Thursday, 9 January 2014

Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb.

Becoming Josephine Heather Webb
A Review of Heather Webb's Debut Novel "Becoming Josephine"
The Making of a French Empress
Davida Chazan, Yahoo Contributor Network

It took 30 years for Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie to go from being a young Creole girl from Martinique, to being Rose de Beauharnais and finally becoming Josephine Bonaparte and the first Empress of the French Empire, before she was divorced from Napoleon. Her life and experiences were well documented by historians. In her debut historical novel, "Becoming Josephine," Heather Webb looks beyond the facts to find what made this girl into such a legendary woman.

It is very appropriate that Webb chose to include the quote "one is not born a woman; one becomes one" (Simone de Beauvoir) before she embarks on this amazing tale. In fact, Webb has embodied this throughout her story by putting the development of the woman behind the history at its very core. What's more, she does this with an elegance of prose that fits perfectly with both the time and the personality of her main character. From the very first paragraphs we are both swept up into the era and welcomed into her very heart, mind and soul.

But this isn't the only thing that makes "Becoming Josephine" such a compelling read. Webb has done an incredibly wonderful job with the pace of this book. It starts out at a comfortable canter just to get us going, and then quickly builds to a full-blown gallop. As a slow reader, I found myself just devouring page after page, and finishing it in record time (only five days). This is not simply unusual for me in general; it is also something that doesn't happen in particular when reading historical fiction. I've found that often this genre can get overly bogged down by the historical side of things. This happens more if the factual information about the person is extensively available. However, in this instance, all of the facts seemed to meld beautifully into the fictional/personal side of Josephine, making the reader feel like they were actually reading her diaries or standing beside her, listening in on her thoughts. In short, Webb made Josephine into a truly three dimensional character.

After all that praise, it would be very difficult to come up with much criticism of this book. If there is anything I'm not completely sure of it is the way it started off and the very ending. Webb starts the book with a short vignette that takes place near the end of Josephine's life. From there, Webb flashes back to begin telling the story from Josephine's youth, just before he leaves Martinique for Paris. We then go completely chronologically through her life, and finish with her leaving the Palace after her divorce from Napoleon. This all works very nicely, and I'm glad it wasn't a collection of flashbacks.

However, after I finished the book, I went back to read the prologue again. It was then that I realized that I didn't understand it, and had to look up what happened in 1814 to Napoleon in order to figure out (or guess at) what she was referring to. While I liked the idea of this quick glimpse into the end of Josephine's life before we started to read about her beginnings, I wish I understood it better. I also found that the very end of the book - meaning what happened after her being crowned empress - didn't seem to fit with the rest of the narration. I realize that this might sound contradictory, but for me this part both dragged and felt slightly rushed, which slightly lessened the impact of the story. My only suggestion would have been to end with the coronation and then have a jump to 1814 again, with some explanation of the opening, and maybe her death.

With that aside, I still think that Webb has done a stellar job with this novel and subject matter. She's taken on a huge task that must have included enormous amounts of research. Even so, she was able to make it feel like it just flowed from her pen as if she had lived through it all herself. The prose absolutely sparkles as we are swept along by this fascinating story. This is a masterful debut novel, and I cannot give Heather Webb's "Becoming Josephine" less than four and a half stars out of five, and heartily recommend it (as well as look forward to her next book, whenever that may be).

"Becoming Josephine" by Heather Webb is published by Plume Press (Penguin Group) and will be released in on December 31, 2013. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance reader's copy of this book via NetGalley.

As a former military brat and traveling addict, it was tricky choosing a landing pad. At last, I settled in a rural town in New England. For a decade I put my degrees in French and Cultural Geography to good use teaching and coaching high school students. Currently, I am a historical novelist and work as a freelance editor (For rates, check my EDITING page.) You may find me lurking at the popular where I contribute to their blog with editing advice, and at the award-winning site,, where I pose as Twitter Mistress (@WriterUnboxed). I also kick around a local college teaching classes called “Write to Publish” and “Crafting Your Novel”. When I’m cross-eyed from too much screen time, I flex my foodie skills or geek out on history and pop culture. My debut historical novel BECOMING JOSEPHINE out now from Plume/Penguin. (See my BOOKS page for more details.) I am represented by agent Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management. - See more at:

Interview with Heather Webb, author of BECOMING JOSEPHINE

My dear friend Heather Webb's debut novel, BECOMING JOSEPHINE (Plume 2013), publishes this December 31. BECOMING JOSEPHINE recounts the story of Rose Tascher, who overcomes an impoverished Créole childhood and a series of misfortunes to become Empress Josephine, consort of Napoleon and, for a time, the most powerful woman in France. BECOMING JOSEPHINE has received a glowing review from Kirkus. I'll post my own review on publication day. Here, Heather answers some questions about her interest in Josephine and the writing of the novel.

