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Chapter 11

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 13

 p159  Chapter 12
Joséphine Infidèle

The victorious Bonaparte arrived in Paris at the beginning of December 1797. Four weeks were to elapse before Josephine rejoined him, yet, seeing that her delays were by now routine and notorious, he could hardly have been greatly surprised. He did not know that Captain Charles, ordered in November to return to Paris, had failed to do so. Bonaparte, in truth, had little time to brood, for he was enjoying the sweet taste of power. With Italy at his feet he had gone post-haste to the Rhineland, where his triumphs continued. Here, during his brief stay at Rastatt, he dominated the discussions of the German princes on the reorganization of western Germany. He had also negotiated for the transfer overnight to the Austrians, and he had further arranged for the transfer of Mainz, a key military post and one of the chief cities of the Rhineland, to France. These were impressive achievements demonstrating that the man who awaited Josephine was now beginning his great role as the arbiter of Europe.

Bonaparte's winning of Mainz, whose loss to the Prussians had led to Alexander de Beauharnais' death in 1794, crowned the triumph of Josephine's second husband. Mainz was now the glittering symbol of a victory that had confirmed France in possession of Belgium and the entire Rhineland, giving her the 'natural frontiers' neither Richelieu nor Louis XIV had been able to win. When the directors, therefore, honoured Bonaparte with a magnificent public reception in the gardens of the Luxembourg Palace he was at the height of his popularity. He skilfully and generously shared his fame with the directors. 'You have succeeded,' he told them, 'in fashioning a mighty nation, whose wide territories are bounded only by the limits that Nature herself has appointed.'​1 The huge crowd  p160 listened in intent silence to every word which he spoke and wildly cheered him when he was through. They had no ears, on the other hand, for Barras, who followed. This wily director was unable to command even the semblance of attention for the unctuous phrases of congratulation he poured upon Bonaparte.

There could be no question of Bonaparte's enormous prestige. He was welcomed by the savants of the Institute of France. The central administration ordered the name of the rue Chantereine to be changed to the rue de la Victoire in order to pay tribute to the conqueror of Italy. The public jealously guarded his fame. When a Paris newspaper printed a report that a royalist citizen of Brittany had contemptuously named his dog Bonaparte, the news aroused a storm of indignation. The possibility of public demonstrations of protest in Paris was averted only when a correspondent at Avranches was able to report that there had been complete misunderstanding. The dog, he explained, an animal of great beauty and docility, actually was named Peace.

Ironically enough, the victorious Napoleon had no immediate public role to play in Paris. A general back from the wars, Bonaparte had put down his Italian command; he had every reason to be dubious about the prospects of the cross-Channel invasion of England that the Directory now had in mind as a next move; and he was too young to be eligible for election as one of the five directors.

In this situation Bonaparte played his cards carefully. He avoided public debate on matters of politics and chose instead to discuss science with the scientists, mathematics with the mathematicians, and philosophy with the philosophers, with the result that he was elected before the year was out to the Institute of France, taking his place in the class of sciences and arts. The letter of acceptance which he wrote to the president of the Institute neatly veiled his political ambitions. 'The true conquests,' the soldier declared, 'the only ones that cause no regret, are those which are made over ignorance.'2

A breathless Josephine arrived on the second day of the  p161 new year with the plaudits that had accompanied her triumphal progress from Lyons to Paris still ringing in her ears. Her delays had caused great confusion in the plans for the state reception that Talleyrand, now minister of foreign affairs, had arranged at his official residence, the hôtel Galliffet in the rue du Bac. Josephine's failure to arrive in Paris when expected had put Talleyrand to great cost and inconvenience. On three successive days notices of postponement had to be sent out and huge quantities of flowers were wasted and had to be reordered. In the end, nevertheless, the fête was magnificently managed, with a general attendance of several thousand guests, a supper for three hundred, music by the best singers from the opera, and toasts proposed by Talleyrand. The women, it was noted, were simply and elegantly dressed in 'antique style' — a mode which reflected the turn of fashion from the reckless styles of the preceding years. Despite all the honours, Josephine seemed very distrait, in part because of her late arrival in Paris, in part because of the painful words she had had with Bonaparte over her extravagance in refurnishing their house, in part, no doubt, because her affair with Captain Charles gave her an uneasy conscience. Count Girardin, good friend of Joseph Bonaparte (whom Josephine detested), noted that Napoleon, who kept very close to his wife during the reception, seemed devoted to her — 'very amorous and excessively jealous', he wrote. Girardin was hardly an unprejudiced witness. He estimated Josephine's age at 'nearly forty' (a hostile error of more than four years), he declared most ungallantly that she was no longer beautiful, and he insisted that she fully looked her years. Girardin added with what charity he could muster that Josephine had an elegant bearing and that he was sure her kind heart would never grow old.3

In these triumphant days a meteoric challenger for Josephine's place in Bonaparte's affections shot briefly across the horizon. Germaine de Staël was the daughter of Necker, once the financial genius of the French monarchy. Wife of the Swedish ambassador to France, ex‑mistress of Talleyrand, of Narbonne, and of many others, she was as devoted to the  p162 literary and intellectual life of the capital as Josephine was indifferent to it. Madame de Staël had developed a vast admiration for Bonaparte, sending to him in Italy letters now lost in which she compared him to the Roman Scipio and to the medieval hero, Tancred. These ardent letters from the one whom he chose to describe as 'that hussy, Staël', Bonaparte never answered.

