Désirée by Annemarie Selinko
Sourcebooks - Historical Fiction
Originally published in 1953
There's a scene in Désirée, which is far too long to copy for the purposes of review but one of my favorites from the first time I read the book -- probably in the 70s. In this scene, Désirée is outside her home in Marseilles and, as she talks, she is also following the progress of a beetle across a picnic table. When I think of Désirée, that is the scene that comes to mind because I recall my fascination at the way the author seamlessly melded the beetle's antics with the conversation taking place. I wanted to write like that! Still a favorite, many decades later, I came out of the most recent reading with entirely different feelings about it. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.
Désirée is the fictional account of the life and loves of Bernardine Eugenie Désirée Clary, daughter of a wealthy silk merchant in Marseilles, France, first love of Napoleon Bonaparte and, eventually, the Queen of Sweden. It's not entirely accurate and the author admitted she took the raw facts and told the story as she desired it to have happened. A quick perusal of the Wikipedia entry about Désirée made the differences clear.
But, the general framework in which the story is set -- as Désirée and a young Corsican named Napoleone Buonoparte fell in love during the tumultuous days after the Revolution -- through the rise and fall and rise and fall of Napoleon, throughout Désirée's marriage to a brilliant general who became the Crown Prince of Sweden and then king . . . the basic skeleton is there and the book serves as a decent starting point for learning about the Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. It's a time period I tend to avoid reading about -- such a violent, horrific time for France -- so I deliberately checked Wikipedia to learn what was real and what was not. I would caution those who know history well to go into the book knowing it's not wholly accurate.
As the book opens up, young Désirée (then known as Eugenie) is preparing to go with her sister-in-law to request the release of her brother Etienne from prison. I love the opening paragraph:
A woman can usually get what she wants from a man if she has a well-developed figure. So I've decided to stuff four handkerchiefs into the front of my dress tomorrow; then I shall look really grown up. Actually, I am grown up already, but nobody else knows that, and I don't altogether look it.
The book is written as a series of lengthy diary entries and, thus, is told entirely from Désirée's point of view. At the prison, she meets a young guard named Joseph after falling asleep while waiting to see Deputy Albitte about her brother's imprisonment. Her sister-in-law, Suzanne, leaves Désirée behind when her turn to see the deputy comes up and she is unable to wake Désirée. By the time she awakens, it has become dark and the crowd is gone. Joseph offers to escort Désirée home and she thinks it best to trust him rather than risk walking alone. He tells her about his younger brother, a general, and Désirée is captivated. Plus, her sister Julie really needs a husband. So, she invites Joseph and his general brother for dinner.
The younger brother is, of course, Napoleon. As Julie is romanced by Joseph (primarily for her dowry), Désirée finds herself falling madly in love with the general. Eventually, Désirée and Napoleon become engaged but Josephine de Beauharnais enters the picture and Napoleon, driven to succeed, marries her for her connections. The marriage of Julie and Joseph connects Désirée and Napoleon for life; and, they continue to cross paths until his final exile and death on the island of Saint Helena.
What I love about Désirée:
I've always felt like reading Désirée brought the Napoleonic era to life. When I first read the book, I had already fallen in love with historical fiction but Désirée was somewhat different than other stories I'd read. It is not only the story of a lost love, but a view of life in France during that time period and the fascinating parallel between Napoleon's life -- as he conquered nations, crowned himself Emperor of France, and passed out royal titles to relatives and friends like candy -- alongside Désirée's rise as the wife of Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, a man who would be adopted by the king of a struggling Sweden and eventually become the leader of a country that desired his expertise to save Sweden from debt and potential occupation with his insider knowledge of politics and war. Fascinating stuff.
What surprised me about Désirée, upon this recent reading:
Although Désirée is one of my most-read books and I've bought and given away more copies of it than any other book, I was kind of surprised that I enjoyed it when I read it at such a young age. There are many conversations about about war and politics, both of which tend to bore me. I didn't love Désirée any less, though. Désirée has an important place in my reading history and I think you could say I was determined to love it just as much as ever and, in the end, I did. I no longer think of it as a love story, however. It's a story of interconnected relationships, a view of a particular time and place, and a fascinating study in how the reason of one man won over pure maniacal drive of another -- and how one woman was connected to those two men.
The bottom line:
I love Désirée and highly recommend it to historical fiction fans. There's a depth to the intrigue and political dialogue that can be a bit tiring but I'm finding myself less patient with detail as I age. I didn't feel that way at all the first half-dozen times I read Désirée and I still love the book. It left me with a yearning to revisit some of my other all-time favorites, like The Count of Monte Cristo.
A side note:
At the age of 17, I spent a weekend in Paris as a side trip from London with my childhood best friend, Diana (who, incidentally, ended up with my mother's copy of Désirée). I was staying in London with Diana and her father, who lived and worked in London at the time. I didn't see Napoleon's tomb, didn't walk into the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, but I did manage to walk around the Tuileries, along the Seine, and other places Napoleon and Désirée would have walked. Someday, I'd love to return. My stay was brief but very satisfying.
Is there any particular location you've traveled because of a book, or that you still yearn to visit after reading about it?
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