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Chapter 10

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.
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Chapter 12

 p147  Chapter 11
Wife of a Hero

Josephine now began to move against a background of heroic proportions. Bonaparte found it easier to consolidate the conquest of Italy than to consolidate the conquest of his wife. The events of this momentous year of 1796 were drawing her into an extraordinary position of public prominence for which nothing in her marriage to Alexander de Beauharnais and nothing, surely, in the dissolute circles of the Directory had prepared her. She left Paris not simply for a rendezvous with her husband, but for a rendezvous with destiny.

Wars and the threat of wars had coloured every stage of her existence. She had been born on Martinique at a time when it had just resumed its French status after British conquest during the Seven Years' War. She had reached the crisis of separation from her first husband on the occasion when he left her to serve in Martinique with the French forces fighting in support of the American colonies. She and this first husband had shared imprisonment during the French Revolution, and he had met death, in part at least because of his failures as a general during the revolutionary wars.

Now she was married again, and to a man whose only training had been for battle and whose career was soon to place him on that lofty pinnacle shared only by the world's greatest soldiers. When Josephine left for Italy she undertook a life that, month after month and year after year, would be overshadowed by war's alarms. The sounds of cannon and of marching men, now echoing through Italy, would, during nearly two decades, resound in Egypt and Syria, then again in Italy, in Switzerland, in Holland, and in Germany, then in Spain, Portugal, and in far distant Russia. They would be heard in the great German  p148 War of Liberation and in the desperate, brilliant, unavailing battles of 1814, fought by Napoleon as he retreated towards Paris across the rolling plains of Champagne.

Josephine was launched upon her career as wife of a hero. Late in June the carriages with their cavalry escort left the narrow streets of Paris and made their way along the fine French highways to Lyons. From there, in the pleasant weather of early summer, they climbed the Mont Cenis Pass and then descended into the history-strewn plain of Lombardy. General Junot, always the dashing soldier, found it agreeable to share his carriage with Josephine's maid-companion, Louise Compoint. In the course of the journey they evidently shared more than the carriage, for at the end of the trip Josephine, assuming a virtue which to some might have seemed excessive, insisted that Bonaparte dismiss poor Louise for unseemly behaviour. The truth may be, as the Duchess d'Abrantès thought, that Josephine was more angry with Junot for taking liberties with her demoiselle de compagnie than she was with Louise for granting them. Whatever the explanation, it was the woman who paid. Junot may have nursed a grudge against Josephine for this outcome; while this is only a conjecture, it is a matter of record that hardly more than two years later he was the one who during the Egyptian campaign was bold enough to convey to an outraged Bonaparte the rumours of Josephine's goings‑on in Paris. During these pleasant days of 1796 so painful a future could not be foreseen. Hippolyte Charles, as we may guess, proved an entertaining carriage-companion for Josephine. Entertainment of another sort greeted her at Turin, for here the ruling family, conscious of Josephine's important new status, received her with Junot and Joseph, offering them a state dinner.

After a journey lasting two weeks the weary cortège clattered into Milan on the evening of 10 July. As the foam-flecked horses drew up before the monumental granite façade of the Serbelloni Palace with its Ionic columns and great triangular pediment, Josephine learned amid the bustle of lackeys and torch-boys that General Bonaparte, who had so ardently desired her presence, was away from his headquarters. Deeply  p149 involved in the military campaign and the civil affairs of Italy, he had left urgent instructions with the commanding officer at Milan that a courier was to be sent at once, bringing him the news of his wife's arrival. Within three days Napoleon was back at Milan.

The many delays and the long journey at last ended in a lovers' meeting. Amid the grandeurs of the Serbelloni Palace, where Bonaparte had filled the marble halls with Italian works of art and French furniture, Josephine rediscovered the ardours of her husband. One of the companions of the trip was struck by Bonaparte's constant attentions to his wife. 'He loved his wife passionately,' Antoine Hamelin wrote. 'From time to time he would leave his study in order to play with her as if she were a child. He would tease her, cause her to cry out, and overwhelm her with such rough caresses that I would be obliged to go to the window and observe the weather outside.'​1 Unhappily, the reunion, like the two‑day honeymoon of March, was cruelly short.

