Joséphine and Bonaparte: a romance

Every marriage is complex, this one more than most. At first glance, the 26 year old General, with his angular face and brusque manners, and the graceful queen of the brilliant but corrupt demi-monde of the late Revolution seem to form an odd couple.

Josephine de Beauharnais Bonaparte Prudhon

Josephine de Beauharnais Bonaparte by Prudhon

Dominique de Villepin, in Le soleil noir de la puissance, notes that they have much in common. Joséphine and Bonaparte are both uprooted aristocrats, torn between their respective native islands and France, between the nobility and the Revolution, both are consumed by ambition.

In 1795 Bonaparte meets Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, from a slave-owning family of the Martinique nobility. She is a widow with two adolescent children. Her husband, General Alexandre de Beauharnais, was guillotined during the Reign of Terror, and she herself went to jail then.

She is now the mistress of Barras, the nobleman turned revolutionary who rules France. And Barras is tiring of this spendthrift brunette on the eve of middle age, and not sorry to pass her along to his young military protégé.

Rose and Bonaparte become lovers. She, after years of unhappy marriage and various liaisons, takes things with quite a bit of detachment. But Bonaparte is enthralled, possessive. He cannot abide the name Rose, used by her prior lovers, and calls her Joséphine, after her second given name of Joseph.

Let us read this letter of his, from December 1795:

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

Sweet, incomparable Joséphine, what a strange effect you have on my heart. Are you angry? Do I see you sad? Are you worried? My soul breaks with grief, and there is no rest for your lover; but how much the more when I yield to this passion that rules me and drink a burning flame from your lips and your heart? Oh! This night has shown me that your portrait is not you!

You leave at midday; in three hours I shall see you.

Meanwhile, my sweet love, a thousand kisses; but do not give me any, for they set my blood on fire.

B.

A month later, in January 1796, Bonaparte proposes. Joséphine has no money of her own and enormous debts, but she brings, courtesy of Barras, the best dowry an ambitious general can dream of: the command of the Army of Italy, the doorway to glory.

On March 9 1796 they wed in a civil ceremony. Here is the marriage certificate. Note a few interesting details. The bride states her birthdate as 23 June 1767 (in fact she was born in 1763). Josephine is indeed six years older than her husband, and she does not wish to advertise this fact. See her neat signature at the bottom: M.J.R. (Marie-Joseph-Rose) Tascher. And next to it, the groom, Napolione Bonaparte, signs as well. Nobody dreams of Napoléon yet, not even he himself. Barras is of course a witness, as well as other dignitaries of the regime. As for a religious ceremony, no one seems to think of it at the time.

Bonaparte Josephine marriage certificate

Bonaparte Josephine marriage certificate

Bonaparte, only days later after this hurried wedding, must rejoin his command in Italy. Thanks to blitzkrieg tactics, he achieves unlikely victories and garners fame at the head of his ragtag army. He writes his bride passionate letters:

Napoleon Bonaparte Arcole Gros

Napoleon Bonaparte at Arcole by Gros

November 21, 1796

I am going to bed with my heart full of your adorable image… I cannot wait to give you proofs of my ardent love… How happy I would be if I could assist you at your undressing, the little firm white breast, the adorable face, the hair tied in a scarf à la créole. You know that I will never forget the little visits, you know, the little black forest… I kiss it a thousand times and wait impatiently for the moment I will be in it. To live within Joséphine is to live in the Elysian fields. Kisses on your mouth, your eyes, your breast, everywhere, everywhere.

Joséphine’s feelings seem to be of a milder sort. She does not write much, if at all, and finds comfort in the arms of Louis-Hippolyte Charles, a dashing young officer of Hussards. Bonaparte’s brothers, who do not like their sister-in-law, are only too happy to report the bad news to the groom. He is torn between furious jealousy and enduring passion, and writes:

I don’t love you anymore; on the contrary, I hate you. You are a vile, mean, beastly slut. You don’t write me at all; you don’t love your husband; you know how happy your letters make him, and you don’t write him six lines of nonsense…

Soon, I hope, I will be holding you in my arms; then I will cover you with a million hot kisses, burning like the equator.

