Thursday, November 25, 2010

Désirée by Annemarie Selinko

Reviewed by Mirella Sichirollo Patzer

Désirée by Annemarie Selinko is a biographical novel about Désirée Clary who was Napoleon Bonaparte's first true love.  In this re-issue by Sourcebooks, readers will be highly entertained by one of the most comprehensive and detailed novels of France during the 18th and 19th centuries.  The scope of this novel is amazing and follows the rags to riches life of the Bonaparte family as they gained power throughout all of Europe.

Told through the eyes of Désirée Clary, it is a beautiful first person narrative about a strong, wise, courageous, and often eccentric young woman who never aspired to prestige.  Yet, destiny nudged her into the highest ranks until she found herself an unwilling and unpopular queen.  

If there is one book that will tell all about this fascinating era in history, this is it.  And what a fascinating woman Désirée was.  Well written, full of historical detail, it is an education in itself, carefully disguised as a pleasant novel.  For a fascinating insight into this very intriguing woman, I highly recommend this novel to readers.   


Désirée Clary

Before Napoleon fell in love with the beguiling Josephine, his heart belonged to Désirée Clary, the daughter of a wealthy silk manufacturer and merchant in Marseille, France. As was the mode in pre-revolutionary France, she entered a convent to receive her education. When her convent was closed because of the French Revolution, Désirée returned home to her parents.

After the death of her father, the revolutionaries arrested her brother. Désirée went to see Joseph Bonaparte who was in charge of the prisoner to beg for his release.


Joseph Bonaparte

It worked and a grateful Désirée introduced Joseph to her sister, Julie, and they were soon married.

Julie Clary

Through Joseph, Désirée met and fell in love with Napoleon Bonaparte and they became engaged.

Napoleon Bonapare

It was during their engagement that Napoleon met Josephine de Beauharnais. He broke off his engagement with Désirée and married Josephine instead.

Josephine de Beauharnais

Heartbroken, at first, Désirée returned to live with her mother in Genoa and later she lived Julie and Joseph in Rome. She was briefly betrothed to General Léonard Duphot, but on the eve of their marriage, he was killed in a riot in Rome.


After her return to France, she met and married General Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte and together they had a son whom they named Oscar.


Bernardotte was a leading general in the French Napoleonic army.  Désirée maintained a very good relationship with the Bonaparte Imperial family, as well as with the Empress Joséphine.  When Josephine was crowned Empress, Desiree held her train.  

Désirée enjoyed a busy and comfortable social life in Paris during her husband's long absences.  Bernardotte rose in power and acclamation.  He became Prince of Pontecorvo and later was elected to the throne of Sweden.   

Throughout her life, Désirée was not interested in politics, but because of her good connections, she was often used for political purposes by her husband and Napoleon.  

Unlike her husband, Désirée did not like politics and she remained in Paris for most of his career.  Désirée visited Sweden, but struggled with court intrigues, the cold weather, and was treated with disdain.  She never wanted to be a queen and hated to be so far away from her family.

The Swedish Dowager Queen found her spoiled and undignified, and Désirée's ladies, made matters worse by encouraging her to complain about everything.

Dowager Queen Hedwig Elizabeth Charlotte

She further described Désirée as good-hearted, generous and pleasant when she chose to be and not one to plot, but also as immature and a "spoiled child" who hated all demands and was unable to handle any form of representation.  She described Désirée as "a French woman in every inch," who disliked and complained about everything which was not French, and "consequently, she is not liked."

Désirée departed from Sweden for health reasons and returned to her beloved Paris where she remained for twelve years, leaving her husband and her son behind. 

In Paris she did her best to avoid politics during the difficult period when Sweden was at war with France. However, her house at rue d'Anjou was watched by the secret police, and her letters were read by them.

When Napoleon was defeated in the year 1814, she gave refuge to her sister, Julie.  Bernadotte came to Paris, but once more returned to Sweden without her.  He left behind Count de Montrichard at Désirée's household as his spy to report to him if she did anything which could affect him.

While in Sweden, Bernadotte took a mistress, the noble Mariana Koskull.  Dubbed Desideria by the Swedes, Désirée held receptions in Paris as the queen of Sweden on Thursdays and Sundays, though she still used the title of countess.  After many years of separation from her son, they were briefly reunited in 1822 in Aachen.

Crown Prince Oscar Bernadotte

In 1823, Désirée returned to Sweden together with her son's bride, Josephine of Leuchtenberg; the visit was initially to be but a short one.

Josephine of Leuctenberg

On 21 August 1829, Désirée was crowned Queen at her own request.  She was the first commoner to become queen since Karin Månsdotter in 1568.

She did her best to be active as a queen, a role she had never wanted to play, partaking in balls and parties and royal appearances.  Désirée soon grew tired of her royal status and wanted to return to France. However, Bernadotte refused to allow her to go.  

She liked spending her summers at Rosersberg Palace and visited Swedish spas. The court was shocked by her informal behaviour.  Every morning, she visited Bernadotte in her nightgown, even though he often met with his council in his bedchamber at that time of day.  Désirée was always late to dinner so they stopped having meals together.  Bernadotte preferred to have his meals alone.  She kept late hours, going to bed late, and waking up late each day.

The Swedish court never became endeared to her and they considered her eccentric.  At Rosersberg Palace, she liked to take walks in the park at night, but because she was afraid of bats, she instructed her ladies-in-waiting to walk ahead of her dressed in white to detract the bats from her.

Her eccentricities

When Bernadotte died in 1853, she wanted to return to Paris, but remained in Sweden due to her intense fear of sea travel.  During this time she became even more eccentric.  She went to bed in the morning, got up in the evening, ate breakfast at night, and drove around in a carriage through the streets, in the courtyard, or wandered around the corridors of the sleeping castle with a light.  Désirée made unannounced visits, and sometimes she would take in children from the streets to the palace and give them sweets even though she could not speak a word of Swedish.  On the day she died, she entered her box at the Royal Swedish Opera just after the performance had ended.

Désirée died in Stockholm on 17 December 1860 and was buried in the church at Riddarh.