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Bill Thayer

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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 2

 p11  Chapter I

Paris in the spring of 1796 — a tired, uneasy, revolutionary city. Here, on the threshold of a spectacular career, a young French general named Napoleon Bonaparte is about to take as his bride Citizeness Beauharnais, a romantic creole of Martinique. It is a time when the fury of the great revolutionary days has subsided. The guillotine is gone, the tumbrils have ceased to clatter through the cobbled streets, the once crowded prisons are empty, and the invader no longer desecrates the soil of France. After years of terror the shadow of death has lifted.

Everywhere the restless Parisians are moving about, seeking excitement and pleasure. Ridiculously overdressed men and scandalously underdressed women throng the cafés and theatres. Crowds parade in the Champs-Élysées; young bucks ogle the girls in the gardens of the Palais-Royal; speculators wait for hours in the anterooms of the directors of the Republic, hoping for lucrative posts and fat army contracts. In these anterooms the reigning beauties of the hour — 'government property', as one of the most famous of them was described — develop remarkable skill in arranging that those who seek contracts shall meet the politicians who grant them.

Soldiers are everywhere, for in the course of the revolutionary campaigns France has put almost 800,000 men under arms. Many of them are simple 'citizens' (the term is still new) who have been put into uniform by the levée en masse; it is they who truly have saved the Republic. One sees a scattering of officers from the ancien régime who have thrown in their lot with the new order. But, above all, Paris is dominated by the freshly experienced officer corps born of the Revolution, men usually risen from the ranks — the Neys, the Bernadottes, the Murats,  p12 future marshals of France — who are to give their country its great triumphs. These are the 'new men', often uncouth and arrogant, and always cocksure. They are connoisseurs of victory, veterans of the campaigns in the Austrian Netherlands, the Rhineland, and Savoy, eager for still greater triumphs that will settle accounts once and for all with the armies of Austria.

Rising rapidly among them is Bonaparte. This young general (he is only twenty-six), though commissioned under the ancien régime and therefore an authentic product of its military traditions, is truly a child of the new age. He is about to take as his wife a former viscountess whom necessity has led to accept the Revolution. The daughter of a sugar-planter of Martinique, she is a widow, having shared prison with a luckless husband who went to the guillotine only three days before Robespierre fell. After narrowly escaping his fate, she was freed with thousands of others, and for the nearly two years since she has lived by her wits and her charm, grateful for occasional remittances from her mother in Martinique, supporting her two young children as best she can. The former viscountess has stormed the cardboard battlements of Directory society, sharing the very centre of the scene with reigning beauties such as Thérèse Tallien and Juliette Récamier, and living on terms of dubious familiarity with Paul Barras, the leading director.

Now the ardent wooing of the young soldier is sweeping the widow into a second marriage, destined to give her a life of spectacular quality and to make her Empress of the French — a title held by the Austrian Marie Louise and the Spanish Eugénie but by no other Frenchwoman. Six of her children and grandchildren are to wear royal or imperial crowns. She will bring elegance and colour to a ruthless age; she will lose her throne; and she will leave behind her a romantic tradition that is not yet forgotten.

Josephine has attracted to herself something of the perennial interest men find in the career of the great emperor. Today, in the superbly restored château of Malmaison, her salon, her music room, her boudoir, and her bedroom vie with the  p13 martially decorated council chamber and the workmanlike library of her husband in conveying the authentic spirit of a dead past. If the great cedar of Marengo, planted to celebrate one of Bonaparte's early victories, recalls the great days of the armies of Italy, the rose gardens Josephine planned and the swans of Malmaison, still gliding over their pools, evoke the charm that for a few brief years a woman brought to a war-filled age. 'Malmaison, c'est Josephine.'

What manner of woman was she? In essence Josephine was a relatively simple person, and conflicts of interpretation have arisen less from what she was than from the chaotic nature of her time and from the political passions of the years during which her biographies have been written. Moreover, she led not one life but three. For even as Alexander de Beauharnais brought Josephine from Martinique into the fringes of the sophisticated circles the ancien régime in France, so Napoleon Bonaparte carried her into the full sweep of the revolutionary and imperial epochs. Through Josephine we find ourselves at one of the great turning-points of modern history. The interwoven story of her three lives — a story dramatic in itself — acquires heightened significance for the insight it gives into the spectacular age of which she was a part.

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Page updated: 25 Jul 12