It is extremely difficulty to get a real historical picture of Josephine; such has been the power of the Josephine ‘legend'. Early 19th-century British caricatures presented Josephine in a sexual and political light. And still today, the colour of accounts of Josephine's life is set by the traditional story of her meeting with Napoleon, where it is said that her lover (Barras), tiring of her, passed her on to his protégé (Napoléon). Frédéric Masson famously highlighted her excessive spending and extravagant nature. The dislike which her female in-laws had for her is often set in high relief. Laure Permon, a close friend of Josephine's, noted her remarkable grace but poor teeth. She is said to have had many lovers. French specialists today such as Amaury Lefebure concentrate on her art collecting and botanical/zoological interests, but seem to take no position as to her character and do not give a picture of the person. Where, in the past, accounts highlighted her lovers and infidelities, today's story of the Empress almost shows her as a model woman and wife, submissively allowing her life be directed by Napoleon. The biography here attempts to chart a believable course through such choppy waters.
On 23 June, 1763, Marie-Joseph Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie was born on the plantation known as the Trois-Îlets in Martinique. She was the eldest daughter of Joseph Gaspard de Tascher and Rose-Claire des Vergers de Sannois who were both descended from French nobility. Five weeks later, Rose was baptised in the church of the Trois-Îlets with her paternal grandparents as godparents. Her parents would have two more daughters, Catherine-Désirée and Marie-Françoise, born in 1764 and 1766 respectively (both of whom were to die young). In 1773, Rose was sent to the Dames de-la-Providence convent at Fort-Royal (Martinique) for her education. When she was sixteen years old, Rose travelled to Brest (France) with her father to marry nineteen-year-old Alexandre de Beauharnais, who was also born in Martinique. He was the son of François de Beauharnais, baron of Beauville, marquis de La Ferté Beauharnais and of Henriette Pyvart de Chastullé. This marriage had been suggested by Marie-Euphémie Désirée de Tascher de La Pagerie, future Mme de Renaudin, Rose's aunt and also François de Beauharnais' mistress. The couple was married at the church of Noisy-le-Grand, a town to the east of Paris on 13 December, 1779. They had two children, Eugène (3 September, 1781) and Hortense (10 April, 1783) but Alexandre was very much an absentee husband with frequent visits, not only to Martinique but also in France.
At the end of November 1783, Alexandre wrote a letter accusing Rose of premarital impurity and infidelity and demanding either that she return to Martinique or that she go into a convent. Historians believe that Alexandre was at this period strongly under the influence of his lover, Marie-Françoise-Laure de Longpré. As a result, the couple separated, and Rose entered Penthémont Abbey, rue de Grenelle, Paris. The following year Alexandre, faced with a legal challenge from his wife, recanted on every single one of his accusations. On 5 March, 1785, a document enshrining the separation of the Beauharnais couple was signed. In this out-of-court settlement, Alexandre recognised Hortense as his own daughter. He also agreed to pay Rose 5,000 livres annually as a pension, as well as to provide an additional 1,000 livres for his daughter – Rose was later to maintain that he did not honour this financial agreement. Rose was to have custody of Hortense, but as for Eugène, the agreement stipulated that he would leave his mother for his father once he was five years old. That autumn, Rose moved to Fontainebleau, to be with her ex-father-in-law and aunt. It is possible that this move was brought on by Alexandre's financial difficulties. The latter, weighed down by his father's debt, was unable to pay for his wife to stay in the Abbey. Both partners were to suffer financial problems for the next few years; Rose was forced to sell some of her jewels to support herself. The following September, Eugène moved to live with his father and was subsequently sent to the College d'Harcourt (Paris).
