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A SCRIBNER PAPERBACK FICTION READING GROUP GUIDE Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe
Sandra Gulland's second installment of her history of Josephine, Empress of France, is that rare phenomenon: a second novel even better than the first. Gulland casts a strong spell, weaving reality and myth...seductive.
Nancy Wigston, The Toronto Star
Following the bestselling The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B.,
the first volume in the trilogy depicting the life of Josephine Bonaparte, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, the first Emperor of France, author Sandra Gulland continues her narrative with Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe.
As previously, Ms. Gulland creates her historical novel in the form of Josephine's private journals, filling pages with her unguarded thoughts, fears, joys and sorrows. Imagining Josephine's voice, Gulland provides a unique portrait of a clever and charming woman who married a man of great passion and power and who suffered the consequences of the union.
Beginning on the day after her marriage to the "Corsican" Napoleon, we meet a mournful woman, beset by doubts, fearful of her children's reaction to her marriage and what the future may hold for all of them. For France is in a state of flux. Though the dreaded Reign of Terror was ended and its architect Robespierre was dead, political intrigue is a plague on the land. Only two days after their marriage, Napoleon leaves Paris to take command of the Army of Italy; a month later in April 1796, he opens his Italian campaign and ultimately proclaims six victories.
Josephine writes of her husband's triumphs and defeats, but it is the stresses of daily life that occupy her: the welfare of her children, aiding friends who plead for the benefit of her political contacts, the running of the household and the constant need for money to support the life that is appropriate to a woman of her station. Her marriage was little help in this regard; though Napoleon provided some funds for the running of the household, Josephine was expected to contribute the rest from her own pocket. She is further cursed with Napoleon's family: a mother-in-law who despises her, three selfish sisters-in-law and four greedy brothers-in-law. Though she attempts at first to charm them, it is quickly evident that nothing can defang this nest of vipers with their thinly veiled insults regarding the six-year difference in age between Josephine and Napoleon, he being twenty-six and she thirty-two at the time of their marriage. Perhaps most cruel of all is her inability to conceive a child, an issue that will eventually threaten her marriage.
One of the most startling aspects of Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe
is its many parallels to late-twentieth-century life. The manners and morals of the time, the political machinations and intrigues, the profligate spending without thought of tomorrow are all mirrored in the events we see today. Here are moralists and the licentious side by side; here friendships are cast aside in favor of political power; here true friends of the republic fall as opportunists rise. But beyond politics and at its core, Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe
recalls the extraordinary love story of the remarkable woman who captivated the man destined to change the world.
1. In Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe,
Sandra Gulland explores one of the most volatile periods of French history. What were some of the most pressing issues of the time? What is the most interesting aspect of the period?
2. Josephine and Napoleon are generally depicted as among the great romantic/tragic couples in history. But here we meet a Josephine who often seems conflicted regarding her feelings towards her husband. She speaks of her love for him but also admits in her diary that he is, in many ways, a stranger to her. What may have been her reasons for the marriage? How did Josephine's feelings for Napoleon change over time?
3. Josephine initially kept the fact of her marriage to Napoleon hidden from her two young children, twelve-year-old Hortense and fourteen-year-old Eugene. While Eugene looked forward to the benefits of a masculine presence in his life, Hortense was decidedly unhappy with her mother's marriage. From a modern perspective, how might Josephine have eased the situation for both her children and her new husband?
4. Napoleon's family appears to be a venal lot at best -- his sisters, greedy and grasping, his brothers, power-hungry -- all of them plotted continually against outsiders and even each other. Many modern marriages are similarly assaulted by family members with varying agendas. What differences do you perceive between the late eighteenth century and the late twentieth century in this regard?
5. Despite Napoleon's passion and Josephine's growing love for her husband, their marriage seems to have no hope of succeeding. Discuss the pressures -- family, duplicitous friends, politicians, each with a particular axe to grind -- that beset their union from the beginning. Given their respective characters, what might a meeting between the couple and a modern marriage counselor have been like?
6. Josephine and Napoleon agreed to share living expenses; even the purchase price of a country property was to be shared equally between them. Additionally, Josephine was required to pay for whatever expenses her children incurred. In this respect they had a somewhat modern marriage, but without the benefit, to Josephine, of any means of earning an income. What position did this put Josephine in? What options were open to her? Was she irresponsible in going so deeply into debt? Were her financial involvements ethically questionable? Was her spending frivolous, or might it be considered a legitimate business investment? Was it unusual for a woman to get involved in large-scale business ventures in the late eighteenth century? How unusual would it be today? Would Josephine's financial situation and dealings be viewed differently if she had been a man?
7. Napoleon announces that "the Romance of the Revolution is finished; it's time to begin its history." This will entail the overthrow of Barras, one of the five Directors of the governing council and considered to be the most powerful, "by force, if need be." Was it justified? Were Napoleon and Josephine right to turn against Barras?
8. Sandra Gulland offers an array of remarkable historical characters, some known to us from our history books, others more obscure. Which characters intrigued you and made you want to learn more about them?
9. How do Napoleon and Josephine seem as people? More or less as history has depicted them? Or did you discover elements unknown to you before reading Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe?
Which characteristics do you admire? Which do you deplore?
10. As we observe this period in history through Josephine's eyes, it seems that people's crimes, and sins, even their foibles and their affectations, have changed little in the two centuries that have passed. What differences do you see? What do you think we can learn through the distance of historical perspective?
11. Sandra Gulland has chosen to make her trilogy of the life of Josephine Bonaparte fictional. How would this work differ had the author chosen to turn her extensive research into a narrative of nonfiction? What kind of distance would this have created?
12. Written in the form of a diary, this work of fiction departs from the typical style of the historical novel. Did you feel it brought you closer to Josephine, in particular, as she wrote of the joys and trials of her life? Would you be interested in other novels or historical fiction written in this format?
13. Josephine fulfilled many traditional roles: mother, wife, hostess. She also involved herself in politics and business. Did she wield power? If so, in what way, and to what end? What role did she play in Napoleon's rise to power? Of all her roles, which do you think was the most important to her?
14. In France, women's dress had changed radically after the Revolution: no corsets or hoops were worn, no high heels, fabrics were lighter, the cut revealing, following the natural contours of the body. In what ways did the style of dress reflect the changes that had taken place in France? What periods would you compare this to in this century? When Josephine traveled to Italy, she discovered that the Italians dressed more conservatively. Why did they do so? How did the two countries differ at that point in time?
15. Josephine helped form a syndicate to sell provisions to the army. Were other characters involved in such ventures? Was it unusual for a woman to be involved? What was Josephine's motivation? Did she understand the full import of what she was doing? Were her actions ethical? Foolish? Justified? If a woman was in need of money, what options were open to her in the late eighteenth century? What might Josephine have done instead?
16. How did Josephine feel about Napoleon when she married him? Why did she marry him? Did she come to love him? When? (And why?) Was love considered important to a marriage? Napoleon professed to love Josephine passionately. Did he, in fact, love her?