The Last Great Dance on Earth is the concluding volume in Sandra Gulland’s trilogy about Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon. It follows The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. and Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe. This volume begins in 1800, with Napoleon as First Consul, and ends with Josephine’s death in 1814, shortly after Napoleon’s fall from power and exile to Elba. As with the previous two volumes, it is told in the form of fictional diary entries by Josephine, interspersed with letters to her from Napoleon and others, which tell the story of Napoleon’s battles and other events which Josephine could not have witnessed herself. In my opinion, this is an excellent technique, because it gets the reader inside Josephine’s head, and the reader learns about these important events along with her. As Gulland explains in her author’s note, she uses actual letters that Napoleon sent to Josephine.
The story told in this volume is a tragic one. I do not consider this a spoiler, since it is all based on historical fact. It left me feeling drained at the end. No matter how you feel about Napoleon, what comes through is the tragedy of a woman who desperately wanted a child and could not have one. Josephine, of course, had two loving children by her first husband, who was guillotined during the Terror, but she could not give Napoleon, the man she loved, an heir to his empire. Gulland shows Josephine going to various spas for horrible fertility treatments so she could conceive a child by Napoleon, but all in vain. Gulland’s theory is that Josephine went through early menopause because of the traumatic events she experienced during the Terror, and that other women went through the same thing.
In Gulland’s novel, Napoleon and Josephine are deeply in love. They did not marry for love, but they came to love each other over the years. Josephine is forced to turn a blind eye to Napoleon’s many affairs, but he always manages to convince her that she’s the only woman he really loves. Various plots to assassinate Napoleon, both by royalists and revolutionaries, lead him to realize he needs a son to inherit his empire. Otherwise, it could have all vanished if one of these assassination attempts had succeeded. At first, he and Josephine think about adopting an heir: either Josephine’s son by her first husband or Napoleon’s brother Louis’ son by Josephine’s daughter Hortense (family relations are definitely complicated). Louis’ son, known as “Little Napoleon” is the favored heir for a while, and his early death is another tragedy in the novel. (Much later, this boy’s younger brother, Louis Napoleon, became emperor as Napoleon III.) Eventually Napoleon’s scheming siblings, who have always hated Josephine, convince him that only a son of his own could be his heir, and that he needs to divorce Josephine and marry a young princess. Leading the plot against Josephine is Napoleon’s nasty, manipulative sister Caroline, who will stop at nothing to gain a crown for herself. When Napoleon eventually makes her Queen of Naples, Caroline is still not satisfied because she considers Naples too small a kingdom. In Gulland’s interpretation, Caroline is definitely the character you love to hate.
Of course, Napoleon eventually decides to divorce Josephine for the sake of an heir to his empire, but they never stop loving each other, even after his marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria and the birth of his longed-for son. Josephine had been very popular with the French people, who thought she brought good luck to Napoleon. It is an interesting coincidence that Napoleon’s defeats in battle, which eventually led to the fall of his empire, began shortly after his divorce from Josephine. After the divorce, Josephine goes to live on her country estate where she tends her garden, especially her roses. The reader feels her heartbreak at the loss of the husband she loved, and his fall from power and eventual exile. After Napoleon’s fall, Josephine meets with the Tsar of Russia in order to get favorable terms for her children after Napoleon’s fall, but she dies of a fever shortly afterwards.
Gulland portrays the pageantry and the balls and banquets of Napoleon’s empire in loving detail and makes you feel as if you were there. She especially shows the splendor of Napoleon’s coronation, from the point of view of Josephine, who never wanted a crown. Parts of Gulland’s descriptions make the reader want to laugh out loud: Napoleon’s sisters, to their indignation, having to carry Josephine’s train while their attendants carry theirs, which makes the whole procession look like a centipede. Gulland makes the times come alive for the reader.
Although each book in the trilogy can be read on its own, I highly recommend reading the whole trilogy from the beginning, starting with The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., in order to get the full effect. Following Josephine’s life from her childhood in Martinique to the end is an unforgettable experience. The whole trilogy taken together is, in my opinion, one of the great works of historical fiction, and I read a lot of historical fiction, so I do not say this lightly. It is very highly recommended.
The Last Great Dance on Earth is available from the Browsing Collection at the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.