In 1788, Rose returned to Martinique with her daughter Hortense, possibly to escape from her debts, and she stayed there for two years. According to some historians, Rose extended her stay to give birth to a daughter, Marie Josephine Bénaguette, whose father remains unknown. Whilst an entry in the imperial records of 1807 shows that Napoleon granted a dowry to a certain Marie Josephine Bénaguette, there is insufficient evidence to support this claim. When the Revolution reached the island in 1790, Rose (and Hortense) hurriedly left Martinique to return to France, leaving behind a dying father and an ill sister. Upon arrival in France, Rose and her daughter stayed with her father-in-law, the Marquis de Beauharnais, and Mme Renaudin in Fontainebleau, where they were also joined by Eugène. Rose stayed in Fontainebleau for nearly a year, occasionally travelling up to Paris. Whilst there, she learnt that her husband was making a name for himself in politics, becoming on 23 November secretary of the Assemblée nationale, then president of the Constituent Assembly a few months later. At his request, Eugène returned to the college d'Harcourt and Hortense was sent to the Abbaye-aux-Bois convent (Paris) for her education. Rose established herself in Paris and formed a circle of contacts, using her husband's prominent position to her advantage.
After the second attack on the Tuileries and the massacre of the Swiss Guards (10 August, 1792), Rose sent for her children. She tried to send them to safety in England with the prince of Salm, but Alexandre refused and asked the prince, a friend of his, to bring his children back to Paris. Alexandre had by then changed his political career for an army one, rapidly rising through the ranks to be put in charge of the defence of the city of Strasbourg in September 1792. In October, Rose left Paris and went to stay in Croissy, not far to the west of Paris, with Hortense, using her husband's political status to form influential political alliances, such as the wily Revolutionary politicians, Jean-Lambert Tallien and Marc-Guillaume Alexis Vadier. Eugène was sent to the Collège National de Strasbourg by his father and then on to military training in Wissembourg (in Alsace). Alexandre continued to advance in his military career and on 23 May, 1793, he was appointed commander in chief of the Armée du Rhin. However, after the failed defence of Mainz, he resigned just a few months later in August. The following March, Alexandre was arrested on account of his capitulation at Mainz and for his involvement with General Custine. He was eventually incarcerated in the Prison des Carmes (Paris). A few weeks later, Rose was also arrested and sent to the Carmes, on account of her political activity. Eugène and Hortense were left in the care of their governess, Marie Lannoy, and they apparently communicated with their parents smuggling in messages via their dog. There were rumours that whilst in prison, Rose had an affair with Hoche and that Alexandre was romantically linked with Delphine de Custine.
On 23 July, 1794, Alexandre de Beauharnais was unjustly executed, on a trumped-up charge of participation in a conspiracy. He was in fact victim of a political witch-hunt and a ghastly campaign to reduce prison population. Rose would have suffered the same fate had it not been for the fall of Robespierre five days later (28 July). Thus, Alexandre's widow was freed at the beginning of August: she stayed in Paris. Rose was yet again financially inconvenienced – a recurring problem – and it is at this time that she is rumoured to have had a liaison with Paul Barras, a rising political and military star and future chief of the Directory. He is said to have taken her under his wing and protected her financially. In the autumn of the following year, she sent her children away to school in Saint-Germain-en-Laye (a town close to western Paris), and it is around this time that Rose met Napoleon. According to Eugène's memoirs, his mother met the young general when the latter came to the Beauharnais house personally to deliver the authorisation allowing Eugène to keep his father's sabre. Other historians have maintained that Rose and Napoleon had met before socially in Paris as a result of their common acquaintances, such as Barras and Hoche. Napoleon was to rename Rose ‘Josephine', an appellation derived from her second Christian name, possibly to detach himself from her previous lovers. Though their relationship was to be unbalanced to begin with (Napoleon passionately in love and Josephine less head-over-heels), these positions would change in the following years with Napoleon's ardour cooling and Josephine coming to appreciate her husband fully. However, right from the start, they were politically perfectly compatible. Josephine provided the young military man with access to the high society of the Directory. And her famous charm would be of great use to him both in the Consulate and later in the Empire. As Napoleon famously said, “I win battles, Josephine wins hearts”. Napoleon was to provide her with the security (both financial and emotional) she needed given the loss of her husband. They were married in a civil ceremony on 9 March, 1796; Napoleon arrived two hours late. According to the marriage certificate, Josephine made herself four years younger than she actually was, and Napoleon gave himself eighteen months more.
