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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Empress Josephine

by
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 7

p70 Chapter 6
Freedom

Josephine left the convent of Pentemont late in 1785, as little aware as were the people about her that she moved amid a dying world. Her life was now only four years distant from the opening scenes of the vast drama of French Revolution. These were the final halcyon days of the ancien régime, those days about which Talleyrand wrote so warmly. They were, for all his fine words, times of grave stress, and, to those administering the government, times when financial bankruptcy had become an imminent possibility. Behind the glittering façade of aristocratic society new forces were mobilizing that would in time destroy the world where Josephine played her part and would create another in its place.

During the months when Josephine was entering upon her new freedom a trial rocked French society, brought scandal upon the queen, and pointed ominously to unknown troubles ahead for her and for France. A cardinal of the church, hoping for the favours of Queen Marie Antoinette, had lent himself unwittingly to the intrigues of criminals; he had kept a moonlit rendezvous in the gardens of Versailles with an adventuress impersonating the queen; and he had arranged secretly with Paris jewellers to purchase the celebrated 'Queen's Necklace' for a million and a half livres. Although the jewellers were led to believe that Marie Antoinette was backing the purchase, the necklace never reached her, falling instead into the hands of conspirators. When the scandal was revealed, the Cardinal de Rohan was arrested at the very instant when he prepared to celebrate Mass before the royal court. The principal conspirators were punished. Rohan was tried before the Parlement of Paris and, amid intense excitement, acquitted. The first, ominous shadow had fallen upon the queen. Among all the p71improbabilities of life, none would have seemed greater than that young vicomtesse now leaving the gates of Pentemont someday would assume a position loftier than that of Marie Antoinette and be the consort of an emperor whose power would be immeasurably greater than that of Louis XVI.

Still a married woman, meeting the world with the fine title of vicomtesse, Josephine was no longer subject to the authority of her husband. The annual income of five thousand livres that Alexander was obliged to pay her, together with an equal amount due from her father and an additional one thousand livres due for the maintenance of her daughter, gave her all told a hypothetical yearly income of eleven thousand livres. For a lady in her circumstances this would be a reasonably comfortable sum, provided only that it materialized.

Josephine's immediate problems were those of her domestic arrangements. The hôtel that had been leased on the rue Saint-Charles in Paris was no longer attractive, and in any case Alexander had sold its contents. The country house at near‑by Noisy-le‑Grand, turned over to Josephine by Madame Renaudin at the time of the wedding, had proved too expensive and had recently been sold. Plans, therefore, were quickly made to leave Paris and rent a much smaller house at Fontainebleau, a congenial centre where Aunt Fanny and various acquaintances now lived. Josephine arranged to have some furniture shipped to her from Martinique. By September she, Madame Renaudin, the marquis, and the two children were installed at Fontainebleau in rented quarters on the rue de Montmorin.

Josephine's life was punctuated by the inevitable minor crises of family existence. A year after she settled at Fontainebleau, when Eugène reached the age of five, his father took him by pre‑arrangement to Paris, putting him in the pension of a M. Verdière on the rue de Seine. The attachment between father and son evident at this time was genuine and lasting. In the following year, on the eager insistence of her father, who had doubtless absorbed some of his new medical notions from his patron, the Duke de La Rochefoucauld, p72Hortense was inoculated, though not without anxious misgivings on the part of her mother. Eugène, having trouble with his seven-year molars, was happily exempted from such alarming new treatment. The episode suggests the continued concern of Alexander for his children. He and Josephine, indeed, developed the custom of exchanging weekly letters on the doings of Eugène and Hortense. Although one cannot speak of a true rapprochement, yet they seem to have met occasionally in the society of others, so that the painful wounds of their conflict seem gradually to have been reduced. Grounds for disagreement, however, still existed. Since Alexander was often slow in paying Josephine her allowance, legal arguments and threats of lawsuits over the proper division of their joint property in Martinique arose. Other sources of worry were the growing ill‑health of the marquis, now in his seventies, and the painful stomach ailments that began to attack Madame Renaudin.

