What does it mean to be a woman in a time of revolution, a time of colonial expansion? Was Rose de Beauharnais an extraordinary woman or a woman in extraordinary times? She hailed from exotic Martinique, narrowly survived the reign of terror, married an unpleasant young soldier for the security of her children, eventually rose to be the Empress of France – but who was she? Josephine’s Garden is a wonderful depiction of a woman in a time of chaos.
Josephine’s Garden starts with Rose fearing the arrival of a messenger – will she have to leave her precious garden at Malmaison? Will losing her husband mean losing her life? for “Who am I if not Bonaparte’s wife?” The ambitious reclusive soldier she married has become an Emperor, Napoleon I; he funds her house, her garden, his influence provides her menagerie, gets rid of her previous obligations, even gives her her name: Josephine.
We look back over Rose’s life, from the dark days of the reign of terror, when the heroes of the revolution were sent to the guillotine, through the “joyful madness” of post-revolutionary Paris, and on through the unimaginable cruelties of French expansion under Napoleon – to a time when “There were no young men left in Paris.” And the cruelties weren’t just the slaughter of sons, brothers, husbands, but the pillaging of art and science institutions.
We see the world from the points of view of three women – Rose; Marthe Desfriches, who marries the biologist Jacques Labillardière, and whose misery in his cold presence leads her to seek revenge for the death of a young man lost in the war: “What must it be like to be married to a man who could not conceive of your thoughts at all?” And there is Anne Serreaux, wife to the gardener Felix Delahaye, who gardens alongside her husband, bears children, is the envy of both Rose and Marthe, but who longs to be leading a simple country life, and who bears a terrible breakdown all on her own.
And there is the other Rose: raised in a man’s house, imprisoned on his death, but visited by Labillardière bearing a bouquet and whispering “… simply because our society cannot accept difference.” She ends up living in his offices until she is part of a political arrangement which sees her sent to Empress Josephine in Malmaison. She is always dressed impeccably, has exquisite manners and notices everything: “Marthe watched transfixed as the ape turned her head to her and lowered her arm to point directly at Marthe’s heart. I see you” – Rose is an orangutan, alone of her kind, a shadowy reflection of the lives of women – owned, with no choices, left alone and treated well enough – as long as they look pretty and behave – before they just disappear from your mind.
There are moments of joy for both Rose de Beauharnais and Anne, especially in the pleasures and triumphs of creating the garden. And Rose does end up falling in love with Napoleon, but his interest drifts elsewhere when she can’t bear him a son – if women can’t have children, they have no purpose, unlike men, whose childlessness is seen as dedication to their interests. There is little joy for Marthe, except perhaps in wandering the streets of Paris, finding a distant connection to the homeless, injured and destitute, wondering “What terrors am I capable of?”
There are resonances in the history as well, once the horrors of the revolution have occurred, where are the boundaries of what people ‘should’ do? Once there is a regime of terror, how does a state recapture civility? “He promised to make France great again.” And the lawlessness and entitlement are not just on the national scale – Napoleon takes a hunting party to the lake at Malmaison to slaughter Rose’s swans, he is unfaithful to her in rooms where he knows she can overhear. Rose herself ends up bargaining with her daughter’s happiness, trying to turn what Napoleon wants into an advantage for her and her children, for she realises quite early on: “What I want is of no importance to Bonaparte.”
Josephine, the public persona of Rose, treads a fine line to remain a good propaganda icon, and not fall into the trap of scandal. When an artist is trying to work out how to portray Napoleon’s atrocities without giving offence, the solution is to have the image include Josephine submitting before him – the ideal of a beautiful woman submitting to a powerful man. Napoleon himself appears to have an idealised view of her: “We are both driven to be the best and brightest stars.”
Josephine’s Garden is lavishly written and totally engrossing, and it gets very tense: there are assassination attempts, people being hidden in basements, unpredictable tyrants, lines being crossed – such as people being executed without trial for political expediency, and the external threats of illness and poverty. And there are the commonalities of the women’s experiences which eventually draw them together in the garden, the miracle of a garden where trees, plants and animals flourish where they don’t belong: “No one else has a garden such as this.”
I just loved this book … read it and see what you think …