But the magic is gone. Joséphine is no longer the goddess of his dreams, she is a pretty woman like any other, and an unfaithful one at that. So much for the (foolhardy, in my opinion) theory that making a man jealous is the best way to increase his love. Bonaparte takes mistresses, and makes no mystery of it. Now it is Joséphine’s turn to become jealous, and her bitter scenes only drive her husband further away.

In 1798, Bonaparte, now campaigning in Egypt, writes his elder brother Joseph, I am much distressed by domestic matters. Divorce may already be on his mind, long before dynastic concerns make it a matter of political expediency.

He returns to Paris, where Joséphine awaits him. Their common ambitions effect a reconciliation: she is instrumental in the preparations of the coup of 18 Brumaire in 1799, which brings him to power. He now sees her not only as a valuable political ally, but also as his bonne étoile, the lucky star of his amazing career.

In 1804 he crowns her Empress, an honor denied most Queens of France, a token of his gratitude and their partnership on the arduous road to supreme power. Joséphine chooses the eve of the grandiose ceremony to reveal to the horrified Pope that he is going to anoint a couple that, in the eyes of the Church, is not married. The Pope, predictably, demands that a religious marriage take place that very night, to Joséphine’s immense relief.

Joséphine is now in her forties, she is as graceful as ever, but she has given up hopes of presenting her husband with the heir he so wants to ensure the continuity of the Empire. Her daughter Hortense has – very reluctantly – married Louis Bonaparte, Napoléon’s brother. The new Emperor is giving serious thought to the adoption of the couple’s eldest son, who is both his nephew and Joséphine’s grandson (gossip even has it that Napoléon, not Louis, is in fact the father, but this has never been proven). In any case this plan collapses, along with Joséphine’s hopes, when the child suddenly dies at the age of seven.

By then Napoléon no longer shares his wife’s bed, and he resolves at last on a divorce. The Senate decree that effects it is but a formality, and the religious marriage, contrary to Joséphine’s expectations, turns out to be no hurdle. An annulment, of dubious validity under Canon law, is granted by the diocesan tribunal of Paris in a matter of weeks.

Joséphine retires with sadness and dignity to her country house of Malmaison.
She follows from afar the arrival of the new Empress, Marie-Louise of Austria, the birth one year later of Napoléon’s long awaited heir, then the collapse of the Empire and the first restoration of the Bourbons. She dies at the age of 50, apparently of pneumonia, after a walk in her beloved gardens of Malmaison with an illustrious visitor, Czar Alexander I.

Like many true romances, this one has no happy ending. It remains that Napoleon’s very last word, on his deathbed on the faraway island of St. Helena, was Joséphine…

Josephine Napoleon Bonaparte

Josephine and Napoleon Bonaparte


24 Comments to “Joséphine and Bonaparte: a romance”

  1. As always, many fascinating tidbits I knew nothing about. Thanks for a terrific mini-series!

    The painting seems to sum up Josephine’s attitude about many things!

  2. Elisa says:

    I couldn’t help thinking of Sandra Gulland’s “Josephine B” trilogy as I read this. I loved it and my dad gave a beautiful boxed set of the novels as a birthday present when I was in college.
    Sandra’s site has wonderful articles about Josephine’s life and her research.

  3. Marie Burton says:

    I love that last photo.. so casual, yet still underlying with elegance.

  4. Helena says:

    How interesting to see those signatures! I wonder what a graphologist would make of them.

  5. Felio Vasa says:

    I really enjoyed reading Napoleon’s writings. They’re so romantic and passionate. This last painting is so gorgeous! Who did it? And who did that first painting of just her?

  6. Happy Valentine’s Day! I loved this post, Catherine! Napoleon and Josephine are perhaps my most favorite couple in all of history. Sandra Gulland’s trilogy remains a favorite of mine. I am so looking forward to hosting For The King on the Historical Fiction Round Table later in the year. I just purchased Mistress of the Revolution off Amazon and plan to read it before our event!