Although Josephine had triumphantly weathered the storm aroused by her husband's scandalous accusations, she was now approaching a point in her life when new charges were to be made against her by others. The first of such arose from a curious domestic mystery concerning a child, apparently born at Paris in June of 1786 but not baptized until three years later, with the name of Marie-Adélaide d'Antigny, this last name being that of her foster parents. Both Josephine and Madame Renaudin took an active interest in the little girl, arranging for her to have as a trustee the same Monsieur Calmelet who had also assumed some responsibility for Hortense's affairs. When Madame Renaudin died in 1803, she bequeathed 'Adèle' an annual income of three hundred livres. In 1804 Josephine negotiated Adèle's marriage with a Captain Lecomte, bought her a trousseau, and provided her with a farm as a dowry. Gossiping tongues were as quick to speak then as they are now. Although scandal said that Josephine must have been the child's mother, not the slightest evidence has ever been brought forward to prove such an insinuation. What does seem highly probable, however, is that Alexander de Beauharnais was the father in consequence of an affair with someone p73who remains unknown. Late in the nineteenth century Adèle's grandson declared that family tradition concerning Alexander's paternity was unanimous. Since Alexander took no interest ints child, and since the mother of Adèle, already married, refused to assume any responsibility, Josephine and Madame Renaudin undertook her care. Alexander, apparently, was content to have Josephine assume the responsibility he chose to ignore.

The vast financial problems that threatened France were mirrored on a tiny scale in the little household at Fontainebleau. Its members could no longer count on the general support of Alexander de Beauharnais, who was now engaged in frittering away the substantial fortune that had been his since his marriage. In 1786 the council of state, at last brought to a mood of economy, reduced the pension of the Marquis de Beauharnais from 12,000 to 2,800 livres annually — a sorry blow to one who, as he wrote bitterly, had once enjoyed an annual income of 150,000 livres. In the following January Josephine was prompted to write to the minister of war, asking that something be done for her father-in‑law, but with no apparent result. Another source of trouble came from the properties held by the marquis in the West Indies. Their revenues fell off sharply, so that the funds due to be sent to France arrived most irregularly. Although the easy-going Joseph-Gaspard, who served as agent for the Marquis de Beauharnais in these matters, was bombarded with letters, his incompetence kept him from finding any satisfactory means to stimulate the steadily dwindling revenues. For his own part, he was sorely put to it to find even a portion of the annual 5,000 livres that at the time of her marriage he had promised to his daughter. Despite their difficulties, the family found money in 1787 to buy a house on the rue de France that had both courtyard and garden, keeping it for eight years.

Josephine struggled as best she could with these financial matters. A letter of November 1785, addressed to a government tax collector who demanded payment from her, has a curiously modern ring. After telling him how she had rented p74an apartment at Pentemont for 300 livres annually, she went on:

Now I receive a demand for a poll tax amounting to the sum of six livres, fifteen sols, three deniers. I have the honour to inform you, monsieur, that I am still legally bound to my husband, who makes his residence in Paris, and that I have no more than an amicable separation from him. If, after noting this, you insist on my paying a tax, I venture to submit that I am being taxed at an exorbitant price in relation to my resources . . .1

The letter was effective. In the margin appears the endorsement of an official: 'Reduce to thirty livres.'

On another occasion, answering a creditor who was dunning her for payment, Josephine referred to the troubles that she still had with Alexander. Her husband, she said, had tried to get her to acknowledge possession of furniture and jewels some part of which she had never seen. Apparently, some jewellery had once been ordered by Alexander but had gone into other hands than those of his wife. The furniture he had sold. And now Josephine was asked to acknowledge possession of it all, and the marquis was asked to pay! Truly this was too much, and so she made it clear. Happily, like a harbinger of better times, Josephine's uncle, Baron Tascher, arrived from Martinique in the spring of 1787, bringing her the less than adequate, yet welcome, sum of 2,789 livres from Joseph-Gaspard. 'This makes me hope,' Josephine wrote to her father, 'that you are seriously trying to provide me soon with more considerable sums . . . You know me well enough, dear papa, to be quite sure that were it not for a pressing need of money I would speak of nothing but my fondest sentiments for you.'2

Life at Fontainebleau, apart from these recurrent financial difficulties, moved pleasantly. As the family lived in the environs of a royal palace, a fairly wide circle of fashionable and near-fashionable acquaintances was at hand. A Monsieur d'Azy, neighbour to the Beauharnais, called daily to play cards with the old marquis. Josephine came to know the Viscount and Viscountess de Béthisy, an aunt of the viscount having been abbess of Pentemont during her stay there. She p75also made the acquaintance of no less a personage than Monsieur de Montmorin, governor of the royal establishment at Fontainebleau. Aunt Fanny, now a widow, lived near by, pursuing her literary and social interests as ardently as ever. A mature Josephine, living on the fringes of the court, was in a position to acquire a sophisticated elegance that, in association with her native creole charm, now made her a striking figure in whatever society she entered.