Bonaparte was now entering the climactic stage of the campaign with Austria for the control of the entire peninsula. Arriving in Milan on 13 July, he was away again by the 15th. He had already besieged the powerful fortress of Mantua without which his other north Italian victories would become meaningless. Three successive efforts by the Austrian commanders to break this siege in the latter half of 1796 were to absorb all Bonaparte's military efforts and were to result in some of his greatest victories. In the end, the French tricolor flew over Mantua and then Bonaparte could proceed with the complex problem of reorganizing all northern Italy. Simultaneously he drove the Austrian armies across the Venetian territories, up through the Carnic Alps and actually on to Austrian soil, so that by March of 1797 this incredible young general was within a hundred miles of Vienna. An armistice was followed by summer negotiations in which the directors at Paris took only the slightest part and that in October resulted in the Treaty of Campo Formio with Austria. This treaty, one of the most spectacular in her history, gave France Belgium, the Rhineland, the effective control of a reorganized northern  p150 Italy, and in the Mediterranean the strategically invaluable base of the Ionian islands.

Josephine's interests were neither political nor military, nor were they ever significantly to become so. Six letters from Bonaparte written during the first six days of his departure from Milan attest the warmth of the hero's devotion to Josephine. He was happy, too, to have letters from her. Yet within a week the harsh note of suspicion and anger flashes out in a letter written to Josephine at eight o'clock in the morning from his headquarters at Castiglione. Clearly, Napoleon had not been oblivious to the presence at Milan of Hippolyte Charles, whom he remembered well enough to describe years later as having 'the face of a womanizer'. The conventional and kindly remarks with which his letter to Josephine had begun suddenly changed to a savage outburst and a cry of anguish, all in a strange jumble of bad spelling and bad grammar that defies accurate translation:

By this time you must know Milan well. Perhaps you have found this lover you came here to seek. Only, you will have found him without my offering him to you. That's the idea, isn't it? Surely, no! Let us have a better idea of our merits. In this connexion, I am told that you have known for a long time and know well [heavily underlined] this gentleman whom you recommend to me for a business contract. If this were true you would be a monster! What are you doing at this hour? Are you asleep? And I am not there to feel your breath, to contemplate your grace, and to overwhelm you with my caresses! Far from you the nights are long, stale, and melancholy. With you, one regrets that it is not always night!

Adieu, my fair beloved, my incomparable, my divine one! Mille baisers amoureux, partout! partout!2

Bonaparte had written such letters before and he would write them again. Tormented with jealousy, he would cry out his complaints, and yet in the end he would assure his wife of his love and his ardent longing to see her again. Within a few days, having heard from Josephine that her indispositions were over and that her health was good, he wrote requesting her to come to his new headquarters at Brescia. And come she did.

 p151  Josephine's only connexion with politics arose from the polite eagerness of local rulers to welcome and entertain the wife of the ever-victorious French commander. Travelling from Brescia to Verona she had the startling experience of being held up by the military moves of the enemy, seeing the misery of the wounded, and, near Mantua, coming under fire from the fortress. Unnerved and weeping she was comforted by her husband. 'Wurmser,' he told her, referring to the Austrian commander, 'will pay me dearly for these tears.'​3 Then Josephine left her husband in order to cross the Po and move southward into safer territory. She visited Ferrara, Bologna, and Parma. At Lucca her party was received by a guard of honour and given a public reception. In Tuscany the government provided a cavalry escort, and the grand duke offered her a fête. After visiting Leghorn Josephine returned early in September to Milan.

About this time Josephine sent off a letter to her aunt at Paris, now the wife of the eighty‑one-year‑old former Marquis de Beauharnais. Josephine's letter, which conveys the spirit of these Italian months, was obligingly taken to Paris by the Duke of Serbelloni:

M. Serbelloni will inform you, my dear aunt, of the way I have been received in Italy — fêted wherever I have gone, given receptions by all the princes of Italy, even by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, brother of the Emperor. Ah, well, I would prefer to be an ordinary individual in France. I don't like the honours of this country, and I am often bored. It is true that the state of my health does much to render me sad, for I have much discomfort. If happiness could ensure health, then I should be doing well. I have the best husband in the world. I never lack anything, for he always anticipates my wishes. All day long he adores me, as if I were a goddess. He couldn't possibly be a better husband. M. Serbelloni will tell you how I am loved. He often writes to my children for he loves them very much. He is sending Hortense, by the kindness of M. Serbelloni, a fine enamelled repeating watch surrounded with fine pearls; to Eugène he sends a handsome gold watch.​4

