The Last Great Dance on Earth
“Did she know how much we loved her?”
A novel about an enduring love set against the opulence and treachery of the Empire years; Josephine’s life from 1799 to her death in 1814 at the age of 50.
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.
In which peace seems an impossible dream
March 2, 1800 — Tuileries Palace, Paris.
“Josephine…Come see the moon.”
I woke with a start. A man was nudging my shoulder, his face illuminated by candlelight. “Bonaparte, it’s you,” I said, clasping his hand. I’d been dreaming of home, of my beautiful Martinico, dreaming of the sea. But I was not on a tropical island. I was in the dank, opulent palace, in the bed of Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI — the bed of the dead. I pressed Bonaparte’s fingers against my cheek. “What time is it?”
“Almost three. Come outside with me.”
“Now?” I asked, but threw back the covers.
“It’s a little chilly,” he said, draping a cape over my shoulders.
A full moon hung over the river, bathing the gardens in a radiant light. “It reminds me of something you once wrote to me,” I said, taking Bonaparte’s hand. “That we are born, we live and we die — in the midst of the marvelous.”
“I don’t remember writing that,” he said, heading toward the steps that lead down to the flower beds.
The fertile scent of spring was heavy in the air. Bonaparte brushed off a stone bench for us to sit on. I leaned my head on his shoulder, overcome with a feeling of longing. It is the season of renewal, yet I remain barren — in spite of love, in spite of prayers.
“I think best in the open air,” Bonaparte said. “My thoughts are more expansive.” By moonlight, in profile, he looked like a Roman statue. “See those shacks down by the laundry boats? Every citizen should have a proper home — and clean water. I’m thinking of a canal system to bring it in. And more hospitals — there should never be more than one patient to a bed. And bridges across the river would be beautiful as well as practical. Imagine it! I intend to make Paris the most beautiful city of all time.”
“You will do it,” I said, with confidence. What could stop him? Already so much has changed. Before Bonaparte, everything was chaos, and now prosperity prevails and France is made whole again — I am made whole again. Not long ago I was a widow, a survivor of the Terror, a frightened mother of two children. Now I look upon my life with wonder, for everywhere there is abundance — of wealth, certainly, and even glory, but mainly of heart. As Madame Bonaparte — indeed, as Josephine — I have felt my spirit blossom. This intense little man I married has inspired me to believe once again in heroes, in destiny, but above all in the miracle of love.
It was at this moment that I found the courage to voice the question I have long been afraid to ask: “Bonaparte, what if…?” What if we can’t have a child?
An owl’s plaintive call pierced the night silence. “We must not give up hope,” Bonaparte said gently. “Destiny has blessed us in so many ways.”
Blessed me, certainly — blessed Hortense and Eugène, my fatherless children. “You have blessed us,” I told him truly.
Je le veux, Bonaparte so often says. I will it!
If only he could will a child into being.
Tonight, after the Opéra, Bonaparte was thrown a bouquet by a girl in a revealing gown, her plaited straw bonnet tied with blue ribbons. “I’ll hold that,” I offered.
Later I discovered a note tucked in it, inviting the First Consul to a rendezvous. I threw it into the fire. Daily, it seems, Bonaparte receives an invitation from some young maiden eager to sacrifice her virtue to “the saviour of France.”
I knew from the way Bonaparte pitched his battered tricorne hat across the room that the news was not good. “They refused my offer of an armistice,” he said with a tone of defeat. His hat missed the chair and fell onto the carpet, startling the three pugs sleeping on a cushion by the fire.
“Refused to even consider it.” Bonaparte threw himself into the down-stuVed armchair; two feathers floated free. “Refused to even discuss it.” His cheek twitched. “Pacem nolo quia infida,” he said, mocking an English accent.
“The English said that?” I rescued Bonaparte’s hat from the pugs.
“No peace with…the infidel?” Hortense translated slowly, looking up from a charcoal sketch she was working on. She pushed a flaxen curl out of her eyes, leaving a smudge of black above her brow.
“And we’re the infidel?” I asked (indignant).
