BECOMING JOSEPHINE by Heather Webb

On ne naît pas femm: on le deviant.

One is not born woman; one becomes woman.

—Simone de Beauvoir

The above may be one of the best preface quotes ever. Not only does it prime us for the journey it feels as if the sentiment was the springboard for Becoming Josephine. For me it was a relief because the novel’s cover, though lovely, led me to believe the emphasis of the story would revolve around the romance between Rose Tascher (eventually Joséphine de Beauharnais) and Napoleon Bonaparte. Simone de Beauvoir’s quote lifted this assumption from my mind and allowed me to be transported back to libertine France under Heather Webb’s deft prose.

The sheer number of people rendered me speechless. Hordes shuffled along the roadside carrying packages, toting their children, or walking arm in arm with friends. Odors assailed my senses; rich coffee wafted from cafes, sweaty horses and fetid piles of animal waste assaulted, flowery perfumes and warm bread tempted. Street vendors, juggling performers, and the incessant clopping of hooves whirled together in an orchestra of sounds.

The establishment of setting and atmosphere is one of Webb’s strengths. Her attention to detail deepens the reader’s understanding of her characters’ point of view, conflicts and dreams. And when the moment calls she uses this painter-like style to ramp up the suspense.

I sucked in the steamy air, heart thundering in my ears. A screech sounded from the shadows. The familiar shapes of the wood grew grotesque in the fading light. I ran faster. Serpents slid from their holes when the heat of the day faded, seeking victims for their poison. I had witnessed bitten men convulse with frothing lips and blue-black swelling beneath their skin. I shook my head to dispel the images. I couldn’t think of that now.

I recently read Webb’s second novel, Rodin’s Lover, and was captivated by the way she used the passionate intent of her characters to drive the story forward. Her dexterity with Intent also shines here.

I studied the silk rug. I would go to court, I vowed. I would mingle with nobility, with or without Alexandre. But first I must make friends. I would begin tonight.

By zeroing in on Rose’s desires we’re able to tap into her strength and heart and observe how they grow throughout her life.

Rose’s transformation to Josephine astonishes and inspires. On the surface Rose Tascher’s life is Pygmalion-esque. When she arrives in Paris for her arranged marriage, her fiancé Alexandre is put off by her attire and the frankness with which she speaks, yet by the time she meets Napoleon she has learned that every part of her manner is a…

…tool to secure one’s station, like the ruse of love.

But unlike Eliza Doolittle, who grows into a higher station in life and ends up finding love, Rose’s integration into high society enlarges her view of the world.

What a grandiose idea. I had never given a slave’s freedom any thought, let alone the “rights” of women, I accepted our roles—those of the slaves in their fields and the Grands Blancs running their plantations. Our sugarcane would rot, our plantations crumble without the Africans. Where would we be then? Yet Fanny had given me much to ponder.

As the revolution in France intensifies many of Rose’s family and friends are arrested and eventually she joins them in the cells of Les Carmes prison. The filth and squalor of such confinement, particularly in this period of time, can lead to individuals becoming angry, callous or withdrawn. Not so for Rose. Although she physically wastes away to almost no one at all her empathy for others expands. She continues to use whatever connections she has to petition for the release of everyone she knows, no matter what the odds. Her open heart will eventually bond her to the people of France. Still, Rose is not a soft touch.

I cough deeply, uncontrollably, as if I might vomit my organs. I sucked in a ragged breath and leaned against the wall. I ran my hand over the naked skin on my neck. A few days before, Delphine had chopped my locks into jagged disarray with a knife, borrowed from a jailer. My enemies would not shave my head in front of a mocking crowd.

In this moment, Marie-Josephe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie de Beauhanais—who has yet to meet Napoleon—though frail is triumphant. Her determination never to be a victim is an inspiration and a testament to the strength of all women.

Becoming Josephine exemplifies Simone de Beauvoir’s quote: One is not born woman; one becomes woman. Rose Tascher’s story was meant to be told and Heather Webb delivers it brilliantly.