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Chapter 13

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 15

 p198  Chapter 14
The Consulate

Josephine became mistress of the Tuileries in her thirty-seventh year. Elegant, affable, and worldly-wise, she had now reached the very centre of a world that was separated from the island life of her childhood by far more than mere time or distance. The inexperienced girl who just twenty years before had come almost penniless from Martinique had grown into a woman who commanded an obeisance from every lady in France. Yet there is no tedium like the tedium of greatness, and as life became more splendid it also became less dramatic. The intense personal excitement Josephine had known in the revolutionary years was now followed by a new career dominated by set patterns of ceremony and decorum, and acted out in the full glare of publicity in the salons of the Consulate and on the throne of imperial France.

Josephine and Napoleon began to settle down to a life of mutual accommodation, in which each understood the other far better than ever before. The fires that had burned so fiercely in the young soldier's letters had subsided, even as the once raffish behaviour of Josephine was put aside in the face of the conventional demands of her new position. The relations of the two came to be marked by a genuine, comfortable affection, and by a recognition on the part of Napoleon that Josephine had a role to play in the new France that was taking shape. Thus, the interest and meaning of these years of the Consulate arise not so much from what Josephine did as from what she was. In an official society where for nearly a decade women had had no place she now brought her own unforgettable charm.

The ceremonial of the Tuileries was at first relatively simple. Dressed in the new consular uniform he devised — a scarlet  p199 tunic with gold embroidery — Bonaparte would receive members of the diplomatic corps twice monthly. At regular intervals other receptions were held for the senators, the members of the legislature, the generals, and high public officials. The guests would be formally presented to him, then conducted downstairs from the audience-chamber to Josephine's apartments for a less formal greeting. Every ten days, precisely at noon, there would be a sparkling review of troops in the great courtyard of the Tuileries — the Carrousel. Every ten days, too, there was a formal dinner in the Gallery of Diana, sometimes with as many as two hundred attending. Napoleon drew his guests from the official world, for quite sensibly he chose to recognize and honour those who served him. He could hardly as yet turn to the nobility of the old régime, who in large numbers were now coming back to France, and he quite definitely wished to get away from the unattractive adventurers who had elbowed their way to the forefront under the Directory.

A typical evening reception held by Josephine in the salons of the Tuileries at this period can be reconstructed from the vivid Memoirs of Bonaparte's valet, Constant. On these occasions, beginning at eight in the evening the apartments of Madame Bonaparte, which were situated on the ground floor overlooking the gardens, would be crowded with company. A dazzling display of splendid dresses, feathers, and diamonds was provided by the throng who so packed the salons that it was found necessary to throw open Josephine's bedroom to relieve the crush. When, after considerable embarrassment and trouble, the company had been arranged as well as possible, Madame Bonaparte was announced and would enter, conducted by Talleyrand. She usually chose to wear a dress of white muslin with short sleeves, and a pearl necklace, and she had her hair simply braided and confined by a tortoiseshell comb. The buzz of admiration that greeted her entrance must have been extremely gratifying, so Constant thought, noting further that at these times she was invariably at her most graceful and most elegant.

Still holding Madame Bonaparte by the hand, Talleyrand  p200 would present the members of the corps diplomatique to her, one after another, not mentioning them by name but designating the courts they represented. He then conducted her through the two drawing-rooms. As he was doing this, the first consul would enter unannounced. His dress for such occasions consisted of a very plain uniform coat, white woollen breeches, and top boots. Round his waist he wore a tricoloured silk scarf with a matching fringe, and in his hand he carried his soldier's black hat. He would move quickly through the company, his simple costume making a striking contrast to the embarrassed coats, the cordons, and the jewels of the ambassadors and foreign dignitaries, even as the simple charm of Josephine's dress gave her distinction amid the splendour of the ladies surrounding her.

Josephine moved easily and smoothly in this new life of formality, where her natural flair helped to make the transition less difficult. Just as the first consul now equipped himself with an intendant and four prefects of the palace, so also Josephine had her ladies-in‑waiting to give dignity and substance to her position. Her preferences were for those who had already known the society of the ancien régime. Madame Campan, for example, once the companion of Marie Antoinette and later the founder of the school at Saint-Germain that Hortense had attended, came frequently to the Tuileries. From her Josephine obtained much advice on fine points of ceremony. Other familiars were Madame de la Tour du Pin, Madame de Valence, and Madame de Montesson, all of them substantial representatives of the old order. The most prominent of this group was the former Marquise de Montesson, who thirty years before had become the morganatic wife of the Duke d'Orléans, great-grandnephew of Louis XIV. Josephine had come to know her at the summer resort of Plombières. Now elderly, Madame de Montesson opened a salon in Paris that recaptured much of the elegance of the old régime, and in her person something of the very flavour of royalty returned to the Tuileries. Gentlemen first reappeared in silk stockings and buckled shoes in her salon, and her servants were the first to resume the liveries that had been forbidden during the Revolution.  p201 Josephine warmed to such society, and in this elegant atmosphere of aristocratic good feeling declared to Madame de la Tour du Pin that it was her wish, and also her husband's, to end the sufferings of bygone years and bring reassurance to all.