Bonaparte got up and began to pace, his hands clenched behind his back. “The British flog their own soldiers and accuse us of brutality. They violate international agreements and accuse us of lawlessness. They pay every Royalist nation in Europe to wage war against us and accuse us of starting conflicts! If they don’t want war, why don’t they try to end it?”
“Papa, you must not give up,” Hortense said with feeling. Peace is something my daughter has never known, I realized sadly. When has France not been at war with England?
“I will never give up,” Bonaparte said with quiet intensity, that spirit his soldiers call le feu sacré: the will to be victorious — or die.
March 9 — Malmaison, our fourth-year anniversary.
We stayed all morning in bed. Bonaparte’s hopeful enthusiasm for conceiving a child makes me sad. Every time we have marital congress (often!) he names the baby — a boy, of course. This morning it was Géry — Napoleon Géry Bonaparte. Last week it was Baudouin, Gilles, Jean. Tonight, who will it be? Jacques? Benoît? Donatien?
I go along with this game, yet I know I’ll not conceive. I had a hint of a show several months ago, but no longer, in spite of the tincture of senna I take to keep my body open, the endless restoratives and expulsives I consume — birthwort boiled in beer, syrup of savin, powdered aloe and iron — all bitter to the taste and bitter to the soul.
2:45 P.M. — a lovely spring afternoon.
“I have the perfect cure,” Madame Frangeau said, pulling her cap so that the lappets would hang properly. “It has never failed.”
I observed the midwife with astonishment. She was as eccentrically dressed as I’d been told to expect, her shirred gown covered with the fringes and tassels that had been the fashion before the Revolution. “Ergot?” I guessed. The mould was said to be infallible (except in my case).
“No, not ergot, not jalapa, not even scammony. Come with me.”
I followed her out of her modest abode and over the cobblestones to the door of a house on a narrow street. “Madame Frangeau,” I protested, “I don’t think I should — ”
“Madame Bonaparte, I am the midwife,” she informed me with authority, pounding on the door.
And indeed, she did have authority, for all the household jumped at her command. I followed her into a bedchamber where she told a woman in bed, “Don’t stir! I have need only of your infant.” She instructed me to sit in the nursery, to slip my gown of my shoulders, whereupon, having cleansed me, she put the swaddled infant to my breast. “I will return in a half hour,” she said, and abandoned me.
I was shaken by the beauty of this week-old baby at my breast — its milky sweet smell, the silken down of its skull — but also by the humiliation I felt being tended in this way.
Dutifully, the exuberant and confident midwife returned, dispatching me with salves and herbs and instructions to “congress” at least once a day. “You must drown in your husband’s vital fluid.”
It is my tears I am drowning in! On return I broke down, exhausted by all the “cures” I’ve tried, frustrated by my body’s stubborn refusal to respond.
Evening, not yet 9:00 P.M.
Bonaparte pulled the cord of a little silk sachet, trying to unknot it. “Zut!” he said, slicing it with a meat knife. He shook the contents out over the dinner table. An enormous diamond glittered among the dirty china, the chicken bones, the half-empty plates of peas, plum pudding and cod-liver canapés. “A bauble for our anniversary,” he said, flicking it toward me, as if it were a plaything.
“How many carats is that?” Hortense asked, her eyes wide.
“One hundred and forty,” Bonaparte said. “King Louis XV wore it in his coronation crown. The police finally found it in a pawnshop.”
“So this is the Regent diamond,” I said, holding the translucent gem between my fingers, losing myself in its light.
Time is a woman’s enemy, it is said. This morning I sat before my toilette mirror, examining my face. I am thirty-six, six years older than my husband. On impulse I sent for “my” diamond. The embroidered blue velvet case was placed reverently before me. Gently, I edged the gem out of its nest.
“Hold it at your ear,” Hortense whispered, as if we were in some sacred place.
I sat back, examining the eVect in the glass.
“Pour l’amour du ciel,” the maid said, crossing herself.
By diamond light, I seemed transformed: younger. I glanced uneasily over my shoulder, imagining the spirit of Queen Marie Antoinette looking on. She knew the irresistible lure of a brilliant — and now, alas, so do I.
