Title: Josephine’s Garden
Author: Stephanie Parkyn
Published: December 3rd 2019
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Rating: 4.5 stars
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.
‘It is both a joy and a torment to puzzle a story around matters of historical record. I love the moments when imagination, metaphor and fact align. However, simplifications and contradictions are sometimes necessary, invention irresistible and errors probable, so I hope I will be forgiven for these in the telling of this story. My aim is always to be true to the characters and their motivations.’
Author’s Note, Stephanie Parkyn, Josephine’s Garden
The Author’s Note at the close of Josephine’s Garden provides the reader with an excellent snapshot of the blood, sweat and tears that went into the latest historical novel from Australian author Stephanie Parkyn. Parkyn also outlines in her enlightening Author’s Note that many writers have selected Napoleon and Josephine as the subjects of their study. I know I have read both fiction and non fiction titles in the past about both these historical figures. Stephanie Parkyn breathes new life into these enduring faces from the past. Josephine’s Garden is a story of unions, motherhood, botany, ambition and loss. Josephine’s Garden is a grand novel, wrapping the reader in a fertile tale of historical interest.
‘You shall have the finest garden in all of France’.
Josephine’s Garden opens in France in the late 1700s, a time of immense change and uncertainty, following the close of the French revolution. We meet Rose de Beauharnais, who has just escaped the guillotine, but finds herself in fortunate position following her release from prison. Rose reinvents herself as a much sought after socialite, and she gains the affections of Napoleon Bonaparte. Eventually she marries Napoleon and she becomes Empress Josephine. This position of power allows her to do all the things she dreamed of, which includes creating a garden of her own, populated with rare plants and animals from around the world. However, Josephine’s treasured garden is overshadowed by the pressure placed on her to provide France with an heir. If she cannot give Napoleon an heir, she will lose everything. Tied to Josephine’s story is that of two women, Anne Serreaux and Marthe Desfriches, who put their destinies on the line for Josephine and her famous garden. Although from vastly different backgrounds, the women have much in common. They are each faced with the ultimate test to their relationships, fertility and motherhood. Josephine’s Garden is a vivid historical record of a precarious time in our history books, where power, class, position, ambition and endurance reigned supreme.
Stephanie Parkyn is a rising star in the historical fiction world, and this earnest writer has achieved great things with her grandiose new novel. Not only has Parkyn taken on one of the most well-known female figures in French history as the principal subject of her new book, she also intertwines the stories of two other female figures from this period into the one engaging story. At first I wasn’t too sure how Parkyn was going to join the dots with these three women, but the line was very clearly drawn by the end of the novel.
Josephine Bonaparte, or Rose de Beauharnais, is a figure who has been examined in great detail, both in fictional form and non-fiction study. However, Stephanie Parkyn places a fresh story in the hands of the reader. I profess to knowing nothing about Josephine’s penchant for gardening and the field of botany. This book opened my eyes to a different side of Josephine and I greatly appreciated it. The extent of the research in which Stephanie Parkyn has conducted to maintain the authenticity of this book is obvious. I know Parkyn walked the streets of Paris and studied in libraries in France to perfectly capture this time period. What dedication!
In terms of characterisation, Parkyn recreates the renowned figures of Josephine and Napoleon Bonaparte extremely well. In fact, I was actually taken aback as to how much my opinion of Napoleon went downhill after witnessing many of the acts he performs in the novel. I lost quite a great deal of respect for Napoleon. Parkyn’s storytelling is honest and informative, revealing the flaws of these characters in a level of detail I had not encountered before. In the characters of Anne and Marthe, I felt like I knew less about these women, I came to see them from the distance, rather than intimately like Josephine. I did find that these women’s stories gave the reader a better picture of the state of affairs in France from a non-aristocratic point of view. However, each of these women share the same universal feelings of a lack of power, suppression, pressure to conform and bear children. It is heartbreaking, but also eye opening. Although I am a big fan of France and its history, after reading Josephine’s Garden I no longer want to take a step back in time and embody the lives of these women, it was a tough life!
Structure wise, Parkyn begins her journey with a prologue that looks to the end of Josephine’s reign. Each chapter is marked by the year and season, which enables the reader to orient themselves in the unfolding story. The novel then takes a leap back to the early days of Rose/Josephine’s life, her fateful union with Napoleon, their marriage and eventually her demise. I did find it a little hard pressed to situate myself within the novel and the second half really seemed to take off in a more favourable direction for me. Josephine’s Garden is divided into four different parts, charting the ambition, love, determination, marriage, desire for family, obsession for lineage, power struggles, convoluted plots and the demise of the partnership between the Emperor and his Empress. The overarching theme of botany trickles through the novel, offsetting the tumultuous relationship between the couple. This was a fascinating segment of the book, which provided a glimpse into the pioneering work of the botanists of this time. I did appreciate the links to exotic lands of the time, such as Van Diemen’s Land, what a great Australian based story infusion.
Josephine’s Garden is a rich tale, draped in history, the natural world, passion, motherhood, ambition and status. A perfect vista into the complicated lives of three fascinating female voices from the past, this novel will happily please historical fiction fans.
Josephine’s Garden by Stephanie Parkyn was published on 3rd December 2019 by Allen & Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of Josephine’s Garden, Stephanie Parkyn, visit here.
*Thanks extended to Allen & Unwin for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes.
Josephine’s Garden is book #154 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge