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The Last Great Dance on Earth

by Sandra Gulland

Sandra Gulland’s trilogy of the life of Josephine Bonaparte is told by way of the heroine’s fictional diary entries. The first novel, The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., covered her early life on the island of Martinique, her subsequent marriage into the French aristocracy that had nearly caused her to follow her husband to the guillotine, and her saving marriage to the then obscure soldier, Napoleon Bonaparte. Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe traced their rise to glory and ended with Napoleon’s installation as First Consul of France, Josephine by his side. The Last Great Dance on Earth takes up the saga without missing a beat and carries the reader along to witness the couple’s growing mutual love, and their eventual crowning as Emperor and Empress of France. Everyone knows how the story ends, but the telling of it here holds the reader’s interest throughout.

The trilogy shows the turmoil of the times through the eyes of a smart, compassionate woman who finds herself thrust to the centre of a noisy, violent stage, her personal life become hostage to polity and the demands of her position. Her diary entries are entertaining and lively, with amusing asides, and manage to convey an impression of the character’s charm and personal worth without irksome self-congratulation. And without the incongruous 20th-century sensibilities that sometimes mar historical fiction: Josephine is refreshingly immersed in the mores and values of her times.

Like the previous two novels – but this time more subtly – The Last Great Dance is sprinkled with period lore regarding medical practices, herbal cures, culinary arts, and the (sometimes life-threatening) cosmetics in use. Because Josephine’s perspective on the times is personal and domestic, the light sketching in of the larger historical panorama is sufficient. Only Napoleon’s last grand march into Russia and its dreadful toll seem to beg for more depth. However, Josephine’s inability to produce an heir, and its sad consequences for her marriage, are related in convincingly anguished words. The personal tragedy of Napoleon and Josephine and their ultimate helplessness in the grip of history are genuinely moving.