- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004

Andrea Stuart is a talented writer who brings a fresh perspective to The Rose of Mar

tinique: A Life of Napoleon’s Josephine (Grove/Atlantic, $27.50, 455 pages, illus.). To say something different about a subject who has already been tackled by almost 60 biographers is not easy, but the author, who grew up in the Caribbean, has done her research and tells a fascinating story.

Nearly half of this book is devoted to the period before Napoleon enters the life of Marie-Joseph-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie, known as Rose, and capriciously re-christens her his Josephine. Thus the author takes her time to depict Rose’s childhood on the sugar plantation and her perilous three-month voyage to France at age 15 to marry a sophisticated roue she’d never met. We learn of the total dependence of women on their relationships to men in the 18th century, the opulence of life at the French court, and the labyrinth of affairs among the Parisians.

Rose makes use of her gift for friendship in the convent to which her husband banishes her while he pursues leadership of the national assembly. Amid the chaos of the Revolution and the ensuing Terror, her estranged husband dies by guillotine; she too would have met the same fate had not Robespierre been overthrown 10 days before. (She may have been spared by the disappearance of incriminating documents about her, reportedly literally eaten by an employee of the Committee of Public Safety.)

The author makes a case for Josephine as the quintessential Creole — “it is almost impossible to imagine her emerging from any other society” — whose birthplace “helped to account for her mainly sensual intelligence and her highly evolved aesthetic judgement.”

Josephine was also a consummate actress, adaptable to circumstances as necessary. She moved from abandoned wife to patriotic “citizen,” to courageous widow, to 33-year-old femme fatale, at which point she was persuaded to be consort to the 27-year-old military hero of France.

When Napoleon met her, the author writes, “Rose was the star, her every movement discussed, her every outfit dissected … She seemed to epitomize what this period was all about, with its passion for spontaneity, its love of the exotic and its relentless pursuit of pleasure.”

The marriage got off to a rocky start when Napoleon was so busy planning his Italian campaign that he turned up at the registry office two hours after the appointed time. The union continued to be difficult, with Josephine slow to break her ties to her old life (and assorted lovers) and join her smitten husband in the field.

Eventually the tables were turned, of course, and it was she who worked desperately to hold onto her husband’s attention as his lust for power (and an heir) became overwhelming.

The biographer never loses track of the context for her heroine and her role in French history, but it’s the telling vignettes that stick in the mind. Here’s one example of Josephine’s famous kindness:

“She was always alert to ways of improving her performance: in Dieppe [on a triumphal tour with the new consul for life], she was provided with a bracelet to give to the little girl who would present her with a bouquet. Having received the bracelet, the child put out her other arm and Josephine took off one of her own bangles to give to her.

“Noticing how much more delighted the child and the collected onlookers were with the second, more personal gesture, ever after she would put on before the ceremony any jewellery she had to distribute, so that she could take it from her own wrist, neck or finger.”

Anyone who visits Martinique is struck by the warmth with which the people there speak of Josephine. Andrea Stuart makes it clear why.

• • •

Few historians dispute that James Buchanan, who preceded Abraham Lincoln in the White House, was a dreadful president. The traditional picture of Buchanan on the eve of civil war is one of a timid, vacillating president, unable to deal with the secession crisis.

Not so, says Jean H. Baker in James Buchanan (Times Books, $20, 192 pages), one of a series of short biographies in the “American Presidents” series edited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. In the author’s view, Buchanan was one of the “most aggressive” presidents in American history.

His problem was that, despite being from Pennsylvania, he was totally supportive of the Southern perspective. His seeming timidity in the final year of his presidency, in fact, reflected a sympathy for the Southern position regarding slavery.

So Buchanan did nothing to slow the momentum toward secession in the winter of 1860-61, insisting that he had no constitutional power to coerce a state. Never mind that his hero, Andrew Jackson, had moved vigorously against an earlier secessionist threat from South Carolina.

In this biographer’s judgment, Buchanan “came closer to committing treason than any other president in American history.” Lack of experience was not his problem. He had spent his life in politics, first as a congressman and later as a U.S. senator, then as secretary of state under President James K. Polk, and subsequently as minister to Great Britain.

A lifelong Democrat, Buchanan viewed his party as the protector of an increasingly polarized Union. “As leader of a party whose strength lay with slaveholders,” the author writes, “he discounted the moral and political anachronism that slavery was becoming.”

Buchanan’s transgressions were many. The author regards the Buchanan cabinet as one of the most corrupt in American history. Secretary of War John Floyd was the most flagrant offender, buying defective weapons from favored companies and funneling government funds to Democratic contractors.

Today, Buchanan is best remembered as America’s only bachelor president. The author sees his unmarried status as part of his problem. Buchanan “absorbed from his unmarried state certain priestly characteristics — a dogmatic narrow assurance of rectitude and celibate virtue, a reserve and distance even from friends.”

Worst of all he was a pessimist, “lacking the ebullience that so often undergirds the boldness of good presidents.”

Jean Baker’s crisply written mini-biography will tell most readers all they need to know about one of our least successful presidents.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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