Empress Joséphine. The Woman Who Stole Napoleon’s Heart

The illicit love affairs of Napoleon Bonaparte's first wife Joséphine

The illicit love affairs of Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife

by Melanie Clegg

In later years, when she was the glamorous and soignée Empress of the French, Joséphine would enjoy telling the much-embellished story of how, as a young girl, she visited a Créole wise woman who predicted that she would one day be ‘”greater than a Queen”.

To the young Joséphine, the eldest daughter of impoverished plantation owners, this prediction must have seemed almost laughable. As the flattered and celebrated wife of Napoleon I, it was just another part of the Bonaparte mythology that reinforced the idea that their rise to power had been down to more than just talent and luck, but had instead been their destiny.

Born on 23 June 1763 in the town of Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique, Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie and her two younger sisters ought to have enjoyed a pampered existence, attending balls, wearing pretty dresses and anticipating comfortable lives as wives to wealthy plantation owners. But thanks to a series of bad business decisions and natural disasters, the Tascher de la Pagerie family was constantly on the brink of financial ruination and in permanent danger of losing what little social standing they still retained on the island. The situation was further complicated by the fact that Joséphine’s maternal aunt, Désirée, had absconded to Paris several years earlier and was known to be the mistress of the marquis de la Ferté-Beauharnais. This turned out to be a stroke of luck for the Tascher de la Pagerie clan back home in Martinique for when Désirée’s lover started looking around for a wife for his youngest son, Alexandre, vicomte de Beauharnais, she was able to point him in the direction of her three nieces.

At first it was the middle daughter, Catherine, who was the destined bride-to-be, but she died of tuberculosis shortly before leaving for France. Her elder sister, Marie Josèphe – known as Rose – was hastily substituted and found herself on her way to a new life in Paris in autumn 1779. Although Alexandre was rather less than impressed by the unsophisticated appearance of his 16-year-old bride, he was in no position to disobey his father’s wishes and the young couple were duly married shortly after Rose’s arrival in Paris.

Despite its beginnings and her new husband’s dear disdain for her, Rose tried her best to make the marriage work, motivated both by her own good nature but also by the fact that she had fallen head over heels in love with him. For a while it seemed like he might be making the best of the situation by taking Rose on as a project. However, this wasn’t enough to keep his interest. The new vicomtesse de Beauharnais still failed to live up to the sophisticated, worldly and much older society ladies that her husband preferred to dally with. He quickly returned to his old ways, taking unsuitable mistresses and appearing at the balls at Versailles.

Effectively abandoned by her husband and excluded from his giddy lifestyle, Rose struggled to fit into her new life in Paris. She managed to find some contentment when her son, Eugène, was born in September 1781, followed by his sister, Hortense, in April 1783. However, the birth of Hortense, who arrived a few weeks earlier than expected, caused even more problems for Rose. Her husband’s mistress used the baby’s premature arrival to convince Alexandre that she couldn’t possibly be his daughter because she was clearly conceived at a time when he wasn’t with his wife. A trip to Martinique, during which Alexandre encouraged his wife’s old servants and friends to heavily embroider and embellish certain old rumours about her past only served to seal the rupture between husband and wife and they separated shortly after his return to France.

Despite being deeply traumatic, the separation turned out to be the making of Rose as she settled into her new life in the Penthemont convent. It was a well-known retreat for aristocratic ladies who had fallen upon hard times, and the most expensive and fashionable boarding school in Paris. Although she was initially daunted by the uncertain situation that she had found herself in, Rose was quickly taken under the wing of several other ladies in the same position. With their gentle encouragement she was eventually transformed into the elegant, soignée and sophisticated Parisian lady of fashion that her estranged husband had always hoped that she would be. The fact that she was of Creole background only worked to her advantage as it gave her newly found refinement and extremely alluring langour that made her irresistible to men – although she did her best to hide the fact that she was essentially penniless.

However, upon the dawn of the French Revolution, Rose was as implicated as her estranged husband. Despite his success as the president of the National Assembly his aristocratic roots were never totally forgotten. He became highly suspect to the newly powerful and more extremist Jacobin politicians and was accused of treason following his loss of the city of Mainz in early 1794. He was duly imprisoned upon his return to Paris and after Rose pleaded – unsuccessfully – for his release, drawing unwelcome attention to her own background and association with numerous well-known royalists, she swiftly followed him into prison.

The Beauharnais couple were relatively fortunate in that they were held in the Carmes prison, one of the more salubrious Parisian places of detention during the Terror. They spent their days flirting, playing cards, gossiping, putting on plays and, perhaps oddly, performing pretend executions with a fake judge and jury who sentenced them to ‘death’. A mostly harmless, if macabre, diversion, but for Rose it proved to be a rehearsal for the real thing when Alexandre was taken away to the more fearsome Conciergerie prison in July 1794, put on trial, and guillotined a few days later.