Their honeymoon was short-lived (only 36 hours!) as Napoleon set off to become commander in chief of the Armée d'Italie. Napoleon was keen for Josephine to join him in Italy but she preferred Parisian society life (and possibly the company of a certain lieutenant Hippolyte Charles, nine years her junior), and she put off travelling for as long as she could. Finally, at the end of June and under pressure from her husband, Josephine set out for Italy, accompanied by Hippolyte. She received a triumphant welcome in Milan in July and stayed in Italy for eighteen months. It is also during this time that Josephine met her mother- and sisters-in-law, who were never to take to her. Josephine returned to Paris a month after Napoleon in January 1798, and she continued her affair with Charles, which was by now common knowledge, even to Napoleon. Despite her apparent lack of interest in her husband, Josephine nevertheless followed him to Toulon in May and stayed there whilst he continued on to Egypt. As Napoleon became ever more prominent, pressure arose for Josephine to provide him with an heir. As a result of the recent traumatic years and the fact that she was no longer particularly young (she was already 35 years old), Josephine went to the thermal town of Plombieres (Savoy), to take the waters which were supposed to have powers against infertility. Whilst there, Mme Bonaparte fell five metres from a balcony and was badly injured. Hortense left her school in Saint-Germain to come and nurse her, and once Josephine was recovered, mother and daughter returned to Paris. Whilst away, Napoleon also proved that he could be unfaithful, beginning an affair in Egypt with the wife of a soldier, Pauline Fourès, which some historians have suggested was in retaliation for Josephine's attachment to her young lieutenant. Eugène, as he wrote in a letter to his mother, was aware of this infidelity, and it is thought that he asked to be transferred to another regiment in order not to have to witness the affair.
The following April, whilst Napoleon was still away, the château de Malmaison at Rueil was bought. This was to be a haven for Josephine, and she was to dedicate much time and money renovating it. The property was to become world famous for the rose garden and greenhouse full of rare and exotic plants which Josephine added to it. She had an extensive collection of plants and exotic wild animals, notably kangaroos, all of which were garnered from the four corners of the world.
Napoleon returned to France at the beginning of October of 1799, and Josephine went to Lyons to meet him. However, having followed different routes, they missed each other. Napoleon thus reached Paris and was furious not to find Josephine there to welcome him. Her involvement with Hippolyte Charles (amorous) and the Bodin Company (financial – the company had recently failed) must have been present in his mind. When Josephine returned, Napoleon refused to see her, and it seemed the couple would soon divorce. However, they were eventually reconciled, possibly thanks to the intervention of Eugène and Hortense. From this date, it would appear that Josephine remained faithful to Napoleon for the rest of her life, whilst Napoleon had many mistresses.
After the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire (9-10 November, 1799), Napoleon became First Consul alongside the Abbé Sieyes and Roger Ducos. On 15 November, the consular couple moved into the Petit-Luxembourg palace, and only three months later they transferred to Louis XVI's apartments in the Tuileries Palace. Josephine proved herself to have the art and the graces befitting a First Consul's wife, and accounts of the time confirm how good she was at receiving people. After having established the Constitution, the Conseil d'État, the Senate, the Tribunal and the Corps legislative as well as the Bank of France, Napoleon left in May 1800 for the Second Italian Campaign. Whilst in Milan he took another mistress, the singer Giulia Grassini, who was subsequently installed in Paris. When Napoleon returned from Italy at the beginning of July, a formal dinner was held at Malmaison to celebrate the victory of Marengo.
On Christmas Eve (1800), a murderous failed assassination attempt took place against Bonaparte in the rue Saint-Nicaise (a street close to the Tuileries palace) whilst the consular couple were on their way to the opera to hear the first French performance of Haydn's Creation. The carriage bearing Josephine was damaged in the explosion and Hortense was cut by flying glass. The party did however continue on to the opera.
During the summer of 1801, Josephine visited Plombieres for a second time to take the waters. Napoleon was more than ever eager to produce an heir, and reports were circulating as to his being impotent. Even though these visits to take the waters would never prove to be successful, Josephine returned several more times in the next few years. However, as this trip proved unsuccessful, Napoleon began to seek other ways to ensure his succession, namely through the marriage of Josephine's daughter Hortense to his brother Louis, which took place on 3 January, 1802. The marriage was unhappy but three children were born (Napoleon-Charles, 1802; Napoleon-Louis, 1804; Louis-Napoleon, 1808). The only surviving son, Louis-Napoleon, would become Napoleon III. Napoleon would also later adopt Eugène as his son, although Eugène was not given succession rights.
