Hortense’s premature birth, on 10 April, 1783, was the pretext for the separation of her parents, Alexandre and Rose de Beauharnais. Alexandre even initially denied that he was Hortense’s father (though he later recognised her as his), and Hortense was taken by her mother to the Antilles in 1788-1790. Whilst such an experience certainly left her with a feeling of distrust and fear regarding marriage, and she came to recognise separation as an acceptable state for a relationship, nevertheless one should not overemphasise the effect of this first experience. Later events – the rise and fall of a famous father, the reconciliation of her parents, her last view of her father through a window, and his tragic death on the guillotine (15 July 1794) – helped her forget her parents’ initial complications. Hortense and Eugène (her brother) were closely bonded by the memory of their father and in the affection of their mother, whom they always tried to protect and to whom Hortense always gave way.
Since Rose (“Josephine”) concentrated all her energies in finding friends and protectors, she had little time for her children. In the summer of 1795, Hortense was sent to the Institution Nationale de Saint-Germain (a girls’ school) founded and directed by Madame Campan, ex-First Lady-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette. Hortense was to find here a climate of confidence which gave her room to blossom. “She is the most delightful girl of twelve years old that I have ever had to teach”, remarked Madame Campan and Baronne Lambert noted that “she would go to the one who loved her most…”. And Hortense was not only to have exceedingly happy memories of this boarding school but also to create a network of close acquaintances with the likes of Madame Campan (almost as a mother confessor), and friends such as Adèle Auguié, future Madame de Broc, her confident. Whilst she was not the cleverest of pupils, she learned the ways of a young aristocrat in this ancien régime ambiance, and the skill of surviving in a turbulent society, with sudden rises and falls: most of all she was to excel in music and the fine arts, later becoming a knowledgeable dillentante.
Josephine’s marriage to Napoleon Bonaparte, 9 March, 1796, and the general’s rise was radically to change the young pupil’s life, bringing her into the complex and dangerous life of political ambition. At first, Hortense and Eugène were very reserved with respect to their mother’s new husband, but their distrust soon changed to admiration and the general was to act very affectionately towards them: “he received with all the affection of a father” said Hortense in her Memoirs.
She may have had soft spot for Charles de Gontaut, and she certainly deeply loved Duroc (with whom she spent the whole of the winter of 1800-1801, but it was all too late. Her marriage was from now one to be a political affair. Napoleon would doubtless have allowed a marriage to Duroc, but Josephine, childless, felt the need to reinforce her position and her links to the Bonaparte family. Hortense gave in to her mother’s pressure, and did not show the same spirit as, say, Caroline. As a result of Josephine’s intrigues (so said Napoleon on St Helena), her marriage to Louis Bonaparte was celebrated on 4 January, 1802.
The collapse of their marriage is well known, but we should not be quick to apportion blame; Louis Bonaparte is a difficult person to understand. He may have been ill, suffering from seizures several times a day (which visits to spa towns could not cure), he may have been morbidly and maniacally jealous, but he was also a very gifted, intelligent and sensitive brother, whom Napoleon had watched over since his early years. On the other side, Hortense’s charms cannot excuse her apathy towards her marital responsibilities, and made no effort to reassure a husband who was more timid and helpless than frightful. In a famous letter, dated 2 May 1807. Napoleon highlighted in vain the qualities of one and the other: “You have an excellent wife, and you make her unhappy”, he noted to Louis. “He may have some unusual ideas, but Louis is a just man”, he reminded Hortense. Even though separation was inevitable, nevertheless, they had real periods of community of spirit. Despite the fact that their relationship had its up and downs, Louis certainly loved and desired Hortense. The births of Napoléon-Charles, 10 October, 1802, of Napoléon-Louis, 20 October, 1804, and most of all the (unjustly) contested birth of Louis-Napoléon in April 1808, after the shock of the death of the first son, the joint stay at Cauterets and finally the meeting at Toulouse, all provide evidence for their married life.
Here again, political reasons affected Hortense’s relationships. Napoleon’s desire to adopt Napoléon-Charles, was seen by Louis and his brother as a desire to remove them from the imperial succession. The son was the property of the Beauharnais clan and had to be reclaimed. On the other hand, Hortense made sure that her own life was quiet and refused to participate in the her husband’s kingly duties, following him with great reluctance to Holland, living there only briefly and showing neither ability nor desire to help him in his tasks.
This tacit separation suited Hortense, and she therefore refused divorce, caring little for her own titles and position in the court but looking to her children’s future. In December 1809, after a family conference, the Emperor refused to grant Louis the divorce he wanted, Hortense kept custody of the children and was given a stipend to ensure her independence. As for the Emperor, his affirmation of his sympathy for Hortense and his rewards to them for their noble attitude during hid divorce from their mother was the best way of reconciling filial affection with reason of state.
