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Chapter 9

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 11

 p135  Chapter 10
'Parting is such Sweet Sorrow'

Whatever that strange marriage in the mayor's office in the rue d'Antin may have meant to Bonaparte, to Josephine it could well have seemed little more than an anchor to windward in time of storm, an arrangement of convenience and respectability into which she had been swept by the ardours of the young revolutionary general. The sequel could hardly have been unexpected. Throughout the first twelve months of their wedded life Mars, not Venus, prevailed, so that Josephine and Napoleon spent little more than two months together, usually just a few days at a time, and always in the dazzling glare of public responsibilities.

Separation brought profound unhappiness to Bonaparte. While conducting the great Italian campaign that pressed so hard on the heels of his marriage, he sent to his wife in Paris a series of letters that tell the story of a passionate attachment flaming amid momentous events. Josephine was soon to realize that in marrying the young general who had fallen so ardently in love with her she had also attached herself to a segment of history. The letters she wrote to her husband — and it is clear that there were more than a few — have not survived. Those of Bonaparte, thanks to chance, we can still read. Josephine kept them with her, we now know, all her life, and soon after her death a valet found some of them in the dust of a closet at Malmaison. He sold them, and after curious adventures they, along with others, were published.

The letters began almost with Bonaparte's departure:

Every moment takes me farther from you [he wrote], and at every moment I find it harder to bear the separation. You are the ceaseless object of my thoughts — my imagination exhausts itself in wondering what you are doing. If I think of you as sad, my heart is  p136 torn and my misery increases. If you seem gay and frolicsome with your friends, then I reproach you for having forgotten so soon our unhappy separation of three days. You would seem to be inconsiderate and therefore not to be stirred by deep emotions . . . Write to me, gentle friend, and write at length! Accept a thousand kisses of love — as tender as they are true.​1

The journey to the Italian border brought Napoleon to his mother and sisters, now living near Marseilles in a condition not far from penury. Here he could break the news of his marriage. Bonaparte had doubtless anticipated what the shrewd Letizia Bonaparte would think of this marriage of her son with a widow with two children. He had tried to prepare the way by having Josephine compose a dutiful letter to her mother-in‑law, and when this plan failed he had no alternative but to draft a letter himself for Josephine to copy. This he now brought with him. The scheme was hardly effective, for Letizia, full of misgivings, expostulated with her son. Yet the deed was done. Since she was clearly unwilling, and doubtless unable, to compose the necessary maternal acknowledgment of the letter that Napoleon had brought, he was now under the old necessity of dictating a second letter — this to serve as Letizia's answer to the one he had earlier composed for Josephine!

I have received your letter, Madame, and it has enabled me to enlarge the picture I already had formed of you. My son has told me of his happy marriage, and henceforth you have my esteem and my approval. All that is now lacking is for me to see you. Be assured that I have all the tenderness of a mother for you, and that I cherish you as I do my own children.​2

One or two letters to Barras, written during the journey, give evidence of Napoleon's amicable relations with the most prominent figure in the Directory, and even more of his almost pathetic eagerness to have news of Paris. Josephine dominated his thoughts. Arriving at army headquarters in Nice, Bonaparte wrote thus to his wife:

I cannot pass a day without loving you. I cannot even drink a cup of tea without cursing the glory and the ambition which keep me apart from the soul of my existence . . . If I leave you with the speed of the torrential waters of the Rhône, it is only that I may  p137 return to you the sooner. If, in the midst of the night, I arise in order to work, it is only to speed the days before the arrival of my beloved. Josephine! Josephine! Do you remember? . . .​3

It is easy and tempting to make the assumption that Josephine, so lamentable a correspondent in the eyes of her first husband, was no less so to her second. This seems hardly the case — at least, not yet. 'I have received all your letters, Bonaparte writes on 3 April, 'but none has made such an impression on me as your last.' He then goes on to express concern at the tone of this letter, saying that it has gravely disturbed him, implying that either she may be ill or that she may be developing a dissatisfaction that is causing her to love him the less:

There was a time when I took pride in my courage. Then, in fixing my gaze on the harm which men could do me, or in the fate which destiny reserved for me, I could face the most extraordinary misfortunes without even wrinkling my brows, without even being surprised. But now, the idea that my Josephine could be unhappy, or could be ill, and above all the cruel, distressing thought that she could love me less, withers my soul, chokes my blood, renders me sad and downcast, and does not even give me the courage of fury and despair. . . . Sweet one, forgive me, for I am raving! Nature loses control over the one who feels so keenly, over the one who loves you so.​4

Strange, reminiscent overtones arise from this letter. Is it actually written by the commanding general of the Army of Italy to his bride? Or are we tempted to believe that in some mysterious way we have gone back fourteen years, and that this is a letter to Josephine from a young captain in the Sarre infantry regiment, miserable at the lack of news from his wife — a letter penned by him as he waits at Brest in December 1782 for the ship that is to take him to America?

Arriving at Nice, Bonaparte at once plunged into the business of war, reviewing his troops, drafting order after order, and making all preparations for the imminent moves against the Piedmontese and Austrian armies. He was quickly finding himself. General Marmont observed that although at this time Bonaparte was awkward in gestures and lacking in natural dignity, he was soon able by his manner of speech and by  p138 vigorous professional attention to every detail of his task to impose his will upon the Army of Italy. Masséna said that when Bonaparte put on his general's hat he seemed two feet taller. Striking first at the Piedmontese forces and dividing them from their Austrian ally, he quickly won victories that by 28 April resulted in the armistice of Cherasco. In two weeks he had obtained control of the Piedmontese fortresses and thus could send the following curt, triumphant report to the Directory at Paris:

Concerning the conditions of peace with Sardinia, you may dictate what you please: all the fortresses are in my hands. . . . If you continue to give me your confidence and approve my plans, I am sure of success. Italy is yours.​5

Despite the intoxication of his first victory, Bonaparte's domestic anxieties gnawed at him. He spoke often of his wife to Marmont. 'He referred to his love,' so the latter recalled, 'with the open-heartedness, the impetuosity, and the delusions of a very young man. The continued delays she put in the way of her departure tormented him painfully, so that he gave himself up to the pangs of jealousy and to a kind of superstition which seemed inherent in his nature.'​6 In a private letter to Barras, Bonaparte disguised his emotions in a very simple statement: 'I wish very much for my wife to join me.'​7 He wished in vain, for the soldierly Carnot, powerful voice in the Directory, still thought it best for his most promising general to fight without domestic entanglements.

Bonaparte tried desperately to maintain his ties with Josephine. On 24 April he sent her a letter by his brother Joseph, warmly acknowledging two letters received from her. Five days later he sent still another letter, this time by means of Murat, urging her to accompany Murat when he returned to Italy. Still Josephine did not act. In May the correspondence was briefly interrupted by the second phase of his campaign, for with Piedmont out of the way the major problem now was to tackle Austria. Moving fast, Bonaparte crossed the River Po at Piacenza; on the tenth came the dramatic crossing of the Adda by the bridge of Lodi; on 15 May Bonaparte received a  p139 hero's welcome as he entered Milan. From here the victorious young general wrote to the Directory a triumphal announcement of a sort that would often be heard in the future:

Tomorrow there will go to Paris, Citizen Directors, twenty superb paintings, chief among them the celebrated Saint Jérôme of Correggio which had been sold, I am assured, for 200,000 livres. I shall have others sent soon from Milan, among them paintings by Michelangelo.​8

An attached paper listed works by Leonardo, Titian, Raphael, and Veronese, as well as scores of other treasures.

