Interview: Sandra Gulland, Author – The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B.

In my previous article for MyFrenchLife™ Magazine, I shared my thoughts about the film ‘Napoleon’ by Ridley Scott and recommended our readers look at  Sandra Gulland’s Josephine B. trilogy, three books of fiction that had been among my favorite historical novels about a very tumultuous French period, the Revolution and the First Empire. 

As we started reading the first one of this trilogy ‘The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B.’  at Myfrenchlife™ Book Club, I was inspired by the conversations with our members and decided to contact Sandra Gulland to ask her if she was willing to answer some questions: 

Here is how it started :

  • “Bonjour Sandra, I am Jacqueline, the book club facilitator for the magazine MyFrenchLife™. Following the release of Napoleon the film, I chose to have our members read ‘ The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B’. Our discussions just started both on Substack and Facebook. So far we’re counting 40 ‘enthusiasts’ but expecting more to join us. Would you agree to an interview? Merci d’avance! ” I wrote.
  • “Absolutely, Jacqueline. I’m thrilled that you are reading the Trilogy. BTW, I recently did a podcast interview on Josephine” responded Sandra Gulland.

Author Sandra Gulland

And now, how it ended! 

At MyFrenchLife™ Magazine we could not be more grateful and more thrilled to have received such wonderful answers, merci Sandra!” Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier

  1. When you decided to write a historical novel about Josephine, to what extent did you feel that, as a North American anglophone, you might be entitled or not to write about French History? Were you apprehensive about receiving criticism from French Historians for example?“This is a very good question. I didn’t feel at all entitled. It helped that I didn’t think Josephine B. would ever be published. I began by writing a contemporary mystery about an eccentric old woman in northern Ontario who finds a scrap of a diary written by — she’s sure! — Josephine. It was the silliest novel imaginable.I should add that I’d been fascinated by Josephine for decades, in large part because of her courage. There have been times in my life when I needed courage and at those times I would think of Josephine and that helped. She was, for me, kind of a personal saint (small “s”).

    But back to the silly novel. I sent it to Writer-in-Residence at the University of Ottawa, for a critique. Jane Urquhart, an award-winning literary novelist and poet, told me: “Just write Josephine’s diary. That’s the part that comes to life.”And so that’s what I did. I scrapped 300 pages, kept the 10 pages of diary, and began again.

    I don’t think I would have ever had the courage to write a historical novel about Josephine without Jane Urquhart’s urging. I assumed that no Canadian publisher would ever be interested in a novel about a French historical figure.

    But once I began, it was like having a tiger by the tail! There was no way I could not write it. Cut forward many years later to the publication of the first in the Trilogy: I think every writer of historical fiction fears the Historical Police! The more especially when you’re writing outside your culture and country. I was terrified and thus gratified (and surprised!) that my trilogy was respected and praised. (With the exception of the English, who were somewhat outraged that my Josephine wasn’t a slut!) My French publisher told me that a French historian contacted her to congratulate her on publishing it!

    I think this comes around to the important subject of creative freedom. In my opinion, we really can’t — or shouldn’t — turn away from those things we’re passionate about. I strongly believe that one should write what one is compelled to write, so long as you do it well, and with respect.”

  1. Similarly, did the book and later the trilogy sell well in France when it was translated? (I must say that these considerations never crossed my mind when I first bought the book in the late 1990s, as I used to read historical fiction in English) 

    “I don’t keep track of the numbers, but I don’t think it sold a great deal.”
  1.  Our readers are enjoying the diary format in this book. How do you decide which format to use when writing your novels?“It’s not so much “deciding” as “discovering” how best to tell a story. Often I will try to tell the story in different ways to see what works, and what feels right. The novel I’m writing now began in first person retrospective (the narrator looking back on her life).

    Susanne Dunlap, the book coach I’m working with, suggested I try the diary format instead. I was reluctant at first — been there, done that! — but the change made it much more immediate.”

  1. Do you see Josephine as a woman who, despite the inequalities between men and women at the time, could stand out as a pioneer in women’s emancipation such as Olympe de Gouges for example?“Olympe de Gouges was very much an activist, and Josephine, although a strong, brave, and in many ways an influential woman, was not. Josephine’s strength, I feel, was in her ability to connect with people, her soft touch.”
  1.  In 1991, her statue was beheaded and splattered with red paint in Martinique by activists who blamed her for the re-establishment of slavery under the 1st Empire (it seems this episode was a precursor of a trend that is common nowadays, the cancel culture!). Do you think Josephine deserved such a treatment?“No, I don’t believe she deserved this! It’s a mistake to think that Napoleon was convinced by Josephine to make this move. If anything, he was likely persuaded by men with financial interests.”
  1. After spending so many hours – and even years I suppose – in her company, did she have any long-term effects on your life?
    “The first thing that comes to mind is that I developed tinnitus a few days after learning that Josephine had ringing in her ears!