A new and unexpected diversion for Josephine also became possible. Whatever the deficiencies of Louis XVI as a monarch, none could doubt his prowess as a hunter. The king came occasionally to Fontainebleau for the chase, with an army of courtiers in his train. Season upon season, blazing away with gun after gun handed to him by his loaders, and with a page standing close by to enter in the record the ever-mounting total of game as fast as it fell, Louis amassed between 1775 and 1789 an incredible total of 189,251 game birds brought to the slaughter, in addition to 1,254 deer and uncounted wild boar and hares. Josephine, through her new Fontainebleau connexions, now could follow some of these sanguinary expeditions. In November of 1787, for example, the marquis wrote to Madame Renaudin, temporarily absent in Paris, to report that Josephine recently had followed a royal boar hunt all day and had returned, soaked to the skin. This did not deter her from further trips afield, or from eager anticipation of still more in the future. In this way, as in others, the shy young bride of 1779 was experiencing a transformation.

In the summer of 1788 Josephine left suddenly for Martinique — so suddenly, indeed, as to give rise subsequently to the most hostile conjectures about her reasons. Later, under the Revolution, Josephine was to find herself part of a dissipated society at Paris where she made both warm friends and bitter enemies. Some of these enemies have pushed their tales about Josephine and their condemnations of her back into these earlier years. And so the explanations have been offered that Josephine now went hastily to Martinique to conceal a pregnancy that would have been embarrassing and humiliating p76for her to admit at Fontainebleau. Would the news of a pregnancy have been any the less embarrassing if aired in the wide circle of her relatives and friends at Martinique? While rumour may flourish, acceptable evidence of any scandalous behaviour is literally non‑existent. Rumour apart, many substantial reasons would justify Josephine's visit to Martinique: her one surviving sister and her father were both gravely ill; her mother had long been begging her to return; the money expected by the Marquis de Beauharnais had been steadily dwindling. These, together with an understandable restlessness on Josephine's part, provide, surely, adequate explanation for her sudden departure. Leaving Paris late in June, she went with her daughter Hortense and the ever-faithful mulatto, Euphemia, to Le Havre, and on 2 July the group departed in the packet, Sultan. Narrowly avoiding shipwreck at the mouth of the Seine, they crossed the Atlantic safely, reaching Martinique on 11 August 1788. It was the very eve of the French Revolution.

The stay in Martinique lasted for two years. Having been away for nearly ten, Josephine would, naturally enough, be busily occupied with visits to members of her family and with renewing acquaintance among old friends. She travelled by boat, on horseback, and even by hammock, carried in oriental fashion by Negro slaves. Some social occasions presented themselves, and Josephine had to write to Madame Renaudin for her evening dresses. Odd coincidence again appears, for none other than the young Marquis de Las Cases, ultimately to be the companion and memorialist of Napoleon at St Helena, was on naval duty at Martinique in these months and dined with Josephine at the home of her aunt, the Baroness Tascher. Since, however, Josephine's sister Manette continued to be seriously ill, her stay involved as many worries as gay times. Although Josephine had previously urged her family to send Manette to France, where better medical attention was available, they had been unwilling to do so. Under whatever mediocre care was available on the island the younger sister's health grew slowly worse.

Just as unkind rumour in France had tried to make Josephine p77the mother of the mysterious Marie-Adélaide, so two years later an occasion arose for the relentless gossipmongers to whisper their further stories. Josephine was purported to be the mother of one Marie-Joséphine Benaguette, a child born supposedly about this time at Martinique, in whom Josephine's mother took a particular interest and for whom when the young woman married in 1808 Josephine provided a dowry of sixty thousand francs. The charge that Josephine during her stay on the island gave birth to this illegitimate child, known familiarly as 'Fifine', needs to be examined.

The only substantiating evidence, if such it can be called, comes from a letter written half a century later, in 1857, to the Emperor Napoleon III by a Monsieur Blanchet of Le Havre, who claimed to be Fifine's son. Declaring that Josephine was his grandmother, Blanchet flatly demanded a pension. Napoleon III properly ignored this letter. It would have passed into the limbo of forgotten things had not the provisional government set up after the fall of the Second Empire found this and other documents in the Tuileries and quickly published them with the intention of blackening the imperial record. The rebuttal did not truly come until 1909. Then the Martinique biographer, R. Pichevin, published a copy of the marriage certificate of Fifine from the French colonial archives in which two facts emerge. The first is that Fifine was born at Martinique on 17 March 1786, a date that would immediately rule out Josephine as a parent. The other is that Fifine's mother is explicitly stated to be Marie-Louise Benaguette, living at the Rivière Salée near the La Pagerie plantation.3 The constant kindliness of Josephine's mother to her workers and dependents in time of misfortune is well known. We can easily accept, therefore, an explanation for this interest in an unfortunate child that does not require us to accuse Josephine of any scandalous behaviour. One can reasonably infer that the distortions and exaggerations were part of the widespread anti-Beauharnais propaganda that developed in the course of the nineteenth century.