Amidst these triumphs the spell of Josephine continued to exercise its power. In answer to a letter from Murat, passing on what, if true, would have been exciting domestic news, Napoleon wrote to Josephine from his headquarters at Lodi on 13 May as follows:​a

So it is true that you are pregnant! Murat has written to me; but he says that you are ill and that he does not think it wise for you to undertake so long a voyage. . . . You write that you have changed much. Your letter is short, sad, and in a trembling hand. What is it, my adorable one? Oh, do not dwell in the country; remain in the city; try to amuse yourself, and realize that there is no torment more real for my soul than to think that you are suffering and unhappy. I would have thought I would be jealous, but I swear to you that I am not. Rather than know you to be melancholy I almost think that I would myself find a lover for you. Be gay and happy, then, and know that my happiness is linked with yours!​9

On the following day he wrote to his good friend Barras: 'Murat tells me that my wife is ill; this causes me a sorrow of which you can have no idea.'10

What, meanwhile, was Josephine doing in Paris? Murat was a better soldier than diagnostician, for Josephine was not pregnant, nor, in spite of some minor indispositions, was she in any serious sense ill. She was engaged in the busy round — appearing in the salons, receiving and writing letters, and planning the redecoration of her home. Through the hostile pen of the lady who was later to be the Duchess d'Abrantès we have as  p140 sly a thumbnail sketch of Josephine as perhaps any woman has ever written of another: 'She was still charming at this period . . . Her teeth were frightfully bad, but when her mouth was shut she had the appearance, especially at a few paces distant, of a young and pretty woman.'​11 We catch another glimpse of Josephine in an item of gossip in one of the Paris newspapers, the Ami des Lois:

The story is being told in the Paris salons, as if it were a remarkable event, of the change in coiffure of mesdames Tallien and Buonaparte. Both had long been distinguished for their superb black tresses; but at last they have been compelled to yield to the craze for blond wigs. A woman with black hair would be painfully conspicuous in good society, though men with dark hair are still à la mode.​12

Murat had arrived early in May with Bonaparte's letter telling of the armistice with the King of Sardinia and begging Josephine to return with Murat via the short route through Turin.

It is possible [wrote Bonaparte] that I may see you in two weeks. My happiness is that you should be happy; my joy that you should be gay; my pleasure is that you should have pleasure too. Never has a woman been loved with more devotion, more warmth, and more tenderness. . . . If I were to lose your love, your heart, your adorable self, I would have lost all that makes life happy and dear to me.​13

Bonaparte's scolding words that followed this tender passage were playful, reproachful, and, to some degree, barbed:

Why do you expect me not to be sad? No letters from you! I receive one only every four days, whereas, if you loved me, you would write to me twice a day. But you must chatter every morning with these young sprigs of visitors, and then you must listen to the nonsense and right follies of a hundred coxcombs until the small hours. In well mannered countries everyone is at home by ten, and a wife writes to her husband, she thinks of him, she lives for him.

Farewell, Josephine! You are a monster whom I cannot explain. I love you more every day. Absence heals small passions, but those which are great it only increases. . . .

 p141  It will be a happy day when you cross the Alps. This would be the finest reward for my efforts and for the victories I have won.​14

The poet Arnault was with Josephine on one occasion when she read him passages such as these from Bonaparte's letters. She seemed amused at her husband's ardour, the poet thought, and was likewise puzzled by his signs of jealousy. 'I can still hear her,' commented Arnault, 'saying in her creole accent "What an odd fellow, this Bonaparte! [Il est drolle, Bonaparte!]" '15

Josephine busied herself, too, with an activity that was deeply rooted in her warm, creole nature and was to grow with the years — the tireless use of her position to do favours for her friends, and even for her casual acquaintances. At this time there appeared a Belgian nobleman, Count Mérode, who had fled to Prussia during the Terror and now, seeking to regain his property, wished to have his name stricken from the list of émigrés. His agents in Paris approached both Josephine and one of her new companions, the somewhat disreputable Madame Campi. This wife of an Italian banker now lived with a Belgian count who occupied himself profitably by speculating in military supplies. Josephine obligingly helped Mérode's cause by taking some of the necessary documents to her important friends at the Luxembourg Palace, with the result that the count's name was quickly stricken from the émigré list. Madame Campi asked for, and received, cash outright for her share in the questionable transaction. Josephine's reward we can only conjecture. She had been 'helpful' to Count Mérode and she likewise was to others. She encouraged her friend Antoine Hamelin, for example, to go to Italy, saying that she was sure that she could persuade her husband to do something for him. She had definite reason to say this, for Bonaparte, pathetically eager to please, had recently written to her with what he surely must soon have realized to be dangerous generosity saying, 'If you want a place for anybody, you can send him. I will give him one.'16

