When Josephine returned from Martinique to France at the close of 1790, she escaped from revolution in the New World only to encounter it even more dramatically in the Old. The tedious November journey across the French countryside from Toulon to Paris brought her to a capital where violence and terror soon were to dominate the scene. Violence of a sort had first appeared in July 1789, when the Paris mob had burst into the old fortress-prison of the Bastille and paraded the bloody head of its governor on a pike through the streets. Violence recurred in the peasant riots, the haystack-burnings, and the château-burnings of that same summer. Violence was also present in those October days when Louis XVI, escorted by a mob from the gutters of the capital, transferred his court from Versailles to Paris. The lull that fell over the restless country during the year 1790 was no more than a momentary respite — a brief spell of clear weather before the breaking of even greater storms.
Josephine's life to this point is an altogether personal chronicle, the story of an inexperienced girl drawn into an unhappy marriage who frees herself from it as best she can. Her story emerges from the conventional record of baptismal and marriage registers, from family letters and anecdotes, from scattered memoirs and narratives. Whatever unusual quality it possesses comes from the exotic setting of Martinique and from the conflict in personalities of the young husband and wife.
From this domestic scene of modest proportions Josephine now moves into a world of momentous events, lighted by the fires of revolution. As in our own age, the forces of change were sweeping away the great citadels of privilege, and with p82them also many lesser strongholds, where little people had lived their quiet lives in comfortable security. Josephine, least revolutionary of women, was soon threatened by these new forces, so that if for no other reason than self-defence she was compelled to assume the colouration of a revolutionary. Within three years of her return to France this sheltered child of a West Indian plantation, this viscountess of the ancien régime, was to describe herself in a letter to one of the great committees of the Revolution — with what truth one need not ask — as a devotee of republican principles, a sans-culotte, and 'a good Jacobin'.
Josephine was now legally separated, though not divorced, from her husband. By virtue of her title and her connexions she was able to make her way and to find an entrée into such parts of the grand monde as still flourished. And yet, though one fails to detect anything that could truly be called reconciliation or renewed affection, Alexander de Beauharnais still counted for something in Josephine's life. The two were still linked by their common name, by their mutual affection for their two children, by their correspondence, and, apparently, by their occasional meetings in polite society.
It may come as a surprise to those who have seen Alexander de Beauharnais only in the dissipated and trivial years of his youth to discover that for a few dramatic months he now shot upwards into a career of national prominence, holding the office of president of the Constituent Assembly at a most critical moment in France's history, and later serving at the age of thirty-three as commanding general of the Army of the Rhine. Revolution, which so unexpectedly raised Alexander to the heights, was also to bring him down. It likewise brought deadly peril to Josephine. Arrested in 1794, the two found some sort of reconciliation in the prison of the Carmelites, a grim setting where the guillotine's steel blade that destroyed Alexander missed destroying his wife as well only by the narrow margin of a few days.
During Josephine's absence in Martinique, Alexander de Beauharnais had moved on to the stage of great events. He was p83selected as a deputy of the nobility from his ancestral home, the electoral division of Blois, to the newly summoned Estates-General of France. The prospect of national bankruptcy had led Louis XVI and his advisers in 1788 to a fateful decision: they would turn for advice and assistance to this ancient assemblage of clergy, noblemen, and commonalty that had not met for 175 years. Alexander was thus able to join with the other deputies to the Estates-General in the magnificent setting of Versailles. With him came his elder brother, François, chosen as a representative of the nobility of Paris. Unlike Alexander, who warmly espoused the cause of reform, François was an uncompromising royalist. When the former on one occasion proposed that the king be deprived of command of the army, François eloquently opposed him, saying that such a proposal was so impossible that it could not be accepted, even if diluted by an amendment. From this statement, despairing of the course of events, he emigrated from France and joined the counter-revolutionary army across the Rhine. Alexander stayed behind.
