Over the New Year’s weekend, I went into a used bookstore on the coast and spotted A Rose for Virtue, a 1971 historical novel by Norah Lofts, waiting patiently on the shelf. I hadn’t heard of this novel before, so I was delighted to pick it up and find that it was about Hortense, daughter of Josephine Bonaparte and stepdaughter (and sister-in-law) to Napoleon. I’ve been rather interested in Josephine and her circle ever since I read Sandra Gulland’s Josephine B. trilogy.
A Rose for Virtue (named for a school prize that gets destroyed inadvertently when Hortense wears it) follows Hortense from the time of her mother and stepfather’s marriage to Hortense’s departure from Paris following Napoleon’s final downfall. It has one of the most jaw-breaking subtitles I’ve seen in modern fiction: “The Very Private Life of Hortense, Stepdaughter of Napoleon I, mother of Napoleon III.”
Hortense is an appealing heroine, resilient, un-self-pitying, and resourceful without ever becoming that dreaded creature of historical fiction, the Mary Sue. As the narrator, she frankly admits that she lacks her mother’s easy charm, and she can be stubborn, especially when her estranged husband, Louis, is concerned. She can laugh at herself, and she has a rare gift for facing facts.
Lofts does a good job with the other characters as well. Josephine is particularly well done, and there are some nice sketches of life among the Bonapartes, one of the highlights being a particularly fractious family dinner that ends with Hortense’s baby son peeing on the tablecloth.
This isn’t an action-packed novel; the big events, of course, occur mostly out of Hortense’s range of vision. Nonetheless, Lofts is good at evoking the emotions caused by these events, as when Hortense, urging Napoleon to flee following his return from Waterloo, gets this succinct reply: “My dear, it no longer matters.”
My only real disappointment with the book was its ending. Artistically, it works, but it would have been good to see what Hortense made of her later life. As the book doesn’t have an afterword–I suppose they weren’t in style at the time–the reader wanting more information has to go elsewhere. And the reader will likely want this information, for Lofts makes our stay in Hortense’s company a congenial one.