Germaine now flung herself at Bonaparte with an intensity that on occasion brought him close to panic. He characterized her variously as 'a veritable pest', as 'an old crow', and as 'a madwoman who should be taken into custody by the police'. Her campaign was conducted on several fronts. Germaine wrote to Bonaparte saying that it was an error in human institutions for him to have married the 'sweet and gentle' Josephine. Nature, rather, destined a soul of fire (Germaine) to receive the adoration of a man such as he. On another occasion she called at the rue Chantereine, and when told that the general was naked in his bathtub sought to rush past the astonished footman, crying, 'No matter! Genius has no sex!'4

On the evening of Talleyrand's reception at the hôtel Galliffet Germaine tried again. Finding herself beside the general, she bombarded him with questions, and in the ensuing exchange met her match. 'Who is the woman you love the most?' she asked. 'My wife,' Bonaparte replied curtly. 'Who is the one you esteem most highly?' — 'The one who manages her household the best.' 'Who would be for you the first among all women?' — 'The one, madame, who bears the most children.' The victory in this exchange clearly went to Bonaparte and left Germaine capable of no more than the final, flustered comment to her neighbours: 'Your great man is a very singular fellow!'5

The Directory was now concerned with bringing the war with England to a successful close. To this end it sent Bonaparte early in February on an inspection tour of the Channel ports, seeking his opinion on the feasibility of a cross-Channel invasion that would lead, as Hitler more than a century later hoped it would, to the destruction of the stubborn island power. The unfavourable report that Bonaparte quickly submitted  p163 to the directors brought into prominence the alternate plan, already seething in his mind, for the expedition to Egypt.

While matters of high policy were thus under consideration in Paris, Josephine picked up the threads of her old life and began some new ventures. She was still a good friend of Barras. It is clear also that she now took an active, personal interest in firms concerned with army contracts — an interest that went beyond a simple willingness to do favours for her friends. It is also clear that the fantastic Captain Charles (having resigned his hussar commission) still had his place in her life.

Josephine wrote several letters to Barras during this period, one of them in mid‑January being couched in warm phrases and asking him to dine with Bonaparte and herself in the company of several members of the Institute. After Bonaparte left on 10 February for his inspection tour of the Channel coast, Josephine had quite cosy relations with Barras. This is the clear implication of a letter to Barras' secretary, written on the evening of Bonaparte's return to Paris on 21 February:

Bonaparte has come back tonight. Will you, my dear Bottot, express to Barras my regrets that I cannot dine with him tonight. Tell him not to forget me. You know better than anyone how I am placed. Farewell, I send you my sincere friendship.​6

However close Josephine's connexion with the principal director may have been, it could hardly equal the closeness of her continuing connexion with Hippolyte Charles. The most charitable explanation — if charity is called for at this point — is that Josephine, along with Charles and possibly Barras, had become deeply involved in the financial affairs of the Bodin Company. This was one of the many concerns mushrooming in this period that held, or sought, contracts for government supplies. Charles had surrendered his army commission to work more closely with the company, if not actually to be a partner in it. Josephine, too, was much more than an innocent bystander. For what could only be selfish financial reasons this wife of a victorious general sought to make secret profit out of the economic necessities of a country at war.

Under the heavy pressure of a steadily enlarging war, the  p164 government had been faced with a baffling supply problem. It had very little cash. Hence it had to make contracts with suppliers who operated on a very large scale and were willing to accept financial payments on a deferred, long-term basis. The Compagnie Flachat and the Compagnie Dijon were outstanding examples of companies which played a major part in such operations. Simultaneously, bankers such as Ouvrard and public figures such as Barras and Talleyrand were able to make huge fortunes through loans, currency speculation, and similar devices. Other lesser groups, among which the Compagnie Bodin was one, tried to move into these lush financial pastures. This company followed the common practice of shortchanging the government, both in the quantities and the quality of the supplies it furnished. It was not averse to altering figures in its invoices after they had been officially approved, and it had a reputation for providing the government with poor horses and cattle it had taken by re­quisition from French farmers and peasants, often without troubling to pay for them.

Information about this unsavoury Bodin Company reached Joseph Bonaparte, inveterate enemy of Josephine. He then hastened to inform Napoleon. Following this, the brothers confronted Josephine in what must have been an extremely painful interview. Among the papers of Hippolyte Charles have survived a few letters from Josephine that were unknown to her earlier biographers and that put her in as unfavourable a light as any known documents in her entire life. She wrote to Charles in great agitation to say that on the day before Joseph had had a long conversation with Napoleon, after which the two had put her through a most savage interrogation. Did she, they asked, know this Citizen Bodin? Had she been responsible for getting him supply contracts with the Army of Italy? Did Captain Charles lodge with Bodin at No. 100, Faubourg Saint-Honoré, and did Josephine go there daily?

The answers Josephine told Hippolyte she had given to Napoleon suggest that the ruthless interrogation had brought her close to hysteria:

I replied that I knew nothing about what he was saying to me; if he wished a divorce he had only to speak; he had no need to use  p165 such means; and I was the most unfortunate of women and the most unhappy. Yes, my Hippolyte, they have my complete hatred; you alone have my tenderness and my love; they must see now, as a result of the terrible state I have been in for several days, how much I abhor them; they can see my disappointment — my despair at not being able to see you as often as I wish. Hippolyte, I shall kill myself — yes, I wish to end a life that henceforth would be only a burden if it could not be devoted to you. Alas! What have I done to these monsters? But they are acting in vain, I will never be a victim of their atrocious conduct!

Following this outburst came specific instructions:

Tell Bodin, I beg you, to say that he doesn't know me; that it has not been through me that he got the contracts for the Army of Italy; let him tell the door-keeper at No. 100 that when people ask him if Bodin lives there he is to say that he doesn't know him. Tell Bodin not to use the letters which I have given him for Italy until some time after his arrival when he needs them . . . Ah, they torment me in vain! They will never separate me from my Hippolyte; my last look will be for him!

I will do everything to see you today. If I cannot, I will spend the evening at Bodin's and tomorrow I will send Blondin [a servant] to let you know the time when I could see you in the garden of Mousseaux. Adieu, my Hippolyte, a thousand kisses, as burning as is my heart, and as amorous . . .​7

In a subsequent letter to Captain Charles, Josephine told him that she had just written to the minister of war arranging to submit some papers. Papers about what? Could her action have concerned army contracts, or had it something to do with Hippolyte's retirement from military service? She added further that she had written to Barras asking him 'to return the letters which he had promised'. We can only conjecture what these were. The letter to Captain Charles ends as follows:

I am going, my dear Hippolyte, to the country. I shall be back between half past five and six, looking for you at Bodin's. Yes, my Hippolyte, life is a continual torture. You alone can make me happy. Tell me that you love me, and only me. I shall be the happiest of women.

Send me, by means of Blondin, 50,000 livres from the notes in your possession. Callot is demanding them. Farewell, I send you a thousand tender kisses. Tout à toi.​8

 p166  When a wife writes such letters to a lover, the reasonable inference is that relations with her husband have reached the breaking point. Actually, no such decisive development was to occur. When Bonaparte returned from his inspection tour, his mind was much more on grand strategy than on the problems of his private life. He drafted a report to the Directory saying that a cross-Channel invasion was out of the question. He then turned his powerful energies to the plan that had always fascinated him, which the Directory now was prepared to authorize — that of an expedition to Egypt. Nearly two hundred detailed letters and orders from him found in his published Correspondence show how deeply absorbed he was during the next two months in every aspect of the complicated preparations. He had little time for Josephine, and whatever anger he did show seems to have arisen as much from her evident connexion with the Bodin Company as from what he knew of her relations with Captain Charles. Josephine suspected that it was her new brother-in‑law, Joseph Bonaparte, who was trying to make trouble. Three months later she told Barras that Joseph's attitude to her was 'abominable', and that she knew he had vowed not to rest until he had separated Josephine from her new husband. 'He is a vile, abominable person,' she wrote heatedly, 'some day you will know what he is like.'9

If there had been serious prospect of a rupture, it is hardly likely that Bonaparte would then have bought the house they had been renting for the past two years. On 26 March 1798 he purchased the establishment on the newly named rue de la Victoire — Pompeian frescoes, mirrors, cupids, pink roses, white swans, and all — for 52,400 francs. The price was substantial, yet far less than the 300,000 francs that Josephine had incurred for its refurnishing and redecoration. The fantastic purchase was doubtless the only way for the soldier to safeguard his interest in the huge sums he had already been obliged to pay.

Some of Josephine's family complications briefly touched the activities of Bonaparte. Her sister-in‑law, Françoise de Beauharnais, had a daughter by her first marriage, Emilie,  p167 whom Louis Bonaparte wished to marry. Emilie would have none of him, and so the family, with Bonaparte's help, rounded up one of his aides-de‑camp, Antoine Lavalette.​a The marriage took place in the spring of 1798 at the home of Josephine's elderly father-in‑law. One wonders whether he obligingly offered his home so that the family wouldn't have to accept the mulatto who was Françoise's husband as host on this occasion. Perhaps also because of the social questions raised, Josephine and Bonaparte stayed away, sending Hortense de Beauharnais and Caroline Bonaparte as their representatives.

The ever-thoughtful Josephine set to work at once to do something for the young Lavalette who had just married her niece. On the very eve of Bonaparte's departure for Egypt she wrote from Toulon to Barras requesting a recommendation from the director for Lavalette. She also wrote to Barras's secretary in the same vein. 'My niece has charged me,' she explained, 'to fulfil a solemn engagement . . . A letter from the director saying that he takes an interest in us is all we need.'10

By May the secret plans for a French attack on Egypt had been completed. This campaign, it was hoped, would undercut British sea power in the eastern Mediterranean, end the menace from France's only great rival, and permit Bonaparte to realize his great dreams of conquest in the Orient. Josephine was to accompany her husband at least as far as Toulon and to join him later in Egypt. The pair therefore left Paris on 4 May and arrived at Toulon on the 9th. There a considerable delay ensued. The correspondence makes it clear that Bonaparte did seriously intend his wife to follow him to Egypt when circumstances made it safe for her to do so. Meanwhile she would go to Plombières, a most pleasant resort in the Vosges Mountains, where the waters were widely believed to be effective in overcoming sterility. Some of this news about herself Josephine conveyed in a letter to Barras from Toulon, ending with the hope that he would not forget 'a friend who is devoted to you and whose friendship is as tender as it is sincere'.11

Bonaparte's huge fleet of more than three hundred transports  p168 and fifty escorting ships of war, which left Toulon on 19 May, has been described as the most spectacular expedition since the crusades. Luck was with him, for Nelson, who with his British squadrons had maintained a long vigil in the Mediterranean, might easily have inflicted heavy damage. Fortunately for the French, however, Nelson's warships did not find the transports. En route to Egypt Bonaparte stopped briefly to seize Malta, a key point in the strategic control of the Mediterranean. From here he made sail for Alexandria where, once again escaping Nelson by a hair's breadth, he put his army of forty thousand ashore at the end of June.