At this point an odd figure enters the life of Josephine — a figure who in contrast to the heroic proportions of Bonaparte emerges as a sheer embodiment of the spirit of comedy — or,  p142 better still, of farce. Between General Napoleon Bonaparte and Captain Hippolyte Charles, officer of hussars, one can find little in common save that both wore uniforms (one can hardly call Charles a soldier) and that both were under the average in height.​*

Hippolyte Charles was nine years younger than Josephine. During the early years of the revolution he had volunteered in the national guard and, after some harmless, nondescript duty, had found a comfortable berth as adjutant to General Leclerc in Marseilles. Accompanying Leclerc to Paris in the spring of 1796, he there met Josephine. Captain Charles occupies his minuscule niche in history as a perfect embodiment of an ageless type — the society wit, the drawing-room comic, the buffoon, the 'character', the 'card'. He emerges as the utterly consistent, the invariably dependable, funny man. He was capable of the type of humour that led him to glue General Junot's sabre, with what consequences one hesitates to imagine, in its scabbard, or to turn up at Josephine's salon dressed as a creole. Again and again he would put the room in a roar with his sallies, and would so convulse Josephine, we are told by one of her friends, that on these occasions she would be compelled to hide her teeth ('qui étaient affreuses') behind her handkerchief.

Captain Charles was, to be sure, more than a drawing-room comedian. He was young, dapper, with olive skin, jet‑black hair, blue eyes, chiselled features, and tiny hands and feet. He presented an altogether dashing figure in his fine hussar's uniform of sky‑blue, his red morocco boots, his tight Hungarian breeches, his heavy braided dolman, or jacket, worn as a cape, his scarlet sash, his clanking sabre in a sheath of silver and copper, and his black shako ornamented with a scarlet band, silver braid, and red‑white-and‑blue cockade. If not the lion, he might well be called the lap dog of Directory  p143 society. Josephine, delighting in his trivial gallantries, paid him an attention she did not bother to disguise.

In the light of the obviously warm friendship of the two, one is tempted to explain Josephine's delay in leaving Paris — and the consequent exasperation, not to say agony, of her husband — as caused by this fantastic little captain of hussars. Yet that clearly is not the whole story, and in justice to Josephine one must quote the letter that more than two months after Bonaparte's departure General Carnot, member of the Executive Directory, sent to him on 21 May. The phraseology deserves careful notice.

It is with great reluctance that we yield to the desire of Citizeness Bonaparte to join you. We were afraid that the attention you would give to her would turn you from the attention due to the glory and safety of your country. Hence we had long resisted her wishes, and we had agreed with her that she could set out only when Milan was yours. You are there, and we have no more objections to make. We hope [Carnot added neatly] that the myrtle with which she will crown you will not detract from the laurels with which you have already been crowned by victory.​17

The letter goes far to explain and perhaps to justify Josephine's delays up to this point. It raises serious questions about her subsequent conduct, however, for more than a month was to elapse between the date when this news was issued and the date when Josephine actually left Paris for Milan. During these weeks Josephine's letters to her husband were brief to the point of being meaningless. Even worse, she ceased to write. The effect upon Bonaparte was shattering.