The debonair Alexander's qualifications for his new role of statesman and lawgiver were hardly self-evident. One recalls, however, the distant figure of the old tutor, Patricol, with his pedagogue's interest in the democratic teachings of Rousseau, and remembers also Alexander's close and frequent connexions with the liberal La Rochefoucauld household. The great figures of Mirabeau and Talleyrand likewise remind one that a private life of the most reckless dissipation was not incompatible with statesmanship of a high order. Alexander's brother-officer, the young Marquis de Bouillé, who wrote so candidly of Beauharnais' amorous affairs, had recognized almost in the same breath that there was much more in the viscount than the mere playboy. 'Beneath this air and this habit of frivolousness,' Bouillé wrote, 'M. de Beauharnais possessed energy, a stubbornness of disposition, a depth of intelligence, a longing to win fame, and an overpowering ambition.'1 These qualities, so Bouillé believed, drove Alexander to win his prominent place in the Constituent Assembly.
p84 Alexander quickly associated himself with the movement for reform, joining such liberal nobles as Lafayette, La Rochefoucauld, and the Duke d'Orléans. Always fluent in expressing himself, he spoke out on the famous night of 4 August, when feudal and manorial privileges were abolished. He could well side with the reformers to surrender their rights, for his landed fortune was by now largely dispersed. The impression he made must have been favourable, for in November 1789, he was made one of the secretaries to the Constituent Assembly.
Much later Alexander's son, Eugène, recalled these great days, after the Assembly had moved with the king from Versailles to Paris. Here the young lad was permitted on occasion to visit the sessions of the Assembly. Warming himself by the stove placed near the centre of the royal riding-school where the deputies met, Eugène could admire his father's oratory, as Alexander, happy in an audience of a thousand listeners, spoke from his position well to the left of the presiding officer. Eugène could likewise harken to the austere counsels of his Uncle François, an enemy of all revolution, as he in turn spoke from the benches of the right.
As a professional soldier, Alexander won a place on the military committee of the Assembly. He was also one of the group that first reported the need for free public education for all French children. In the increasingly radical Parisian world outside the Assembly he joined the Jacobin Club, making some name for himself by his speeches and actually serving for a time in 1791 as its president. He was also for a time president of the Constituent Assembly, and was in the chair on the historic morning of 21 June 1791 when the news came that the king and royal family had fled the Tuileries — no one knew to where.a Alexander made the announcement in a phrase that has become historic: 'Messieurs, the King has fled during the night. Let us proceed to the order of the day.'2 He then went on to preside efficiently over tumultuous debates, which, with one day's interruption, lasted continuously from the 21st to the 26th — a remarkable endurance feat of over 126 hours. Small wonder that at the end Alexander wrote to his father p85saying, 'I am exhausted with fatigue.' He added the hope that his work would be useful to the public welfare and to the tranquillity of the realm. At this time Josephine was planning to abandon her life in the Beauharnais home at Fontainebleau for a career of her own in Paris. Alexander closed his letter to his father with a sentence that gives us a momentary glimpse of her — a faint ghost on the distant fringe of great events: 'I embrace my children. Tomorrow I shall try to write to Madame de Beauharnais.'3
With the dramatic arrest of the royal family at Varennes and its humiliating return under guard to Paris, the excitement subsided. The name of Beauharnais now took on a new significance. Alexander's son always looked back with pride to these days when his father was, as in his Memoirs Eugène wrote with filial exaggeration, 'le premier personnage de la France.' The pride was understandable, for he, too, was touched by the brief glory of his father. On the streets of Fontainebleau passers‑by would point out the young Eugène with the comment, 'Voilà le Dauphin!'4
Alexander had reached the climax of this political career. Although re‑elected president of the Assembly, he served only until September 1791, when that body was dissolved. Under the new constitution, none of the previous members were permitted to sit in the forthcoming Legislative Assembly. The obvious move now was for him to return to his professional life as a soldier. By an unusual irony, however, the same Alexander who had shone so brightly in the Assembly was to experience humiliating failure and disaster when he returned from the field of politics to the field of war.
Revolution was gradually engulfing Josephine's little world. Yet people living in the midst of great events cannot always be expected to understand them. The shrewd anecdote in Anatole France's novel, The Gods Athirst, is the kind of fiction that rings as true as history. It tells of the good citoyen Desmahis pursuing a pretty dressmaker along the streets of Paris in 1793 and being cut off from her by a grim procession. Desmahis knows only frustration; intent on his charming prey, he has p86no eyes for the central figure of a young, unknown aristocrat with hands bound and locks shorn, standing silently erect in the tumbril, en route to the guillotine.
In these months when blow after blow was being delivered at the whole social order of which Josephine was a part, she still remained at Fontainebleau with her aunt and father-in‑law, attempting to pick up the threads of the life she had lived before her visit to Martinique. Her attempt was not successful, for Fontainebleau in 1791 was not what it had been during the ancien régime. Eugène, now transferred fully to the control of his father, had left to begin his studies at one of the most famous schools in Paris, the Collège d'Harcourt. Hortense was approaching the age when she, too, would have to be sent off for formal schooling. Josephine, at twenty-eight, was a far different person from the hesitant young wife of the previous decade. It is easy, therefore, to understand why after a year she found that the semi-bucolic life of Fontainebleau began to pall.