As it seemed to be usual during the Terror for married couples to be tried and executed together, Rose spent the next few days in a state of abject dread, convinced that she too was about to be summoned to the guillotine. It’s likely that this would have happened had not Robespierre and his followers been overthrown just five days after Alexandre de Beauharnais’ execution, and the Terror brought to a sudden halt.

Rose was quickly released from Cannes thanks to the intervention of her closest friend, the notorious aristocratic beauty Thérésa Cabarrus. The Paris that she had known before the Terror had vanished. Instead, she faced a whole new world where the old nobility had been replaced by a new rising bourgeoisie class, and politics rather than court gossip was the main topic of conversation. Although virtually everyone had lost someone to the horrors of the Terror, the mood in Paris was far from sombre. The pace of life was hectic, frivolous and exciting, with everyone keen to spend money, have fun and celebrate being alive.

As best friend of the popular Madame Tallien, Rose found herself in demand for all the most fashionable social gatherings, while her position as the widow (albeit estranged) of the handsome, tragic vicomte de Beauharnais gave her a glamorous aura and opened aristocratic doors that had ironically been closed to her during his lifetime. Rose was in her early 30s now and although she was adroit at looking every inch the frivolous, beautifully dressed woman about town, it was a strain keeping up appearances with her limited means. She also had two young children to provide for and a whole host of charitable interests – all of which were a drain upon her very small income. Although she doubtless enjoyed her independence, it was becoming increasingly imperative that she find another husband who would be able to keep her in the manner to which she had become accustomed and also look after her children.

She started a relationship with Paul Barras, leader of the post-Thermidorian Directory government, a powerful and influential man who could boost her status and pay for her jewels and dresses.

One autumn evening in 1795, Barras took his latest protegé, an ambitious young Corsican army officer called Napoleon Bonaparte to a party at Rose’s house on the Rue Chantereine. Afterwards, Barras would claim that he had always intended to do a little matchmaking between his mistress and Bonaparte, believing that they would find an association mutually beneficial.

The gauche and unpolished Napoleon needed a way into the influential high society set of Thérésa Tallien, while Rose was in desperate need of a husband and father for her two children. Napoleon may have been sallow, short and socially awkward, but he was talented enough to have been made Commander of the Interior. For Napoleon, who was shy and inexperienced around women, the charming Rose de Beauharnais was the epitome of femininity and the fact that she paid him attention while others completely ignored him only served to increase his passion for her.

However, as far as Rose was concerned, Napoleon was just an amusing distraction and not at all the sort of man that she was attracted to. He was too abrupt and scruffy to really appeal to her, but his graceless behaviour and brusque manner made her laugh and his intense adoration was obvious. It’s not known when precisely Rose first invited her latest suitor to her bed, but it probably happened shortly after their first meeting and prompted the couple’s first exchange of letters in which Rose assured her lover that she was ‘tenderly attached’ to him and chided him for not visiting often enough. He responded with the assurance of, “No one desires your friendship as much as I do.” It was also at this time that Napoleon, who already had a habit of changing his girlfriend’s names, decided to start addressing Rose as Joséphine, who went along with it and was known by no other name from this point on.

As the months went by, Napoleon became increasingly enamoured with Joséphine. The tone of his letters started to reflect this: “I awake all filled with you. Your image and the intoxicating pleasures of last night, allow my senses no rest. Sweet and matchless Joséphine, how strangely you work upon my heart… My soul is broken with grief and my love for you forbids repose… in three hours I shall see you again. Till then, a thousand kisses, bio dolce amor! But give me none back for they set my blood on fire.” Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before his thoughts began to turn to marriage – after all, she was not just his perfect woman in appearance and behaviour but she was also his way into influential and aristocratic circles that he would otherwise have no hope of entering.

Predictably, however, Joséphine was rather less keen to commit to her suitor. Barras and Thérésa had to persuade her as to the benefits of the match, which would provide her with the security that she needed. There was also her children to consider – Eugène and Hortense were adolescents now and the costs of educating them and preparing them for the future were beginning to spiral out of control

Eugène was keen to follow his father into the army which Bonaparte could help with. Hortense was destined to make a good marriage, which would necessitate an education and a handsome dowry. If her children had disliked Napoleon then that might well have swayed Joséphine but they both liked him and appreciated the interest that he took in their welfare.

The couple became engaged in January 1796, with the thrilled and buoyantly excited Bonaparte presenting his love with a beautiful diamond and sapphire engagement ring. Their friends were delighted, but the newly engaged Joséphine was rather less than ecstatic and made it clear to Thérésa and Barras that she viewed the forthcoming marriage as a business arrangement. It’s even possible that she was still quietly sleeping with the latter until the wedding day itself seeing no reason to change her lifestyle quite yet for a man that she wasn’t in love with. This lack of sentimental attachment to her betrothed is perhaps reflected by the simple plans made for their wedding in March of the same year, which would be an entirely civil affair.

