This Christmas was the first time ever that I listened to an audiobook. It came handy in my pre-Christmas cooking frenzy. I like the novelty of an audiobook.
I can listen to it while cooking or ironing, or, if it stops raining, while going for a walk.
The book, written by Kate Williams is called “Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte.”
It was fascinating. Somehow, I never knew much about Napoleon Bonaparte apart from the military history we learnt at school. I hardly knew anything about Josephine.
For a Philistine like me, fiction always works better for my history education.
I was surprised by a lot of things. About Bonaparte- how he almost became a novelist, his intelligence, his insecurities, and his totally pragmatic and amoral attitude to life. He was not a likeable man, but this book somehow transformed him in my eyes from a pompous little man to somebody who really was quite an interesting character. Flawed, pompous, arrogant, self-centred, but also brilliant in many ways.
It was fun to observe Josephine ‘s transformation from plump naïve colonial from Martinique to a sophisticated, sexually alluring and experienced Parisian. The interesting learning curve and how it happened. And see how badly women were treated, and how they coped with wit and manipulation. The open monetary rewards ladies of the society demanded for sexual favours. The book talks about sex, and it is all written in a slightly sarcastic, clever way.
Josephine is an interesting character, too. Forgive me of being ego-centric, but her sexual revolution reminded me of that different sexual revolution of Lucie, the heroine of my book.
The horrors of the revolution did not surprise me too much.
What surprised me was how loose the morals were in the “Thermidor” era- after Robespierre death. Parties with orgies, women stripping in public, completely, and all those lovers… It was interesting and reminded me of Catherine Millet and those orgies she described in her book “The Sexual Life of Catherine M.”, a book about a time almost two centuries after the Bonaparte era.
I found the fact that on paper women had no power, but in real life, they often did, fascinating.
The book touched on women’s rights. To my surprise, Napoleon made changes in the laws that turned women into helpless almost minors, their fathers or husbands completely in charge of their fate.
A man could divorce a wife for infidelity. A wife could only divorce her husband on grounds of infidelity if he brought his lover to live in the same household as his wife!
Of course, there are still a lot of double standards around (just read my book), but I am definitely glad I was borne in the 20th century!
There were many other things that surprised me.
The fact that Josephine Bonaparte was spending money on luxuries in a way that makes her predecessor Marie Antoinette look almost modest.
Her attitude to animals and plants. At her palace at Château de Malmaison, she had the first zebra in Europe, and a female orangutan that slept in a bed and ate with knife and fork. Her interest in horticulture, importing plants.
Her kindness to others, disgraced aristocrats, poor people. She was a reckless spendthrift, but also a generous donor.
And despite her frequent infidelities, a true love for Napoleon. In a way, despite divorcing her to marry an Austrian princess, Napoleon never stopped loving Josephine either.
It was fun cooking and being transported into France in the 18th and early 19th century while still using all those modern gadgets in my kitchen!
The book was witty and amusing, but I also learnt something about history and life in France before, during and after French revolution and I cooked lots of nice food appreciated by my family and guests.
Win Win Win situation, if you ask me.