History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

25 January 2012

The Garden Intrigue

I've been in the midst of Book Launch Countdown for my next book, The Garden Intrigue (coming to a bookstore near you on February 16!). There's a reason it wound up with "Garden" in the title. A large part of the book is set in Josephine Bonaparte's famous garden at Malmaison. Since the plot was so dependent on the location, I knew I had to go check it out. (Although I was pretty sure I wouldn't run across anything like this.)

Malmaison is a bit of a strange beast– er, house, and never more so than in the summer of 1804, when The Garden Intrigue takes place. As you can see from the facade pictured here, it started out as a simple gentleman’s house, not what anyone would call humble, but certainly not a palace. It served as an informal weekend place for the Bonapartes and their friends, a place where Josephine’s teenage children and Bonaparte’s younger aides would play games of Prisoner’s Base in the back yard and the entire family would engage in amateur theatricals.

The problem? In 1804, Napoleon had himself voted Emperor. Malmaison scarcely had room for the imperial family, much less their retinue. What it did have, though, was land. Lots of land. Josephine Bonaparte had the grounds at Malmaison designed and redesigned, constantly adding to her garden. There was room to build a miniature theater for the family's amateur theatricals and also to erect temporary tents to house the growing numbers of staff required to wait upon the Bonapartes and their growing retinue.

The back of the house boasted a wilderness garden, complete with artificial stream and artfully artless follies. Here’s one of my rather lopsided photos of the back of the house:

Here’s what it would have looked like when Emma (heroine of The Garden Intrigue) was partying there:

And here I am, checking it out. (Confession: I’d broken the heel off a shoe tromping around Paris, so I was forced to roll up the hems of my jeans and resort to my only-in-case-of-emergency pink moccasins. That's why I look like a little kid playing dress-up in someone else's clothes.)

I’m standing right near the spot where Napoleon’s private theatre once stood. Unfortunately, it was torn down long, long ago– but it was there in 1804, home to the Bonaparte family’s amateur theatricals. (And, of course, to a masque by one Mr. Augustus Whittlesby!)

Sadly, not much of Josephine’s famous rose garden remains. I visited in October– and the book is set in summer– so you have to imagine all of this blooming wildly. You can also read all about in Jardin De La Malmaison: Empress Josephine's Garden .

On the other hand, Napoleon’s summer house did survive. The Emperor liked to work out here in hot weather, a detail than proved very useful for the purposes of my plot.

What struck me the most about the place-- which I hope came through in the book-- was how very small and modest it really was. You could see why they had to put servants, and sometimes their guests, in tents in the garden. More than anything else, Malmaison provides a visual representation of the odd leap from private citizen to Emperor. No matter how Napoleon tweaked the estate, it could never be a truly imperial residence.

You can find the first chapter of The Garden Intrigue here.


Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Lauren - thank you so much for the photos! I have always wanted to visit Malmaison. I am a huge fan of Redoute's paintings of Josephine's roses and I've even grown some of them. Lovely and so evocative. :D

7:07 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Great post! I love getting to explore the places that my books are set. Wish I had the time to do more of it.

7:45 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Thanks, my dears! Isobel, me too-- I just finished writing a book set partly in Kenya and was dying to go, but there was no way to fit a trip into the schedule. Ditto India when I was writing "Blood Lily". Old books and maps are great, but there's something to be said for just being there.

7:47 AM  
Blogger Lucie said...

As a child I used to play in the gardens with a friend and go butterfly catching ( longer ago than I care to admit). I fell in love with the remnants of her rose garden. I discovered at the age of ten that I finally could understand and speak French when I ended up in a French language tour of the house. J'aime Malmaison.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Renee said...

See, I just love that I get to go there in my imagination as you all describe it to me. The best part is the imagination is free. Please don't take that to mean that I would not love to fit in a suitcase any time you want to take me somewhere with you. Unfortunately, I am relegated to reading about it. That is why I love all of you so much! You are a vacation anytime!!!

6:13 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

I visited Malmaison in Sept. 2009 partly for research and partly for pleasure. My husband and I were the only tourists there on a gloomy gray mid-week afternoon. I found the atmosphere of the chateau and gardens (I think there were only 3 roses still in bloom) to be profoundly sad and somehow it seemed metaphorically apt for Josephine's relationship with Napoleon. I always think of Malmaison as HER special place. She bought it before he became Emperor, so I don't associate it with their imperial life, and it was hers to keep after the divorce, her safe haven in a way. I took a photo of one of the roses. It was white, speckled with pink and I thought about them as drops of blood somehow -- and the death of the imperial marriage.

12:14 PM  

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