Frances Thomas has written many books for adults and children, including The Fall of Man and Finding Minerva. Her biography of Christina Rossetti has just been reissued by Virago. She lives in London and Wales. Here Frances writes about Annemarie Selinko's Désirée.
Frances Thomas on Désirée by Annemarie Selinko
Reading cushioned my childhood. Which was perfectly happy, but I was an only child, and this meant long stretches of time when it was just me and whatever there was to be found on the shelves in my room. Noel Streatfield, Elinor M. Brent Dyer, Rosemary Sutcliff, Geoffrey Trease, Pamela Brown, Kate Seredy, George Macdonald; in their various and different ways all these people and more kept me securely and blissfully floating in a world of imagination.
But there came a time when somehow these wonderful writers weren't quite working for me any more. I cancelled my subscriptions to School Friend and Girl, forsook my beloved junior library, and started to look, a little bemusedly, at what was on the shelves in the big serious library downstairs. And it wasn't easy; there were so many books, I didn't know where to start, and many of them, with their adult themes - I don't use this word in a sexual sense, though that was probably there too - seemed quite foreign to my interests and aspirations.
I guess that these days the transition stage is handled by fantasy: dystopian futures, vampires, ghosts, wild and weird fictions in which dauntless heroines stride through bleak and crumbling landscapes to find their happy or happy-ish endings. But that kind of book didn't exist when I was a teenager. Young Adult? Don't make me laugh - as long as you wore school uniform, you were a child. Nobody saw you as audience, or consumer, or person of interest.
What I turned to, in what would otherwise have been a bleak period for my reading, was historical fiction. Only those books seemed to offer the extended horizons, the new worlds that I craved, without the rocks and turbulences of adult books. I was a voyager on a rickety boat watching a beloved and familiar land fade into mists but also turning curiously to those further shores.
Like all the reading I'd ever done, they were a mixed batch, those books. Some, like Forever Amber, were racy (does anyone use that word any more? - in those days it seemed to mean dust jackets that showed a lot of cleavage). Some - Georgette Heyer - were romantic. Some - Jean Plaidy, I remember most particularly - brought historical women to fairly convincing life. Some were just marvellous novels: Mary Renault, who opened windows into mythology and the deep past; Robert Graves, whose Claudius books taught me more than dull school Latin ever managed to do.
But the other day, a buzzy conversation on a forum for children's writers that I belong to reminded me of this one - Désirée by Annemarie Selinko. This book tells the story of Désirée Clary, a silk merchant's daughter from Marseilles, whom the young Napoleon first loved and then jilted, and who then by one of those strange quirks of history went on to become Queen of Sweden through her marriage to Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte.
Annemarie, like her heroine, also lived through a time of historical turmoil. She was born in Vienna in 1914, and went on to marry a Danish diplomat. When war broke out, Annemarie and her husband were active in the Danish resistance, and later had to escape to Sweden on a fishing boat. Her sister Liselotte, to whom the book is dedicated, was not so lucky, and was murdered by the Nazis. It was while she was in Sweden that Annemarie became fascinated by the Bernadotte dynasty, who still rule the country, and their French origins. After years of research, she published Désirée in 1953. It was an immediate hit and went on to be made into a film staring Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando.
I think I came across it because of a newspaper article that described it as one of the best historical novels of all time. My copy, unfortunately, came with an inappropriate 'racy' cover, which led to my easily outraged grandmother thinking I was reading a book called Desire (and put my husband off reading it for years, despite my recommendation, until I found a copy with a more tasteful jacket).
The story starts with the young Désirée Eugenie Clary, at fourteen years old. Like everyone else in France in 1794, she lives in an atmosphere of danger and the constant threat of the guillotine. Désirée is brave and resourceful, and when her brother is unjustly arrested, she rushes off to the Deputy's office to try and bring about his release. She returns after a series of adventures, having met a young man with an interesting face and an unpronounceable name – something like Boonopat, she thinks. This is a tease on the part of the author; the Bonaparte she has met is Joseph, and it's not until he brings his younger brother, the shabby General along, that Désirée's interest is really engaged.
The rest is quite literally history. We follow her through the years, we see her youthful enthusiasm and ebullience turn to unhappiness as her ruthless and charismatic lover leaves her for Josephine, but are relieved when she meets and marries the more suitable Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte. Through her viewpoint, we watch as Napoleon becomes more and more powerful and megalomaniac, ennobling himself and the members of his large and unruly family, among whom is now numbered Désirée's sister Julie, married to Joseph. The family acquire more and more weird and wonderful titles, and at the centre of everything, Napoleon broods like a malignant and pitiless spider. But later, Jean-Baptiste, who has impressed the Swedes in the course of a campaign against them, finds himself invited to succeed their aged king Charles XIII and revitalize a dynasty, which has become increasingly inbred and feeble. Désirée's life takes another quite unexpected turn.
Skimming through the reviews on Amazon.com, I was interested to find that most of them were either written by teenagers or by people who had first read this book as teenagers. Désirée is a sympathetic and engaging character (though for today's taste she can be a little irritatingly naïve: Selinko wrote in an age where it wasn't good for a woman to appear too clever), and though there's a lot of quite difficult history to take in, your attention is engaged. And Napoleon is one of those figures that you both love and hate - his dangerous charm is well conveyed.
In spite of the romantic and light-hearted beginning, this isn't an easy read. Selinko doesn't shirk from describing the horrors of war, as the increasingly power-mad Napoleon drags his ruined army through the snows of Moscow, and later on subjects the remnant to the cannons of Waterloo. Men die and are horribly mutilated; the glorious and glamorous Empire collapses in blood and squalor. Because we watch it all through Désirée's eyes, we understand the human cost of all this in a way that a history book wouldn't convey.
The conclusion of the book isn't entirely satisfactory, though. After Jean-Baptiste has been chosen as the Swedish regent in 1810, Désirée travels to Stockholm with him and Oscar, her beloved only son. The formality and protocol of the Swedish court are too much for her, and she returns to Paris, where she stays until 1822. This reflects historical reality, but it doesn't seem to be in keeping with the warm-hearted and loving heroine that we've grown used to. I remember that at this point I felt faintly uncomfortable as a young reader; things weren't working out quite as I expected. There was another 'true' story hidden uncomfortably beneath the fiction, and from time to time I was aware of it bubbling through the story's surface.
The book ends with Désirée's eventual return to Sweden, and her coronation, but in real life her final days there seem to have been lonely and unhappy; she never learned Swedish and became increasingly eccentric, driving round and round the night-time city in her carriage. Selinko has taken some liberties with historical truth to make her heroine more attractive to us; perhaps rather more than is justified. But probably I wouldn't have enjoyed that 'real' story, the empty marriage, the eccentricities; and this book started me on a lifetime's fascination with its real hero, the charismatic Corsican boy who became emperor. And re-reading it now, after a gap of many years, I found I enjoyed it just as much as when I was young.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]