It was pleasant now to be able to do favours when so often before she had had to beg for them. 'I shall try to have a little  p152 money sent to you,' she told her aunt, 'since you have requested it as soon as possible.' Generous-hearted Josephine! By the same messenger she wrote to her old friend Barras saying that the Duke of Serbelloni was bringing presents for all: a hat of Leghorn straw for Madame Tallien, a coral necklace for their little daughter, Thermidor, and a case of liqueurs for Barras.5

One episode of this Italian period makes an odd reversal in the relations of Bonaparte and Josephine. His letters again and again had demonstrated his misery at her absence and his gnawing suspicion of her fidelity. Now it became the turn of Josephine to worry and to doubt. She approached Berthier, a capable officer of the old régime who had risen to be general of division and chief of staff to Bonaparte, and she persuaded him to write to her regularly from headquarters reassuring her of her husband's devotion. Twelve of these curious reports, running from October 1796, when Bonaparte was engaged in the critical campaign around Mantua, to February 1797, when the city fell, must, surely, have given Josephine every possible assurance. The refrain from Berthier is constant: Bonaparte's health is good; Bonaparte loves you; have no doubts, he adores you; Bonaparte declares there is none equal to you in the world; he longs to be back in Milan. 'You possess his heart,' Berthier wrote: 'he loves you, he adores you; he is miserable over these fancies and delusions which lead you to believe that he is dead; Bonaparte loves you truly. Do not spurn his tender feelings.'6

Whatever reassurances Berthier was able to give to Josephine, he failed most obviously to reassure her husband. All Bonaparte's mingled emotions appear in a letter of November to Josephine:

I no longer love you, on the contrary I detest you! You are hateful, clumsy, stupid, mean! You never write to me! You no longer love your husband. Even though you know what pleasure your letters give him, you will not send him even six hasty lines.

What do you do all day, Madame? What important business is it that gives you no time to write to your beloved husband? What attachment has stifled and cast away the love — the tender and  p153 constant love — that you once vowed to me? Who can be this wonderful new lover who claims all your time, dominates your days, and hinders you from giving any attention to your husband? Beware, Josephine! Some fine night the door will be burst open and I shall stand before you!

Seriously, my dear one, I am disturbed at not hearing from you. Write to me soon — four pages of those loving words which will fill my heart with emotion and happiness.

In a few days I hope to clasp you in my arms and to cover you with a million kisses, as burning as the equator.​7

By an unhappy turn of events, when the soldier did return from the wars to Milan late in November, Josephine was not there — she was on a flying visit to Genoa. According to Berthier, Napoleon was so upset at not finding Josephine that he fell ill with swellings of the head and signs of erysipelas. 'Come,' Berthier wrote anxiously to her, 'he is afflicted and gravely upset.'​8 Josephine came, and, as usual, reconciliation followed. Later in December she gave a great ball at the Serbelloni palace, and in the brilliance of this occasion and amid the pressure of his work, Bonaparte drowned the memories of the unhappiness brought upon him by this baffling, elusive creature who had become his wife.

After the domestic troubles of the preceding months the triumphant conclusion of the Italian campaign brought about a new accommodation between Bonaparte and his wife. Josephine was swept along by the tide of vast events. In May 1797 her husband transferred his residence for the hot, summer months from the Serbelloni Palace in Milan to the Castle of Mombello, some ten miles away. Here, in pleasant rural surroundings, he now maintained a state that was almost regal. A visitor has given a striking picture of this new conqueror:

I was received by Bonaparte . . . in the midst of a brilliant court rather than the headquarters of an army. Strict etiquette already reigned around him; his aides-de‑camp and his officers were no longer received at his table, and he had become fastidious in the choice of his guests whom he admitted to it. An invitation was an honour eagerly sought, and obtained with great difficulty. He dined, so to speak, in public; the inhabitants of the country were admitted  p154 to the room in which he was everything, and allowed to gaze at him with a keen curiosity . . . His reception-rooms and an immense tent pitched in front of the palace were constantly full of a crowd of generals, administrators and big contractors; besides members of the highest nobility, and the most distinguished men in Italy who came to solicit the favour of a momentary glance or the briefest interview.​9

