“I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night’s intoxicating pleasures has left no rest to my senses.”

NOT TONIGHT JOSÉPHINENapoléon Bonaparte will be remembered as one of history’s greatest generals; yet the one victory that seemed always to elude him was the battle for the affections of his own wife.

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.

NOT TONIGHT JOSÉPHINEAt 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.

Then in 1804, Joséphine found him in bed with her lady-in-waiting. Apparently the lady couldn’t wait.

NOT TONIGHT JOSÉPHINEThey were only reconciled through the efforts of his step-daughter, Hortense. He was reluctantly persuaded to remarry her, this time with full religious rites.

The following day she watched as her husband was crowned Emperor by the Pope in the Notre-Dame and was then herself crowned Empress of the French.

But six years later, when it became clear that Joséphine could not give him an heir, he had the marriage nullified on a technicality.

Two months later he ‘married a womb’, as he himself described it.

The womb in question was the Duchess of Parma.

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.’

NOT TONIGHT JOSÉPHINEThere 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.”

Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Egypt‘Spectacular historical fiction blazing with intrigue, romance and dramatic action’

– Booklist




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I’m away for the next 3 weeks so there’s no newsletter this month – and I’m re-running the best of my very earliest posts that you may have missed. I hope you like them.

Holy Week, Easter, Spain


About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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  1. Lurdes says:

    You always write interesting articles, Colin. And for that reason I follow you.

    But in general, we, women, are not always to be blamed. Napoleon enjoyed his life fully (nothing to say, we only have one life) and regarding women, he was not fair either. Think of Marie Walewska. And the “womb”, Marie Louise. It seems he expected her to go to Elba to visit him. Did he deserve her visit? NO. Why did he remain married to her? For political reasons, they were still valid, even in his exile. Perhaps they (her family and influences) could help him. Or are there other possibilities to be considered?

    And we, human beings, men or women, we always have skeletons in our closets. But as the Phoenix bird, we must find a new life coming out from our “ashes”.

    So to come to a happier matter, where you in the streets in Barcelona in the day of St. George (our patron in Catalonia, but we share him as a patron with England, Portugal and Greece). What did you think of this image of so many people buying books, the spring time, the roses, the festivity, etc.? St. George is also our Valentine, although the young are little by little adhering to Valentine (not in our tradition!). And regarding this day, let’s not think of the unhappy circumstances of Barça loosing 4-0 in front of Bayer Munich. Let’s be positive (we all need to be positive and try to forget are past wrongs, we are human after all and not PERFECT).

    • I hope I didn’t give the impression I was biased towards Napoleon! As for your amazing St George’s Day – I was leaving on that day so I couldn’t enjoy all of it, but it was just spectacular walking outside and seeing flowers everywhere. First thing I saw was a young couple – he had a book under his arm and she had a rose! I hope Valentine’s Day never overtakes it. I think it’s a wonderful tradition. I also choked up a bit – when my wonderful Dad passed away he had a book open on his lap – and there was a red rose on the pages … a visitor had left it there when she got there and found him asleep. And the book was the story of … Saint George. As for Barca … I missed the games as I was away. I’m usually crowded into a bar with all the other cules cheering for Messi to produce another miracle. Maybe next year. Let’s face it, those Germans are good.

  2. Great and fascinating post as usual Colin. Hope the 3 weeks is a holiday, if so have a good one. We’ll be here when you return.

  3. Empest says:

    Thank you for such nice retelling of Josephine De Beauharnais wikipedia page

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