From then on, Hortense lived more and more for herself alone. It is true that she represented Caroline at the Roi de Rome’s baptism and triumphed over Caroline at court in February 1812, but these were years she largely consecrated to Charles de Flahaut. “Noone ever got closer than he to the generally held idea of the hero in a novel or a noble knight”, the Comtesse Potocka is said to have remarked. Even though Caroline attempted to damage the relationship, it nevertheless moved from courteous to passionate when the couple separated. Hortense was forced however to keep the birth of Flahaut’s son an absolute secret; at the very least to avoid the juridical oncost of the scandal. Confessing all to Eugène and trusting in the loyablty of her household, she went to Switzerland where she gave birth, in September 1811, to the future Duc de Morny. The success of the expedition reveals how much Hortense was able to trust her entourage.
However, Hortense’s reaction to the fall of the empire and the first restoration has often been criticised. In this context, however, it must not be forgotten that on the key day of 29 March 1814, her reaction of disapproval of the decisions of the council of regency and her advice to Marie-Louise to remain in Paris was sensible: “She showed herself to be a good loser”, thought Talleyrand. And when Louis demanded in vain that she join him in Paris and she preferred to go to Navarre to join her mother, it was Louis she was fleeing, not her duty, and it was her independence that she was protecting. Even her actions during the Cent-Jours and her close relations with Alexander (which brought about the creation of the duchy of Saint-Leu) ought not to be considered as “betrayal”. After Josephine’s death, Hortense stood alone in the defence of her children, children for which Louis did not hesitate to ask the royal courts custody. The mistrust which the royal police showed towards Hortense’s salon is eloquent proof of the fact that Hortense in France remained a rallying point for the previous regime. On his return from Elba, Napoleon received her coldly, but in the end pardoned her: just as her mother had done on the return from Egypt, Hortense ably put her children to the fore.
“When you share in the rise of a family, you must also share in its misfortunes”, the Emperor reminded her. Hortense learned to live with these misfortunes. She followed Napoleon to Malmaison, where on 25-29 June, 1815, the fallen emperor spent a few days with his memories. On Napoleon’s departure, Hortense was not trusted. Alexander stood aloof and found it difficult to pardon the princess’s “irrational” behaviour. Exile was inevitable. After spending four months in Aix, Hortense led a “wandering persecuted life”. The Swiss Diet initially refused her sanctury, despite the decisions of the allies. Hortense was at that time living in the Grand Duchy of Baden, at Constanz, a city from which the French government wished to expel her. In the ned, thanks to Alexander and above all Metternich, Hortense was allowed to split her time between Augsburg and Switzerland. In the latter country, in January 1817, she bought the small country house at Arenenberg, in the canton Thurgau, on the banks of Lake Constance, and it was to this residence that her name and legend would be definitively attached.
The Queen now took two decisions; she broke up with Flahaut (he wanted to marry her) – or rather she gave him back his liberty. Hortense desired to remain faithful to the name she bore and to assume fully the mantle of her misfortune. On the other hand, she refused to give Louis the freedom to divorce; indeed Louis even went so far as to ask the Pope to annul his marriage, which of course he refused in 1819. On the other hand, she was obliged to share with her husband in the education of their sons; both sons came regularly to Rome, the capital of the Bonapartes in exile. Arenenberg became the centre of a small court,a new Malmaison where, accompanied by faithful retainers such as Valérie Masuyer, Élisa de Courtin, and the painter Félix Cottereaux, Hortense sang, painted and charmed her guests, from Madame Récamier to Dumas.
Her main concerns were now those of her sons. She handed Louis-Napoléon (whom his father had willingly given to her) to the tutor Le Bas, son of the ex-member of the Convention. In 1825, in concordance with the desire expressed by the Emperor that his nephews and nieces marry each other, Napoléon-Louis married Charlotte, daughter of Joseph. There were however to be no children. Hortense was faced with the problem of whether she ought to encourage her sons’ political ambitions – they were both ardent supporters of Italian revolutionary movements. She was to write the following, remarkably clear-sighted note to her sons: “There are certain, magical names which can have a huge influence on events… they can only appear in revolutions in order to re-establish order… their role is to wait with patience… if they stir up trouble, they will suffer an adventurer’s fate”. The crisis broke with the uprising in the Romagna of 1831. She wanted to save her sons’ lives, but Napoléon-Louis died of measles in Forli. But Hortense still had enough courage and initiative to flee with Louis-Napoléon into France. After a meeting with Louis-Philippe, they took refuge in England.
Thereafter, her last son moved away and began to live out his own destiny. Hortense thought that he should marry and planned a union with daughter of the Duke of Padua. Another almost marriage – to Mathilde, daughter of Jérôme – collapsed after the Strasburg coup in October 1836. Hortense then fell ill when Louis-Napoléon was in the USA. He returned to Arenenberg just in time for his mother to die in his arms on 5 October, 1837.
Author: Fernand Beaucour (tr. PH, October 2007)
Review: Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien, vol. 258, N° 4, (1971), pp. 43-44