March 29, 1:15 P.M. — Tuileries Palace.
I am writing this by the light of three candles. It is afternoon, yet dark in this room, the curtains drawn against the curious eyes of the men and women in the public gardens outside.
Hortense is to join me soon. We’re going to Citoyen Despréaux’s annual —
Much later, after midnight, everyone asleep (but me).
— Citoyen Despréaux’s annual dance recital, that is.
I was interrupted earlier by Bonaparte, who showed up unexpectedly — as he does so often — humming “la Marseillaise” (badly). “I have an idea for Hortense,” he said, sitting down in his chair beside my toilette table. He picked up a crystal pot of pomade and examined the etched design, the details. “General Moreau,” he said, sniYng the pomade, rubbing some on his fingertips, then putting it back down and picking up a silver hair ornament. (Bonaparte is never still!)
“Ah,” I said, considering. General Moreau is a possibility — a popular general, dapper, always in powder, with the manners of a gentleman. “But too old for Hortense, perhaps?” General Moreau is close to forty, a few years older than I am, and a good ten years older than Bonaparte.
“Did I hear my name?” Hortense asked, appearing in the door.
“Your mother was telling me what a charming young lady you’ve become,” Bonaparte said with a fond look at his stepdaughter.
“Indeed! That gown looks lovely on you.” The cut flattered Hortense’s lithe figure. The silver threads shimmered in the candlelight.
“That isn’t English muslin, is it?” Bonaparte asked, frowning.
“Of course not, Papa.” Hortense made a neat pirouette.
“Bravo!” we cheered.
“But I’m having trouble with the minuet,” she said. “In the first figure, when passing, I’m to do a temps de courante and a demi-jeté.”
“Instead of a pas de menuet?”
“Only on the first pass, Maman. Otherwise, it looks aVected — or so the dance master says. And this pas de menuet has two demi-coupés and two pas marchés en pointe.”
“Bah,” Bonaparte said.
“Why don’t you show us,” I suggested.
“Papa, I need you to be my partner,” she said, tugging on Bonaparte’s hand.
“I’ll play one of Handel’s minuets.” I took a seat at the harpsichord.
Reluctantly, Bonaparte stood. He placed his feet in a ninety-degree turnout and stuck out his hand. “Well?” he said to me over his shoulder.
“First Consul?” Bonaparte’s secretary interrupted from the door. “Citoyen Cadoudal is here to see you.” Fauvelet de Bourrienne’s chin quivered in an attempt not to smile at the sight of Bonaparte attempting a plié. “I suggest we not keep him waiting — he’s an ox of a man, and spitting everywhere.”
“Cadoudal, the Royalist agent?” I asked, confused — and not a little alarmed. Cadoudal is the leader of the rebel faction — the faction intent on putting a Bourbon king back on the throne. The faction intent on deposing Bonaparte.
“He’s early,” Bonaparte said, putting on his three-cornered hat and heading out the door — relieved, no doubt, to escape the minuet.
Bonaparte’s young sister Caroline was standing outside the recital hall when Hortense and I arrived. She was dressed in a short-sleeved ball gown more suited to an evening fête; only a thin froth of organdy ruffles served for a sleeve. “Joachim will be here in five minutes,” she said, chewing on a thumbnail. “I made him practise cabrioles for a half-hour this morning.”
“Why cabrioles?” Hortense asked. “I thought you were to demonstrate a gavotte.”
“Le Maudit! We are?” Caroline took a snuffbox out of a gaudy bead reticule.
The dance master opened the door. “Ah, Madame Bonaparte — mother of my best pupil! How kind of you to honour us with your presence.” Citoyen Despréaux patted his brow with a neatly folded lavender handkerchief.
“My husband will be here any moment,” Caroline informed him, taking a pinch of snuff. “General Murat,” she added, in answer to the dance master’s puzzled expression.
“Of course!” Citoyen Despréaux exclaimed, casting a concerned look at Caroline’s exposed arms. “You are to perform the gavotte. Mademoiselle Hortense, if you would be so kind? I’d like to consult with you regarding the layout of the room.” With a studied balletic motion, Citoyen Despréaux gestured my daughter in.
