Sunday, August 19, 2012
Empress of the French
This time, Napoleon: A Political Life (2005) -- how his political thought shaped his European policies during the Grand Empire era, and his plans, thwarted or successful, in the New World. Napoleon's successes and defeats had great impact on the history of the U.S., which we in the U.S. don't often consider in much detail, outside of generally dry sub-sets of academic historians of European history. This is why I am also doing what can only be cursory study of the Napoleonic years, of course -- Haiti, the Louisiana Purchase, slavery, the War of 1812.
The book's author is Steven Englund an American academic historian, a specialist in the history of the Grand Empire, who teaches and lives in Paris. Maybe this accounts for his writing style, which is anything but dry and dull.
He begins with the background on Corsica, the Bonaparte family, and Napoleon's mother's family, the Ramolinis. This is the era of the then internationally famous Pasquale Paoli, whose efforts Napoleon's father joined as a young man, in the dream and the battles for Corsica's independence from France. (They failed.) This material regarding Corsica's history and independence and Paoli is all brand new to me.
As this book doesn't deal with Napoleon's personal life outside of his immediate family and their participation in their era's thought in the realms of the public life and nationhood, it leaves out that perennial favorite of Bonaparte books, his love life.
This year I've read three different biographies of Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, Josephine Empress of the French. One of them, The Rose of Martinique (2003) stood out because it was written by Andrea Stuart, a Jamaican of color, living in the UK, where she edits a literary magazine. She focused several opening chapters on Josephine's childhood on Martinique, telling us detail what it meant to grow up a white creole girl on a sugar plantation among a sea of slaves. She shows in inarguable sourced detail how the dress of the slaves influenced the dress of the french creole Caribbean women -- and how Josephine's mode of dressing -- then she was still Rose -- and the other famous Parisian creoles of her class influenced the sartorial styles of the era. When she was Empress, of course, those styles influenced the rest of Europe, even in the centers of England's haute mode, France's foremost enemy. (Stuart also makes a case that no one else seems to have done, that Napoleon and Josephine's shared birth and upbringing on islands that were French colonies formed a great part of their undeniable close bond. They shared an intuitive understanding that few others did who didn't have that background.)
Here I finally get to what else I've been thinking of since an artful gardening friend murmured complaints about the ubiquitous popularity of roses as ornamental flowers -- whose idea was that, and why did anybody think it was a good idea?
I'm guessing it was Rose's idea -- Josephine's. Among her interests was natural history. Even before becoming Empress she turned the estate of Malmaison, gifted her by Bonaparte, into a showplace of gardens, zoos, aviaries and conservatories. She ordered every variety she heard of, of animals, birds, trees, plants and flowers. She ordered them from everywhere -- and very particularly from England, the center then of exotic and experimental horticulture. Napoleon ordered the French navy to let through the British ships that carried Josephine's orders of the beloved superfine muslins (which France did not manufacture) and her plants. Roses of every variety were among what she ordered.
Josephine seems to be have been the first in France to consciously create rose gardens. Naturally, the rose was her flower. The rose was lauded constantly then, in complimentary effusions to Napoleon's wife and later, his Empress. (For reasons of his own, Napoleon insisted from the first days of their relationship that she be known as Josephine rather than Rose, as she'd always been known. Napoleon changed everybody's name, like the shrub insists on bestowing his own nicknames on everyone he encounters.)
So it's the fault of the Empress of the French, mi amiga, that all those inconvenient, prone-to-disease, thorny bushes and climbers are found everywhere!