    But on a more meaningful level, it was hard for me to move on from the decade in her lovely company. She still feels like a supportive presence. Bernard Chevallier, who was curator of Malmaison for many, many years, told me that every year on May 29 they would have a gathering at Malmaison to commemorate the anniversary of her death — and every time a haunting chill would come over the room. So who knows!?”

  2. In Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, the movie takes some liberties with Josephine’s birth year while the actress playing her – Vanessa Kirby – is 20 years younger in real life than Joaquim Phoenix. Would you agree that despite these historical inaccuracies and the film’s flaws, the character of Josephine stands out as elegantly and movingly portrayed?“There was much I enjoyed about the movie and I especially liked that Josephine was portrayed as a part of Napoleon’s success. I was disappointed that their ages weren’t shown accurately. I think it would have been more striking to have shown Napoleon as the youngster that he was, and for Josephine to have been significantly older.

    I think the portrayal of her as sexually forward was rather more Hollywood than history. Even though war scenes are Ridley Scott’s specialty (and they were excellent), I don’t think it would have taken much to convey how much more there was to Napoleon than battlefield brilliance. I also think it would not have been difficult to at least hint at the importance of their family life, as well. More than anything, Josephine was a mother: this was the primary focus of her life. I think what she mainly saw in Napoleon was that he would be a good father to her children. And he was.”

Have you read any of Sandra Gulland’s books? Share your thoughts and reactions in the comments below.


About the Contributor

Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier

After teaching for 20 years abroad, I mostly live now in Paris, where I feel both like a native and an expat. I enjoy being part of My French Life™ as it makes my life in Paris even more meaningful and special. I have a passion for literature and movies. I share my thoughts in my blog and on twitter.”

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  1. Kathryn Gauci Feb 16, 2024 at 2:19 PM - Reply

    Interesting. Thanks, Jacqueline and Sandra. Unfortunately Hollywood does tend to portray history for mass appeal, but if it inspires people to read more about the lives of Napoleon and Josephine, then that is a good thing. Congratulations on your books, Sandra,

  2. Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier Feb 16, 2024 at 11:06 PM - Reply

    I totally agree with you Kathryn. It worked for me! after seeing the film , I just wanted to delve again into the French History of this period of time, I remembered Sandra Gulland’s trilogy I had read when published and thought of recommending it to MyFrenchLife™ community! Besides, despite the progress made in portraying women on screen as equals to men, Hollywood (and the audience) is still not ready to acclaim ‘mature’ heroins , let alone the older wife of an Emperor.

  3. Maggie Scott Feb 18, 2024 at 2:28 AM - Reply

    I had the privilege of being one of Sandra’s historical consultants for the Josephine B. trilogy–it’s still the best portrayal of the former empress’ life, with more accuracy than most non-fiction accounts that repeat the same rather salacious allegations that have plagued Josephine since her death in 1814. Sandra’s work here has clearly “withstood the test of time.”

    For reasons too numerous to count, I refused to watch Ridley Scott’s hot mess of a movie–the occasional peril of being an academic. I thought the trailers were enough evidence that the movie would not even have a passing nod to any sort of historical accuracy.

  4. Dubois Pasquier Jacqueline Feb 18, 2024 at 8:54 PM - Reply

    Maggie, Thank you very much for taking the time to comment and tell us about your role. I did pick Sandra Gulland’s trilogy that I had read in the late 90’s to illustrate the life of Josephine and discuss France at the turn of the 18th/19th Century because , as you rightly point out ,it ,indeed ‘ withstood the test of time’. As for the movie, my husband and I almost choked when at the very beginning both Josephine and Napoleon’s dates of birth appear on screen and are false: If Napoleon had been born in 1768 in Corsica, he would not have been French! However, I’m glad I saw the movie because it made me renew my interest for the Napoleonic era but not for the movie per se and you were right ! ( As a result, I found out I was the direct descendant of a soldier of the Great Army , so if anything the movie was worth seeing!)

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