“I’ll see you after, sweetheart,” I told Hortense, blowing her a kiss. “Is your mother inside?” I asked Caroline, lingering. She seemed forlorn, all alone.
“She’s not coming,” Caroline said, snapping the snuVbox shut. “She’s visiting Pauline today.” This with a hint of chagrin. Of Bonaparte’s three sisters, beautiful (and spoiled) Pauline is clearly the favourite. Elisa, although plain, is lauded as “literary”…and young Caroline? Poor Caroline is illiterate and, although not plain, with her common extremities, thick neck, muscular build and what Bonaparte calls a “warrior spirit,” she is certainly not what one would ever call engaging.
“Ah, there’s your husband,” I said. It was all I could do not to smile watching Joachim Murat swagger toward us, a big, muscular soldier dressed entirely in bright pink: a pink velvet coat with tails, pink satin knee breeches, even a flat pink hat embellished with pink-and-black striped feathers.
Caroline opened the timepiece that was dangling from a heavy chain around her neck. “He’s three-and-a-half minutes late.”
Citoyen Despréaux positioned himself before the twenty or so assembled guests — the family and friends of his students. “Bonjour! We will open our recital with the most regal of dances, the traditional minuet, a dance whose very simplicity reveals all: the education, the grace and — dare I say it? — the class of the performer. But first, the walk: the cornerstone of good breeding.” He motioned to his students, who circled self-consciously.
“Observe how perfectly this young lady moves,” he said, indicating Hortense. “The very essence of unaVected fluidity! Now, perhaps if I could have a young man to — Ah, Citoyen Eugène, fantastique.”
I turned to see my son at the door, a black felt hat on his head, his unruly curls escaping. Grinning sheepishly, he approached the dance master. “But I’m in boots,” I heard him whisper to Citoyen Despréaux. “I didn’t expect to — ”
“I only wish you to demonstrate a bow, my good fellow.”
Dutifully, Eugène raised his right arm to shoulder height, clasped his hat by the brim and, slipping his left foot forward, bowed deeply.
“Voilà, the perfect bow,” Citoyen Despréaux said, touching his lavender handkerchief to the outside corner of each eye. “Merci, Citoyen Eugène, you may be seated.”
“It’s a good thing he didn’t call attention to my walk,” Eugène whispered, taking the seat beside me. I smiled — his lumbering walk, Bonaparte and I call it.
Overall, the recital went well — Hortense performed brillantly. Eugène and I were so proud! Even Caroline and Joachim managed, although Joachim made too many circles and ended up at the wrong end of the room — a common error, certainly, but one Citoyen Despréaux unfortunately felt called upon to note.
After, Caroline, Joachim, Hortense and Eugène went out for ices. I pleaded fatigue and returned to the Tuileries Palace, only to find Bonaparte in a temper, pacing back and forth in front of a blazing fire. The Minister of Foreign Affairs was sitting in front of the fire screen, watching him with a bored expression.
“Madame Bonaparte,” Talleyrand said with a catlike purr. “It is always a pleasure to see you, but especially this evening. The First Consul is in need of your calming influence.”
“Do not mock me, Talleyrand,” Bonaparte barked. “It’s not your life on the line.”
I put my hands on Bonaparte’s shoulders (to calm, yes) as I kissed each cheek. “The meeting with Citoyen Cadoudal did not go well?”
“He would strangle me with his own hands given half the chance.”
“I don’t know why this comes as a surprise to you, First Consul,” Talleyrand said. “Citoyen Cadoudal wants a Bourbon king back on the throne and you’re rather inconveniently in the way.”
“The French people are standing in the way — not me. Two hundred years of Bourbon rule was two hundred years too many.” Bonaparte threw himself into the chair closest to the fire, his chin buried in his hand.
“The Bourbons, of course, argue that two hundred years of rule confers permanence,” Talleyrand said, lacing his long fingers together with a fluid motion. “They created that red-velvet-upholstered symbol of power in the throne room; they consider it theirs. And so long as it remains empty, I venture they will do everything in their power to get it back.”
