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The International Writers Magazine: Book Reviews

The Last Great Dance On Earth by Sandra Gulland
Publisher: Headline Review
ISBN-10: 074726192X
ISBN-13: 978-0747261926

Ruby Harrison

‘I was not born for such grandeur’ Josephine, in a letter to her daughter Hortense.

The Last Great Dance On Earth is the final book in the fascinating trilogy by Sandra Gulland

The acclaimed bestsellers follow the extraordinary life of Josephine Bonaparte from her impoverished childhood through becoming the empress of France and finally to her enduring legacy as Josephine’s progeny live on in most of the royal houses today. This final instalment covers the period from early 1800 to Josephine’s death on May 29th, 1814.

The novel opens with Bonaparte and Josephine taking a walk together through their garden palace in the early hours of the morning and throughout the book there are tender moments such as these, which serve to show the depth and passion of their union. Despite this, their marriage is threatened both internally and externally by factors they cannot control.

Although they have been married for four tumultuous years, and have tried many unusual ‘cures’ Josephine is unable to have Napoleon’s child. Historians put this down to Josephine’s imprisonment during the Terror, which caused an early menopause. This prevents Bonaparte from fathering an heir to the throne and ultimately leads to his infidelity. Other factors, such as England making war against France and Napoleon’s Corsican family rebelling against Josephine, only serve make things harder. The family, particularly napoleons sister, Caroline, are jealous and malicious toward Josephine, believing they deserve more recognition from their brother and that it is ‘the old woman’ who prevents this.

Written as a first person journal it is vivid, fresh and seems to possess a sense of immediacy throughout which defies the conventions of historical fiction. The novel unfurls through her varied diary entries and the reader is shown not just the changing times but also her changing moods and feelings about the unusual life she has led. Thus we see Bonaparte’s infidelity through Josephine’s eyes and feel the pain she felt knowing in some way she was to be blamed. As well as her sadness we also feel the empress’ joy at the ordinary things life brings, her children’s marriages and her grandchildren. The diary entries present an amazing, strong woman and through her exquisitely crafted words Josephine could almost be lifted off the page; gentle, reflective, and entirely likeable.

As Napoleon’s family and his cabinet members push for a divorce to insure political stability and he realises for the good of the nation he must leave Josephine and marry a younger woman of royal blood to ensure a Bonaparte succession. Their divorce ceremony, December 15th, is a moving passage within the book and both read prepared statements which emphasise their mutual love and highlight their divorce is a sacrifice for France. Much is written about how Josephine soaked her apartments in the palace with her fragrance to remind Napoleon of herself long after she had gone.

As Napoleon had always believed, Josephine was his guardian angel, and without her presence and good sense public support begins to wane and he is eventually exiled with his new wife and baby boy. The book closes with Josephine’s death which we hear through a letter to Napoleon from Eugene. Her last words are ‘tell him I am waiting.’ According to historical lore, Napoleon’s last words were also about his love; ‘I have just seen my good Josephine. She told me we would never again be separated. She promised me.’

Historical fiction rests on a thin line between truth and imagination. All writers of the genre face the choice of making a novel out of pure fact, and sacrificing their own creative input, or losing hold of what actually happened and creating a fascinating story. Sandra Gulland stands exactly in the middle. The novel is packed with captivating historical detail, which often takes the form of footnotes so that the reader is fully informed. However, aside from this, the characters she has created with only their names, and history as guidance, are perfectly imagined and so real it is almost impossible to comprehend they acted or felt any different.

So much of history is based on sources and facts but we can never truly know what occurred, and know even less of how the great characters in history felt. It is this which makes historical fiction, and in particular this fascinating book so readable and engrossing. I truly believed in the picture she painted; in Napoleon’s passion and ambition, and in Josephine’s sweet nature. The Last Great Dance On Earth works not only as an engrossing historical novel, but also as a tragic love story made even more poignant by its truth.
Ruby Ceridwen Harrison
shl60531 at

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