By October 1791, Josephine was in Paris, most definitely on her own, renting an apartment on the rue Saint-Dominique, just off the fashionable Boulevard Saint-Germain. Hortense, who was watched over by a kind of servant-governess, Madame Lannoy, was sent to the convent school of the Abbaye-aux‑Bois. She stayed there until the following August when, by the orders of the government, all such church schools were closed. In addition to the rapidly fading society of the capital, Josephine had also a new interest in the theatre. Paris at this time saw a remarkable blossoming of dramatic productions of all kinds, a phenomenon that continued unabated into the imperial period. Josephine developed an enthusiasm for the stage that never left her, drawing her to the many performances — occasionally good, usually mediocre — of her time. Some externals of polite life still remained. Flowers bloomed in the well-kept gardens of the Tuileries, and the elegant carriages of a few fashionable ladies still drove through the streets. Yet over all hung the shadow of war and destruction. Even had Josephine desired, she would have found no opportunity to renew closer acquaintance with her now famous husband, for Alexander, on the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly p87at the close of September, had quickly left Paris for the pleasant countryside of Blois, where he served as lieutenant-colonel in the twenty-first military division. At this very time many young officers, Napoleon Bonaparte among them, were preparing to find in the great revolutionary campaigns unlimited opportunities for victory and fame.
Josephine's circle at Paris was both old and new. It included Aunt Fanny, just returned from an Italian tour with her lover, the writer Cubières, and also a Madame Hosten-Lamotte, a creole from the island of St Lucia who was to share Josephine's imprisonment in 1794. She also made more splendid acquaintances, notably the Princess Amalia of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, who lived with her brother, the Prince de Salm, in a magnificent hôtel, now the palace of the Legion of Honour. More for social, certainly, than for political reasons, Josephine also made the acquaintance of many of the 'respectable' members of the constitutional party — men such as Lafayette, Montesquieu, Barnave, Mounier, and Chapelier. She also knew some of those royalists still in Paris, such as Mathieu de Montmorency and the Baron de Viel-Castel, whose allegiance to the monarchical cause carried them through the entire revolutionary and Napoleonic period to their long-delayed rewards at the time of the bourbon restoration in 1814. These connexions are significant, for frequently during the years when she was empress, Josephine would take what steps she could to assist any royalists who were seeking to avoid the censures of her imperial husband.
It is possible also to compile still another kind of list. Gossip, rumour, and scandal have singled out the names of some who in these tormented times were believed to have won the intimate favours of Josephine. Here scholarship falters and documentation fails. With whatever degree of conviction, the biographer can do little more than annotate the list of the most generally accepted candidates; he cannot crown them with the laurels of victory. First comes one Scipio de Roure, a naval officer whom Josephine had met on board the Sensible when she was returning from Martinique; then the Chevalier de Cresnay, a kinsman of the Caulaincourts who later faithfully p88served Napoleon; then the Chevalier de Coigny, so ardent a champion of the Bourbons that Josephine had to intercede with Napoleon to save him from execution; and, lastly, Charles, Baron de Viel-Castel, in 1814 one of the agents of the Bourbon restoration. This royalist pattern is, to say the least, interesting, and gives some basis for the republican suspicions that soon caused Josephine to be sent to prison.
Her life, heedless, gay, and inconsequential, was soon transformed by the march of events. In April 1792 France had come to war with Austria and soon afterwards with Prussia. During the summer the invading armies of the Duke of Brunswick moved across the plains of Champagne in the direction of Paris. Suspicion of the monarchy, already widespread, flared up first on the 'Day' of 20 June, when crowds broke into the royal palace. Violence flared even more savagely on 10 August, when the mobs appeared for a second time and the courtyards of the Tuileries ran with the blood of the loyal Swiss Guards. Josephine was in Paris on this terrible day and rushed, understandably, to be near her daughter at the Abbaye-aux‑Bois. In this frenzied atmosphere monarchy was suspended, the royal family imprisoned, and a convention was quickly summoned in order to give new republican institutions to France.