Within ten days of his entry into Milan Bonaparte began the drive eastward against the Austrians. 'No letter since the 17th,' he wrote late in May to his wife:

No news of my bonne amie. Could she have forgotten me, or have forgotten that there is no greater torment than not to have a letter from mio dolce amor? They gave me a great fête here; five or six hundred elegant and beautiful figures sought to please me; none had that sweet and music-like countenance which I have engraved on my heart. I saw only you, I thought only of you! . . . And how  p144 goes your pregnancy? I imagine constantly that I see you, avec ton petit ventre — it must be charming!​18

In June his frenzy reached almost the point of incoherence:

Josephine! Where will this letter be delivered? If at Paris, my misfortune is sure; you no longer love me. I would have nothing to do but die. . . . Could it be possible! All the serpents of the Furies are in my breast, and I am already only half alive. . . . I detect Paris, women, and love. . . . My condition is terrible . . . and your conduct? . . . but must I accuse you? No. Your conduct is that of your destiny . . .​19

Other letters, written while the campaign against Austria moved to a new climax, are similar. They were composed at a time when Genoa, Tuscany, Rome, and Naples were falling subject to the will of the French conqueror. While Bonaparte undertook the siege of Mantua, while he entered Modena and Bologna in triumph, and while he concluded the armistice of follow with the papacy (stipulating the usual haul of art treasures for France), letter after tormented letter went from him to Josephine.

Since the 6th [he wrote in June] I hoped and believed that you had arrived at Milan. Scarcely had I left the battle of Borghetto when I rushed here to seek you. You were not to be found! Some days later a courier told me that you had not left, and he brought me no letters from you. My heart was shattered with sorrow.​20

He wrote austerely to Carnot, thanking him for his attentions to Josephine; but, now, knowing that Josephine could come if she would, he also wrote in deepest gloom to Barras: 'I am desperate. My wife does not come. Some lover keeps her in Paris. I curse all women, but I embrace heartily my good friends.'21

Whether because of lovers or friends, Josephine was clearly too preoccupied to write. Hence the refrain from Bonaparte continued. 'My life is a perpetual nightmare,' he began a letter of mid‑June, 'I no longer live; I have lost more than life, more than happiness, more than repose.'​22 Towards the end of the month he wrote again to Josephine:

In a month I have received from ma bonne amie only two letters  p145 of three lines each. Is she having affairs? Does she feel no need to write to her good friend? . . . A day will no doubt come when I shall see you, for I cannot believe that you are still in Paris. Then I shall show you pockets full of letters which I have not sent to you because they were too foolish!​23

Torturing memories of the gay life that Bonaparte had seen Josephine share with the leaders of the Directory haunted his memory:

You should have started on 24 May; stupid that I was, I expected you by June. As if a pretty woman could abandon her habits, her friends, her Madame Tallien, a dinner with Barras, a performance of a new play, the dog Fortuné — yes, Fortuné! You love everything more than you do your husband; for him you have only a little respect — merely a part of the general kindliness in which your heart abounds!​24

Napoleon's closest friend and confidant had long been his brother Joseph. Made miserable by the conflicting reports that Josephine was ill, and that she was enjoying herself all too well, the unhappy husband wrote thus to his brother:

Mon ami, I am in despair. My wife, all that I love in this world, is ill . . . I beseech you to tell me what ails her and how she is doing. . . . You are the only man on earth for whom I have a true and constant affection. After her, after my Josephine, you are the only one who arouses in me a feeling of concern. Reassure me! Tell me the truth! You know I have never been a lover, that Josephine is the first woman I have adored. Her illness causes me to despair.

Everyone abandons me. I am alone, a prey to my fears and to my misfortune. You, likewise, do not write.

