“I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night’s intoxicating pleasures has left no rest to my senses.”
Her name to history was married Joséphine de Beauharnais; she was born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, the daughter of a wealthy Creole sugar baron in Martinique.
But after hurricanes destroyed the family plantation, she was married off to the Vicomte de Beauharnais in Paris in October, 1779, in order to preserve the family fortune. It was an unhappy marriage, but it produced two children, Eugène and Hortense.
During the Reign of Terror, in 1794, her husband was arrested as an aristocratic ‘suspect’ by the Jacobins; Joséphine herself was imprisoned a month later. He was guillotined and she herself was only saved from the same fate by the timely overthrow of Robespierre, just one day before her scheduled execution.
As a widow with two children to support, she chose her lovers with her head rather than her heart.
She became mistress to several of France’s political and financial luminaries. But Joséphine was a shopper of the first rank and ran up enormous debts during her life.
In fact, when she met Napoléon it was rumored that her present lover, Paul Barras, was very happy for the other man to take her off his hands. He simply couldn’t afford her. He had met his financial Waterloo.
At that time Bonaparte was a general and a rising star in France’s political firmament. Napoléon’s siren – until then she had been known as Rose, Joséphine was the name Napoléon used – was an elegant and svelte chestnut haired beauty. She rarely smiled though because of her one flaw – she had bad teeth.
Perhaps she ate too much sugar growing up on daddy’s farm.
His family stood against the match; after all, she was a widow with two children, and his mother and sisters were jealous of her sophistication and breeding.
But Napoléon ignored his family’s objections and he and Joséphine married on 9th March, 1796.
Two days later he left to lead the French army into Italy, sending her a constant stream of love letters while he was away.
“You to whom nature has given spirit, sweetness, and beauty, you who alone can move and rule my heart, you who know all too well the absolute empire you exercise over it!”
His letters still exist. But what about hers? Were they lost – or did she seldom write? It seems the latter is true.
While he conquered Italy she allowed herself to be conquered by a handsome Hussar officer, Hippolyte Charles. When Napoléon finally heard of her infidelity, during his Egyptian campaign, something must have died in him.
He took up with Pauline Bellisle Foures, a woman who became known as “Napoléon’s Cleopatra.” By now his letters home to Joséphine were no longer passionate. After Pauline there was an endless line of mistresses, possibly intended as payback.
But even after their separation Napoléon insisted Joséphine keep her titles. “It is my will that she retain the rank and title of Empress, and especially that she never doubt my sentiments, and that she ever hold me as her best and dearest friend.”
Joséphine retired to the Château de Malmaison, near Paris, where she continued to burn holes in even her husband’s deep pockets. Yet she remained on friendly terms with Napoléon up to her death in 1814.
During his exile Napoléon admitted to friends that he truly loved her ‘but I did not respect her.’
‘Not tonight, Joséphine.’
There is no evidence whatever that he ever spoke these words; the earliest reference is a music hall song sung by Ada Jones and Billy Murray in 1911. But the greatest truth can rest in a lie; she was his one great love but he perhaps never forgot or forgave her affair with the hussar.
Could it be that France’s most tactically brilliant general was a romantic; and the woman he loved was a pragmatic? If so, it was the irony of his life.
His last words as he lay on his death bed were: “France, the Army, the Head of the Army … Joséphine.”
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