Two episodes highlighted for Josephine the dangers that were striking everywhere. The Duke de La Rochefoucauld had taken a vigorous and enlightened part in the work of the Constituent Assembly. As a former noble, however, he had come into disfavour. In September a National Convention had been summoned to draft a republican constitution for France. At this very moment La Rochefoucauld was in the country at Gisors, where a mob, inflamed by the emotions aroused by the invasion of France, fell upon him and hacked him to pieces. His nephew, Charles, a boyhood friend of Alexander, was also murdered. At this same time, too, Alexander's brother came to the parting of the ways. When Louis XVI and his family were imprisoned at the Temple in 1792, this François 'without amendment' tried to organize a plot to release them. The plot failing, he emigrated, becoming ultimately a major-general in the army of the Duke of Condé across the Rhine. He had p89found safety for himself, but, as in the case of so many today who have escaped from the iron curtains of tyranny, he had unwittingly cast the menace of death over some of his relatives who remained behind.
The most dramatic evidence of the vast transformation that was coming over the old order appeared in December 1792, when the weak-willed and well-intentioned Louis XVI was brought to public trial on the charge of treason. He was found guilty, and in the following month executed in what is now the Place de la Concorde. Josephine's first concern was for the safety of her children. It was all very well for her husband to serve the cause of revolution; she must depend on the world she knew. Hence she sent Eugène and Hortense into the care of her friend, the Princess of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, now living near Saint‑Pol •about fifty miles from Calais. The intention was that from here on the first opportunity they should be sent to England. The high-minded Alexander, however, serving with the armies of the Republic, had other notions. Hearing of the plan, he sent a special courier to forbid emigration, and for a time took Eugène with him, putting the lad to school in Strasbourg, while Hortense he ordered back to Paris. Under these circumstances Josephine's only recourse was to assimilate herself and her children, at least outwardly, to the new patterns of republican virtue. Following the decree of the Convention that all children should learn a trade, Hortense was sent to her governess, Madame Lannoy, to 'learn the trade' of seamstress. Eugène, on his return from Strasbourg, was sent into the country at near‑by Croissy, where he was 'apprenticed' to a carpenter. The former vicomtesse, her title abandoned, now appeared under the good republican designation of citoyenne Beauharnais.
In September 1793 the Convention voted the terrifying Law of Suspects. This measure, surely a classic example of the technique of discovering and punishing guilt by association, ordered the immediate arrest of all 'suspects', and defined them as 'those who by their conduct, their connexions, their remarks, or their writings show themselves the partisans of tyranny . . .' Suspects were further defined as the relatives of p90any who had emigrated, and as 'those who have been refused certificates of citizenship'.5 Understandably alarmed, Josephine made the quick decision to leave Paris with her friend, Madame Hosten, and to lease a new residence in the suburban village of Croissy, where republican fanaticism was less rampant than in Paris, and where the indispensable certificate of citizenship probably could be more easily obtained. Her new home was an attractive, indeed an elegant, villa once occupied by Madame Campan, principal lady-in‑waiting to Marie Antoinette. From its rooms, decorated in the antique style of Louis XIII, one looked across a green meadow to the quiet waters of the Seine. Near by lay the wooded slopes of Saint-Cloud and the ancient estate of Malmaison, as yet unknown to Josephine. Near by, too, stood the parish church of Rueil where in 1814 Russian imperial guards were to escort Josephine's coffin to burial, and where in 1825 Eugène and Hortense were to erect a magnificent tomb in her memory.
At Croissy, in a process similar to that by which people today acquire identity cards, Josephine presented herself to the local authorities, and on 26 September successfully made her declaration of republicanism. Some months earlier, the aged and ailing former Marquis de Beauharnais had appeared with Madame Renaudin before the authorities at Fontainebleau, where this servant and beneficiary of the Bourbon monarchy had likewise declared himself to be a loyal partisan of the new republican order.
While Josephine thus manoeuvred for safety between Fontainebleau, Paris and Croissy, Alexander had returned to the army. By August 1792, when the monarchy was crumbling, he served as a staff officer in the Army of the Rhine. Few of the old professional officers remained in the reorganized forces of the Republic, and for those aristocrats who did, and could demonstrate their patriotism, promotion came fast. For the soldiers of the new revolutionary generation, among them many future marshals of Napoleon, promotion was equally rapid. Marmont, for example, became general of brigade at twenty-three, Davout at twenty-four, Soult, Grouchy, and p91Bonaparte at twenty-five. By March of 1793 Alexander was in command of a division, and by the end of May, still in his early thirties, he held full command of the Army of the Rhine.
