Forward to "Joséphine de Beauharnais, le paradoxe du cygne" by Pierre Branda

Author(s) : BRANDA Pierre
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(translation Peter Hicks)

This history begins, or rather, ends, in fiction. This fiction bears a name: Joséphine de Beauharnais. Yes, it's a fiction, indeed a mystification. Before beginning this book, I had never really paid much attention to this name that has become so familiar. On hearing it, one thinks of a woman who is flighty, indolent, cunning, unfaithful, let's not forget spendthrift, frivolous and hard to pin down, the portrait so familiar from book after book. Like many others, I enjoyed this ‘novel' version of a life. Occasionally, I even wondered how Napoleon could ever have fallen in love with her. He was so rational and ordered. She must have somehow cast a spell on him, I don't know, like a sort of “she-devil”. She was, on the one hand, a white swan for the majesty of her bearing, but also a real black swan for her lunar femininity. She was the quintessence of an intriguer but one for whom you forgave everything. So as a name for the heroine in a novel, Joséphine de Beauharnais is quite good, charming even. And yet, it was never once uttered during the lifetime of the first empress of the French, and it rings as false as all that I have just said. It was invented during a regime, that of the Restoration, for political reasons. That Christian name, Joséphine, is pure invention. It came from the lust-driven pen of an up-and-coming general. Nor was the name, Beauharnais, her own. She inherited it after an improbable, and in the end calamitous marriage. Her real identity, Marie-Joseph-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie, has thus been entirely effaced from her tombstone. Other names have nevertheless come down to us through the years and been remembered. In her youth, she answered to the sweet name of Yeyette. As an adolescent, she preferred Rose, her mother's name, or Marie-Rose to avoid mother/daughter confusion. Then she became the Vicomtesse de Beauharnais. She was also briefly la citoyenne Beauharnais, before taking on widow's weeds and the title, la veuve Beauharnais. After her second marriage came the appellation la citoyenne Bonaparte, occasionally Lapagerie Buonaparte, probably to put some distance between her and her in-laws who, what's more, detested her. And Joséphine? Napoleon was the first, and for a long time the only person to call her this. But she did not adopt this new name until her husband had become master of France. During the Empire, she hailed as The Empress Joséphine or simply The Empress. In the years of defeat, the royalist censor's office initially called her The mother of Prince Eugène before offering her the immortal Joséphine de Beauharnais. So once her husband was proscribed, the name Bonaparte was taken from her, and it was no longer possible to call her simply by her Christian name since this recalled that which was to be forgotten, namely, that she was a fallen sovereign.

The story of her name melts seamlessly into that of the epoch. It is almost as if at every lifting of the curtain to reveal a scene change on the stage of History with a capital H, she swapped roles in order better to remain on stage. From the get go, the writers of her life would have done better to concentrate on the woman of politics and networks who built her own extraordinary destiny rather than to keep harking back to her supposed excesses in love. There is not one article or book which does not highlight her infidelity, a word more frequently used in the plural. In the works written about her, when she doesn't look like the Marquise de Merteuil (the heroine of Dangerous Liaisons), she's made out to be a sort of proto-Emma Bovary, spicing up her day in the arms of young beaux. I'm talking about Joseph Turquan's La Générale Bonaparte and André Gavoty's Les Amoureux de l'impératrice Joséphine who attribute to her eighteen lovers, basing themselves largely on public rumour. Her reputation as the woman who cheated on Napoleon Bonaparte did her history no favours whatsoever. For hagiographers of the Emperor, she committed the crime of lèse-majesté. We should not then be surprised at the severity of certain historians in her regard. I only have to quote the introductory words of Frédéric Masson in his Joséphine de Beauharnais to show the sexist prejudice which hovers over her life story: “She was a woman, in flesh and blood; not a great thinker, but of great emotions. She was not a being of reason. She was a woman of her country, her times, her social milieu. Ought we to be surprised that she had all the tastes, desires, caprices that she did?”1 And the black legend has recently received a new chapter, much destructive and damaging, namely, her role in the re-establishment of slavery in the Antilles. On Martinique, her white statue is now headless and stained red with blood 2. As if birth were a crime; for as far as anyone knows, she had nothing to do with her husband's decision. She has long been thought of as a brainless woman, so it would be paradoxical to think that she owed her disgrace to her force of persuasion over a man who was renowned for his unbending nature. And the stain on her memory is believed so widely that it is today thought safer in books and exhibitions to concentrate on her thousand and one private passions rather than her public life. It is remarkable to see the woman of power eclipsed by her own femininity, but how reductivist, how ‘historically correct' the result!

Jean Tulard's expression, “the history detective”3, speaks strongly to me. That great historian invites us to turn our magnifying glasses once again on every slightest source or evidence. Following in Hercules Poirot's footsteps, we must look beyond appearances. There are as many accusing judges as there are defending lawyers trying to get her off by whatever means possible. Furthermore, since she left no memoirs or writings, Josephine stands voiceless before history. It is true that autobiography is fraught with vanity and self-justification, and yet we will never know what would have been her last sideswipes, regrets, hopes, disappointments, joys, pains, or expressions of love, of the sort one pens at the end of one's life. Napoleon, Fouché, and Talleyrand, to name but three, all used their pens to great advantage in pleading their defence before posterity. The permanence of their voices has certainly changed, influenced and often manipulated history. Josephine stands naked before the historian. The void allows for interpretation. Not only are there apocryphal works but there are also novels that include her in the plot. Conjectures, it is true, are integral to the historian's trade, but from there to writing romance is a step too far.

