Title: Becoming Josephine
Author: Heather Webb
No. of Pages: 320
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: 31 December 2013
Bottom Line: Interesting historically, so-so story
“Readers are fascinated with the wives of famous men. In Becoming Josephine, debut novelist Heather Webb follows Rose Tascher as she sails from her Martinique plantation to Paris, eager to enjoy an elegant life at the royal court. Once there, however, Rose’s aristocratic soldier-husband dashes her dreams by abandoning her amid the tumult of the French Revolution. After narrowly escaping death, Rose reinvents herself as Josephine, a beautiful socialite wooed by an awkward suitor—Napoleon Bonaparte.”
Thoughts: Perhaps the similarities are just coincidences, but one can easily compare Josephine to the fictional Scarlett O’Hara. Both are willing to compromise their morals or flout society’s rules to achieve their desired goals. Both are selfish, petty, and ruthless in their revenge. Both use their beauty and sex to manipulate situations to their advantages. However, Josephine’s one saving grace is her devotion to her children, something genuine and touching and a trait Scarlett just never has towards anyone but her last child. It is the fact that Josephine does so much on her children’s behalf which prevents her from being a completely horrible person. That and her mad passion for the boorish Napoleon, which has the feeling of just desserts given everything she does to other people. Together, the two traits humanize her in a way all of her sufferings fail to accomplish, creating sympathy for a person it would be easy to dislike.
What Becoming Josephine fails to show – something Margaret Mitchell does quite effectively – is the alternatives Rose/Josephine has. Scarlett always had options and more acceptable methods by which she could live her life and make her fortune. Ms. Webb shows none of that for Rose. Perhaps it is her sphere of influence, her greediness, or her general disregard for society, but readers do not see how other women of similar social status fared during the fall of the monarchy, the Revolution and Bonaparte’s rise to power. One wishes this contrast did exist within the story if only to make Josephine a more fully-developed character than she already is. Without it, one does not really know the true depredations, if any, of her behavior.
Wherever possible, Ms. Webb quotes primary source documents to add authenticity to her story, including letters to and from Napoleon. Not only does this help readers identify the factual from the fictional, but it fills in some of the gaps and lessens the incredulity that Josephine and Napoleon really did share such a passionate love. Given Josephine’s tendency towards the dramatic, as seen by interactions with her first husband, it is well within the realm of author invention to create a relationship so extreme in its sentiments and jealousies. Quotations of the original correspondence between the two do much to lessen this doubt and sheds light on the tenor of their relationship.
Those readers unfamiliar with the life of Rose Josephine Tascher will appreciate Ms. Webb’s detailed glimpse into this unusual life. She’s judicious in showing Josephine’s flaws as well as her more positive attributes. Simultaneously, the historical details are vibrant and thorough in their explanations of one of the most tumultuous periods in European history. Ms. Webb wisely avoids judgment as she describes Josephine’s more questionable actions, allowing readers to make their own such decisions. The overall impression of Becoming Josephine is of a woman born into a complex period in history, in which everything familiar becomes hated and feared, who uses the gifts given to her to her best advantage and did what was necessary in order to survive.