What followed was a magnificent piece of military bravura undertaken in company with a scientific programme of genuine importance. The demonstration of brilliant personal showman­ship was nevertheless marred by a sorry catalogue of military miscalculations and blunders, the outcome of which was to be a humiliating French surrender. The Egyptian campaign is, to be sure, a distant episode which touches the life of Josephine only indirectly. Because events did not permit her to join her husband in Egypt, she indulged in reckless behaviour in France that further injured her reputation and caused her husband the most poignant anxiety and the wildest indignation.

Josephine might well have found in Egypt a land of romance far surpassing what she had known in Italy. The British, however, were on the alert, and Bonaparte did not wish his wife to run risks. The agreement, therefore, was that she should stay in Toulon until news came that the French ships had safely passed Sicily. Then, unless explicit word came for her to sail, she would proceed to take the waters at Plombières and wait upon events. Nothing, as Bourrienne wrote, could have been more affecting than their parting. After Bonaparte had sailed, he found that his elaborately worked out plans led only to confusion, for although he wrote to his brother Joseph while passing the island of Corsica, saying that he was now instructing his wife to join him, his letter arrived too late for her to obey.

 p169  Before the end of May Josephine had begun the long trip northward to Plombières, sending a warm note to her old friend Barras before leaving. She likewise kept in touch with him en route. True to her nature she wrote from Valence passing on a letter of recommendation concerning an 'unfortunate citizen' whom she had just met. It was awkward that she could not quite remember his name. She wrote again from Lyons to warn Barras that General Brune, the French commander in Switzerland, was trying to break the government contracts held by the Bodin Company. 'Write on their behalf, I beg you, to General Brune,' she urged. 'Both you and I owe everything to them . . . You will do them a great favour by writing on their behalf to General Brune, and I beg you to waste no time.'12

By mid‑June Josephine was agreeably installed high amid the pine forests of the Vosges. Under the direction of Citizen Martinet, the local doctor at Plombières, she could rest, relax, and take the sulphur waters that had been famous ever since the days of the Romans. She was staying, so she wrote to Barras, in the simple home of an elderly couple whose charming devotion to each other reminded her of Ovid's Philemon and Baucis. Having given this news, she sought word of Barras and of her husband. 'I am so unhappy to be separated from him,' she wrote, 'that I have a sadness I cannot overcome. On the other hand, his brother, with whom he corresponds so closely, acts so abominably towards me that I am always uneasy when I am far from Bonaparte.'​13 There is truth in what Josephine wrote: in the presence of her husband she quickly realized how much of a spell she exercised over him, while in his absence she brooded upon the hostility of her Bonaparte relatives, never sure what influence their unkind tongues might have.

Her letter to Barras is revealing in other ways. 'I wish that the waters of Plombières could be prescribed for you,' she told Barras coyly, 'so that you could decide to come here and take them. It would be most obliging of you to have an ailment in order to be able to cause me pleasure. I am very devoted to you — I like you for what you are, my dear Barras; this is a feeling due to you when one has the pleasure of knowing you,  p170 and no one experiences it more than I do.'​14 Amid these cloying words the true picture of Barras — the vicious, dissipated roué of the Directory who ultimately was to include in his Memoirs as savagely hostile a picture of Josephine as any that ever was written about her — dissolves like a dream. But Barras as yet had not been driven from office by Bonaparte.

Josephine also enclosed a letter to be forwarded to Bonaparte. 'You know him,' she explained to Barras, 'and you know how he would hold it against me if he had no news of me. His last letter is very tender and sentimental. He asks me to rejoin him soon, for he cannot live without me. And so I am taking the prescribed cure in order to be able to rejoin him quickly. I love him well, despite his little faults.'15

What these words really meant, and what Josephine would have done, we cannot say, for two days later a sudden accident broke into the pleasant pattern of her life. It was occasioned by a dog. Josephine was sitting sewing in an upstairs room with a few friends when her companion, Madame Cambis, called her to a wooden balcony some fifteen feet high to observe a small, handsome dog that happened to be passing by in the street. The entire company rushed out, the balcony collapsed, and Josephine fell so hard as to receive extremely painful, yet fortunately superficial, pelvic injuries. No one was gravely hurt, though in her fall Josephine broke the leg of a colonel of cuirassiers who happened to be below. Immediately she came under the care of Dr Martinet who, calling in other doctors from the neighbourhood to assist in the care of a celebrated patient, first wrapped her in the skin of a newly slaughtered sheep and then, in the fashion of the day, embarked on so madly elaborate a régime of infusions, baths, douches, lavings, bleedings, poulticings, plasterings, and applications of leeches that Josephine's survival seems little short of miraculous. She was required to stay at Plombières for more than two months during which every detail of her treatment was immediately proclaimed to the world in the learned pages of Dr Martinet's own Physico-Medical Journal of the Waters of Plombières for the Year VI of the Republic.