On 2 August, 1802, Napoleon was declared First Consul for life, and soon after the consular couple moved to the Château de Saint-Cloud (palace now destroyed, close to western Paris). The consular couple travelled extensively; around Normandy and the Oise region at the end of 1802, around the north of France and Flanders in the summer of 1803, the Rhine region in autumn of 1804. When they were in Paris, they stayed alternately between the Tuileries and Saint-Cloud. On 18 May, 1804, a sénatus-consulte proclaiming Bonaparte 'Emperor of the French' was approved almost unanimously (apart from three votes against and two abstentions). It contained modifications to the Constitution and was effective immediately. Though the role of empress was not explicitly defined in the sénatus-consulte of 18 May, it was implied that Josephine was to be Empress by Second Consul Cambacérès at the close of his speech nominating the Emperor: “The Senate has another agreeable duty to perform; that of offering its homage to your imperial Majesty, and of expressing the gratitude of the French people. Indeed Madame, Renown has published the good which you do not cease to do. For it tells us that you are always ready to help the unfortunate and only use your privileged access to the Head of State to soothe their misfortunes; and it also reports how, in addition to the pleasure which you derive from being obliging, Your Majesty is also recognised for your exquisite gratitude and your most precious good deeds. This disposition foretells that the name of the Empress Josephine will become the symbol of consolation and of hope”. As the imperial couple prepared for the religious ceremony of the coronation, Josephine went to take the waters at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen), where she was joined by her husband on 2 September. On 7 September, Napoleon stood in reflection before the tomb of Charlemagne. They then returned to France. At Fontainebleau, they welcomed the Pope, whom Napoleon had asked to be present at the coronation. This latter event took place on 2 December, 1804, at Notre-Dame de Paris. It is rumoured that it was Josephine who informed the Pope that she was not religiously married to the Emperor. Be that as it may, naturally the consecration ceremony could not go ahead if the couple were living in mortal sin. A religious ceremony then – which would much complicate the later separation in 1809 – was organised in great haste and with much secrecy. Once married before God, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor and thereafter his wife Empress. From 2 April until 11 July, 1805, Napoleon and Josephine travelled to Milan for another coronation; that of Napoleon as king of Italy. During this time, Napoleon took Josephine to the battlefield of Marengo, where he had troops re-enact the eponymous battle before her. That autumn, Josephine stayed at the Strasbourg Palace, having accompanied Napoleon and his troops as they headed to Austerlitz. From the end of November she travelled around Germany before arriving in Munich on 5 December. Napoleon joined her there, on 31 December, after the successful battle of Austerlitz and treaty of Pressburg. Josephine seems to have constrained herself to her role as Empress and wife of Napoleon, a role dictated by etiquette and by her husband. For instance, she only travelled with Napoleon's permission. On 14 January, 1806, Josephine's son Eugène de Beauharnais married Princess Augusta of Bavaria in Munich. This was a happy marriage and produced seven children (Princess Josephine, 1807; Princess Eugenie, 1808; Prince Augustus, 1810; Princess Amélie, 1812; Princess Theodelinda, 1814; Princess Clotilde, 1816; Prince Maximilian, 1817).
Soon after this, Josephine returned to Paris. At the end of 1806 the Imperial couple went to Mainz; Napoleon left on 1 October, leaving Josephine there. They did not see each other again for nearly a year as Napoleon was to stay in Prussia and East Prussia but Josephine stayed in Mainz for several months, hoping to be called to join him. She is reported to have been very distressed at Napoleon's absence and repeatedly begged to be allowed to join him in her correspondence, possibly as she suspected her husband of having found comfort in another woman in Poland. Josephine's fears were to be confirmed. There were reports of Napoleon's mistress Eléonore Denuelle's pregnancy and an affair with Marie Walewska. And so, despite Napoleon's adoption of Eugène at the beginning of 1806, and the latter's promotion to viceroy of Italy, Josephine's position appeared shaky once again. The Empress' spirits were further dampened by the death of her grandson, Hortense's firstborn, Napoléon-Charles, at the beginning of May 1807, thus Josephine travelled to the Château de Laeken, not far from Brussels, to console her daughter, the Queen of Holland. Just a few weeks later, Josephine's mother also died in Martinique. As the time passed, Josephine settled into a routine without her husband. Her daily make-up and hair ritual was no mean task, nor doubtless was choosing garments from her extensive wardrobe. Thus, Josephine continued to spend a great deal of time and money on her appearance.
