By Glenice Whitting
Sandra Gulland’s magnificent obsession? Josephine Bonaparte. Discovering, and writing Josephine’s amazing life story full of love and power, took Sandra from her comfortable Canadian culture headlong into the turmoil of the French revolution.
The sun’s dying rays slowly gilds the log home perched on top of a gentle hill. Sandra’s horse, Finnegan whinnies; birds call and finally roost as dusk falls. In the dark of night, Sandra Gulland dreams about a man and a woman who are going to play the parts of Josephine and Napoleon. When they don their costumes the actors lose their identities and become the characters. Sandra wakes, her heart beating, palms sweaty. She says, “This was a terrifying dream and I leapt trembling from my bed, my hands holding my stomach. I felt there was a glass ball inside me, and inside that ball was a spirit trying to speak. Simultaneously I knew that I would write a novel about Josephine.”
Twenty years later the result is three historical novels The Josephine B Trilogy,consisting of The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B: Tales of Passion and Tales of Woe, and The Last Great Dance on Earth, currently published in eight languages in eight countries. A visit to Sandra’s Stunning Website will give you some idea of the magnitude of her success.
How does a writer living in rural Ontario Canada, who used to hate history, eventually become an expert on a French empress born on a Caribbean island more than 200 years ago? Sandra says, “In 1972, I read a short biography about Josephine Bonaparte. It was an amazing story full of magic, love and power. I was kidnapped by Josephine’s profound humanity, her heart, her intelligence, her grace, her courage. She became for me a guiding spirit. An inspiration.” Josephine became Sandra’s magnificent obsession.
MARIE FROM MARTINIQUE
Bonaparte called his wife, “my Josephine,” but her name was Marie Josephine Rose Tascher Beauharnais Bonaparte. Sandra was determined to find the real person behind the name and began to understand the thoughts and feelings of this fascinating woman who, in a time when love was considered to be found only in romantic affairs, fell hopelessly in love with her husband, the enigmatic Napoleon. This was not the usual marriage of convenience, where the wife is simply an attractive figurehead. Josephine was absolutely devoted to him, and he was madly in love with her.
EMOTIONAL JOURNEY OF THE INTELLECT
Sandra’s research is impeccable and all embracing. She followed traditional channels, but also embraced spiritual channellers, psychics and tarot card readers to supplement her academic research. Sandra became a recognised authority on Josephine and the Napoleonic era. Her thick, meticulouslyfootnoted timeline detailing Josephine’s daily movements, and those of her family and friends: plus social issues, battles and even the flue viruses that plagued the population of Paris at the time, has to be seen to be believed.
However, it is the little personal things that bring Josephine to life. Readers are delighted to discover a woman who used charm and cunning to cope with the in-laws from hell, who tried to hide her bad teeth, who was a sensuous lover, a devoted mother, a warm and loving friend, who loved her pug dogs and whose life was a constant struggle against impossible odds.
IN JOSEPHINE’S FOOTSTEPS
To fully experience Josephine’s world, Sandra learnt to read French, travelled to Paris, walked through the neighbourhoods Josephine lived in, and went to the prison she was locked in. She travelled to Martinique, where Josephine was born and raised, attended mass in her church, went to the health spa she frequented, tried the treatments, visited museum exhibits in New York and Memphis and consulted with period scholars. After years studying historical evidence Sandra says, “ I felt that Josephine had been harshly judged. Few seemed willing to question the assumptions made in the past. Few seemed willing to try and see things from her perspective, to walk in her shoes, to give her the benefit of the doubt. And that, precisely, was one of my intentions when I began my novel; to give Josephine a chance to speak, to give her a voice.”
Sandra certainly has done that. She discovered a woman more of our time than her own. The Josephine Sandra has revealed was devoted to her children when it was fashionable to be aloof: intolerant of infidelity when it was fashionable to be unfaithful: negotiated deals with bankers and businessmen when it was unthinkable for a woman to involve herself in money matters, much less profit: had close male friends and was comfortable working with men when a sexual relationship was thought to be the only relationship possible.
THE LAST DANCE
The Last Great Dance on Earth marks the end of a passionate project that has consumed Sandra for more than twenty years to the extent that sometimes she finds herself unconsciously writing cheques and dating them with the year 1800. However, she is not alone in her obsession with Josephine. Readers in Italy, Spain, France, The United States of America, England, Denmark and Catalan line up to buy her books and the German hardcover edition of The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B sold 25,000 copies. All three titles have sold a staggering half a million copies world wide. “This is just astonishing,” says Sandra. “In Canada, sales of 5,000 constitute best selling status. I was also surprised to receive an email from a London friend telling me I was on Britain’s Guardian bestsellers list. However, for me, the highest praise is how well the books are doing in France. I thought that would be the most resistant market of all. It’s exciting and I certainly never in a million years expected it. In fact, when I began, I thought, no one’s going to want to publish this, let alone read it.”
Read it they did and clamour for more. Will they plead in vain? Is Sandra going to rest on her well-deserved laurels, content to doze in front of the fire in the comfortable family home that sits solidly atop a hill, occasionally gazing at the broad rolling spaces of Killaloe, two hours from Ottawa’s bustle, four from Toronto? Of course not. Her next book, which she is currently writing, is also set in France: the same country as her trilogy, but not the same century. This time it is the court of Louise X1V, the Sun King and Sandra is passionately researching and getting to know her new heroine, the fabulous royal mistress Louise de la Valiere, who just happens to also love horses.
Sandra cannot wait to begin learning the secrets of horse whisperers and to master riding sidesaddle. She will take Baroque dance lessons, try on the clothing of the period, including the heavy fashionable corsets of the time,and do anything else that will open a window to the soul of her latest magnificent obsession. ______________________________________________________________
Glenice Whitting started writing in her last year of a B.A. at Monash, which was ostensibly going to take her towards a career in Sociology. Fate however, intervened in the form of a class in fiction writing. Many of her short stories have won competitions and been published in newspapers, magazines and journals. She is currently contributing editor for Inspiring Women at Suite101 and has an e-book of the same title. Her unpublished novel Pickle to Pi was shortlisted in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Her play, “Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow,” was produced during the WWIT Fertile Ground New Play Festival.