Informal occasions, perhaps even more than formal, saw Josephine at her best. Devoted to the theatre, she went whenever she could. Pleasant little gatherings would often follow these excursions, at which the guests who were invited to the yellow salon of the Tuileries would find Josephine happily chattering, embroidering, playing whist or backgammon, and occasionally joining her husband and his friends at billiards. Bonaparte, who always worked at a furious pace throughout the day, found these late affairs very tiring and would sometimes leave in order to go to bed. Josephine would then excuse herself, ascend to her husband's apartments, and sitting at the foot of his bed would read to him in her melodious voice until, like a child, he was nearly asleep. Then she would return to her company. There seems to be no reason to quarrel with the verdict of the valet, Constant. Servants passing in a corridor, he said, would stop to admire the very tones of her voice. The sceptic, to be sure, might well think of a less flattering and more calculating reason for their eavesdropping. Even so, Constant's words deserve to be recorded. 'People spoke as one,' he recalled, 'of the perfect grace, the skill both natural and cultivated, which was displayed by Josephine in the salons of the Consulate.'1

Reconciliation with members of the old aristocracy, however well-intentioned, had its dangers. Not all these men were prepared to accept the consular régime. Innocent of any desire for political intrigue, Josephine nevertheless became associated with certain pressures from abroad to bring back the monarchy. The two brothers of the guillotined Louis XVI had emigrated, and the elder, then known as the Count de Lille and later to become Louis XVIII, nursed the vain hope that General Bonaparte would do what General Monk had done in England at the end of the Cromwellian period — help in the restoration of an exiled monarchy. In February 1800,  p202 and again in June, he wrote to Bonaparte from Warsaw appealing for assistance. The first consul sent a famous and shattering reply for which the future Louis XVIII never forgave him:

You must no longer look forward to your return to France [Bonaparte wrote harshly]. Your path would assuredly lie over one hundred thousand corpses. Sacrifice your personal interests to the peace and happiness of France. History will record its gratitude to you for doing so . . . I am not insensible to the misfortunes of your family and I will gladly do what I can for your peace and repose in your retirement.​2

Thoroughly rebuffed by Bonaparte, the Bourbons still thought of Josephine. The Count de Lille had many sympathizers in France, among them the former Marquis de Clermont-Gallerande, member of a royalist committee in Paris that secretly hoped to bring back the monarchy. Josephine had long been regarded by Clermont-Gallerande as a royalist — and some of her friendships during the revolutionary years would certainly give colour to his belief. Such information was passed on to the brother of Louis XVI. 'The support which she gives to those of my faithful subjects who have recourse to her,' the Count de Lille declared, 'entitles her to the name, Angel of Goodness, which you have given her. Convey my regards, therefore, to Madame Bonaparte. They will not surprise her; on the contrary, unless I am very much mistaken she will be happy to receive them.'3

Josephine may well have had strong personal sympathies with the royalists, for much in her background would lead her in their direction, and certainly from her own experiences she had little reason to love the Revolution. She might even argue selfishly that there would be, theoretically, a safer future if her husband were 'mayor of the palace' on the steps of a legitimate throne. The man who seizes power by the sword is also in danger of losing it by the sword. Yet to argue in this way is to misunderstand Bonaparte completely, and Josephine was by now close enough to the centre of great events to have some sense of his unique qualities. What she could do, and what she did do in full measure, was to give her help and sympathy to the growing number of émigrés who, having left  p203 France during the Revolution, now wished to return. Most of them were in difficulties because they were still included among the hundred thousand names of those who had been declared enemies of the Republic. Such people had forfeited their property and their civil rights. Bonaparte had seen to it that these lists were now closed, yet official action was necessary to have anyone struck off. Josephine had a long history of willingness to do favours, and now letter after letter indicated how eagerly such émigrés, or their good republican friends, petitioned her, and how generously she responded. 'Madame Bonaparte has the honour to convey her compliments to Messieurs de Villeneuve,' so reads a typical letter of June 1800, 'and to inform them that they have been stricken from the lists.'​4 Another letter revives the name of Jérôme Calmelet, old friend, financial adviser, and witness at Josephine's wedding to Napoleon:

Calmelet has the honour to present his compliments to Citizen Fontenay. On the day before yesterday he managed to give the letter to Madame Bonaparte who has promised to say a word about it to her husband. Citizen Fontenay will know the outcome very promptly.​5