If she is well, let her make the trip; I ardently desire her to come. I need to see her, to press her to my heart. I love her madly, and I cannot continue, far from her. If she no longer loved me, I would have nothing left to do on earth.​25

Against these genuine emotions — the feelings of a man deeply unhappy — must be set the actions of Josephine and her acquaintances in these last weeks at Paris. For over two months she had been denied permission to leave the capital, and she had made some play of her slight indispositions. By 21 May Carnot had told Bonaparte that the obstacles to her departure no longer existed. Nevertheless, a full month elapsed before  p146 Carnot wrote on 22 June as follows: 'Your dear wife is at last to rejoin you, though still not fully recovered [encore assez mal rétablie]; she takes with her the particular regrets of my entire family.'​26 Ill health may have contributed to the delay, yet a more obvious contribution, surely, came from the gay circle of which Hippolyte Charles was the presiding genius. Seeing, however, that General Junot was also being summoned to Italy, and that Captain Charles would go along as his adjutant, the prospective journey now took on a piquancy it formerly had lacked.

Passports were issued on 24 June for Josephine, Joseph Bonaparte, Nicholas Clary (Joseph's brother-in‑law), General Junot, Captain Charles, Louise Compoint (Josephine's maid-companion), and four servants. The Duke of Serbelloni, who had brought letters from Italy for Josephine and in whose palace at Milan Bonaparte made his headquarters, was also of the company, as was Antoine Hamelin, the Paris acquaintance of whom Josephine had enthusiastically promised to introduce to Bonaparte in the expectation of her husband finding him a job. The dog Fortuné also went along, at what peril to the rest of the group we do not know. The several carriages needed for the party were provided with a cavalry escort, so that now for the first time Josephine had a taste of the military honours that in a few years would be customary.

It is altogether characteristic that Josephine found herself at the last minute short of money, explaining as best she could that the sums promised by her husband had not arrived. Poor Antoine Hamelin lent her four thousand francs (nearly all he had); and when further he was obliging enough to offer to call for a veil that Josephine had ordered from the modiste, he discovered that he must provide the six hundred francs to pay for that also. In one way or another the preparations for departure were completed. Paris still had its charms, so potent that when on 26 June Josephine made her farewells and set off from the Luxembourg Palace, she burst into tears. She might well do so, for she would never again see the city as it had been during the two heedless, hectic years she had experienced following her liberation from the prison of the Carmelites.

The Author's Notes:

1 Bourgeat, p20.

2 A. Decaux, Letizia, mère de l'empereur (Paris, 1949), pp138‑9.

3 Bourgeat, pp21‑2.

4 Ibid., pp22‑4.

5 Corr., I, no. 257.

6 Marmont, Mémoires du duc de Raguse, I.187‑8.

7 Savant, p58.

8 Corr., I, no. 443.

9 Bourgeat, pp31‑2.

10 A. Lumbroso, Miscellanea Napoleonica, Série V (Rome, 1898), p262.

11 Abrantès, I.254.

12 A. Aulard, Paris pendant la réaction thermidorienne et sous le Directoire (Paris, 1898‑1902), III.180‑1.

13 Bourgeat, pp29‑30.

14 Ibid., pp30‑1.

15 Arnault, souvenirs d'un sexagénaire, II.286.

16 Bourgeat, p29.

* The measurement of five feet two inches, often given for Napoleon, is in reality based on the French inch, or pouce, which, when converted by applying the proportion of fifteen to sixteen, comes out at the English five feet six — a dimension confirmed by the autopsy at St Helena. Captain Charles, without benefit of autopsy, is credited with a similar height.

17 Souvenirs et mémoires, recueil mensuel de documents . . . (Paris, 1898‑9), I.55. Masson, MB, p45, omits the parts indicating Josephine's desire to join her husband.

18 Bourgeat, pp33‑4.

19 Ibid., pp34‑5.

20 Ibid., p37.

21 Facsimile in F. G. de Coston, Biographie des premières années de Napoléon Bonaparte (Paris, 1840), I.466.

22 Bourgeat, p39.

23 Ibid., p42.

24 Ibid., pp42‑3.

25 Masson, MB, pp62‑4.

26 Souvenirs et mémoires, recueil mensuel de documents, I.58.

Thayer's Note:

a This is just the gist of the letter. A considerably longer excerpt is given (in translation) at Elfinspell.

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Page updated: 25 Jul 12