We can follow the course of Josephine's recovery with much  p171 less clinical detail in some letters to Barras. It was a painful business, so she told him early in July, and she still could not walk. But his charming letter, she added, 'has put balm on my bruises'.​16 By mid‑July Dr Martinet was able to report officially to Barras that Citizeness Bonaparte continued to enjoy perfect convalescence, that she walked for more than an hour daily, and that the pains in the lower regions were subsiding. Josephine would hardly have agreed.

I have received a charming letter from Bonaparte [she told Barras]. He says that he can't live without me. I am to rejoin him and to embark at Naples. I wish my health would permit me to start at once; but I don't see the end of my cure. I cannot stand upright for more than ten minutes without terrible pains in the loins and lower abdomen. I do nothing but cry. The doctors say that in a month I shall be cured. If I find no relief in two weeks I shall go to Paris.​17

This picture, clearly, was exaggerated. Josephine told her friend, Madame Marmont, wife of the general, a different story. She planned first to go to Paris, she said, making no reference to her trouble, then the two of them would travel the length of Italy and join their husbands in Egypt. When the near‑by municipality of Épinal invited her to a public reception to be held shortly, she replied that she would have to wait ten days before deciding to accept. But, in the end, accept she did. Accompanied by Hortense and Madame Beurnonville, she was met and escorted by the National Guard and a band. The party proceeded through a triumphal arch, along streets decorated with greenery, and to sound of cannon shots. At the town hall she saw a statue of liberty with inscriptions honouring Bonaparte. She received a banquet and heard an address by the president of the municipal council. At night there was a banquet, followed by illuminations, fireworks, and supper while crowds thronged the streets. In this way Épinal indirectly honoured the soldier who at this moment had won the Battle of the Pyramids and was preparing to enter Cairo and declare Egypt a French protectorate. Returning to Plombières, Josephine found a ceremonial sword that had been sent her by the Directory as a gift for her victorious husband. The  p172 details of Bonaparte's triumphs were not known at this time either to the Directory or to Josephine, yet in view of his growing fame and the obvious share that would be hers, it is almost incredible that she should have valued her marriage so little, and should have risked it again and again, as she did now, by her irresponsible conduct.

Since Josephine was clearly recovering from her accident, the prospect of joining her husband now still lay before her. The plan was to go first to Paris before proceeding to Italy and Egypt, and with this in mind, early in September, she sent her daughter Hortense ahead. Josephine must have left about 10 September, since two days later she was in Nancy where, as at Épinal, she was royally welcomed. By 15 September, when she reached Paris, alarming news from Egypt awaited her. This told of Nelson's spectacular victory of 1 August, when his ships had come upon the French fleet anchored at the mouth of the Nile, in Abukir bay, and in a fierce night engagement had totally destroyed it. Josephine's first impulse was to write to Barras informing him how disturbed she was at these reports just arrived from Malta. 'As I am much disturbed at the news from Malta, my dear Barras,' she wrote, 'permit to visit you this evening at nine. Give orders for no one to enter.'​18 The report of the loss of the French fleet now made any plans to visit Egypt totally out of the question, so that Josephine was flung once again into a circle of acquaintances who did her reputation no good. Since communications with Egypt were broken, she had no way of knowing, and certainly no way of counteracting, the tormented emotions of her far‑distant husband.

The months in which Bonaparte once more became acutely distressed at the thought of Josephine's infidelities were the months in which he was deeply embroiled in the dramatic conquest of Egypt. Landing at Alexandria, he won the Battle of the Pyramids on 21 July and occupied Cairo three days later. Following these victories came the naval disaster at Abukir bay. Before this had happened Napoleon wrote to his brother Joseph exulting in his victories and yet in personal  p173 matters showing himself to be deeply unhappy. Although he did not mention Josephine by name, the inference was unmistakable.

I have much, much domestic trouble, for the veil is completely torn away. You are the only person left to me in this world; your friendship is very dear to me; if I were to lose this, or if you were to betray me, nothing could keep me from becoming a complete misanthrope. It is a sad state of affairs when all one's affections are concentrated upon a single person. You will know what I mean.

See to it that I shall have a country place upon my arrival, either near Paris or in Burgundy. I count on passing the winter there and seeing no one. I am sick of people! I need solitude and isolation. Greatness wearies me, my feelings are dried up, glory is empty. At twenty-nine I have exhausted everything . . .​19

This letter, addressed to 'Citizen Joseph Bonaparte' in Paris, never reached him, for the ship carrying the bearer was seized by the British and the documents were sent to London. The first part of the letter, giving political views, was quickly printed by the French in a volume entitled Political Correspondence. The second part, 'by reason of its being a private letter', was veiled by the Foreign Office in decent obscurity. It lies to this day among the Additional Manuscripts of the British Museum with a simple endorsement in the handwriting of Nelson, 'found on the person of the courier'.20

What Bonaparte hinted at was discussed more frankly in another letter, written on the day before and, like his, captured by the British. Its author was Josephine's sixteen-year‑old son, Eugène de Beauharnais, now serving as an aide to Bonaparte. This solemn, sterling youth painfully put together some frank words for his mother on the reports of her scandalous goings‑on in Paris:

My dear mama, I have so many things to say to you that I don't know where to begin. Bonaparte has been extremely sad for five days, as a result of an interview with Julien, Junot and Berthier. This conversation has affected him more than I would have believed. All I have heard amounts to this: that [Captain] Charles travelled in your carriage until you were within three posting stations of Paris; that you saw him in Paris; that you were with  p174 him at the Theatre of the Italians in the private boxes; that he gave you your little dog; that even now you are with him. Such, in scattered phrases, is everything that I have heard. You know, mama, that I don't believe this; but what is certain is that the general is very upset. However, he redoubles his kindnesses to me. He seems to say, by his actions, that children are not responsible for the faults of their mother. Your son, however, chooses to believe that all gossip is manufactured by your enemies. Your son loves you as much as ever and is as eager as ever to greet you. I hope that when you do come all will be forgotten.​21

Since Eugène's letter likewise was captured by the British it had no influence on his mother's behaviour. It is, nevertheless, an extraordinarily revealing document. Written within a month of Bonaparte's landing in Egypt, it could not have been based on any new reports of Josephine coming from France and was probably an outcome of the raking-over of old scandals by the officers on Bonaparte's staff. Something of this earlier behaviour of Josephine and Hippolyte Charles was, of course, known to Bonaparte. He had written bitterly about it while in Italy, and subsequently there had been the painful scene of mid‑March at Paris when Joseph and Napoleon had put Josephine through the interrogation as a result of which she had written to Charles talking feverishly about divorce. Eugène's letter suggests that in some conversation with his officers Bonaparte had let all his pent‑up doubts and anxieties burst forth — as they did in the letter to Joseph.

Napoleon's secretary, Bourrienne, has in his Memoirs a most circumstantial narrative of a similar explosion, which according to Bourrienne's dating would have occurred seven months later, during the advance from Egypt into Syria. Bourrienne says that he saw Bonaparte walking with General Junot 'near the wellsº of Messoudiah' and that the commander seemed pale and distraught, striking his head with his hand several times as Junot spoke to him. When Bourrienne approach, Bonaparte launched into a wild attack on him:

So! I find I cannot depend upon you. — These women! — Josephine! If you had loved me you would before now have told me all I have heard from Junot — he is a real friend — Josephine! —  p175 and I six hundred leagues from her — you ought to have told me. That she should have thus deceived me! — Woe to them! — I will exterminate the whole race of fops and puppies! As to her — divorce! Yes, divorce! A public and open divorce! — I must write! — I know all! — It is your fault — you ought to have told me!

Bourrienne attempted to quiet Bonaparte, urging that it would be unreasonable to rely on hearsay evidence while so far away in Egypt. It would be unwise, he urged, to write letters that could be intercepted. As for divorce, 'it would be time to think of that hereafter'.22

One soon learns to suspect memoirs of the Napoleonic period written long after the event, especially when they report conversations with such confident stenographic accuracy. Indeed, it has been asserted that Bourrienne could not have been at Messoudiah at the time when Bonaparte was there. Yet the general picture of an unhappy Bonaparte, alternately brooding and storming over his married fate, seems difficult to challenge.

Another episode, important enough to mark a new stage in Napoleon's relations with Josephine, can be discerned in the complex happenings of the Egyptian campaign. Until this point, despite his anger and his unhappiness, Bonaparte seems to have been faithful to his wife. He now embarked upon the first of those fleeting extramarital adventures that were to run consistently for the rest of his life and to accumulate so rapidly that the scholar­ly Frédéric Masson has been able to write a learned book of 325 pages cataloguing and describing the lot.

Marguerite-Pauline Bellisle, a nineteen-year‑old dressmaker of Carcassonne, had become the wife of a young Lieutenant Fourès of the Chasseurs. When he was ordered to Egypt, she put on an officer's uniform and stowed away aboard ship. Blessed with 'a rose-petal complexion, beautiful teeth, and a good geometrical figure', she soon became one of the striking personalities of the Egyptian Tivoli — a pleasure garden at Cairo modelled on the similar gardens in Paris. Bonaparte saw her, was attracted, and showered her with presents. Consequently, in December 1798 Lieutenant Fourès was given an urgent commission to carry dispatches to Paris. He had no  p176 choice but to leave, and his wife with her rose-petal complexion and geometrical figure was installed in a pleasant villa adjoining the Elfi‑Bey Palace where Bonaparte had his headquarters.

The gods frequently take pleasure in outwitting clever mortals. Lieutenant Fourès's ship was captured by the British when only one day out from port. This might well have meant his prompt removal from the scene had not the British intelligence service been functioning well. With unexpectedly sly humour they immediately returned the young French officer under parole to Cairo. Outraged at what he found and unwilling to be quiet, Lieutenant Fourès demanded and obtained a civil divorce. On Bonaparte's eventual return in June 1799 from his unsuccessful six months' campaign in Syria, Madame Fourès paraded publicly as Bonaparte's mistress. When 'Bellilotte', as she was called, rode with the general in his open carriage through the streets of Cairo, Eugène, as aide-de‑camp, was required to serve as escort. The boy found his duty so embarrassing that he requested General Berthier to transfer him to a regiment of infantry. He then had a painful scene with Bonaparte, after which, as Eugène relates in his memoirs, the public carriage rides stopped.

