This was the first Jeanette Winterson I read, and I remember reading it nonstop at work in college. I really did enjoy it, but I am now thinking that it was given to me by someone I had a crush on also had a big effect. It’s a truly wondrous book in so many ways, especially because it’s wildly inventive and beautifully written. The novel opens with our first passion (well, two passions). Here’s the opening sentence: “It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock”. Our first passion is Napoleon’s for chicken, and then our narrator’s for Napoleon. Our initial narrator in the novel is Henri, a young soldier in Napoleon’s army who eventually becomes part of the “old guard,” the veteran soldiers who stayed employed throughout many many years and campaigns, whose veteran status helped to keep Napoleon’s army as the most powerful in the world. Throughout his time as a soldier his feelings about Napoleon become complicated and change in various ways.
Our narrator is Villanelle a young woman from Venice who like most people in Europe are trying to figure out how to survive and have some kind of a life. And of course, these two meet, and there’s a love and passion that is a charged and amazing as it depleting and sad. Passions being what they are, tend to flare up intensely and also die out.
There’s an interesting coda near the end of the novel that talks about the ways in Napoleon, defeated by Wellington, and is sent first to Elba, gains weight, gets gout, begins losing his hair. He of course escapes Elba and then is recaptured and sent to the middle of the Atlantic at St Helena, where he dies not that much longer at 48 or so. The point that gets made is that once he was out of sight, no one had the same reverence for him and those passions that once fueled his reign died quickly both in Napoleon, and in the people.