On the evening of the 9 March, Joséphine went to the city hall on the Rue d’Antin accompanied by her ex-lover Barras, the Tallien couple and her notary Calmelet. She was dressed with typical elegance and simplicity in a plain white gown, pulled in at the waist with a tricolour sash and with her wedding present from Napoleon, a gold medallion inscribed with the words ‘To Destiny’. Neither of their families were present at the ceremony, and for three hours nor was the groom. He was so preoccupied with the preparations for his departure to Italy that he completely lost track of the time. As Joséphine was about to discover, this self-absorption and disregard for the time were all hallmarks of her new husband’s character.

Less than 15 minutes later they were married by the Mayor’s deputy, the Mayor himself having long since departed home to bed, and were on their way back to Joséphine’s house on the Rue de Chantereine where her beloved pet pug, Fortuné, objected to this new male interloper in her bedchamber. The couple enjoyed a brief honeymoon before Napoleon departed for Italy. Thanks to Barras pulling some strings, he had been promoted to Commander of the Army of Italy just a few days before their wedding. Although this was almost certainly down to his own merit, it was still whispered that the command had effectively been Barras’ attempt to bribe Napoleon to take Joséphine off his hands – a claim not flattering to either.

Joséphine was never far from Napoleon’s thoughts. He sent a constant stream of passionate letters back to her in Paris, telling her in no uncertain terms what he would like to do to her, begging for reassurance that she loved him back and dropping increasingly heavy hints that he would like her to join him. Napoleon’s obvious passionate love for Joséphine, which bordered on obsession, still rings true centuries later.

However, his frequent pleas for his wife to reply and with more than a few perfunctory lines fell on deaf ears. Joséphine had never been a particularly great letter writer and although she happily read his love letters out loud to her friends, she found his passion for her more disconcerting than flattering. Besides which, she had fallen in love with someone else – a handsome young Hussar officer called Hippolyte Charles – and it was he, not her husband, who was the recipient of her own erotic billets doux.

Utterly in love with Charles and enjoying the social benefits of being the wife of the conqueror of Italy, Joséphine ignored her husband’s increasingly desperate requests that she should join him. It was only when he threatened to either kill himself or return to Paris that the higher powers prevailed upon her to leave for the sake of the nation and in June she found herself in a carriage bound for Italy – with Charles with her.

According to an eyewitness, “She wept as though she were going to a torture chamber, instead of to Italy to reign as a sovereign.” They made the journey in slow stages, giving them plenty of time to secretly canoodle away from the suspicious eyes of Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, who had accompanied them, and eventually reached Milan 18 days after their departure from Paris. Charles immediately left for his headquarters in Brescia and Joséphine was alone at last with her husband.

The affair with Charles continued throughout her sojourn in Italy, with the lovers taking every possible opportunity to be together while Napoleon was away with his army. Although she had been deeply unwilling to go there, her time in Italy turned out to be a time of great personal happiness for Joséphine as she enjoyed the adulation and flattery of the Italian people during the day and romantic trysts with her lover in beautiful palaces at night. The aristocratic self-assurance and beautiful manners that had drawn Napoleon to her would now come into their own as she entertained local dignitaries and attended fêtes and balls held in her honour, showing him just what an asset she actually was, as he himself was generally more inclined to cause offence than charm people at such occasions.

The only fly in the ointment was the arrival of most of Bonaparte’s family, who were openly disapproving of his marriage and made no attempt to hide their dislike of Joséphine. With her usual calm good nature, she did her best to ignore their hostility and treated them all with nothing less than perfect courtesy.

The situation finally came to a head in November 1796 when Napoleon, desperate to see his distant wife, arrived without warning in Milan, only to find her rooms empty. She had gone to Genoa, probably with Charles, without telling him and would not return for over a week, during which time Napoleon sent her several furious letters, informing her that he had “Left everything to see you, to hold you in my arms… the pain that I feel is incalculable.”

Although he had no proof that she was with a lover, it’s clear from his increasingly despairing, unanswered letters that the scales were beginning to fall from his eyes where Joséphine was concerned. From that moment on, he would never again quite trust or worship her as the epitome of perfect womanhood as he had once done.

The marriage of Napoleon and Joséphine lasted for almost 14 years before he felt compelled to divorce her, in January 1810, so that he could make a dynastic marriage with a suitably blue-blooded princess who would be able to provide him with the male heir he craved. Although her affair with Charles marked a turning point in their relationship and greatly tarnished Napoleon’s admiration for his wife, he never ceased to love her, even after their marriage had come to an end. According to some sources, Napoleon’s last word from his deathbed on St Helena was “Joséphine…”

As for Joséphine, this would also mark a turning point of a rather different nature as she began to appreciate that perhaps her peculiar little husband wasn’t quite so ridiculous after all and even started to fall in love with him. She was much too late.

SOURCE: Napoleon. The Rise and Fall of a Revolutionary Emperor, 2019


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