Alexander reached this high rank just at the time when the war was going very badly for France. In the Netherlands General Dumouriez, having lost the Battle of Neerwinden, deserted in April to the Austrians. His successor, General Custine, like Dumouriez an officer of the ancien régime, was recalled to Paris, despite his efforts to rally the defence. Here in August the Jacobins sent him to the guillotine, as Voltaire doubtless would have said, pour encourager les autres. During this same summer the moderate republican leadership in the Convention had been overthrown by the fanatical Jacobins, who were ruthlessly determined to bring the war to a successful conclusion, to transform France, and to weed out and destroy all who stood in their way.
In this atmosphere Alexander de Beauharnais assumed his command. Unhappily, he proved to be no more of a general than his father had been at Martinique. The Prussians had besieged Mainz (earlier captured by the French) in April, and throughout the summer, though he most obviously should have done so, Alexander took no steps to relieve it. Much of his time was spent in composing long dispatches to be published in the official journal, the Moniteur; some time he still devoted to affairs of the heart. Mistrusting the political intrigues of the capital, he had quite wisely rejected a proposal made by his friends in the Convention that he return to Paris to become minister of war. When finally Mainz fell to the Prussians at the end of July, Alexander submitted his resignation. 'In these times of revolution,' he wrote sadly to the Convention, 'when treason is becoming so frequent and the ex‑nobles always seem to be the leaders in plots to destroy liberty, it is the duty of those who, though stained with this hereditary taint, have liberty and equality graven upon their hearts, to proclaim their own exclusion.'6 His resignation was formally accepted by the Convention on 21 August — one day after the passing of a decree that forbade anyone of noble birth to hold any military commission whatsoever. A further decree p92required all officers who had resigned or been dismissed to stay on their estates. In September the Law of Suspects made Alexander liable to immediate arrest.
Alexander now had no choice but to return to the family village of La Ferté, where, as proof of his civic patriotism, he was elected mayor. He occupied himself in attending meetings of the local Jacobin societies and collecting various testimonials to his republicanism. One such letter from the Popular Society of Blois, copied by Josephine at the time of his imprisonment, still lies in the family papers — mute testimony to her efforts to save his life.
For a few unreal weeks existence took on a strangely innocent quality. Alexander wrote to his father asking to have their maid, Marianne, come to La Ferté in order to mark his linen. He explained that Josephine at Paris had two volumes of the novelist, Richardson, which belonged to Madame Renaudin, and that he was arranging to have her return them. 'I would never have thought,' he added, 'that having left a life as active as that of the army, time would go so fast in the quiet of solitude . . . It is true that my brain is not lazy. It tires itself in projects for the good of the Republic, even as my heart overflows in efforts and aspirations for the well-being of my fellow-citizens.'7
This benign atmosphere was quickly transformed. In August the great port of Toulon fell to the English fleet. As the guillotine began to operate with increasing speed both at Paris and in the provinces, the First Terror, as it was called, took shape. This Terror struck the very highest. After a despicable two‑day trial, in which Marie Antoinette was accused of corrupting the morals of her own son, she was beheaded on 16 October. Along with the famous, the less notable were not spared. Two weeks later, Françoise de Beauharnais, daughter of Aunt Fanny and divorced wife of Alexander's émigré brother, François, was arrested under the Law of Suspects and held at the Sainte-Pélagie prison. The dangers were now coming very close to home.
Josephine ran grave risks in writing to the president of the Committee of General Security, attempting to have her sister-in‑law p93released. This letter to Vadier, dated 17 January 1794 seems, however, even more a defence of her own husband against anticipated dangers than it is of the imprisoned woman whom she professed to champion:
I am convinced that, on reading this memoir, your sense of humanity and justice will cause you to consider the situation of a woman who is utterly miserable, but only for having been united to an enemy of the Republic, to the elder Beauharnais whom you have known and who, in the Constituent Assembly, was in opposition to Alexander — your colleague and my husband.
I would have much regret, citizen-representative, if you should confuse Alexander in your mind with the elder Beauharnais. I can put myself in your place: you are entitled to doubt the patriotism of former nobles, but it is within the realm of possibility that among these there are ardent friends of Liberty and Equality. Alexander has never deviated from these principles: he has constantly kept to the line. If he were not a republican he would have neither my respect nor my affection.