Kircheisen, the most learned of Napoleon's biographers, says that Napoleon took the affaire Bellilotte seriously. He wrote her letters during the Syrian campaign and later instructed her to follow him when he returned to France. This she did, but she was too late, for by the time of her arrival Napoleon and Josephine had become reconciled. Bonaparte never again saw the dressmaker of Carcassonne, though she received a house and a liberal allowance from him under the Empire, lived to paint pictures, to be a friend of Rosa Bonheur, to write a novel, Lord Wentworth, to spend some time in Brazil, and to flourish happily until her ninetieth year, recalling those long-distant days in Egypt. This transient shadow in the life of Josephine died in 1869 in her Paris apartment, surrounded by a strange assortment of monkeys and uncaged birds.

The Josephine who returned to Paris from Plombières in September 1798 quickly resumed her familiar heedless ways.  p177 After two and a half years of marriage, only a small part of which had been spent with her husband, it seems that she still did not know what kind of man he was. To her only the present mattered, and so she lost no time in renewing the connexion with her good correspondent, Barras. He was, after all, on the scene, while her husband was a thousand miles away, with the date of his return, to say the least, uncertain. Bonaparte might never come back; Barras was the most powerful of the directors; he could help in the Bodin Company's affairs, which seemed daily to go from bad to worse; he could do favours for her needy friends; and as she more than once reminded him point-blank, he could entertain her at dinner, discreetly and alone.

No characteristic in Josephine is more persistent than her willingness to ask favours for her friends. One of the oddest of her requests concerns Caroline Wuiet, an infant prodigy who at the age of five had played the piano before Marie Antoinette and had composed a three‑act play at the age of twelve. An emigrant during the Revolution, Caroline had later returned to France and had become something of a social figure in the circles of Madame Tallien and Madame Bonaparte. She became the editor of a literary journal, the Phoenix, which was a mélange of gossip, poetry, financial news, anagrams, and charades. Finding one of her major expenses to be clothing, the emancipated Caroline hit upon a happy solution: she would simplify matters by dressing as a man. Convenient as this solution seemed, it caused immediate difficulties with the police — far less tolerant than now — who ordered Caroline to desist. Quick to support her friend, Josephine wrote to the office of the minister of police as follows:

You will see from the attached note, estimable citizen, that Citizeness Caroline Wuiet (a distinguished artist whom I take the greatest pleasure in helping) wishes to obtain permission to wear men's clothes occasionally. I ask for her your accustomed courtly, since the citizen minister has kindly promised to act favourably in her case. Greetings and friendship,

Lapagerie Bonaparte​23

Josephine made some effort, in this period of her husband's  p178 absence in Egypt, to revive the salon life of a former age. The task was not easy. Miot de Mélito recalls in his Memoirs that the times were too confused for any true elegance to develop. The drawing rooms, he said, were full of contractors, generals, savants, ladies of the old aristocracy, and ladies of gay adventure. 'One idea alone, common to all, dominated and absorbed people of totally different origins and education — the desire to make money. Every means was justifiable to acquire it.'​24 Other writers give a somewhat less critical picture, telling how the crowd of guests that Josephine was able to attract pushed into the house on the rue de la Victoire, where she presided with what one of them calls 'a touching simplicity, endless assurance, and an engaging frankness which won all hearts'.25

The long roster of Josephine's guests included reigning beauties such as Thérèse Tallien and Madame Récamier. With them came Bonaparte's sisters — Pauline, Caroline, and Elisa, — and the wives of many of the newly famous generals of France. Aunt Fanny de Beauharnais, still tireless as a writer, was there. So likewise was the aged Madame de Houdetot, long ago the inspirer of an unrequited passion on the part of the young Rousseau. Among the men were the painters David, Gérard, and Girodet-Trioson, the musicians Méhul and Cherubini, and the playwrights and poets Ducis, Arnault, Joseph Chénier, and Legouvé. The list is impressive. By common agreement Josephine shone as a gracious hostess at such affairs, and while she made no claim to equal the conversational brilliance of the formidable Madame de Staël, bit by bit a new society with some pretence to civility and grace began to supersede the crude extravagances of the Directory era.

Did Josephine renew her relations with Hippolyte Charles when she returned to Paris in this autumn of 1798? In the previous March she had written to him in wildly extravagant terms, speaking of a possible divorce from her husband and protesting her undying affection. We have three letters of 1799, the first of which, written in February, would seem to indicate the approaching end of a chapter. A continuing link between the two was the Bodin Company, for in this February letter it is clear that Josephine had still been using her influence to  p179 establish new contacts for the company with the Army of Italy. Josephine told Charles that she wished to see him for a few moments on the following day in order to speak about a matter that concerned her. Then she added, with what sounds like bitterness or disillusionment: 'You can be assured, after this interview, which will be the last, that you will no longer be tormented by my letters or by my presence. The respectable woman who has been deceived [l'honnête femme trompée] retires and says nothing.'26