Josephine played the part of hostess — wearing a cameo necklace presented to her by the Pope — and by common report played it well. With the assistance of the Austrian envoy, the Marquis di Gallo, she was able to introduce an elegance of manners previously unknown among the rough warriors of the French Republic. Numbers of the Bonaparte family arrived: Madame Letizia; the three sisters Elisa, Pauline, and Caroline; two brothers, Joseph and Louis; and also the fifteen-year‑old Eugène Beauharnais. Even Bonaparte's Uncle Fesch turned up from Corsica, having conveniently put aside his priestly vestments to pursue the more lucrative occupation of army contracting (from which he would return in time to become archbishop of Lyons and cardinal). The celebrated Grassini, prima donna of La Scala at Milan, was invited to attend. What with elegant soirées and musicales, dances, games of vingt‑et‑un, boar hunts, and excursions to Como and Maggiore, life was a constant round of excitement and pleasure.

The French diplomat, Miot de Melito, has left a pleasant record of life in the warm days of that Italian summer. On one occasion he and General Berthier accompanied Napoleon and Josephine on a trip to Lake Maggiore. His account gives a vivid picture of the carriage and its four occupants moving through the enchanting countryside that borders the lake; and one has the picture, too, of the diplomat and the soldier, seated side by side, officially correct yet frozen with embarrassment while, facing them, their commander takes what Miot de Melito describes as 'conjugal liberties' with his wife. A young French playwright and poet, Carrion de Nisas, also has recorded in his diary his impressions of Josephine during these days:

Madame Bonaparte is neither young nor pretty, but she is  p155 extremely modest and engaging. She frequently caresses her husband who seems devoted to her. Often she weeps, several times daily, for very trivial reasons . . .​10

One small tragedy marks this summer. The dog Fortuné, spoiled hero of so many adventures, accompanied his mistress to Mombello. Here Napoleon's cook also had a dog, large and fierce; and this animal, tiring at long last of being bitten every day by Fortuné, turned upon him and brought his mongrel, combative life to a close.

Another problem received attention, though with no such finality as had overtaken Fortuné. For a time, at least, Captain Hippolyte Charles no longer danced attendance on Josephine. He was first ordered to Rome on a minor assignment. Returning to Milan, he once again met the baleful eye of Napoleon, who in November instructed Berthier to order the young hussar back to Paris. Some stories would have it that only the friendship of Junot and Duroc kept him from being shot, for in addition to his boudoir activities Captain Charles had been speculating flagrantly and corruptly in army supplies. In point of fact he managed, somehow, to postpone his departure until December.

In September, meanwhile, as rumours began to develop that Bonaparte's plans for Italy necessitated the destruction of the ancient Venetian Republic, a new, so‑called democratic régime (actually dominated by the French) overthrew the old oligarchy of the Adriatic city. A Tree of Liberty was planted in front of St Mark's. Bonaparte was invited to visit Venice, but for political reasons was reluctant to do so. Josephine went instead with a retinue that included General Marmont and stayed for four days. Politics apart, it must have been an enchanting visit. The Venetians did their best for the wife of the man who was now master of their fate: on the first day they provided a regatta and a parade of boats; on the second, water excursions and a picnic at the Lido; on the third, an illuminated procession with fireworks on the Grand Canal followed by a ball in the Doge's palace. 'Venise élégante et voluptueuse,' Marmont called it, though another French observer, Carrion de Nisas, was principally struck by the extravagance of it all  p156 and by what he called the wicked prodigality of Josephine, whose jewels and bracelets, he thought, would have paid the costs of two or three months of the military campaign.

A curious sequel resulted. Soon after Josephine returned to French headquarters at Passariano a Venetian delegation headed by the great patriot, Dandolo, arrived, hoping desperately to preserve the independence of the city. The delegation was well equipped with money, with which it was ready to bribe anyone on Bonaparte's staff who could help the cause of Venice. Dandolo ventured to offer Josephine a hundred thousand ducats for her assistance, the money to be paid when her husband had acted favourably. In response Josephine delighted Dandolo by speaking up warmly on behalf of Venice at a dinner. After the meal Josephine invited another Venetian delegation to walk in the garden with her, and as they strolled in the night she made no objection when he slipped on her finger a magnificent diamond ring. Since the fate of Venice was already settled, these romantic manoeuvres were unavailing: Josephine did not receive the promised ducats, Venetian independence was destroyed; but there is nothing to show that she ever returned the diamond ring.

