Josephine de Beauharnais (1763-1814)
Empress Josephine whose life reads like a romance with heady mixture of opulence,court intrigue and reign of terror through all which she glided to become, the apex of any woman’s dream, the empress of France in the most glorious period of French history, is ultimately a tragedy. She is forever linked with the glorious career of Napoleon Bonaparte. She found the love of her life as he in turn which was for certain. There was to begin with the natural soil on two kindred spirits as theirs could do well but lost for different reasons. Consider their humble beginnings: both were lifted from their provincial backgrounds, he from the isle of Corsica and she from Martinique, and thrown into the cauldron of Parisian life. It was a time when momentous decisions were being taken by motley factions, stretching across the entire spectrum of Parisian political life. Girondins, Jacobins, the Royalists and moderates were as much the instigators as well as puppets of runaway events. It was the backdrop for their first meeting.
In July 1795 Paris was awash with women adventurers mostly seeking releif from the shadows of the guillotine and sensuality hung about like a heady perfume. As a widow struggling with two children Josephine’s plight was precarious as Napoleon newly promoted to the rank of Major-general and a promising career ahead of him was. He was in search of a mariage de convenance. Through Paul Barras he got a foothold into the salon of Mme.Tallien, his mistress and his getting to know Josephine, another of his many mistresses was in the cards. Later Napoleon would recall his first meeting thus,’ I was certainly not insensible to feminine charms, but I had never till then been spoilt by women…Madame de Beauharnais was the first woman who gave me any degree of confidence.’ At the age of thirty two she was no longer a beauty. Despite her blackened and bad teeth owing to her sugar- rich diet of her Martiinique days and sheen of her skin somewhat spoilt by open pores, she was fully compensated in other departments. She would require all the reserve of her natural grace and the elegance cultivated in her ancien régime milieu to enthrall him. How successful she was may be gauged from the fact that it was her name that he breathed last on May 5,1821.
Josephine, crowned Empress of France in 1804 was six years older to Napoleon. It is one of the ironies of individual life that in the play off between individual happiness and public ambitions Napoleon would have remained smitten of her feminine personality (that made him ten feet tall) had it not for his overweening ambition to write his name across the annals of European history. She on the other hand could have charmed her way through her many infidelities had it been possible for her to produce a son for him. During the Italian campaign his letters reveal his anguish and love-sickness. ‘Ah this evening, if I do not get a letter from you I shall be desperate.’ Soon after his return from Egypt he had a domestic crisis. He felt he had put all his happiness and trust on her alone and the news of her adultery drove him into despair.’The veil has at last fallen from my eyes..’ so he wrote to Joseph his elder brother.
Born in 1763, of the poverty stricken but titled Tascher family in the French Isle of Martinique, Josephine was raised far from Paris and the courtly schools for girls of distinction. Her first marriage to Alexandre de Beauharnais in 1779 undoubtedly suffered because of her husband’s repulsion of her “provincial ways.”
Eventually finding herself abandoned with two children, and without family assistance, she lived for a while in a convent with other outcast ladies of high birth.
Buoyed by her “apprenticeship” with women she was ready to find her niche in life. .
When the French Revolution broke out, she and her husband were reunited in prison in 1794. As a widow she became one of the society ladies whose professonalism gave her a sixth sense to know who was moving up and who was on the way out. It was thus she met Napoleon. He was looking for a woman of wealth and position. She became attracted to him as he began rising in rank and reputation within the new French government. Napoleon fell in love with her most passionately, and it was not long before they were married. At the time of marriage, she, however, was neither in love with him, nor ready to relinquish her old ways. It was rumored that she had in collusion with one of her lovers was speculating in shady deals behind her husband’s back. In her excuse she was alone who had to survive while Napoleon, on the other hand, came from a large family with strong familial loyalties. When his family met her she rightly guessed she would never be accepted as one of the family. His brother Joseph in fact began urging his brother to leave her as soon as he met her.
When she was crowned as the empress it was more a crown of thorns and their marriage was in a shambles. ‘It was not in the nature of Josephine to be able to reciprocate to a grand passion: and her cynically nonchalent infidelities were soon to quench Napoleon’s romantic love.’ Owing to the Imperial ambitions the barrenness of the empress was a sore sticking point and after the divorce he married Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria in 1810. Their love was replaced by a mutual affection,tolerance and cameraderie. At St. Helena he admitted, ‘Josephine told lies practically all the time, but with elegance. I can say she was the woman whom I loved the most’. Mme. De Rémusat, the wife of Napoleon’s court chamberlain, a critic of Napoleon, however, conceded,’he (Napoleon) would have been a better man if he had been more and better loved’.
Finally, in 1814, Josephine caught an infection and quickly died. The one source of happiness, her children, was a legacy she was to leave Napoleon. Her son, Eugene served Napoleon faithfully like a son, and her daughter, Hortense, married into the Bonaparte family herself. Her numerous grandchildren all loved Josephine dearly at the time of her death. They were the chief mourners at Josephine’s huge funeral, which was also filled by the many other people touched by her life of giving, helping and kindness.
A legacy of flowers…
Because Josephine had a love of gardening, several roses have been named to remember her and her children. Her garden at Malmaison was something very special and had over a hundred types of roses.
The Eugene de Beauharnais Rose
Souvenir de la Malmaison Rose
(Ack: Felix Markham: Napoleon- 1963/mentor book; http://www.fi.edu/time/Frick/Watson/lady.html)