Kate Williams and the woman behind an empire

Kate Williams

Kate Williams - Credit: Archant

Katie Jarvis talks to Kate Williams, the author of a new book about the woman who enthralled Napoleon, who will be appearing at Chipping Campden Literature Festival, May 6-11

'Josephine' by Kate Williams

'Josephine' by Kate Williams - Credit: Archant

“Your charms burn my heart and my senses… never be jealous, never cry, your tears carry away all reason and burn up my blood.” Napoleon to Josephine.

Kate Williams

Kate Williams - Credit: Archant

She appears on our screens in Restoration Home, wearing white protective gloves and handling frail-looking Victorian wills, written in beautiful copperplate; or peering at lichen-covered gravestones crumbling in obscure country churchyards.

But the facts that historian Dr Kate Williams discovers are far from dry and dusty. You only have to read the title of her latest book – Josephine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon – to realise that these characters from that far-off land, The Past, loved, hated and cheated as we do. In short, here is one cracking adventure story, beginning with the birth of its heroine, Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie, on the Caribbean island of Martinique - a desperate disappointment to a declining family who wanted a boy.

A happy childhood nevertheless follows, until a devastating hurricane batters the family home to destruction. Her father dead from despair, Marie-Josèphe-Rose – our ‘Josephine’ – is now a gauche 15-year-old, about to be sent to France for a loveless marriage to an arch-seducer, whose mistress is a wife and mother years older than he.

What’s the future for this unhappy young girl? According to the local witch, hidden up in the island’s hills, Josephine will wed a “dark man of little fortune”, who would “cover the world with glory” and make her greater than a queen. “Even so, she would die unhappy and often yearn for the ease of life on Martinique.”

Goodness! This is merely the first chapter of a story that sees Josephine incarcerated in a blood-spattered, rat-and-lice-infested cell during the French Revolution. It takes us through her first meeting with the young Napoleon – a man depressed and sickly, who “rarely bothered to comb his hair and his uniform was shabby” – and the growth of his insatiable ardour for her. (“Not tonight, Josephine,” was, it seems, an invention of English satirists, rather than a believable phrase from this most passionate of lovers.) We see her married to Napoleon; deep in debt; blatantly in love with a man other than her bellicose spouse. We see her using her wiles (a practised seductress, even though contemporary accounts tell of her black teeth) to secure her very own survival: love is hard currency, not soft emotion in these turbulent times.

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Finally, after her bitter fight to be crowned Empress of France by her reluctant husband (who is desperate for the child his aging wife cannot produce), we see her divorced and almost saintly at her premature end.

What an incredible – yet strangely unknown - story! Why hasn’t everyone written about Josephine, I ask Kate Williams.

“I found her a really fascinating subject,” she agrees. “But she has been overlooked: very much seen as a soft, fluffy person who just happened to be married to Napoleon. Actually, it’s the opposite. He married her because he knew she was integral to his creation of power. I love that whole period in which everything was to play for in Europe and everything was changing. I really think it is the most fascinating in history.”

It’s a strange fact to take on board: that Josephine, this once-awkward girl from an inconsequential family living in the middle of nowhere in the Caribbean Sea, was such an essential player in the creation of France’s great emperor. He was captivated by her charm; in thrall to her sumptuous physicality. Yet it was more than that.

“He should have divorced her a long time ago when it became evident she couldn’t have children,” Kate says, “but he was so in love with her. He knew how popular she was with the people; he knew divorce wouldn’t look good. But, also, he thought she was his talisman; his good luck charm for military victories; and he didn’t want to lose it.”

For the French – reeling from the shock of the Revolution they’d provoked – Napoleon was their rock; the great conqueror who would elevate them onto the world’s stage; an uncompromising ruler who could bring stability to a country that had experienced la Terreur. Never mind that they’d deposed one King – the hapless Louis XVI and his extravagant Queen, Marie Antoinette – only to replace him with one who behaved even more royally. Napoleon was France’s darling.

A darling with some personal issues, however.

“He’s a megalomaniac. He’s an egotist. He was bored unless anyone was talking about him,” Kate elaborates. “So he was obsessive, always on the go, always fidgeting; every seat in the palace was filled with penknife holes he’d made. He had no empathy: if anyone cried, he would shout, ‘Stop crying! You’re annoying me!’ If anyone turned up at court without the proper amount of rouge or a dress that wasn’t right, he would be angry with them.”

As you read this magnificent study, it’s hard not to see him, in modern-day parlance, as potentially on the autism spectrum. There’s a moment, for example, when Hortense – Josephine’s daughter from her first marriage – loses her four-year-old son to measles. She is distraught; Napoleon is impatient. “Hortense is not being reasonable, she does not deserve our love since she only loved her child,” he grumbles, unable to understand why he is not the centre of everyone’s attention.

Not only that, but there’s a sense of him not coping with personal change. He was changing the outside world at a frenetic place – by 1811, Napoleon had conquered nearly all of Europe, as well as holding alliances with Austria, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, and Prussia; but his own domestic world had to stay rigidly unchanged. Poor Josephine.

“Exactly,” Kate says. “He needed his shoes here; this happened at 2pm, this at 3pm. And Josephine supported him in it. She soothed his brow. She was the only person who could comfort him. He was really rude to everyone; he swore at men and was nasty to women – said they looked ugly and looked fat. To someone with a big cleavage on show, he would say, ‘Are you still feeding your children?’ He was an impossible man to live with.

“His next wife [the young daughter of the Emperor of Austria, Maria Louisa, whom he married after divorcing Josephine] was very impatient with him - yet she was supposed to be a malleable teenager! And, of course, it’s hilarious that, when she did give birth, he couldn’t cope with watching. A royal birth was a public affair and everyone was there; but Napoleon – the Butcher of Europe - couldn’t deal with it!”

What I particularly liked about her book, I tell Kate, is the detail, which brings each scene vividly to life. We see Josephine in prison, coping with the fetid mess of latrine buckets overflowing into corridors. Later, in better times, she tends her beloved gardens, filled with exotic plants she introduced to Europe. Then there’s Napoleon, capering with his schoolgirl-age mistress, playing hide and seek behind curtains. And, at the finale, we see Josephine, ornate in a pink satin morning gown, bedecked with rubies, struggling through her last breaths.

“I love the tiny details I find that I think are very telling,” Kate explains. “I think I have a memory that picks out details. People always laugh at me because they find it rather weird. I’ll meet someone briefly at a wedding and then I’ll meet them three years later say, ‘How were those shoes you were going to buy?’ and they think it’s kind of freaky! When I was younger, I’m sure some men thought I was some weird stalker or crazy in love with them because I remembered these minutiae.” She laughs. “People say that, if I had a calling, I should be a lady vicar because I’d remember everything about my parishioners. It’s a rather strange trick.”

That rather strange trick, combined with a brilliant mind, has seen Kate gather academic honours alongside her television and writing credits. She was an Oxford scholar, who went on to take her MA at the University of London, before returning to her alma mater for a DPhil.

It was, she says, her childhood in a modern house, on a modern estate, that sparked a contrary love of all things ancient. “One of my favourite toys was the box the washing machine came in that I put my younger brother, Geoff, in – he’s now much too big and strong to go in a box! But I used to rattle it around and say, ‘We’ve landed in Ancient Egypt but you can’t get out. Oh, look! I can see the pyramids’, or we’d be in Victorian times where I’d see penny-farthings. And he’d be shouting, ‘Let me out!’ It was my time machine and he really believed me. I even used to check my stories. So I kind of feel I’m doing that now, with my own time machine.”

Her first book, England’s Mistress, about the life of Emma Hamilton, led to her first television series. Since then, she’s become acclaimed for her royal biographies, as well as her first historical novel.

It goes without saying that, while her writing is spellbinding (she also has an MA in creative writing), her research is meticulous. She actually moved to France while fact-finding for Josephine.

She took on a tricky task, I suggest, not only trying to understand the mores of the past, but also those of another country?

“It is a completely different mind-set and I did find living there very educative,” she admits. “So many different attitudes to so many things. In France, if you say, ‘I got drunk’, that is not a synonym for ‘I had a good time’, as it is here, for example! They find Britain such an alien country.”

And what about attitudes to sex? Josephine, after all, had her fair share of lovers – both during and between marriage. Do the French really have a different attitude to les affaires de coeur?

“It’s interesting with Hollande, now,” she ponders, “because it’s the first time we’ve really seen a [French] president criticised for having affairs. All the presidents before had affairs and mistresses and it was seen as having no impact on their ability to govern a country. With Hollande, all of a sudden the fact that he’s had an affair is gossip; he’s seen as a weak man.”

And what’s brought about that change?

“I think it’s the growth of a British/American morality about marriage; I think it’s the fact that he’s unpopular and I think it’s the fact that it was irregular anyway. It wasn’t as though she [Valérie Trierweiler] was his wife of 20 years with the kids and then he’s got the mistress; that’s much comprehensible to the French.”

Certainly, Josephine got away with it all. The French loved her with a passion only surpassed by Napoleon’s himself. Even after the divorce.

“She was his perfect woman. When he was in Saint Helena, he was eating his food off Josephine plates and drinking his drink out of Josephine cups. He never stopped loving her.”

So true. His last words were, “France, armée, tête d’armée, Josephine.”

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Josephine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon by Kate Williams is published by Hutchinson, price £20 hardback; visit sites.google.com/site/kwilliamsauthor for more.

Kate is appearing at Chipping Campden Literature Festival at a literary lunch on Tuesday, May 6, 12 noon at Dormy House. Tickets, £25, are from Dormy House on 01386 852711; www.campdenlitfest.co.uk

You can hear an interview with Kate at radiogorgeous.com

This article by Katie Jarvis is from the April 2014 issue of Cotswold Life

For more from Katie Jarvis, follow her on twitter: @katiejarvis

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