After the French civilians overthrew their monarchy in the last decade of the 18th century and the dangerously inconsistent Reign of Terror took hold of the country, one man rose as the hero of the Revolution.
That man was Napoleon Bonaparte.
Centuries later, we still hold a fascination with the young soldier who managed to turn a country that wanted democracy into one that followed his dictatorship. But, what most history lectures don’t cover, is the important role his wife played in his rise to power.
In an important new biography, author and official CNN historian Kate Williams paints a brilliant portrait of Josephine Bonaparte, a woman who used her skills of flirtation, flattery and quiet ambition to overcome all the obstacles that came their way. With Napoleon’s brutal arm in war, and Josephine’s delicacy and diplomacy at home, they were truly an unstoppable pair. Williams’ book proves that while man may have written history, it was often the women behind the scenes who helped shape it.
Here, Williams discusses the importance of history, the fascinating role women had in politics and her next novel.
What first drew you to the field of history?
I grew up in a recently-built house in a modern village near Birmingham – and I grew obsessed by travelling through time. I made my brother and I a time machine out of a big cardboard box and we took it flying to the Egyptian rulers, the Tudor court and Victorian London. I’ve never stopped wanting to travel in time. I’d say that there are two best parts of my job – I love delving in archives and finding letters. I love meeting readers too.
What drew you to the character of Josephine
I was fascinated by her – while in Paris studying, I began to read about Josephine – and I called up letters from the archives there. I was completely gripped by her voice. And I was fascinated by how she presented herself – she gave the impression of being feather-brained but under it all, she was intensely ambitious.
Tell me about her character.
Josephine was a survivor. She was born into a very low position, a down-at-heel family in Martinique, but she was determined not to be kept down. Her husband abandoned her when she was just twenty and her life looked pretty hopeless, but she clawed her way to the top of society through sheer will. So much so that when she and Napoleon married, no one could understand why she, so famous and established, would marry a little General.
Why so many historical fiction and films lately?
I think as we are in the early years of the twenty first century, we are fascinated by the past – because we look to the past for clues about the future. The future’s hard to predict, both politically and technologically, but people and their desires stay the same – power, love, money, happiness…
Why read about these personalities?
I think that the lives of people from the past give us so much – they reveal the world around them and often, because we can read their intimate letters and diaries, we see the truth of the human heart. The people I’ve studied seem so alive to me. I find myself forgetting that they’re dead….
What’s one lesson women can learn from Josephine?
I think that Josephine definitely adopted the strategy of playing dumb and lacking in ambition to fool people into giving her information and leeway – and power. Does that path still work for women today? Hopefully not!
What were women’s strengths and limitations?
It was a time when women were everywhere in elite society – their salons were frequented, they were in the newspapers, at court. When Napoleon arrived in Paris, he was stunned by how much control they had. Yet it was something of an illusion – only a few very wealthy heiresses, businesswomen actresses and writers were truly independent. Most women only had power when men chose to give it to them.
What’s next for you?
My next book is a novel – about a half English, half German family in World War I, coming out in Canada soon. After that, I’m busy on my next historical biography – it’s definitely a woman!
Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte by Kate Williams, published by Random House.