What Josephine then proceeded to assert about not knowing other members of her husband's family and having brought up her children, before the Revolution, as 'republicans', is quite clearly a desperate falsehood, penned in a time of great danger. She went on:
I am an American, and know him [Alexander] alone of his family. If I could have seen you, your doubts would have been dispelled. My household is a republican household: before the Revolution my children were not distinguishable from the sans-culottes, and I hope they will be worthy of the Republic.
I write to you frankly, as a genuine sans-culotte . . . I do not demand either favour or grace, but I appeal to your sympathy and humanity on behalf of an unfortunate citizeness. If I have been misled about her in thus picturing her situation, and if she really were and should appear to you a suspect, I beg you to disregard what I have said, for like you, I would be inexorable. But do not make a mistake about your old colleague [Alexander]. Believe that he is worthy of your respect.8
No answer came to this and, despite all efforts, early in 1794 the blow fell. Alexander was denounced to the local committee of Department of Loire-et‑Cher as a suspect, under the p94provision of the law which listed as suspects 'all public functionaries suspected or removed from their functions by the National Convention or its commissioners and not reinstated'. In March 1794 he was arrested and conducted to Paris. History has its ironies. Among the seven signatures on the letter from the Committee of General Security ordering his arrest is that of Jacques-Louis David — now revolutionary patriot and artist, but a decade later to be famous as the official painter of the vast canvas depicting the imperial coronation of Napoleon and Josephine. During the conversations when Josephine sat for his painting, would David have remembered his signature upon the document of 1794? Alexander, first held at the prison of the Luxembourg, was transferred in March to the grim prison of the Carmelites.
Within five weeks Josephine was a prisoner beside her husband. Her efforts to find obscurity and acceptance had failed, for she and Madame Hosten were denounced as 'dangerous' in an anonymous letter to the Committee of General Security. This sinister document read as follows:
Note for Paris. The Hosten woman's dwelling, whether in the city or in the country, is a gathering-place for suspected persons, among others someone named Calon, also Vergennes père and his older son, the younger having emigrated. Beware of the former viscountess, wife of Alexander de Beauharnais, who has many connexions in the offices of the ministries. This Hosten woman has a dwelling at Croissy and one at Paris, rue Saint-Dominique . . .9
On 19 April the Committee, one of the principal organs of revolutionary government, acted under the provision of the Law of Suspects and ordered the arrest of 'Beauharnais, wife of the ci‑devant general, rue Dominique no. 953', and authorized the search of all her papers. Her friend, Madame Hosten, was included in the same order. On the following day Josephine's apartment was searched and sealed. Nothing incriminating, as it happened, was found. On the contrary, the agents reported that they came upon 'a multitude of patriotic letters [could some of these have been from Alexander?] which would serve only as praise for the citizeness.'10 Nevertheless, on 21 April she, like her husband, became a prisoner.
p95 In these late spring and early summer months of 1794, as Josephine and Alexander lay in prison, revolutionary France experienced the Second Terror — an even greater wave of accusations, imprisonments, and executions than the Terror of 1793. The prisons of Paris were crowded with suspects, so that by the end of April more than eight thousand were being held. Many monastic buildings — no longer needed for their original purpose and convenient with their cells, their refectories, their enclosed courtyards, and their heavy stone walls — were pressed into service as jails.
Among these prisons the old convent of the Carmelites on the rue Vaugirard stood out as one of the most sinister. While it may be that the aristocratic inmates of some of the Paris prisons during the Terror lived a relatively easy life, this was anything but true of those held at the Carmelites. The convent had a longer prison history than most, having been taken over by the state in the critical month of August 1792, when foreign invasion seemed to threaten the very life of France. Over two hundred persons, largely priests, had then been held there. During the terrible September massacres of 1792, which in a few days claimed the lives of more than two thousand prisoners in Paris alone, mobs raged through the streets and 'visited' the prisons. The Carmelites had been a place of terror where altogether a hundred and fifteen of the clergy, including the archbishop of Arles and the bishop of Beauvais, had been hacked to pieces. When Josephine entered the prison, the marks of sabres and the ugly bloodstains from these massacres could still be seen on the walls. The cells were dark, vermin-infested, and so damp that the inmates had to wring out their clothing every morning. Some of the women slept fourteen to a room. While prisoners had some freedom to move about and even to receive visitors, they were limited in their circulation to the corridors, where meals were given at long tables, first to the men and then to the women. In these corridors people stumbled amid water-buckets, slop-pails and all the confusions, filth, and smells of a crowded prison. Here Alexander spent more than four months and Josephine more than three.
One found all types in such prisons. General Hoche was p96there, as was Delphine, lovely daughter-in‑law of the recently guillotined General Custine. Josephine's cellmate was the Duchess d'Aiguillon. The Prince de Salm, brother of Josephine's good friend, the Princess of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, shared imprisonment with the director of marionettes at the little Champs-Élysées theatre. Some of the prisoners were as young as thirteen. Between December 1793 and the following July, when Robespierre fell, the average population of these narrow confines was about two hundred.
Josephine, according to her prison companion, Delphine de Custine, did not bear up well, showing a degree of discouragement that was embarrassing to her companions. She played solitaire, and wept much. But, says Delphine, despite her lack of courage, she was naturally gracious and had charming manners. Josephine was visited occasionally by her children, and tradition tells that the letters brought in by them were kept from the eyes of the jailers by being stuffed under the collar of the family pet, the pug dog, Fortuné. Eugène paid a visit to Tallien, one of the leading Jacobins, asking help for his mother, but with no success. Two letters of this time, ostensibly from Eugène and Hortense but obviously composed by an older hand, have survived. One, written in May, was addressed to the Convention, and asked freedom for their mother, 'against whom no one has been able to bring any other reproach than that of having had the misfortune to belong to a class to which she has proved herself to be alien, since she has been surrounded by none but the best patriots, the most excellent Jacobins'.11 In June, the twelve-year‑old Eugène and the eleven-year‑old Hortense addressed an appeal to the Committee of General Security, urging them in equally unchildlike terms to complete the assembling of the documents in their mother's case, certain that such action would 'hasten the moment that would restore her to liberty'. They concluded their letter, again in words that could hardly be their own: 'When one has nothing to fear from a judgement, one burns to have it rendered'.12
While Josephine remained in prison, her children savoured the excitements of revolutionary Paris. On 8 June Robespierre, p97now at the very pinnacle of his power, presided over the elaborate celebration known as the Fête of the Supreme Being. As part of a carefully rehearsed programme, a huge statue of Atheism, made of inflammable materials, had been erected in the gardens of the Tuileries. At the climactic moment, amid patriotic hymns and chants, Robespierre was to set fire to Atheism so that another ingeniously engineered statue — that of Wisdom — could arise triumphantly from its embers. Atheism did indeed burn, but so furiously that only a jet‑black and most unsteady Wisdom rose heavenward through the choking clouds of smoke. Poor Hortense had a narrow escape. She was so near to the centre of excitement that her dress was set on fire by flying embers, her chest was burned, and she narrowly escaped the dire fate that Atheism had so justly met.
Was there a last reconciliation between husband and wife? The pair could not have been very close. On the very eve of his death Alexander wrote to Josephine, calling her simply mon amie, and speaking only of 'the fraternal affection which binds me to you'. Both, to be sure, must have been drawn together by the common bond of the two children whom they now expected to see for the last time. On the other hand there are suggestions of counter-attractions. The Memoirs of General Montgaillard and the utterly vicious Memoirs of Barras, the latter written, to be sure, at a time when he had no other thought than to blacken the memory of Josephine, say that in these days of captivity she was swept off her feet by the gallant figure of General Hoche, her fellow prisoner. If there is any truth in the story, the infatuation must have been of remarkably short duration, for Hoche was transferred from the Carmelite prison just four weeks after Josephine had entered. There is more substantiation to the story of Alexander's brief infatuation with the beautiful Delphine de Custine — an episode altogether in keeping with his history and his character. As he left the commends for the Conciergerie — a sinister indication that he was approaching the guillotine — he gave her as a last gesture a ring mounted with an Arab talisman that, according to her brother, Delphine cherished all her life.
In June 1794 the Convention voted the terrible measure p98known, from the month in the new revolutionary calendar that marked its passage, as the Law of Prairial. This law defined 'enemies of the people' in the vaguest terms, denied them any legal defence, and set their only penalty as death. In the seven weeks from the passage of the measure to the fall of Robespierre, the Revolutionary Tribunal at Paris sent 1,366 victims to the guillotine. One of them was Josephine's husband.
