Romantic but True

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Back in pre-WAG days, when teenaged girls’ fantasies could be expressed by the song, ‘Some day my prince will come’, I read and reread the perfect wish-fulfilment tale. Annemarie Selinko’s Désirée is a historical novel told in diary form by its eponymous heroine, Désirée Clary. She begins writing in 1794 when she is 15. It is five years since the Revolution, and the guillotine is in daily use all over France.

Désirée’s father, a Marseilles silk merchant, has died and her brother has been arrested. Désirée goes to the Town Hall to plead for her brother’s life and while there befriends a Corsican refugee, Joseph Buonaparte, who soon becomes engaged to her sister Julie. His charismatic brother, Napoleon, proposes to Désirée but almost at once goes off to war, and then to Paris where he jilts her and marries Joséphine Beauharnais. Four years later Désirée marries General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, and through his eventual election to the throne of Sweden becomes a princess and eventually a queen.

Désirée records the elevation of Napoleon to First Consul and then to the imperial throne, his military and political career, and his personal life. She is given an insider’s view of the travails of the First Republic and the establishment of the empire, the Russian campaign, the Hundred Days and Napoleon’s eventual exile to St Helena; and she witnesses first-hand Napoleon’s ruthless jettisoning of Joséphine and marriage to the Habsburg princess, Marie-Louise.

The film of the book, made in 1956 with Marlon Brando as a wooden Napoleon and Jean Simmons as an eternally ingénue Désirée, treated the novel as though its principal subject was the career of Napoleon Bonaparte. But for a romantic teenage reader devouring this tale of gorgeous dresses, robes, crowns, curtsies, court balls and cheering crowds, the drama of Napoleon’s extraordinary career seemed entirely secondary to the story of a middle-class girl who is love

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About the contributor

Jessica Mann lives in Cornwall with her archaeologist husband; she writes fiction (most recently, The Mystery Writer) and non-fiction (Out of Harm’s Way) and is the crime fiction critic for the Literary Review.

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