“And England will do everything in its power to help them.”
“You both make it sound so hopeless,” I said, taking up my basket of needlework. “Is peace an impossibility?”
“‘Impossible’ is not a French word,” Bonaparte said.
“There is peace, and there is lasting peace,” Talleyrand observed philosophically. “History has proven that the only lasting peace is a blood knot, the mingling of enemy blood — and not on the battlefield, First Consul, but in the boudoir. Peace through marriage: a time-honoured tradition.”
“What are you getting at, Minister Talleyrand?” Bonaparte demanded. “You know I don’t have a son or daughter to marry oV to some lout.”
“You have a stepson, the comely and honourable Eugène Beauharnais — ”
“A boy yet, only eighteen.”
” — and a stepdaughter, the virtuous and accomplished Mademoiselle Hortense.” Talleyrand tipped his head in my direction. “Who, being female and nearing her seventeenth birthday, is at an ideal age to marry.”
“I’m beginning to think you are serious, Minister Talleyrand,” Bonaparte said. “Marry Hortense to an Englishman? The English would never condescend to join one of their blue-blooded ilk to anyone even remotely related to me. Have you not read the English journals?” He grabbed a paper from a pile on the floor and tossed it to the Minister of Foreign AVairs. “Top right. It will tell you who I am in the eyes of ‘Les Goddamns.’”
“Ah, yes. ‘An indefinable being,’” Talleyrand read out loud in English, a hint of a smile playing about his mouth, “‘half-African, half-European, a Mediterranean mulatto.’”
“Basta!” Bonaparte grabbed the news-sheet and threw it into the fire, watching as it burst into flames.
“I wasn’t thinking of mating your daughter to the English, frankly,” the Minister of Foreign Affairs said evenly. “I was thinking of Georges Cadoudal.”
“Oh, Minister Talleyrand, I trust you jest,” I said faintly, my embroidery thread knotting.
Copyright © 2000 by Sandra Gulland
“Riveting … Never has this near-mythic figure seemed more human.” —Robin Maxwell, author of The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn
“… addictive.” —Edmonton Journal
“… a romance of epic proportions.” —Publishers Weekly
“… truly engrossing … .” —The Scotsman
“Wonderfully evocative… A guilty pleasure—at each page you say, ‘just one more’ and keep on. Josephine—what a woman. What a love! What a life!” —Margaret George, author of The Memoirs of Cleopatra: A Novel
“In all of time, no love story surpasses that of Napoleon and Josephine. The Last Great Dance on Earthdraws us into the heart and soul of their story, capturing all the agony and glory.” —Faith Sullivan, author of The Cape Ann
For discussion suggestions, click here.
For a Q & A about Josephine, click here.
“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
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.
To read about my research: click here.
1. “It is the season of renewal, yet I remain barren — in spite of love, in spite of prayers,” Josephine writes in her diary as The Last Great Dance on Earth opens. Her longing to conceive a child with Napoleon is one of the central themes of the story.
Compare Josephine’s frustrations with their childlessness with Napoleon’s.
How does Napoleon’s attitude toward the need for a male heir change over the course of the novel?
2. When Napoleon first tells Josephine that his advisers recommend a hereditary system of succession, believing it would put an end to the constant threats against his life, Napoleon is careful to assure Josephine that he is insisting on his right to adopt one of his brothers’ sons as his heir.
Do you think the whole course of history would have been different and Napoleon and Josephine would have remained married had Little Napoleon, the much loved nephew he planned to make his heir, lived?
Why or why not?
3. After one of Napoleon’s flings, Josephine decides to make him “pay” by purchasing expensive clothes and baubles. Is Sandra Gulland lending support to the portrait of Josephine as a spendthrift that some historians have put forth, or is she making you think about why she might have spent so much?
This is a minor example of how Sandra Gulland uses story and character to question existing interpretations of historical facts. How does this minor example make you think differently about what we think we “know” about history?
4. After another of Napoleon’s affairs, Josephine weeps tears of despair and confides in her diary: “I imagine her young, supple body — so responsive and fertile — and I feel withered within.”