With the official conclusion of the Treaty of Campo Formio with Austria in October, Bonaparte's great work in Italy was done. In November he left Milan for the Rhineland, to engage with Austrians in important conferences at Rastatt about the reorganizing of Germany. He therefore preceded Josephine from Milan, taking the shorter route through Switzerland. Before Josephine left Italy she was busy with various minor matters. She wrote to Barras asking him to do what he could for her cousin Françoise, daughter of the celebrated Aunt Fanny. Françoise had earlier married Alexander de Beauharnais' brother François, had divorced him when he emigrated, and, like Josephine, had spent some time in prison. Emerging, she had married Charles Castaing, a mulatto from Santo Domingo who had rented rooms in her house — all to the considerable embarrassment and concern of her relatives.

In this period, too, Josephine had decreed that the house on  p157 the rue Chantereine was not elegant enough for the new conqueror of Italy. While still at Passariano she had written to an old friend, the architect Vautier, saying that there were funds in Paris under the control of her agent, Calmelet, adequate for the business of remodelling. He should, therefore, spare no expense in redecorating and refurnishing her house, which she desired to have done over, both upstairs and down, 'in the latest elegance'.​11 Whether Josephine sent more detailed instructions, or whether all was left to the taste and discretion of the architect and the Paris cabinet-makers is not clear. What is crystal clear is that Vautier did spare no expense; he got the artist, David, for example, to design the frieze for one of the salons, and he commissioned the celebrated ébénistes, the Jacob brothers, to make the furniture. The spectacular results were such that a shaken Bonaparte still remembered every costly detail when he talked about the matter to Las Cases at St Helena near twenty-five years later. On leaving Italy he had been told by Josephine that she had ordered the redecorating of their home. Returning to Paris before her he was stupefied at the transformation. The place itself, he told Las Cases, was not worth more than 40,000 francs; consequently he was astonished to receive bills from the decorators amounting to 130,000 francs. It was useless, he realized, to complain, since the agent showed him a letter from Josephine asking for everything to be handmade and in the latest mode. In a court of law, clearly, he would not have had a leg to stand on. And this was not all, for further bills came in that ultimately raised the costs to a fantastic total of 300,000 francs. Bonaparte got what little comfort he could from reminding himself that these sums were in inflated currency.

Meanwhile Josephine was on her way to Paris, leaving Milan in late November and taking the route which passed through Turin and Lyons. At Lyons, where the town was illuminated in her honour, there were balls and fêtes; a crown of roses was offered to Josephine and a laurel wreath was given her for her husband. At Moulins further illuminations appeared, among them being a large display which in limping verse paid particular honour to Josephine:

 p158  Companion of the hero admired by every nation,

In thee our hearts acclaim his source of inspiration.

Josephine, moved to unexpected eloquence, made a little speech in which she assured the people that Bonaparte loved all republicans and that for them he stood ready to shed the very last drop of his blood. In the morning as she left for Paris huge crowds gathered to bid her farewell. Josephine was not, however, to travel in solitude, cogitating these flattering tributes to Bonaparte and herself. Hippolyte Charles, who had managed to delay at Milan even longer than she, caught up with her en route, so that despite all risks and all threats they could make part of the journey together. Josephine urged him to resign his commission as a soldier and to become an army contractor; it was soon to appear that she, too, was closely involved in some of this business. Three stages before reaching Paris the pair separated.

When she reached the capital on 2 January 1798 Josephine found that her husband, having left the negotiations at Rastatt, had preceded her by several weeks. He had time, therefore, to adjust himself as best he could to the costly new splendours of the rue Chantereine, and amid his plans for further campaigns to prepare a welcome within its walls for his still unpredictable wife.

The Author's Notes:

1 A. R. Hamelin, 'Douze ans de ma vie,' Revue de Paris, Nov. 1, 1926, pp14‑15.

2 Bourgeat, pp50‑1.

3 Besnard, Souvenirs d'un nonagénaire, II.144.

4 Aubenas, I.348‑9.

5 Masson, MB, p84.

6 Souvenirs et mémoires, recueil mensuel de documents, I.61‑77.

7 Bourgeat, p60.

8 Masson, MB, p98.

9 A. F. Miot de Melito, Mémoires (Paris, 1858), I.159.

10 Bibliothèque Thiers, Paris, Fonds Masson, no. 223, I.81.

11 G. Mauguin, L'Impératrice Joséphine: anecdotes et curiosités (Paris, 1954), p21.

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