So the history of Josephine's life is peppered with approximations and errors. How then to separate the wheat from the chaff? In this case – it's very much a police reconstruction – the first step was clear: to set to one side the many memoirs concocted by the gifted ghost-writers of the time and to concentrate on the proven correspondence and ‘good' accounts. Six hundred or so of the Empress's authentic letters are known today, thanks to the publication edited by Bernard Chevallier, Christophe Pincemaille and Maurice Catinat in 1996.4 Others have been published piecemeal by the Société des amis de Malmaison. These letters serve as the frame for this book. The Correspondance générale de Napoléon (2004-) is the perfect foil to this initial corpus, providing an indispensable, almost intimate view of Napoleon's character and through this his marital relations under the glare of the public spotlight. Only then come the gaggle of memoirs related to the Empress of the French. I have happily taken little notice of those most popular, notably by the Duchesse d'Abrantès, by the valet de Chambre, Constant, and by the cartomancer, Marie-Anne Lenormand, whose works are clearly often ‘creative writing'. By contrast, I have looked closely at those who took up the pen actually to record their lives. That being said, not all memoirs are equal. Those by Bourrienne, Fouché, Barras and even the financier Hamelin need to be read with caution. It must never be forgotten that their confessions aimed above all at exonerating themselves before the tribunal of history, whilst at the same time incriminating their contemporaries. Josephine could not but receive many glancing blows. I have also tried to be as critical as possible with the other novels of her life.

In the pages of this book, I have tried to retrace precisely the course of the exceptional life that was Josephine's, whilst at the same time reinstating her ‘real' personality. My experience as a historian has aided me in this delightful but difficult task. Strangely, I often had the feeling that I had been prepared for this meeting. I had already met her name in notes here and there and in forgotten letters in hundreds of archival documents related to Martinique and the imperial palaces. As the years went by, she had almost become my constant companion. The initiation began with my participation in the 2005 volume Napoléon, l'esclavage et les colonies, in which we attempted to fight the anachronisms surrounding Consular colonialism. It continued in my study of the financial mechanisms of an epoch particularly gifted and creative in such matters5. I must confess that without this preparatory work, it would have been much harder to understand Josephine's astute manipulation of agiotage and corruption. Finally, my work on the Imperial Court and the ‘Maison de l'Empereur' gave me a grandstand seat when describing Josephine in majesty6.

In Paris, on the walls of what used to be the city mansion belonging to Eugène de Beauharnais, decorated by Josephine, and which is today the German Embassy in Paris, stand superb, majestic swans. The same animal can be found sculpted into a remarkable armchair that once belonged to the Empress. Josephine has long been associated with swans – wrongly however, since it was chosen as the symbolical representation of the God Apollo rather than that of Napoleon's first wife7. Notwithstanding, symbologists will forgive me if I cannot resist pairing the animal with the woman once again. I quoted Henri Frédéric Amiel's words at the start of the book: “Grace provides protection: as he smoothes his feathers, the swan arms himself with a breastplate.” Grace was Josephine's strong suit. It was not only her shield but the banner of her success, her trademark in the Napoleonic universe. We also know that she loved that superb beast. In the park at Malmaison, she tried to rear the first, rare, black swans brought to Europe from Australia, whose existence had previously been unknown. Since Europeans only knew white swans, naturally they believed that only one variety of that bird lived on earth. Hence, the paradox sometimes known as the paradox of the swan8. And this paradox fits Josephine too. Having heard the same stories for so long, we think we know her. So let us forget the “incomparable” icon, and turn to a certain Marie-Joseph-Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, born at the very end of spring 1763 in a distant land belonging to the King of France.


1 Frédéric Masson, Joséphine de Beauharnais, Paris Albin Michel, 1925, p. XXXIX

2 In 1852 Napoleon II had a statue built in memory of the most famous Martiniquaise. The work of the sculptor Vital-Dubray was inaugurated 29 August 1859 and for a long time gloried over the Savane garden in Fort-de-France. In 1974 the town council under Mayor Aimé Cesaire relegated it to a more discreet part of the garden for political reasons. Seventeen years later during the night of 27 September 1991 it was vandalised, and no restoration was ever undertaken even though it was added to the supplementary list of protected national monuments on 31 September 1992. A replica of the statue commissioned by the Paris town council and completed in 1865 was erected on the corner of the Avenue Marceau and Rue Galilée. In 1870 it went into storage before being exhibited at the Petit Palais. The Paris town council accepted the patron Edward Tuck's request to make a permanent loan of the work to the Parc de Bois-Préau, once part of the domain of Malmaison, which Tuck had gifted to the State. This replica can still be seen today at the entrance to the park.

3 Jean Tulard, Detective de l'Histoire, Paris, Ecriture, 2012

4 Joséphine, Correspondance, Paris , Payot, 1996

5 See for example, our publication Le Prix de la gloire. Napoléon et l'argent, Paris, Fayard, 2007

6 See our publication Napoléon et ses hommes. La maison de l'empereur, Paris, Fayard, 2011

7 On this topic see the excellent study of the  “Cygne ambigue” in the catalogue L'aigle et le Papillon, symbols des pouvoirs, sous Napoléon, 1800-1815, Les Arts Decoratifs, 2008, pp. 82 et 83.

8 Sometimes known as the « theory of the black swan » popularised by  Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Le cygne noir, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2007.
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