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Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe

by Sandra Gulland

Sandra Gulland’s fictional trilogy of the life of Josephine Bonaparte began with The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B, published in 1995. Her second novel, Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe, continues in the same vein using the fictionalized diary of the heroine to tell the story. It begins in 1796 with the widowed Josephine’s marriage to Napoleon, who by the end of the book – and the century – has risen from obscurity to First Consul of the Republic, while Josephine has become ensconced in the Palace of Kings.

Josephine’s journal entries have a spontaneity that is entirely convincing, and are nicely leavened with dialogue and period lore. Brief footnotes fill in gaps without disrupting the flow of the story. Josephine vows that, however much she is required “to dissemble, to flatter and cajole,” she will speak the truth in her journal. The contrast between what Josephine says and what she really thinks is often comical. But the dissembling that she must do before the book ends takes on a darker hue.

Although Josephine is resourceful and enterprising, her perspective on events is personal and domestic. It takes an entire chapter for her to break the news of her remarriage to her two disapproving children, but what promises to be a perilous crossing of the Alps (to join Napoleon on military campaign) is accorded one sentence, “We’re over.” An interview with the King of Sardinia gets an equally brief account: “I survived.” Nevertheless, Gulland manages to convey a sense of the terror, the intrigues, and the turmoil of the times. Brief letters to Josephine from friends do double duty as news reports.

In the palace, Josephine is haunted by the ghost of Marie Antoinette, and in a short prologue the late Queen is seen standing behind her as she writes at her desk. A parallel relationship between the author and Josephine springs to mind. Certainly, if Josephine had stood behind Gulland’s writing chair she couldn’t have wished for a more sympathetic and attractive portrait of herself.

California-born Gulland, who now lives in Killaloe, Ontario, presented her manuscript (before it was published) to a book club for feedback, and confessed to changing it accordingly. Drastic results might reasonably be feared from such an enterprise, but the outcome is a pleasantly accessible novel that is lively and entertaining.