Alexander had assembled in advance a meticulous dossier to defend himself. This included an elaborate, two‑page, folio statement, put together in six neat columns and chronicling his services to the state; a list of the various popular societies of which he had been president (Paris, Blois, Valenciennes, Strasbourg, Chaumont); a statement as to the care with which his two children had been educated 'in republican principles'; and a testimonial from the loyal villagers of La Ferté who had elected him their mayor. None of this material did him the slightest good. Alexander was subjected to an interrogation on 21 July, after which he was removed to the Conciergerie. Here he wrote the long letter to his wife and children that has become his last memorial.
The text of Alexander's letter was published in what is now a very rare pamphlet, the Almanach des prisons, sold on the streets of Paris within a few weeks of his death. The way in which his interrogation had been conducted made it clear to Alexander, even before his actual trial, that he had no hope of escaping the guillotine:
. . . I am the victim [he wrote to Josephine] of the rascally calumnies of some aristocratic, would‑be patriots in this prison. The likelihood that this diabolical conspiracy will follow me to the Revolutionary Tribunal leaves me without hope of seeing you again, my friend, or of embracing my dear children. I shall not speak of my regrets; my tender affection for them and the fraternal affection which binds me to you can leave you in no doubt as to my feelings as I leave this world.
Alexander did not dwell long on these expressions of 'tender affection' for his children and 'fraternal affection' for his wife — all that was left of a marriage begun fifteen years before. His last words were for his country and his name:
p99 I regret equally having to leave a country which I love, for which I would have willingly given my life a thousand times, which I will be unable to serve, and which will see me depart, believing me to be a bad citizen. This intolerable thought requires me to entrust my reputation to you. Work to redeem it, by showing that a life wholly dedicated to the service of one's country and to the triumph of Liberty and Equality must, in the eyes of the people, repudiate those odious calumniators who themselves belong to the class of suspects.13
On 23 July Alexander appeared before the Revolutionary Tribunal. He was included in a group of forty-nine against whom charges were drawn up by the public prosecutor, Fouquier-Tinville. This group, typical of the strange fellowship of revolution and prison, included, in addition to Alexander, a Vice-Admiral Montbazon-Rohan, aged sixty-four; two curés; some artisans; a Thomas Ware, aged forty-eight, born in Dublin and now provisional general in the Army of the North; his servant, John Malone; many former nobles; a sailor, aged seventeen; and, without further identification, one Charles Harrop, aged twenty‑two, of London. All were charged with being enemies of the people. The particular accusations brought by Fouquier-Tinville against Alexander included some of the typical clichés of the Revolution: he was 'agent of Pitt and Coburg', he was 'accomplice of the treasons of Custine'. Through inaction he was claimed to have deliberately let Mainz fall to the enemy.14 The group of forty-nine appeared again before the Revolutionary Tribunal on 24 July. Out of the total, forty‑six were immediately found guilty, Alexander among them.
They were guillotined on the same day, in what is now the Place de la Nation. Not far away was the old convent of Picpus and near it the common ditch. Into this unmarked grave, with many others, was thrown the poor, decapitated body of the former nobleman, the 'high and puissant seigneur, Alexandre-François-Marie, Vicomte de Beauharnais, captain in the infantry regiment of the Sarre', whom Josephine had married on that bleak December day of 1779. She learned of his death only by finding his name in the daily list of executions printed in a Paris newspaper, and fainted at the news.
1 De Bouillé, Souvenirs et fragments, I.53‑4.
2 Hanoteau, Ménage, p231.
3 Ibid., p236 n.
4 Eugène de Beauharnais, Mémoires du prince Eugène (Paris, 1858), I.29.
5 P. J. B. Buchez and P. C. Roux, Histoire parlementaire de la Révolution française (Paris, 1834‑8), XXIX.109.
6 A. Mathiez, The French Revolution (New York, 1928), p352.
7 Masson, JB, pp225‑6.
8 Ibid., pp218‑20.
9 L. Bigard, 'Joséphine de Beauharnais Croissy', Revue des études napoléoniennes (March-April, 1926), p112.
10 AN, F7 4591, fols. 35‑6; Masson, JB, p228.
11 Ibid., p232.
14 Alexandre Sorel, Le Couvent des Carmes et séminaire de Saint-Sulpice pendant la Terreur (2nd edn., Paris, 1864), p251.
a They nearly made it to the northeastern border of France, but were caught at the little town of Varennes. A detailed account of the escape, written by the only member of the royal family group to survive the Revolution, is onsite: Narrative of the Journey to Varennes of Louis XVI and his Family, in June, 1791 by Madame Royale, Duchess of Angoulême.
Images with borders lead to more information.
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
Page updated: 25 Jul 12