Napoleon’s Josephine: A Rose by Any Other Name
Napoleon’s greatest love would come from the Caribbean island of Martinique. Napoleon never went there, but this woman’s father, Joseph Gaspard Tascher de la Pagerie, owned a sugar plantation, complete with slaves, on the island. The family had significant wealth and power, and the children led a very comfortable life in an idyllic location.
Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie was born on June 23, 1763. If you noticed that there is no “Josephine” in her name, you may wonder how that name came about. Her friends and family had always called her Rose, but Napoleon, never content to just go with the flow, called her Josephine (from Josèphe), and that is how she will be forever known.
Growing up and getting wise
Josephine was given an education in a local convent. As was the custom, her family arranged a marriage for her. It was a promising union, as her husband, 19-year-old Alexander de Beauharnais, was a well-educated and quite wealthy viscount. Well-connected at court, he was also considered one of the best dancers in Paris. Alexander seems to have been a little disappointed in his Rose, but she was elated with the match. The two were married in Paris on December 13, 1779. She was 16.
They had two children, Eugène in 1781 and Hortense in 1783, but the marriage was less than happy. Josephine was a bit plump and was not the elegant lady preferred by high society, while Alexander was every bit the dashing dancer that had so attracted Josephine. Soon, his eyes began to wander, and in 1783 he deserted his wife and returned to Martinique, where he was less than faithful. He was hoping to become involved in the American War of Independence, and he took his mistress along with him to the United States. Over the years, he would father several illegitimate children.
Josephine soon understood the situation. Now, it wasn’t all that unusual for a nobleman to have a mistress, but Josephine was not amused; she applied for and received a legal separation, complete with a nice income. She spent some time in a convent, which is not as severe as it may sound. The convent was home to many ladies of the highest social class, and Josephine learned a great deal from them. Later, she stayed with relatives at the chateau of Fontainebleau. She became active on the social scene, which is to say that she had a long string of affairs, some with rather important men.
In 1788, Josephine returned to Martinique, where she spent two years. Among other things, she witnessed a relatively minor slave uprising: All was not well in what she remembered as her idyllic homeland. She returned to Paris, where she had something of a reconciliation with Alexander, though the two never really reunited. Her social life continued, as did her habit of spending far beyond her means. As a result, she was always in financial difficulty.
Facing the guillotine
Alexander had become a true supporter of the Revolution and had risen to be the president of the National Assembly. Later, he was given some important assignments, including command of the Army of the Rhine. But in 1794, to be a nobleman was to be in trouble. The Terror was well under way, and the guillotine was busy separating heads from shoulders.
In March 1794, Alexander was arrested and thrown into prison. To her credit, Josephine did all she could to secure his release. Warned that she was also in danger, she continued her efforts and was put into jail in April. In those days, jail was essentially a way station on a trip to the guillotine. The husband and wife were reunited in prison, though we don’t know if they actually reconciled. (Some people believe that while in prison Josephine had an affair with General Louis Lazare Hoche, and it is entirely possible that she did.)
Alexander was executed on July 23, 1794. Josephine had every reason to believe that she would meet the same fate, and sooner rather than later. Her luck turned good, though, because in July, Maximilien Robespierre and his supporters were arrested and executed. The Terror was over. Josephine was released on August 6, 1794, after almost four months in prison.
Reunited with her children, Josephine set to starting her life over. To do so, she turned to her many friends. One of them was Thérèse Tallien, who had been her friend during Josephine’s years of separation from her husband. Another was Paul Barras. One of the best ways to describe Barras would be “survivor,” as he had managed to ride out the storm of the Revolution, the Terror, and the fall of Robespierre to emerge as one of the most powerful men in France.
Without question, Josephine’s friendship with Barras was the best thing she had going for her. Of course, it seems likely that she was far more than his friend; most historians believe that she was his mistress. The two of them were in a position to help each other out in their various business dealings as well. Josephine had had some really good connections, and some of them were even still alive!
