December 2016
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Josephine, A Life of the Empress, Carolly Erickson

This biography is probably among the worst that I have read. It reads like a novel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, it fails to provide a convincing portrait of Josephine.

Carolly Erickson covers Josephine’s life from the great storm of her childhood in Martinique to her death. At times, her portrayal of Josephine as sweet, generous, grateful, and natural is at odds with the calculating promiscuous woman she also attempts to show. She doesn’t debate either view, but instead attempts to combine them and it comes out a bit strange. The book reads like a tabloid at times, not using Josephine’s own words but those of her observers. Josephine’s letters are occasionally used, but not often enough, especially when Erickson boldly states what Josephine was thinking or how she felt. As ostensibly history, I feel that a biography should state where these impressions are coming from, or if they’re the biographer’s imagining, since they are not fact. The sources are largely in French, which does make sense, but prevents me from researching further in order to discover the truth.

I found I didn’t like Erickson’s Josephine; despite protestations of strength she comes across as weak-willed, jealous, and whiny. That may well be how she was, but overall I didn’t like her much. I preferred Sandra Gulland’s Josephine, since while her trilogy is historical fiction, it uses more source material and provides a view of a Josephine harassed in every way but still true to herself, jealous but attempting to deal with her husband’s infidelity. That isn’t necessarily the truth either, but I preferred it. Also of note is the fact that Gulland maintains that Josephine never had the numerous affairs that Erickson ascribes to her. The evidence for these affairs is in fact scanty, and until more is found we’ll probably never know whether or not Josephine was loyal to Napoleon.

In addition, this book is only 350 pages long and doesn’t delve into any of the issues of the time, merely grazes over them in an attempt for a summary.

I think I will seek out a more scholarly account of Josephine since I don’t trust this one. I prefer a biography to be written more as a history, dealing with conflicting viewpoints and attempting to discern the truth, rather than a popular account that reads like a novel and challenges nothing. Very disappointing.

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