josephine. I can’t put it down.”

“I have just read The Many Lives & Secrets Sorrows of Josephine B. and Tales of Sorrow, Tales of Woe. I loved them so much! I read them both in under a week. I’m now reading The Last Great Dance on Earth. It breaks my heart that I’ll be done with this trilogy. Thank you for being wonderful!”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for your brilliant trilogy.”

“Love, love, love. Love it so much, in fact, that I’ve read the series six times. I might read it again this week. Highly recommend.”

“I am in awe! I literally devoured the books, one right after the other! Fantastic!”

“I have to tell you that I finished the Josephine trilogy last month and every other book I have tried to pick up has paled in comparison. I felt as though I had lost my best friend after I was done with it.”

“I could not get enough of the Josephine Bonaparte trilogy! It was absolutely beyond addicting — I could not put them down, not for a second!”

“I have raved about your Josephine trilogy until everyone glazed over. I have passed them around and when they got stuck midstream somewhere, the next person on the list would beg me to force the culprit to finish and pass it on. We are a definite fan club in my circle!”

“I just reread the Trilogy this last week. And don’t think I am a psycho fan for saying this, but I used a line out of the second book in a tattoo I recently had done: Small Deceits Destroy Faith.”

“I have never loved historical novels but these books have changed my mind. Your words conjured up a magical world that I so enjoyed walking through. I am urging all my friends to read your books.”

“I just want to say that reading your Josephine B. trilogy has so greatly affected me, I really can not put into words how much I enjoyed them. I simply could not put them down.”

“I have just finished the Josephine B. Triology – thank you for one of the best reading experiences I have had in a long time.”

“Please keep writing!”

For discussion suggestions, see those listed for each of the novels in the Trilogy: The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B, Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe, The Last Great Dance on Earth.

For a Q & A about Josephine, click here.

Thank you, Josephine: Destiny has smiled on historical fiction writer Sandra Gulland”

Watch Napoleon, the PBS documentary
, which I was honoured to be interviewed for—and especially honoured that French historians had been the ones to bring me to the attention of the director.

For discussion suggestions, see those listed for each of the novels in the Trilogy:

The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B,
Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe,
The Last Great Dance on Earth.