By an odd paradox, Martinique, the scene of Josephine's p78innocent childhood days, first exposed her to the terrors of the revolution. She had left France in summer of 1788, on the very eve of the summoning of the Estates-General, of which Alexander de Beauharnais was to be a member. The two years of her absence were the fateful period when an assembly of more than twelve hundred representatives of the people transformed the political and social institutions of France. The work that they sought to complete by peaceful, orderly means was punctuated by recurrent episodes of increasing violence. The fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 was only the first of a series of spectacular landmarks in consequence of which reform gave place to the terrifying phenomenon of revolution.

What happened in France was felt overseas. The French West Indies, having an economy based on slavery and with a dominant planter aristocracy, added the storms of their own unrest to the winds of freedom blowing across the ocean. Santo Domingo had quickly demanded and obtained representation in the Constituent Assembly sitting at Paris. Martinique and the other islands followed. In 1790, elected colonial assemblies with political rights for mulattoes were decreed by the legislators in France. Santo Domingo produced post-haste an irregularly elected body that came to be known as the 'Assembly of Saint-Marc'. When this was repudiated by the authorities in France, mulatto riots, followed by even more serious troubles, occurred.

The new question was that of full emancipation for Negroes. Ever since 1788 a Society of the Friends of Negroes had worked in France for this end. Among its enlightened supporters were members of the La Rochefoucauld family. When news that its spokesmen in the Constituent Assembly at Paris had demanded the total abolition of slavery reached Martinique, Negro revolts took place. This was the alarming world in which the unpolitical Josephine now moved.

By May of 1790 the island of Martinique was electric with unrest. In the seclusion of Trois-Îlets, to be sure, Josephine found herself and her family in relative security. For those at Fort-Royal, however, and more particularly for her uncle, the Baron Tascher, the situation was menacing. He had become p79port commander at Fort-Royal where, in attempting to parley with Negro rioters, he was seized and held as a hostage. The insurgents captured one of the forts and from it threatened a general bombardment of the town.

These troubled circumstances gave a powerful impetus to Josephine's plans to leave Martinique. By thus abandoning the small-scale disturbances of the island from the mighty storms that were brewing in France, she was jumping most certainly from the frying pan into the fire. Josephine could not have been expected, however, to realize this. In the steaming, unhealthy climate of Martinique's rainy season, these local dangers would have, to her restless and sensitive nature, seemed all the greater, the distant charms of Paris and its surroundings all the more compelling. Concern for the health of Hortense, who was with her, and a desire to return to her son Eugène brought still further pressure to bear.

In the late summer of 1790 Josephine chanced to be in Fort-Royal with Hortense, staying as guests of the governor. At this moment the Negroes who had seized Fort Bourbon threatened the white population with immediate destruction. In this terrifying situation, Josephine and Hortense welcomed the invitation of the captain of a frigate, the Sensible, and fled with all haste to his ship. On their way, as they crossed the broad public square known as the Savane, where Josephine's statue stands today in dilapidated grandeur, a cannon shot from the Negro conquerors of the fort kicked up the dust at their feet.

Josephine and Hortense had no time for gathering even a minimum of baggage, or for good-byes to the family at Trois-Îles. Aboard ship, as they moved slowly from the anchorage to the open sea, they witnessed the insurgent cannoneers threaten the Sensible briefly and unsuccessfully with their fire. In this way Martinique bade a last farewell to its most famous daughter, for Josephine never again returned to the island of her birth.

During the crossing Josephine was obliged to have recourse to the ship's stores to eke out her wardrobe. The seven-year‑old Hortense, who became the darling of all aboard, went p80round the decks in the costume of a cabin boy and wore shoes made for her by the crew. By November 1790, having narrowly escaped shipwreck when the Sensible ran aground at Gibraltar, Josephine found herself on French soil at Toulon. Soon after she would receive the sad news that shortly after the time of her passage her father, Joseph-Gaspard, had died at Trois-Îlets in his fifty-fifth year. She would likewise learn that he had died bankrupt. Almost exactly one year later her only sister, Marie-Françoise, 'after a long and cruel malady', as her burial certificate stated, died also.

More than ever before — without husband, without father, and without sister — Josephine found herself alone. She was returning, to be sure, to the company of Madame Renaudin, from whose worldly counsels she seems to have learned much. Even so, she faced the problems of a revolutionary age counting principally upon herself, and leaning on whatever experience and skill life so far had given her. The bird of the islands, assuming a more striking plumage, was now on the point of new adventures.


The Author's Notes:

1 Hanoteau, Ménage, pp210‑11.

2 Aubenas, I.150‑1.

3 Hanoteau, Ménage, pp222‑5; Pichevin, pp206‑15.


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