Discuss how Josephine’s reaction to Napoleon’s repeated infidelities was affected by her age, by her infertility, and by the public nature of his betrayals.
How were the roles of husbands and wives and the expectations of fidelity different in France in Josephine’s day from those in our own country today?
How do you imagine Josephine might have coped with the kind of intense public scrutiny of a husband’s amorous adventures that Hillary Clinton had to deal with in the Jennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky scandals?
5. As the adulation showered upon Napoleon reaches a fevered pitch and spurs a movement to name him First Consul for Life with the right to name a successor, Josephine has misgivings. “Sometimes I worry that in striving to become legitimate in the eyes of the world, we are becoming what we fought so hard to change,” Josephine confides in her friend Thérèse.
In what ways are Napoleon and his aides and police becoming what they fought so hard to change? Talk about the perilous realities Napoleon faced — constant death threats at home and war abroad — and how they can lead to autocratic rule or an encroachment on civil liberties for citizens.
What other times in history can you think of when political revolutions or reform movements have changed in character when the revolutionaries took power?
6. How does Josephine’s presence at the head of Napoleon’s household support his reign? Does her aristocratic background give the rough-and-tumble Bonaparte clan some polish, class, and legitimacy?
Is she a civilizing presence in the Bonaparte family?
Does her presence keep the boorish behavior and political manipulation of the Bonaparte family in check, or merely better hidden?
7. Early in the book, pressed continually by members of the greedy and grasping Bonaparte clan for some of the spoils of victory, Napoleon is quick to assert: “The French Republic is not a family fiefdom.”
Why, then, after his coronation as Emperor, does he grant undeserving family members patronage appointments?
Are we to see his actions as a necessary concession to practical realities, or an abandonment of principle?
8. When Napoleon and Josephine are crowned Emperor and Empress, Josephine longs for the “delicious freedom of being a simple citizen.”
Discuss the rewards and the drawbacks of living up to a great position and power. In what ways do Josephine’s yearning for privacy and spontaneity and her strafing at the restrictions imposed by the rituals of her new station in life remind you of such contemporary figures as Princess Diana and Jacqueline Kennedy?
In what ways were their circumstances the same or different from Josephine’s?
What other factors could be contributing to the sentiment Josephine expresses in a letter to her son Eugène: “How unhappy a throne makes one”?
Discuss the difficulty of knowing whom to trust when you are in a position of power and people fawn over you.
What is Josephine’s value to Napoleon as a confidante and sounding board. Which of them better sees the truth about people? Does this change during the course of the novel?
10. When Napoleon finally decides he must divorce Josephine, why does he defend the choice as “the calling of destiny, a great and noble sacrifice”?
Do you think he is being truthful with himself?
Does he have other choices?
Josephine also sees the decision as linked to destiny. But she sees it as a tragic error both for them as individuals and for France. Is she being truthful with herself? “Destiny has been crossed; the downward slide will now begin,” she warns.
What role does destiny play in the novel, and what are we to make of the fact that Napoleon and Josephine view the calling of destiny so differently?
11. Napoleon’s willingness to leave Josephine for an heir stands in stark contrast to the Duke of Windsor’s abdication of the throne for Wallace Simpson. Discuss the choice each man faced between the conflicting claims of duty and personal happiness.
Does Napoleon’s choice necessarily demonstrate a greater love of country and devotion to duty?
Does the Duke of Windsor’s choice necessarily mean that his love for a woman was deeper and more passionate than Napoleon’s? Why?
What other factors influenced their decisions?
12. How much did you know about Napoleon and Josephine before reading this book?
Did the novel change the opinion you had of them? How?
Sandra Gulland opens a very narrow window on the Napoleonic era by telling her story entirely through Josephine’s fictionalized diary entries. In what ways does this approach to the historical novel enrich our understanding of the period and in what ways does it limit it?
Can you think of another historical period that you might like to view through the intimate lens of one woman’s diary?
13. Author Sandra Gulland, in writing and talking about her trilogy, has described Josephine as “a woman more of our time than her own.”
Do you agree or disagree? Why?