Title: Josephine’s Garden
Author: Stephanie Parkyn
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 3rd December 2019
Synopsis: A captivating story of love, nature and identity in Napoleon’s France
‘Stephanie Parkyn is one very talented storyteller.’ -Mrs B’s Book Reviews
France, 1794. In the aftermath of the bloody end to the French Revolution, Rose de Beauharnais stumbles from prison on the day she is to be guillotined. Within a decade, she’ll transform into the scandalous socialite who marries Napoleon Bonaparte, become Empress Josephine of France and build a garden of wonders with plants and animals she gathers from across the globe.
But she must give Bonaparte an heir or she risks losing everything.
Two other women from very different spheres are tied to the fate of the Empress Josephine – Marthe Desfriches and Anne Serreaux. Their lives are put at risk as they each face confronting obstacles in their relationships and in their desire to become mothers.
From the author of Into the World comes a richly imagined historical novel about obsession, courage, love and marriage.
‘Enthralling novel, rich in historical detail … Highly recommended.’ –Good Reading on Into the World
Set in the days after the Terror, the French Revolution, Josephine’s Garden is the story of three women – Josephine Bonaparte, Marthe Desfriches, and Anne Serreaux. These three women have lived through revolution in different ways. Josephine, also known as Rose, has lost her husband to the guillotine and is now wed to Napoleon Bonaparte. Marthe Desfriches has lost two husbands, one to war, and is onto her third marriage to Jacques Labillardiere, a botanist who made an appearance in Into the World, along with other characters like Robespierre. Anne Serreaux, married to another botanist, becomes friends with Josephine as a garden grows at Josephine’s home – made up of plants and animals from New Holland, cultivated by Josephine and her botanists as Napoleon fights his way across Europe.
He demands an heir from Josephine – something she had been struggling to give him, and she must allow her children from her first marriage to he used as pawns in the political games of Napoleon as survivors of the Terror – either royalists or those who see Napoleon as another leader who will not free them but will be just as bad as the royal family that has recently died, so there is an undercurrent of further rebellion as Napoleon starts to establish himself as emperor of France.
Much of the action takes place at home, away from the war front of the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815 as Napoleon tries to gain power over European states to build the French Empire – many years prior to Europe forming as we know it today, and several decades before Bismarck and the German wars of unification. Napoleon is often away at war, but the moments he appears in the novel are significant – demands of an heir, assassination attempts and plans, and family trying to drive Josephine out because she has failed to produce an heir, so rumours swirl that she is barren. This intrigue builds throughout the novel and causes tension in many relationships. Carefully balanced with what Josephine wants, and what she is able to give, this is explored sensitively and given the attention it needs. Much of what drives all the tensions is the idea of producing heirs to secure empire, and women and their role to reproduce and raise the future generations – the expectations placed on the new aristocracy in as they seek to rebuild the power they lost – or a new power in the new nation of France without a monarchy to lead them.
Marthe is unhappy in her marriage to Labillardiere – she longs for a child, yet he refuses to give her one. He has other plans and is determined to keep botany secrets from Josephine so he can write his book. It would seem that in many ways, there are lots of people plotting against Josephine and Napoleon, separately and apart, but in different ways. As Josephine tends her garden, political unrest and alliances tear her family apart, and her friends become embroiled in various activities – some nefarious and some very personal as rumours swirl about Napoleon’s activities at home and abroad. Marthe’s story is gently dealt with at first, until she discovers secrets later on, and her story, and suspicions about what she is up to within the new empire and whether she is acting against Napoleon ramp up.
The inclusion of the historical figures from Into the World ties the two books together cleverly – but can both be read as standalone novels, separate from each other. This is an intriguing period in history, and I have noticed that there seem to be more stories appearing now about it, or maybe I am just noticing that there are more around as it has been drawn to my attention by these books and Kate Forsyth’s latest. Either way, these stories are given life now, and we see – through Josephine’s eyes – how ego drove Napoleon and his ambitions as she sought to create a beautiful antipodean garden in France.
Josephine’s fate is tied up with Anne and Marthe eventually, and the political undercurrents of the Napoleonic Wars and Napoleon’s need to secure his empire as he tries to build the French Empire in the image that Napoleon wishes to see. Intrigue and secrets fill this novel. Stephanie Parkyn has written this exquisitely, evoking the gardens and feelings of post-Revolutionary France – as those who were affected by the Terror navigate a new world. Her research has brought these people to life – and I loved the nods and throwbacks to Into the World. If there is more to come, especially about certain characters who make an appearance in this book, then I am very eager for it and will be recommending this novel to lovers of historical fiction.