Josephine had beauty and charm, and she knew how to survive — in style. But as all who knew her would eventually discover, one thing that she was really good at was spending money, whether or not she had it to spend.
There are varying accounts of how Napoleon and Josephine met. Napoleon was a national hero with an up-and-coming career, so he was in great demand for parties all over Paris. He knew Paul Barras and other social luminaries, and it is quite likely that he met Josephine in 1795 at one of the many social functions he attended. Napoleon himself said as much.
Here is the more popular, if less likely, story of how Josephine met Napoleon, according to Josephine’s daughter, Hortense, from her memoirs, Memoirs of Queen Hortense (2v), published in 1927 (Cosmopolita Book Corporation):
Following the riots on the 13th Vendémiaire a law was passed forbidding any private citizen to have weapons in his house. My brother, unable to bear the thought of surrendering the sword that had belonged to his father, hurried off to see General Bonaparte, who at that time was in command of the troops stationed in Paris. He told the General he would kill himself rather than give up the sword. The General, touched by his emotion, granted his request and at the same time asked the name of his mother, saying he would be glad to meet a woman who could inspire her son with such ideals.
As the legend continues, Josephine decided to visit Napoleon to thank him for his kindness toward her son. Napoleon, who was busy with his maps (as usual), saw Josephine and fell head over heels in love with her.
This story is unlikely, but the fact remains that Napoleon was interested in taking a wife and soon decided that Josephine was the woman for him. Josephine was not completely honest with him. She allowed him to think that she was a bit younger than she was, and of more substantial means. On the plus side, she was a woman of some significant experience, particularly sexual experience. Napoleon, who had very little experience along that line, was probably quite impressed with her charms.
Falling in love
Napoleon fell madly in love with Josephine. His passion is reflected in the many love letters that have survived. One classic example, written in Paris in December 1795, appears to follow an amusing evening, perhaps their first sexual encounter, and can be found in a 1931 edition of their letters:
I awake full of you. Your image and last evening’s intoxication have left my senses no repose whatever.
Sweet and incomparable Josephine, what a strange effect do you produce upon my heart! Are you vexed? Do I see you sad? Are you troubled? . . . My soul is crushed with grief, and there is no repose for your lover; but is there any the more when, abandoning myself to the profound emotion which masters me, I draw from your lips, from your heart, a flame which consumes me? Ah! It was last night I really understood that your portrait was not you!
You are leaving at noon; I shall see you in three hours. Meanwhile, mio dolce amor, a thousand kisses; but do not give me any, for they burn my blood.
Napoleon was deeply in love, but Josephine wasn’t so sure. She had a pretty good deal going — she was involved in a number of business and other affairs and was maintaining a, ahem, close relationship with Paul Barras. Barras, on the other hand, may well have been anxious to move his rather expensive plaything on to someone else. Indeed, it seems that he arranged for Napoleon to be appointed commander of the French army in Italy in exchange for Napoleon’s marrying Josephine.
It’s a bit hard to understand why Josephine was interested in Napoleon at all. Sure, he was a young hero, but he was also penniless and fairly lacking in social graces. Josephine, on the other hand, had pretty much made it by the time she met him. She had climbed to the very top of the social ladder and was involved in all sorts of interesting things.
And then there was the little matter of Napoleon’s family. Josephine was 32 years old, 6 years older than Napoleon. She was previously married, had two half-grown children, and had little in the way of money, plus her connections were dubious in their nature. Napoleon’s siblings and mother were convinced that he could do far better and that Josephine would be a disaster for him. They did everything they could to discourage the marriage. Had Napoleon’s mother, Leticia, been on hand in Paris, she likely would have exerted her influence, and the marriage would not have taken place.
Questioning her future
Josephine was also not convinced that marrying this young general was the best decision she could make. Marrying a general may sound like a good deal, but generals have a tendency to be sent to far-away places where they can end up being killed. In addition, generals were still very political, and if they fell out of favor they could find themselves at the very least out of a job. Napoleon had already discovered how easy it was to suddenly be on half pay. Josephine, who was involved in military supply dealings, was well aware of the downside to military careers.