Napoleon finally returned on 27 July, 1807, and the imperial reunion seemed at first to be a happy one. For the next few months, Josephine travelled a lot, often with the Emperor, to Rambouillet, Fontainebleau, Bordeaux, the Chateau de Marracq, and finally the Palais de Strasbourg. The imperial couple seemed harmonious, but this was not to last as already talk of divorce was resurfacing. On 30 November, 1809, Napoleon announced to Josephine that he wanted to separate from her: he required an heir which she could not give him. She took the news badly and representations of the event such as an engraving by Chasselat report her having fainted, but it was a long-expected decision to which she submitted. Two weeks later, at an Assemblée de famille, the official dissolution of the civil and religious marriages between the imperial couple was announced, so that Napoleon could marry Marie Louise and thereby produce a male heir. Napoleon went to the Trianon and Josephine to Malmaison. Quite naturally, the separation hit the Empress quite hard. Stanislas Girardin, a close friend of Joseph Bonaparte's, visited Josephine in Malmaison a month after the separation and, according to his memoirs, found that she was still suffering the after-shock. “An hour after our arrival, the Empress came in; she had red eyes, and they were still brimming with tears. […] She opted to talk of the Emperor, and of his desire to see her settle in Paris… What she was saying would have seemed normal last month; today [7 January, 1810] this just looks like an attempt to make people believe she has credit though this is all gone. Losing one's position is unfortunate for anybody, but for a woman, and above all for a queen, it is a fatal blow”. Napoleon nevertheless ensured Josephine's security until the end of her life and still remained close to her, writing to her and visiting her. The Emperor visited Malmaison unannounced on 30 April, 1812, and they walked in her garden before he left for the Russian Campaign. Unbeknownst to them, this was to be the last time they were to see each other.
Now out of the public eye, Josephine was free to do as she pleased. As was her custom, Josephine rapidly accumulated debts, despite Napoleon's provision for his ex-wife. At the beginning of February 1810, Josephine moved into the Elysée Palace, but she was isolated from society and only rarely visited by the Emperor. The civil and religious ceremonies of Napoleon's marriage to Marie Louise took place in Paris on 1 and 2 April respectively. This may have been too much for Josephine, who quit the French capital at the end of March, going to stay at the Chateau de Navarre, near the small town of Evreux due west of Paris, a residence which Napoleon had bought for her after the separation. She found the Chateau in a state of great disrepair and consequently spent a great deal of money and time renovating it, as she had with Malmaison. She stayed there for a month and a half before returning to Malmaison after apparently having received the Emperor's authorisation to do so. On 18 June, Josephine was travelling again, firstly for a cure at Aix-les-Bains, a thermal town close to Chambery in Savoy. Whilst in the area, Josephine went to Sécheron (on the outskirts of modern Geneva), where she stayed for a month. She also went to Chamonix and subsequently travelled around Lake Geneva during the same period. According to Josephine's friend Claire de Rémusat's letters to her husband, life there was very uneventful. Josephine would take the waters and see to her toilette in the morning, whilst the afternoon would be spent sewing or sketching. In the evening, dinner would be followed by some form of musical entertainment. Josephine was joined by Hortense at the end of July, when the latter was given permission by the Emperor to join her mother after Louis' abdication. At the end of this period, she returned to Sécheron where she acquired the Château de Pregny-la-Tour. It was at this time that Josephine found out about Marie Louise's pregnancy. Letters from Josephine and Napoleon (and Claire de Rémusat), as well as Hortense's memoirs have suggested that Marie Louise was deeply jealous of Josephine's relationship with Napoleon and that it was considered more prudent for the Emperor's former wife to stay away from Paris at the present time. Josephine spent the next few years residing alternately in Malmaison and the Château de Navarre, spending considerably more time in Malmaison. She was staying at the Château de Navarre when news reached her of the birth of the Roi de Rome on 20 March, 1811, and she held a party there to mark the birth. Josephine was desperate to meet Napoleon's son and, as a result of Marie Louise's dislike for her, it wasn't until the spring of 1812 that she was able to see him, in a secret meeting at Bagatelle.
Possibly due to the Emperor's elation at finally having an heir, Josephine was allowed to return to Malmaison in April 1811. It was certainly with great joy that she returned to her gardens and her gallery. Devoid of imperial obligations, Josephine finally had the time to enhance her chateau. Her gardens were full of a large variety of rare and exotic flowers (not to mention her extensive collection of roses), and they greatly influenced French horticulture. It is thanks to Josephine's gardening efforts that species of flowers such as camellias, purple magnolia, rhododendrons, geraniums and many others besides came to blossom in France. Despite the continental blockade forbidding any trade with Great Britain, this did not prevent her from acquiring the majority of her plants from London. The gardens at Malmaison came to be known far and wide and were made the object of scientific study, Josephine herself being an inexhaustible source of knowledge. The gardens were also filled with animals such as gazelles, kangaroos and black swans, and these animals also became a source of study for the Empress. She even managed to make her black swans reproduce (in captivity), a feat very rarely accomplished. Her gardens were of great expense to her, as was the development of her painting gallery. Josephine's chief talents were spending and accumulating, and this was no less so with regards to her art collection. It was indeed vast, with more than two hundred canvases, of which more than half came from Italy, painted by artists such as Correggio, Giorgione, Perugino, Giovanni Bellini, Andrea del Sarto, Titian and Leonardo da Vinci. Other works included paintings by Teniers, Van Dyck, Rubens and Rembrandt. Thus, with so much to keep her occupied at her beloved Malmaison, Josephine must have been overjoyed to be allowed to spend almost a year there between 1811 and 1812. She had more cause for joy when, at the end of July 1812, she was to meet her grandchildren in Milan. She had not had much opportunity to see Eugène since he had moved to Italy, and this was the only time that she met his children, unlike Hortense's, whom she saw regularly and who often came to stay with her in Malmaison during the summer.
After this summer spent in Milan, Josephine returned to Malmaison. On the way back, she took the waters at Aix-les-Bains once again and stayed at the Château de Pregny-la-Tour for the last time. Once back in Malmaison, Josephine settled back into her usual extravagant routine. Malmaison was full of company that summer of 1813. Hortense's children came to stay with their grandmother at the end of May and were thoroughly spoilt by her; she even went as far as to send for a performing elephant to entertain them! Josephine also received visits from Marie Walewska and her old friend Thérèse, the former Madame Tallien (a friend whose connection she had been forced to reject as she became Empress). As word reached France of the failed Russian campaign, and the leading powers such as Prussia and Austria began to turn against Napoleon, Josephine must have been in a state of great anxiety. Cut off as she was in Malmaison, her letters reveal how worried she was about the safety of Napoleon and of her son Eugène.
The events of March 1814 greatly affected Josephine, and after the fall of Paris and in the face of the approaching enemy forces, she fled Malmaison for the Chateau de Navarre. However, a month later she returned to Malmaison, where she stayed until her death. Both her children were increasingly worried at her state of despair and her poor health, particularly when she caught a chill at her daughter's in Saint-Leu whilst she was out walking with Tsar Alexander I. In spite of her ill-health, Josephine nevertheless received the King of Prussia but afterwards she was forced to confine herself to her bed as her health deteriorated. Josephine died in her bed at Malmaison on 29 May, 1814 at fifty-one years old. Her funeral was held at the church of Saint-Pierre-and-Saint-Paul in Rueil four days later.
Remembered above all for her grace, Josephine may not have produced Napoleon with an heir, but through her daughter, the second and only other Emperor of France was a descendant. And through her son Eugène's six surviving children with the Princess Augusta, her family is present in most of the European Royal families today.
PH, LS. June 2014