1. What drew you to write a novel about Josephine Bonaparte?

The idea for this novel came to me in two parts. I taught a unit about the French Revolution in my high school French classes for several years, which sparked my interest in the time period. Yet despite my teaching, I knew little about Josephine and I “discovered” her later. Ultimately she was a minor player in a sea of France’s most famous and infamous people during the Revolution—at least until Robespierre fell and the Directoire took over the government.

When I began to feel the pull to writing a book, I had a dream about Josephine. Strange, but true. From the very first biography I read, I was hooked. Her vivid childhood home, her adaptable nature and courageous spirit had me enthralled. Her rich life story set to the backdrop of the chaotic Revolution and the opulent Napoleonic Empire cinched the deal.

2. How is your Josephine different from other novelists' Josephines?

What a good question! I've enjoyed all the accounts of Josephine that I've read, but the Josephine who spoke to me most was the survivor, the adaptable, cunning woman who was excellent at reading the emotions and the needs of those around her. I wanted to emphasize how she wasn't just a victim of her time, but a woman who knew how to leverage the crisis of the day to her advantage. Also, I've found other authors have depicted her generous nature and the way Napoleon took advantage of her, OR her highly sexualized nature, and rarely did the authors marry all the facets of her person. I attempted to do that--to layer my Josephine. I believe we're all contradictory in some aspects and I wanted to illustrate that in my characters.

3. Did the real Josephine dabble in Tarot and the dark arts of her native Martinique?

Yes. There are many sources that document her fondness for Tarot cards, how she relied on them heavily (especially during times of strife), but also that she visited soothsayers in Paris as well as her African medicine woman, the quimboiseur in Martinique. I also found a few accounts of Napoleon being very superstitious and a bit of an amateur palm reader himself.

4. Which period of Josephine's life did you find the most difficult to write about?

Her time with Napoleon! I had to condense so much of their history together to keep the book moving.  Also, I didn't want to overwhelm the story with ANOTHER tour out of the country, another parade through France, or the endless number of lovers Napoleon took on. It would have become trite, in my opinion, to go overboard detailing those events. I also found this period difficult because there are hundreds and hundreds of sources documenting every single step of Napoleon's life and very many that did the same for Josephine. I had to cut through all of the detail and decide which of those were the most important facts to bring to life.

5. In your opinion, would Napoleon's career have been very different if he had not met and married Josephine?

Absolutely. While he was a brilliant military strategist, he had a hideous temper and lacked social grace. Also, as his power grew, so did his ego, consequently making him difficult to deal with on any level. Very many statesmen despised him. He turned into quite the tyrant over time, like any power-hungry politician. Josephine smoothed over so many of his tantrums, charmed his ministers and foreign diplomats, as well as placated the returning Royalists after he came into power.

6. Are the letters you feature from Napoleon and Josephine to each other actual letters? What did reading the pair's historical correspondence reveal to you about their characters?

Yes, they are--all but the final farewell note to Josephine. It was fascinating to see how Napoleon's feelings toward Josephine changed over the course of their relationship. He all but worshiped her when they first married and by the end of their relationship, he loved her as a dear friend. But he also chastised her when she would tell him she missed him during his travels, or when she wept over losing friends or family members. He also chastised her immodest dress, as he called it. You could see how controlling and chauvinist he really was. To Josephine's credit, she ignored him when she wished. For example, he forbid her from wearing English muslin gowns and both Josephine and her daughter Hortense wore them anyway. He wanted to cover her low necklines so she draped a shawl about her shoulders to appease him, but refused to cover her necklines. So yes, he was domineering, but she was cunning and knew how to appease him and still get her way.

7. If you could own one item once owned by Josephine, what would it be and why?

Oooo, a fun question. I think I'd have to say Malmaison--the home she built outside of Paris. But if I had to choose a smaller, physical item, I'd LOVE to own her Tarot deck.

8. What do you hope readers take away from your book?

The message I would like readers to grasp—this is tricky because a book, film, or piece of art, means something different to each person based on their own emotional lens and life experiences—is that there is hope in beginning anew, not just loss. Also, true contentedness comes with forgiveness and generosity, and the loving relationships you nurture in your life.

9. What is the most important thing you learned about yourself in writing this novel?

That I can do it! I can follow my passion, work hard, persevere (!!), and that dream is possible!

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