Josephine’s friends counseled against the marriage. Of greater importance was the opposition of her daughter, Hortense. But Josephine may well have figured that any daughter would fear losing her mother to a man who would not be her real father. As it happened, Napoleon was an excellent stepfather to both of Josephine’s children.
And then there was the little matter of General Hoche, whom Josephine had met, so to speak, while in prison (see the earlier section “Facing the guillotine”). Not only was Josephine not in love with Napoleon; she had hoped that General Hoche would leave his wife and marry her. (She finally realized that he would never do so, which may be why she eventually agreed to marry Napoleon.)
It seems that Napoleon was not the greatest lover in the world, either. Though Josephine was adept in such matters and taught Napoleon a great deal, his approach was similar to his military strategy: He offered little in the way of preliminaries, preferring a quick attack with the fastest possible victory.
Not in love and faced with the opposition of friends and his family, Josephine stalled when Napoleon asked her to marry him. His passion worried her, as she was unable to match it. Besides, any fire can cool quickly, so Josephine made Napoleon wait through the winter of 1795-1796. Finally, faced with her increasing age, diminishing prospects, and Napoleon’s persistence, Josephine relented and agreed to marry him.
Marrying their future
Napoleon and Josephine agreed to a civil ceremony at 8:00 p.m. on March 9, 1796. Josephine was there early, wearing Napoleon’s famous gift to her, an enameled medallion engraved “To Destiny.” (They could not have possibly imagined how significant those words would be.) Barras, serving as a witness, was on time, as were other members of the wedding party. Only one person was missing: the groom!
Anyone can be a little late, even to his own wedding, but as the minutes dragged on into first one hour and then two, emotions must have been on edge. The official who was to marry them left, and an underling was on hand for the ceremony, even if the groom was not. You can only imagine what thoughts were going through the various minds there assembled.
If any of them had known Napoleon well, none of this would have been all that big a surprise. As general in chief of the Army of France in Italy, Napoleon had been planning a campaign and had become so engrossed in his maps that he had completely lost track of time. Clearly, his priorities were not those expected of a typical groom. Then again, Napoleon was not a typical groom.
Nothing about the wedding was normal. Josephine lied about her age on the marriage certificate, claiming to be 4 years younger, and Napoleon added 18 months to his age. The end result was that they appeared to be roughly the same age.
If the wedding was unusual, the wedding night was downright bizarre. Okay, lots of folks are really tired on their wedding night, and it may not really be the best possible time for an evening of wild sexual abandon. Still, Napoleon’s passion and Josephine’s inclinations would suggest that some kind of activity was likely. But upon coming to bed, Napoleon discovered that he was expected to share his wedding bed with another male!
That would be Fortuné, Josephine’s little pug dog. Now, Napoleon wasn’t a big fan of dogs (or cats, for that matter). Even if you’re an animal lover, you can forgive him for being upset on this occasion. Josephine, who may have still been a bit upset from the long delay in the wedding ceremony, informed Napoleon that the dog was used to sleeping in her bed and that there was no reason for that to change. An unamused Napoleon nevertheless attempted to claim his husbandly rights (or perform his husbandly duties, take your pick), but the miserable dog, evidently unhappy with the competition, bit him on the shin.
Josephine’s children had been apprehensive about their mother’s marriage to this young general. True, Napoleon had treated her son with kindness in the matter of his father’s sword (if that story is really true), but like any children, they worried about how their stepfather would relate to them.
The day after the wedding, the newlyweds went to visit her children. Napoleon was at his most charming and generous. He arranged to send his own younger brother Jérôme to go to school with Eugène, visited their school, and generally did whatever he could to make them feel comfortable with him. By the end of the visit, Josephine’s children knew that they had a new father they could trust — and love.
Napoleon and Josephine were married. One of the greatest love stories in history had begun. But it didn’t start out very promising. Within a couple days, Napoleon was off to Italy and glory, while Josephine was to stay home.