What do you think of when you hear the name Josephine Bonaparte? I’d bet that for most people, her primary image would be as the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was the brilliant military strategist, the self-proclaimed emperor of France, the losing commander at Waterloo and a major character in Leo Tolstoy’s classic, War and Peace.
What you may not know – and I didn’t – is that Josephine Bonaparte was the epitome of a life-long learner. Unfortunately, her tale – along with others who were on the “wrong” side of history, such as Cleopatra (who was another very accomplished learner) – rarely emerges in the history books.
Fortunately, Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte by Kate Williams offers a well-documented description of the empress’s life. Here are some of the highlights:
- A childhood lacking in discipline and education – Josephine didn’t attain her status in French society easily. In fact, she was born the daughter of a plantation owner on the French-controlled Caribbean island of Martinique. The French considered her a Creole, which was the term used for whites who were born in the Caribbean. Creoles, according to Williams, “had a reputation in France for being pleasure-loving, lazy, sensual, capricious….” That stereotype seemed to fit Josephine since she had a carefree, undisciplined, spoiled and uneducated childhood. Her lack of education and manners put her at a disadvantage in French society when she moved to Paris at the age of 16 in order to marry.
- A major life transition reinforced the need for lifelong learning – After being left by her first husband, Josephine moved to a fashionable convent that housed aristocratic ladies, other abandoned women and nuns. Realizing that she needed to educate and improve herself in order to succeed in French society without a husband, Josephine learned about dancing, couture and debate from her cosmopolitan counterparts at the convent.
- Embracing her emerging role as Napoleon’s key advocate – Josephine also developed the ability to charm people, which proved crucial when she married her second husband, Napoleon Bonaparte. While many believe Napoleon’s military conquests and force of personality were behind his meteoric rise, Williams suggests that Josephine played a critical role in navigating the various factions in French society and government and keeping Napoleon’s coalitions together. In fact, Josephine’s diplomatic skills, legendary hospitality and advice were key reasons why Napoleon remained emotionally (if not sexually) loyal to her and delayed divorcing her when she didn’t conceive a son.
- Developing a love of gardening – Josephine created a renowned garden at her home, Chateau de Malmaison, located near Paris. She collected seeds, cuttings and plants from Martinique, St. Lucia, Africa, South America and the Middle East. In her quest for botanical marvels, Josephine’s correspondence with leading authorities across the globe highlighted her increasingly deep knowledge of botany. Thanks to Josephine, many gardeners today enjoy growing plants such as cacti, rhododendrons, tulips and dahlias in their landscapes. The French empress also was responsible for cultivating 50 new varieties of roses.
All told, Williams’ account of Josephine’s life offers an impressive portrait of one of history’s greatest lifelong learners. In a time when a woman’s primary value was based on her husband’s rank and career, Josephine found multiple ways to become an educated and engaged person in her own right.
Primary Source for This Post:
Williams, K. (2014). Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte.