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Chapter 20

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Empress Josephine

Ernest John Knapton

published by
Harvard University Press,
New York, 1963

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 22

 p316  Chapter 21

Josephine was now mistress of Malmaison in her own right. The gloomy weather of December added melancholy to the all too familiar surroundings where every room and every vista reminded her of happier days. Though she gave the outward appearance of being a desperately forlorn woman, she could in all conscience find little to complain of in Napoleon's attentions. Within a day of her departure from the Tuileries he wrote solicitously, saying that he had heard of her unhappiness and urging her to be brave. On the day following he turned up at Malmaison for a brief visit, and on that same evening he wrote to her again from Paris:

My dear, today I found you weaker than you should have been. You have shown courage in the past, you must find courage now to support you. Don't give way to gloomy melancholy; you must try to be resigned, and above all take care of your health, which is so dear to me. . . . You must never doubt my constant and tender friendship, and you would greatly misunderstand all my feelings towards you if you imagine that I can be happy if you aren't happy, or content if you cannot find rest.

Adieu, my dear, sleep well. Know that I wish this.1

Other letters came almost daily — brief, to be sure, yet kindly, and all urging her to accept philosophically the solution that was now inescapable. On Christmas Day Josephine, Eugène, and Hortense dined with Napoleon at the Trianon, responding to an invitation that the Emperor had brought in person the preceding day. Since the king of Württemberg was there, for a few hours Josephine was exposed to a little of the splendour with which she had long been familiar. The meeting led, indeed, to the proposal that Josephine should receive the rulers of Württemberg and Bavaria at Malmaison. She did so,  p317 yet these meetings were only a temporary distraction. When Josephine received her old friend of Directory days, the former Thérèse Tallien, now Madame de Caraman-Chimay, whom Napoleon had once forbidden her to receive, the two women were deeply moved and embraced amid a torrent of tears.

There was, too, the distraction of Napoleon's Austrian marriage, concerning which, as we have seen, Josephine expressed favourable views to Madame Metternich. It was an ironical situation that the dispossessed partner should have worked on behalf of her successor, all the more so since at one stage of the proceedings Metternich suggested to his wife that Josephine be used to convey delicately to Napoleon the receptive attitude of the Austrian court. Josephine, who had spent a lifetime in doing favours for others, now apparently acted so as to have some claim upon the gratitude of those who regarded the Austrian marriage as a triumph for French diplomacy.

Yet, as the month of January dragged along, Josephine's unhappiness continued. She found some relief in knowing that an attentive Napoleon not content with the financial settlement to which he had formally agreed, would do even more. He would give her 100,000 francs for extraordinary expenses at Malmaison. 'You can,' he explained, knowing her weakness, 'plant whatever you want.' He would also, with some proviso, pay bills for jewellery — 'when they have been audited by the officials, for I don't wish thefts on the part of the jewellers.' Josephine would find, moreover, in the safe at Malmaison between 500,000 and 600,000 francs. 'You can take this,' he volunteered, 'to provide for your silver and linens.'2 This was generosity indeed, yet a restless Josephine soon found that life at Malmaison palled; once more she was eager to be on the move. If only she could make occasional visits to the Élysée Palace she might happily recapture something of the excitement of Paris. The palace was hers, and Napoleon had thoughtfully arranged to put it in shape. 'I have tried to straighten our your affairs here,' he wrote from the Tuileries, 'and have ordered everything to be taken to the Élysée.'3 Two days later he wrote, 'I shall be glad to know that you are at the  p318 Élysée, and happy to be able to see you more often, for you know how much I love you.'4

On 3 February, therefore, Josephine arrived at the Élysée, where Eugène was awaiting her, and there for a time she had the pleasure of her devoted son's company. Some days after he had left for his post in Italy she sent him alarming news: 'We have had a fire, two days ago in the apartment you occupied. . . . Apparently it was smouldering while you were there, and I am no longer surprised that you should have complained of smoke. The fire had eaten into a beam which passed through the chimney. Everything in the apartment was destroyed.'5 The stay at the Élysée could be, of course, only a temporary interlude in the life that Josephine was now expected to lead. Early in March she returned to Malmaison.

By this time, as the plans for the Austrian marriage were coming to a head, Napoleon might well have felt that both the Élysée Palace and Malmaison were too near to the centre of excitement. On 11 March (the very day on which the proxy marriage took place in Vienna), he arranged for the issuing of letters patent converting the Norman château and estate of Navarre, situated about three miles from Évreux and some sixty miles north-west of Paris, into a duchy, to be bestowed upon Josephine. This news he at once conveyed to Josephine, explaining further that on her death the duchy would pass to whichever son of Eugène she should have selected. 'I send you a copy of these details,' the happy Josephine wrote at once to Eugène. 'It is very sweet that the Emperor thinks of me, and that his feelings are always the same. You will be as happy as I am.'6

Napoleon's motives were not alone those of thoughtfulness and generosity. This is clear from another letter of the same day in which Josephine received her precise marching orders:

My dear, I hope that you will be pleased with what I have done about Navarre. You will have new evidence of my desire to be kind to you. Arrange to take possession of Navarre; you should go on 25 March and spend the month of April there.7

The purpose was obvious. Navarre was an imposing gift, for  p319 it had guaranteed revenues of two million francs annually; and yet at the same time the gift represented for Josephine a temporary decree of exile. This she was not long in discovering.

What Josephine found on arriving at the château of Navarre in the bleak March weather of Normandy was enough to make her heart sink. Although the formal greetings of the officials at Évreux reminded her that she was still an empress, the château itself caused her a painful shock. Her new home can be reconstructed only in imagination, for it was gutted by fire in 1834 and levelled to the ground two years later. The château had been erected by a nephew of the great Turenne in 1686, at a time when the ornateness of the baroque style had not yet been tempered by the elegance of the eighteenth century. The building was designed in the form of a huge cube, two stories high, with its symmetry re‑emphasized by rectangular terraces on all four sides, fenced in by balustrades and having elaborate flights of granite steps leading to four imposing entrances. Dominating the cube was a huge dome, sheathed in lead, on the flattened top of which the owner had intend to erect a colossal statue of his uncle, the great Marshal Turenne. This hope, however, had never been realized. Whether or not the building was fortunate to have escaped this crowning magnificence one can only conjecture. It clearly did not impress the Norman peasantry, to whom the strange cube with its flattened dome suggested an inverted cooking pot, hence the name — la marmite — they irreverently bestowed upon it.

Within the building four vestibules led from the entrance to a huge, circular, central salon which rose to the full height of the building and was lit by windows in the great dome. The only space, consequently, for private living quarters was found in the awkward triangular areas cut off in each corner of the cube by the walls of the circular salon. The château had long stood empty, and only within a few days of Josephine's arrival had furnishings been rushed in. The cold was glacial, much of the panelling was rotten, the building reeked of dampness, and even in midwinter the great salon was completely without means of heating.

Outside, the formal park was broken up by a spectacular  p320 network of ponds, waterfalls, and canals, making in the summer an enchanting vista of Chinese kiosks, temples of love, and gardens of Hebe. It was still winter, however, and the chill watery areas on every hand, which seemed to serve only as reservoirs for countless streams of water trickling down from the surrounding slopes, intensified the general bleakness. Josephine told Hortense all her troubles:

I was saddened by the welcome I received. The residents of Évreux showed much eagerness at my arrival, but the organized ceremonies somewhat resembled condolences. Doubtless they were sorry that I no longer amounted to anything — but I am putting aside these mournful ideas. The Emperor is happy . . . and this thought is a great consolation to me.

For her immediate surroundings Josephine had little good to say:

Everything here has to be done over. The château is not habitable. The people I have brought with me have only one little room each, and the doors and windows won't close. My quarters are also small and inconvenient. The woodwork is in bad condition. The park is magnificent; it is a valley between two hillsides covered with woods of the greatest beauty; but there is too much water. . . .8

Not only were the surroundings acutely uncomfortable, but Josephine had the unhappy experience of seeing many of the members of her old household drift away. Her former entourage had now been sharply reduced. A few faithful companions, to be sure, remained, Madame d'Arberg and Madame Gazzani chief among them. Napoleon, moreover, had seen to it that Josephine had the necessary minimum of chamberlains and equerries — young men, usually, and not too well known to her. Nevertheless, this ensemble was a far cry from the happy company of Malmaison. Of an evening Josephine, once so fond of gossip and gaiety, found relaxation in playing tric-trac with the bishop of Évreux, a kindly neighbour who came regularly for cards. 'He is a very pleasant man,' Josephine reported to Hortense in simple words which convey much, 'despite his seventy-five years.'9

Hortense could not be with her mother in these trying weeks,  p321 for she herself was in the midst of a domestic crisis of the first magnitude. At the time of Napoleon's remarriage Hortense had returned briefly to her tormented and morose husband, King Louis. In April she made a last attempt at reconciliation by going to Amsterdam, but unhappily Louis' conduct towards her, as before, made life unbearable. Josephine shared in these sorrows only through an exchange of correspondence. By the beginning of June Hortense's health was in danger of breaking, and so she left Holland abruptly for Plombières, where on many previous occasions she had found with Josephine happiness and relaxation. King Louis, whose relations with Napoleon likewise had reached the breaking point, abdicated in July. 'You must have received a courier from Holland to tell you of the king's latest act of folly.' Napoleon wrote to Hortense. 'My will is to unite Holland with France. I will send you a copy of the letter you should transmit to the Regency, if you have not already done so . . . You are set free by this step that the king has taken. You can now live tranquilly in Paris. . . .'10

During these difficult domestic days, when Josephine keenly felt her daughter's sorrows, she quite naturally counted the hours until she could return to the happier surroundings of Malmaison. Now that the imperial marriage celebrations and ceremonies were safely over, Josephine learned through Eugène that Napoleon would agree to her departure at the end of April, and would also assure her of much-needed funds for the repair of the château. This good news provided an exchange of letters in which the relationship between the two at that time is strikingly displayed:

I have received through my son [Josephine began in businesslike fashion] the assurance that Your Majesty consents to my return to Malmaison, and that you agree to let me have the advances which I have requested in order to make the château of Navarre habitable. This double favour, Sire, largely dispels the uncertainty, indeed, the fear, which the long silence of Your Majesty had caused me.

Having given the Emperor a brief sketch of her immediate plans for travel, Josephine then spoke intimately of herself:

 p322  I have made a great sacrifice, Sire, and every day I realize even more its extent. However, this sacrifice will be what it must be: it is conclusive on my part. Your Majesty will not find your good fortune troubled by any expression of my regrets.

I shall never cease my prayers for Your Majesty's happiness; perhaps, even, I shall pray to see you again. But let Your Majesty be convinced that I shall always respect your new situation — I shall respect it in silence; confiding in the feelings you once bore towards me I shall put them to no further proof. I shall put my trust in your justice and your good heart.

I limit myself to asking one favour, which is that you will deign sometime to find the means to reassure me and those about me that I will always have a little place in your memory and a large place in your esteem and your affection. This, whatever it may be, will moderate my sorrow without compromising — and this matters most of all to me — the happiness of Your Majesty.11

'A little place in your memory and a large place in your esteem and your affection.' To this Napoleon replied almost immediately.

My dear, I have received your letter of 19 April; it is badly put. I am always the same; my feelings do not change. I don't know what Eugène could have told you. I haven't written because you haven't; and I have tried to do that which would suit you.

By almost means go to Malmaison and be happy there; I too shall be glad to get news of you and to send you news of myself. I shall say no more until you have compared this letter with yours; after that I leave you to judge were you or I may be the better friend.

Adieu, my dear. Keep well, and be fair, both to yourself and to me.12

Josephine replied with emotion:

A thousand, thousand tender thanks for not having forgotten me! My son has just brought your letter. How eagerly I read it, and yet how long it took, for there was not a word which did not cause me to weep; but these tears were so sweet. I know my heart to its depth and I know what it will always be; some sentiments are life itself, and end only when life ends.

I am in despair that my letter of the 19th displeased you. I don't recall all its phrases, but I know what unhappy feelings inspired it — it was the sorrow of having no news from you.

 p323  I wrote to you when I left Malmaison and on how many occasions since have I wished to write! But I knew the reasons for your silence, and I feared to write a letter that would be demanding. Yours has been like balm to me. Be happy — as happy as you deserve to be! My whole heart is speaking to you. You have just provided me with my share of happiness — a share which I deeply appreciate. For me nothing can equal a place in your memory.

Farewell, my dear. I thank you as tenderly as I shall always love you.13

This exchange of letters represents, surely, the emotional dénouement for Josephine in the ordeal of separation. As for Napoleon married less than a fortnight before to his eighteen-year‑old Austrian bride, and now on the eve of an imperial tour through Belgium, it was a brief moment of deep feeling soon swallowed up in the inevitable onrushing course of events. A letter from Compiègne on 29 April gave his plans for a visit to Antwerp and told Josephine simply that he had no objection to her taking the waters at Aix. 'My feelings for you never change,' he ended simply and somewhat austerely, 'and I greatly desire to know that you are happy and contented.'14

Josephine's thoughts were all on her departure from Navarre, but as the spring quickly advanced and the gardeners undertook their tasks, the outdoor setting became a thing of beauty. A kinsman, Maurice de Tascher, visited Josephine early in May and has described his walk with her through the Garden of Hebe, where he saw roses and lilacs in bloom, running streams, and lawns so perfectly kept that 'art troubled the charms of nature'. She also showed him the Garden of Love, an enchanting combination of cascades, pools, statuary, and 'elegant perspectives'. Josephine seemed altogether worthy of the setting. That evening the young visitor wrote in his diary: 'Yes, still beautiful and seductive; despite her forty-five years, one would have taken her this morning for the elder sister of the Graces.'15 Josephine's eloquent guest was the same Maurice de Tascher who two years later was to die 'of exhaustion and grief' in a Königsberg hospital after leading his younger brother, badly wounded and also doomed to die,  p324 two hundred leagues on horseback through the snows of Russia.

From the summer of 1810 onwards, when the scars of divorce began to heal, Josephine's life adjusted itself to the restrained tempo that henceforth it would follow to the end. The Grand Empire was at its height, yet Josephine, though still an empress, had little part in its splendour. While Napoleon bestrode Europe like a colossus, administering territories that extended from Ragusa to Lübeck and from Madrid to Warsaw, Josephine concerned herself with the petty domestic tasks of moving back from Navarre to Malmaison or planning an idle summer excursion to the waters of Aix-les‑Bains.

In June Napoleon paid Josephine a brief visit. Arriving at Malmaison at ten in the morning and accompanied by Bessières, he strode into the foyer of the château, demanding urgently of the footman, 'Where is Josephine, isn't she up yet?' The servant quickly pointed out the Empress walking in the garden, and Napoleon ran towards Josephine, and she to him. 'They embraced,' so says the diary kept by the observant footman, Piout, 'and one could see the tears of joy flowing down the cheeks of one as much as of the other.'16 Their meeting lasted for an hour and a half. Afterwards Josephine wrote to Hortense:

I have had a day of happiness. The Emperor came to see me. His presence made me happy, even though it renewed my sorrows. . . . While he was with me I was strong enough to keep back the tears which were ready to flow, but after he left I could no longer restrain them and I felt very miserable. He was good and kindly to me, as he usually is, and I hope that he read in my heart all the tenderness and devotion I have for him. I spoke to him of your position and he is of the opinion that you should not return to Holland. . . .17

An idyllic summer in the pleasant surroundings of Aix-les‑Bains, to which Josephine had travelled incognito as the Countess of Arberg, soon went by. Eugène found time to visit his mother as he returned to his duties in Italy. Hortense, tense and unhappy after the breach with her husband, visited Josephine twice. The entourage of the Empress included  p325 several of her ladies and five chamberlains. One of these latter, the youthful Lancelot-Théodore, Count Turpin de Crissé, has been elevated by some of Josephine's biographers to be her lover. The role seems highly improbable. Twenty years her junior, Lancelot-Théodore had emigrated as a boy during the Revolution and after his return had developed some talent as an artist. Hortense recommended him to her mother, and at least three of his Italian landscapes hung in her gallery at Malmaison. The evidence for an 'affair' comes almost entirely from an uncorroborated passage in the Memoirs of the Countess of Kielmansegge, a most dubious source indeed, and from the Memoirs of Mademoiselle Ducrest, a work long known to be an almost complete fabrication. The young Count Turpin de Crissé was undoubtedly a man of charm who brightened the summer's company. He painted some enchanting watercolours of Josephine's excursions, and it is a bound copy of these sketches at Malmaison, still containing a few faded flowers, that seems to have aroused the imagination of the scandalmongers. Josephine's letters, and the general tenor of her life in these months give little substance to such speculations.

Although happy during the summer, whether taking the waters at Aix or making excursions to Geneva, Lausanne, Berne, Biel, and the Swiss mountains, Josephine was still deeply concerned about her children and her own future. She tried also to keep in touch with the Emperor, who was good enough occasionally to respond. Hearing once of a sudden summer storm that almost swamped the small boat in which Josephine's party was being rowed across a mountain lake, he wrote to her in charming mock-concern: 'For a native of the Islands of the Ocean,' he protested, 'to be drowned in a lake would have been a fatality indeed!'18

As the summer months quickly slipped by, Josephine's next moves were uncertain. One temptation was to go to Milan where Eugène's wife, Augusta, was expecting another baby. For such a trip imperial permission would be necessary. Another temptation was to purchase a small estate in Switzerland. Josephine therefore wrote in September to Napoleon, outlining the alternatives:

 p326  May I return to Paris, or must I stay here? Assuredly, I would prefer to be near you, especially if I could hope to see you, but if this is not permissible what would be my role all winter? . . .

I am charging the Queen [Hortense] to discuss my interests with you, and to enter into all the details about which I cannot write. She will tell you how dear you are to me, and say that there is no sacrifice too much for me to make if it will add to your happiness. If you require me to stay, I shall rent or buy a little country place on the shore of the lake. I wish only to know if it would be suitable for me to get one near Lausanne or Vevey if I can find what suits my taste. I shall also go to Italy to see my children. I expect to spend part of the autumn travelling about in Switzerland, for I have much need of distraction, and I can find it only by changing my abode. I shall return again, perhaps, next summer to the waters at Aix which have done me so much good. This will mean a year of absence, but a year which I could bear because of the hope of seeing you at last, and because my conduct would have won your approval. . . . Oh, I beg you, don't refuse to guide me; advise your poor Josephine; it will be a proof of your affection and will console her for all her sacrifice.19

Napoleon was too concerned with other matters to give Josephine much guidance. He had already written to tell her briefly and exultantly that Marie Louise was four months pregnant. 'She is doing well,' he added, 'and is much attached to me.'20 While Josephine awaited a further letter from Napoleon that would clarify her plans, a curious warning came from Madame de Rémusat, long an attendant and friend of Josephine, but now a close friend of Talleyrand and as such moving with him in secretly royalist circles. The time had not yet come, Madame de Rémusat told Josephine, for a rapprochement with Marie Louise, who had a tendency to be jealous. What would Josephine find to do in Paris? Both Malmaison and Navarre would be too near the idle gossip of Paris, and hence Josephine would soon have to go away. This advice seemed to Josephine to be a veiled hint at possible permanent exile, as she soon told Eugène. A letter now came from Napoleon. 'Go see your son this winter,' he said, 'and then return to the waters at Aix next year or spend the spring at Navarre. I would  p327 urge you to go to Navarre at once if I did not fear that you would be bored. My opinion is that you should consider for the winter only Milan or Navarre; after that I am ready to approve whatever you do; I don't wish in any way to hamper you.'21

Josephine now made a decision that flew in the face of the evident desires of Napoleon that she keep away, and grasped instead the alternative he had reluctantly included at the end of his letter. She informed Hortense at Paris that she had decided to go now to Navarre, for travel to Italy seemed too arduous, and a six months' stay too long. She was pleased to hear from Hortense of Napoleon's continued concern over her happiness. 'I have made the greatest of all sacrifices — the affection of my heart — for him,' she wrote. 'You will find me much changed, my dear daughter: I have lost all the good the waters did me. For a month I have lost weight. I feel great need for rest. . . .'22

Before leaving she made arrangements for the purchase of the small estate of Prégny-la‑Tour, and Geneva. The cost was 165,000 francs — a sum to which Napoleon did not object. By mid‑November she was back at Malmaison.

Steadily the life of Josephine reduced itself to the routines and trivialities of a middle age that had no major purpose. Letters came from Napoleon expressing the polite hope that she would be happy at Malmaison and Navarre. Letters went from Josephine to Eugène and Hortense rejoicing in the birth of a son to Eugène's wife, Augusta, at Milan, or expressing concern that the settlement due to Hortense after her separation from Louis had not been fixed. Recommendations went forth urging jobs and sinecures for Josephine's friends. There was excitement in March on the news of the birth of a son to Napoleon — the king of Rome. Josephine wrote to the Emperor at once, for he replied promptly to her within two days of his son's birth:

My dear, I have received your letter, and I thank you. My son is big and is thriving. I hope that he will do well. He has my chest, mouth, and eyes. I hope he will fulfil his destiny.

I am always most happy with Eugène; he has never caused me any sorrow.23

 p328  Late in 1811 came a characteristically stern note from Napoleon, reminiscent of the earlier times when he had fumed over Josephine's ever confused finances. After a few polite nothings he burst forth as follows:

Put some order into your affairs. Spend only 1,500,000 francs yearly and put aside a similar amount. In ten years you will have a reserve of fifteen millions for your grandchildren; it is pleasant to be able to give them something and be useful to them. Instead, I hear that you are running into debt, and that is bad. Look after your affairs and stop giving to everyone who asks for something. If you wish to please me, behave so that I will know that you have a large surplus. Imagine my bad opinion of you if I should find you indebted, with an annual income of three millions. . . .24

The letter stung. Josephine told Eugène about it, saying that the rumours of her debts were much exaggerated, but that she would try to set her house in order. Napoleon, apparently, was not satisfied with mere promises. He found time during an inspection tour in the Rhineland to send a long letter to his minister of finances on 1 November, telling him that Josephine's intendant would receive no more money until there was proof that her debts were paid. Josephine's finances, Napoleon said, were still reported to be very disordered, and he went on to make unfavourable comparisons with Marie Louise, who, he boasted, did without new clothes and accepted privations in order to be out of debt and be able to balance her books every week. Action was soon taken, for the intendant was able to report that with what Josephine had in cash and with what she could get from the sale of timber on her estates, her debts could be paid within a year and that you 1813, all going well, there would be a surplus of over a million. The Emperor was still unconvinced. He was so stern in his warnings that his finance minister, Mollien, told him Josephine had several times been in tears. This was too much. 'You mustn't make her weep,' the Emperor said anxiously, and when he wrote again to Josephine he explained that his sole purpose was to make sure that Josephine would have money later on for her grandchildren. 'Never doubt my affection for you, and don't  p329 be unhappy about these matters,' the master of Europe concluded, not unkindly.25

As the year 1812 opened, Josephine wrote triumphantly to Eugène with news almost too good to be true:

I have put off writing to you, dear Eugène, in order to be able to assure you positively of something that will please you — my affairs are in order and all my debts paid. Such is my new year's gift for you, and I know your affection towards me well enough to be sure that you will be delighted.26

One is tempted to believe, charitably, that Josephine was at least making an attempt to straighten out her tangled financial affairs, whether or not she was actually as successful as she claimed.

Josephine entered the year 1812 in the shadow of tremendous events. 'The Emperor,' she wrote to Eugène in February, 'seems to have forgotten me,' as well he might, for he was now ever more deeply involved in a growing antagonism with Russia that was to lead to the great campaign of 1812 and to his ultimate disaster.27 He had time to arrange that Josephine exchange the Élysée Palace for the castle of Laeken, outside Brussels — an exchange that pleased the Emperor since it gave him a fine town residence. Josephine accepted the arrangement though, as it happened, she never saw Laeken. She knew little, indeed, of events in France. 'I am a stranger to everything,' she told Eugène.28

During the spring Napoleon's relations with Tsar Alexander went from bad to worse. Late in April the Russian ambassador, Kurakin, visited the Tuileries and submitted an ultimatum to Napoleon. War, to all intents and purposes, had begun. At six in the morning of 9 May Napoleon left Saint-Cloud to launch his great campaign against Russia. Whereas in the past it had been Josephine who travelled with Napoleon, now Marie Louise accompanied him, travelling as far as Dresden where the presence of the Austrian emperor and the kings of Saxony and Prussia gave brilliance to the last of such imperial occasions. Then Napoleon pushed on without Marie Louise,  p330 elaborating the plans to bring his huge, conglomerate armies of more than half a million men into battle against the Russians.

He had not forgotten Josephine. At Gumbinnen, in the farthest corner of East Prussia, a letter arrived from her asking permission to visit Eugène's wife and children in Milan. 'I see no objection to your going to Milan to be with the vicereine,' Napoleon wrote in evident haste, 'You would do well to travel incognito. It will be hot. My health is good. Eugène is doing very well. Never doubt my interest and my affection.'29 Four days later he hopefully crossed the Niemen River.

Josephine set out for Milan where, during those weeks while the Grand Army toiled eastward across the Russian plains, she enjoyed the delights of family reunion. By September she was at Aix-les‑Bains, finding to her surprise that several of the Bonaparte family were also present. Almost at the moment of her arrival Napoleon was fighting the bloody battle of Borodino, that hideous, one‑day September encounter in which 28,000 French and 35,000 Russians were left wounded or dead.

Amid the placid charms of Aix Josephine soon received the letter which her son wrote her on the day after Borodino, while the long rows of fallen were still unburied:

My dear mother, I am writing to you from the field of battle. I am well. The Emperor has won a great victory over the Russians. We fought for thirteen hours. I commanded the left wing. We have all done our duty, and hope that the Emperor will be satisfied.

I cannot thank you enough for the attentions and kindness you have shown to my little family. You are adored in Milan, as you are everywhere. People have written charming things about you and you have turned the head of everyone you have approached.30

From Aix Josephine moved on in October to Prégny, the little estate on the shores of Lake Geneva she had purchased in the preceding year. Life for a time became almost gay, with dances, visits of courtesy from local officials, and pleasant excursions along the lake. Napoleon, meanwhile, was on the eve of disaster. On 19 October, almost the same day on which Josephine departed from Prégny for Paris, he left Moscow and  p331 embarked on the retreat that was to destroy what was left of the 600,000 men he had once commanded.

When Josephine reached Malmaison on 25 October, the period of her travels was over. Even more than previously she was a stranger to the climactic events of the time — a lone woman on the fringe of momentous happenings. Though she was curious enough to wish to see Marie Louise it does not seem that she succeeded. According to the memoirs of Madame Avrillon she did contrive to see the infant king of Rome, meeting him at the little summer palace, known as the Bagatelle, on the outskirts of Paris near the Porte de Chaillot, where Madame de Montesquieu took him daily to play. Josephine wept, kissed the child, and arranged with the portraitist, Madame Thibaut, to have a copy made of a painting in the possession of the Emperor for the very large price of 10,000 francs. Josephine also received the Countess Walewska, who visited Malmaison with her son, and watched Josephine tempt the infant Alexander Walewski, son of an imperial father, with cakes and playthings.

These were indeed momentous days, a period in which the ill‑fated General Malet tried to raise a revolt in Paris against the Emperor, only to be seized, tried, and shot. Others, too, were abandoning their allegiance to the imperial cause, not the least of them being Talleyrand — that Prince of Weathercocks who with unfailing virtuosity timed to a nicety the moment for making the transition from one régime to its successor. In these days some have written of 'the conspiracy of Malmaison', implying that the little household of Josephine had now become a centre of treason to the imperial cause. To write thus is to do an injustice to Josephine and to ignore the clear evidence of letter after letter which she sent to her devoted son in Italy, now back from the Russian campaign and absorbed in his viceregal duties. Certainly the majority of those around her — nobles of the old régime, many of them former émigrés now reinstated — were at heart better disposed to the royalist cause than they could ever be to a Napoleonic empire of failing strength. Madame de Rémusat, close friend of Talleyrand, Madame d'Audenarde, Madame de la Rochefoucauld,  p332 Madame d'Arberg, and Madame de Viel-Castel together made up what has been called a veritable Faubourg Saint-Germain. Yet they were hardly a conspiratorial group. In his daily visits to Madame de Rémusat, Talleyrand began to drop his hints of an imminent Napoleonic downfall. The men associated with Josephine's household: Viel-Castel, Pourtalès, Turpin de Crissé, Dalberg, Vitrolles, Semallé, and Roux Laborie, were all ready to assume their place in a Bourbon restoration, and some, indeed played small parts in the last-minute manoeuvres that brought it about. To say more is to give them an importance which they do not deserve.

As for Josephine, the simple statement must suffice that she was apparently ignorant of these intrigues and took no part in them; she kept her loyalty to the Emperor until the day of his abdication; and she concerned herself in these darkening times with maintaining her ties with Hortense and Eugène. Little else remained for her to do.

The Author's Notes:

1 Bourgeat, p192.

2 Ibid., pp196‑7.

3 Ibid., p200. Not dated, but January 28, 1810.

4 Ibid., p199.

5 Hanoteau, Empereur, pp69‑70.

6 Ibid., p71.

7 Bourgeat, p201.

8 LNJ, II.298‑300.

9 Ibid., p301.

10 Queen Hortense, Mémoires, II.97.

11 Bourgeat, pp202‑3.

12 Ibid., p203.

13 Ibid., p204.

14 Ibid., pp204‑5.

15 Maurice de Tascher, Le Journal de campagne d'un cousin de l'impératrice (Paris, 1933), pp289‑90.

16 G. Lenôtre, Napoléon (Paris, 1933), p159.

17 LNJ, II.316‑17.

18 Bourgeat, p208.

19 Hanoteau, Empereur, p78 n.

20 Bourgeat, p208.

21 Ibid., pp209‑211. Madame de Rémusat's letter is also given here.

22 LNJ, II.331‑6.

23 Bourgeat, p214.

24 Bourgeat, pp215‑16. Wrongly given as 1813.

25 Ibid., p216. Wrongly given as 1813.

26 Hanoteau, Empereur, pp94‑5.

27 Ibid., p96.

28 Ibid., pp96‑101.

29 Bourgeat, p215.

30 LNJ, II.369 n.

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