  7. Elizabeth says:

    I have yet to read the aforementioned books by Gulland about Josephine, but I am certainly very interested in doing so. I enjoyed this post a lot – happy Valentine’s Day to you!

  8. So interesting! I know next to nothing about Napoleon, so thanks for filling in some of the gaps.

    I LOVE the new look of your website–this blue is my favorite color! Perfect for the new book, I’m sure.

  9. Wonderful post, Catherine. I love seeing the signatures. I remember my own excitement coming upon a document in a library in Berkeley (Calif.) that both Josephine and Bonaparte had signed — his signature scrawling and impatient, the ink blotched, and hers neatly under his. There they were: so vivid.

    (And thank you, Eliza, for the mention.)

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  11. Sylwia says:

    Thank you, Catherine. Hot, indeed!

    I don’t know about France, but in Poland Catholic annulment was a mere formality in the 18th century. In any case, I don’t know of anyone who’d be refused.

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  13. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks for your great comments, and sorry on the late answer. Blame it on the website update…

    Sandra, your readers love Josephine B! Are you going back to that era? True, nothing replaces a look at original documents. Quite a contrast between the signatures of Josephine and Bonaparte.

    Sylwia: I didn’t know about annulments in Poland. In France they were extremely difficult to get, hence Josephine’s reliance on a religious marriage. I didn’t want to overload the post with details of Canon law, which didn’t really belong in a romance context, but annulments for members of reigning families were (and still are) the exclusive province of the Holy See. Therefore the annulment obtained by Napoleon before the Paris diocesan tribunal was patently invalid. Hence his later religious marriage to Marie-Louise was void.

    Felio, the top portrait is a detail of a Prud’hon, one of Josephine’s favorite artists. The bottom painting I could not track down, but I liked it too much to leave it unpublished. If anyone knows…

  14. Sylwia says:

    Oh, I didn’t know that kings have it so hard. No Polish king had ever divorced.

  15. Catherine Delors says:

    Oh that’s interesting! France had a few divorced, or not so divorced Kings. Some of those cases led to very serious disputes with the Vatican.

  16. Sylwia says:

    LOL I went to check the Henrician Articles. Kings were actually forbidden the annulment by the nobles. I truly pity everyone who became the king of Poland.

    But, there were two women who were elected kings as well, and the first one, Jadwiga, was married to a Habsburg. The marriage was by proxy, there was no annulment, she simply announced it invalid and proceeded to marry Jagiello, a “Lithuanian heathen”. There was no dispute with Vatican. The pope, in an ungracious manner, simply branded her a bigamist. Poles pretended not to hear that. Centuries later JPII made her a saint, so I take it the Church had reconciled by now. ;)

  17. Catherine Delors says:

    Yes, being elected King of Poland was no cakewalk…

    Ah, Jadwiga… So Poland has not divorced Kings, but (self-)divorced Queens! It would be most interesting to look at her canonization trial.

  18. Penny says:

    Very illuminating. I am definitely going to finish the Josephine B trilogy.

  19. Penny says:

    Ah I can finally comment. I guess Mozilla Firefox is the best for me.
    Anyway it makes me want to read more. I guess I will start with finishing off the Josephine B
    trilogy. is there anything nonfiction you can recommend on Napoleon?

  20. Catherine Delors says:

    This is such a huge topic, Penny! I am not aware of anything in particular in English, but will look into it.

  21. Cool site you have, the posts here are very useful. Thanks!

  22. NSpell says:

    Great site and information about Josephine. I admire her. She was a survivor. I’ve read every book I can find about her and have enjoyed each one. In fact, I’m going back and re-reading them. Currently, I’m reading Josephine A Life of the Empress by Carolly Erickson and would like to re-read the ones by Gulland. I can’t imagine what it was like to live during that time period. Today is her birthday and she’s 248 years old. So, Happy Birthday Josephine, you were quite a woman.

  23. M van der Sar says:

    Does anybody know who painted the wedding scene(?) on this page, the picture just above the ‘print’ sign? And is there anybody who knows where i can see this picture?
    Thanks