Was this the end? Not if we are to believe the rumours of 1799. Gossip had it that Captain Charles haunted the countryside near Paris where Josephine was in process of acquiring the estate of Malmaison, and that amid the shades of evening the slight figure of this young man could be seen there escorting Josephine as she walked abroad. Louis Gohier, who was ever to the Directory in June 1799 and whose wife was a close friend of Josephine, urged her to give up Captain Charles and, when she seemed unwilling, told her that if she proposed to continue her affair she should divorce Bonaparte and marry Charles. Fortunately for Josephine's place in history she chose not to take Gohier's last advice. Sometime during the autumn the parting came with Hippolyte. A brief, austere letter that she wrote to Captain Charles in October 1799 concerned itself simply with the seemingly interminable affairs of the Bodin Company. Another letter, written after Bonaparte had seized political power in France, informed Charles of her unfortunate failure to obtain a political appointment for one of her friends. Josephine assured Charles, who was drifting out of her life, that her feelings towards him had not changed. Her friendship, she said, was most tender and most lasting. Whatever this may have meant, the little captain of hussars was through; there is no evidence of further contacts, and on his deathbed in 1837 he asked that Josephine's letters to him be burned. His executors tried to do what he asked, and only the chance survival of five letters makes it possible to elaborate and confirm the many contemporary stories of this reckless and unfortunate episode.

 p180  In these same months before the return of Bonaparte, Josephine plunged into a venture that was to give colour and character to all her subsequent doings — the purchase of Malmaison. For the increasing importance of her station the small town house on the rue de la Victoire clearly was not enough. Never well supplied with funds — on the contrary, plunging ever more deeply into debt — Josephine now regarded herself as the wife of a conqueror from whom the spoils of war could be counted on in ever-increasing amounts to solve her financial problems. Jewels, rare objects, paintings, and sculptures already were pouring in upon her, so it is hardly surprising that she should have approached the purchase of a country estate with airy disregard for the costs. Bonaparte, too, was now thinking of some country retreat where he could rid himself of the cares of the world. For Josephine the country had always had an attraction, and she had pleasant memories of her early years in Martinique, of the rural seclusion of Noisy-le‑Grand and Fontainebleau, during her first marriage, and of the green, wooded retreat at Croissy where she had gone with Madame Hosten to escape the dangers of Paris under the Reign of Terror.

The estate of Malmaison, some eight miles west of the heart of Paris, lay just across the Seine from Croissy, in the parish of Rueil. The name Malmaison — 'Evil House' — has been associated by some with a medieval leper hospital. If so, the association was now lost in the mists of the past. Malmaison was a venerable, former seigneurial domain of substantial proportions with pleasant vistas, farms that could be leased out for income, ample outbuildings for livestock, and vineyards that had gained some local reputation. The estate was in the hands of the Lecoulteux family — members of the former administrative nobility who had lost their money during the Revolution and who had permitted the property, both inside and outside, to become badly run‑down. It was not unknown to Bonaparte, who on his return from Italy was reported to have offered 300,000 francs for it. In the spring of 1799 Josephine undertook negotiations again, using the mayor of Croissy, M. Chanorier, as her agent, and relying also on the  p181 expert help of her old Parisian adviser, M. Raguideau. After much haggling the price was brought down from 300,000 francs to 225,000 francs, with extra sums to be paid for the furnishings and for other rights raising the total to more than 271,000 francs. When the contract was signed on 21 April 1799 Josephine did not have the funds to make even a token down-payment. She was forced, consequently, to borrow 15,000 francs from the estate steward for this purpose, so that with his obliging assistance the transaction was sealed. However dilapidated and unfashionable the furnishings of Malmaison then seemed, Josephine was sure that the near future would make possible an almost magical transformation. And Bonaparte could foot the bills.

Josephine entered into possession with mixed feelings. 'Since I have become a country-dweller,' she wrote to Barras in September with mock concern, 'I have become so uncivilized that the fashionable world frightens me.'​27 Her concern turned out to be short-lived. Soon remodelled at heavy expense, Malmaison grew in beauty and comfort until its quiet elegance furnished the setting for some of Josephine's most precious hours.

The Author's Notes:

1 F. M. Kircheisen, Napoleon (New York, 1932), p134.

2 Ibid., p136.

3 S. C. Girardin, Mémoires, journal, et souvenirs (2nd edn, Paris, 1829), I.143‑5.

4 Bourrienne, II.389; J. Christopher Herold, Mistress to an Age (New York, 1958), p181.

5 G. Lacour-Gayet, Talleyrand (1754‑1838) (Paris, 1928‑34), I.272.

6 Masson, MB, p124.

7 L. Hastier, Le Grand amour de Joséphine (Paris, 1955), pp152‑4.

8 Ibid., p160.

9 Masson, MB, p131.

10 Les Papiers secrets du Second Empire, No. 9 (Brussels, 1871), p8.

11 Lumbroso, Miscellanea Napoleonica, Série V, p252.

12 Masson, MB, p128.

13 Ibid., pp130‑1.

14 Ibid., p131.

15 Ibid., p132.

16 Ibid., p135.

17 Ibid., pp137‑8.

18 Ibid., pp142‑3. Masson dates this wrongly.

19 J. E. Howard, ed., The Rise to Power (Letters and Documents of Napoleon, vol. I [New York, 1961]), pp258‑9.

20 British Museum, Add. MS. 23003.

21 Masson, MB, pp139‑40.

22 Bourrienne, I.199.

23 Mauguin, L'Impératrice Joséphine, p36.

24 Miot de Melito, Mémoires, I.228.

25 J. N. Bouilly, Mes récapitulations (Paris, 1836‑1837), II.162‑76.

26 Hastier, Le Grand amour de Joséphine, p184.

27 The text of note 27 is missing in the edition transcribed. [W.P.T.]

Thayer's Note:

a Cp. Macartney and Dorrance, The Bonapartes in America, p148.

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