There were, to be sure, royalists and royalists. Many, accepting the new régime with whatever grace they could muster, were grateful to Josephine for her help and friendship. Others were of a different sort, and nothing that Josephine did could prevent the extremists from attempting to solve their problems by violence. In October 1800 a plot to assassinate Bonaparte while he attended the opera was uncovered. Four conspirators were executed. On the following Christmas Eve, Bonaparte and Josephine had an even narrower escape from assassination. Their party had set out in several carriages from the Tuileries to attend a performance of Haydn's Creation at the Opéra. En route they found the street blocked by a wagon with a large barrel lashed to it. This was the famous 'infernal machine' — an innocent-looking barrel packed with gunpowder and grapeshot and having a lighted fuse. The escort did not notice the fuse and simply pushed the wagon aside. Napoleon, riding  p204 in the first carriage with three of his generals, passed safely by. Josephine was some distance behind him with her daughter and her sister-in‑law, Caroline, and thus she and her party were nearer the explosion that seconds afterward killed twenty spectators and injured sixty. The ladies were prostrate with fright and Hortense was cut by flying glass. Despite all terror the party proceeded to the Opéra, where Bonaparte received an ovation and Josephine controlled herself as best she could in the face of this alarming evidence of opposition to the new order.

Although the consular régime had been welcomed in France with the hope that it would bring peace to a war‑weary country, in the year 1800 new crises began to blow up. The Second Coalition was growing in strength, the military situation in Italy was becoming catastrophic, and other dangers threatened in Switzerland and Germany. Within a few months of his seizure of power, Bonaparte determined to assume the Italian command in person and, as in 1797, to shatter an enemy coalition by the speed and unexpectedness of his manoeuvres. For the third time in four years he was obliged to leave his wife and meet the challenge of war.

Setting out from Paris on 6 May, he reached Geneva in three days and from there sent to Josephine the first of a series of letters, warm and cordial enough, yet lacking the fire he had shown in 1796 and 1797:

I am at Geneva, my dear [he wrote in the first]. I shall leave tonight. I have received your letter of 16 April. I love you very much. I wish you to write to me often and to remain convinced that my Josephine is very dear to me.​6

From Lausanne he wrote simply that his health was good, that the country was beautiful, and that perhaps in two or three weeks Josephine could set out to join him. If she did so, she would have to travel incognito and be certain to reveal none of his plans.

Bonaparte had reason for secrecy, for he was about to confront the Austrians with one of his most dramatic surprises. Making the circuit of Lake Geneva, he pushed south  p205 into the Valais and in this way approached the Greatest Bernard Pass. Here, in an exploit immortalized in David's painting, he led over the Alps an army of thirty thousand men, practically in single file, scrambling upwards until the mountain paths became so steep and narrow that wheeled traffic was impossible and cannons had to be dragged through the snow and ice on sleds or hollowed‑out logs. The sequel was to be another triumphant campaign in the familiar plains of Lombardy. With the crossing of the Alps so masterfully achieved, an understandable elation took possession of Bonaparte. En route to Milan he wrote to Josephine a letter in which, despite his staccato, string‑of-sausage style of prose, something of his old ardour reappeared:

I am in bed. I leave in an hour for Verseille.º Murat should be at Novara by tonight. The enemy is greatly demoralized. He still doesn't know where we are.

I hope within ten days to be in the arms of my Josephine, who is always very good when she doesn't weep or act the coquette. Your son arrived tonight. I have visited him; he is well. A thousand tendernesses. I have received the letter from Hortense. By the next courier I shall send her a box of very good cherries.​7

Since the military plans were moving so smoothly, Bonaparte had every reason for confidence. From Milan he wrote to say that because he would be in Paris within a month there was no need for Josephine to come to headquarters. Events soon proved him an expert prophet, for on the fourteenth of June he won the spectacular victory of Marengo, a single engagement that effectively destroyed Austrian power in northern Italy. 'My first laurel must be for my country, my second will be for you,' he wrote exultantly to his wife. Despite the behaviour that had caused him so many sorrows she still had the power to move him. 'In attacking Alvinzi [the Austrian commander] I thought of France; when he was beaten I thought of you.'8

More than purely military calculations were involved in Bonaparte's decision that Josephine should not come to Italy. Even before the victory of Marengo, Madame Grassini, the twenty-seven-year‑old prima donna of La Scala had sung for  p206 him in Milan. That superb voice, the finest in Italy, now stirred Bonaparte more deeply than it had three years before when he first heard it at Mombello. When La Grassini was invited to visit his headquarters she eagerly responded, and in a manner far more discreet than had been the case with Madame Fourès in Egypt, Bonaparte made his conquest. It was arranged that Madame Grassini should precede Bonaparte to Paris for an appearance at the Theatre of the Republic. Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon's minister of the interior, was formally instructed to have prepared the words and music for an Italian duet that Grassini and the tenor Bianchi would sing on the national festival of 14 July — a duet celebrating 'the deliverance of the Cisalpine Republic and the glory of our arms.'9

All this was done and even more, for in August Grassini sang again in the church of the Invalides, now the Temple of Mars, in honour of the great victory of Marengo. Yet the prima donna was but a minor disturbance in the main currents of Bonaparte's life. She seems to have resented how little attention Bonaparte found time to pay her on his return to Paris, and soon turned from him to Rode, a well-known violinist. Some transient attachment between the pair remained, however, enough so that two years later Josephine wrote to a friend on the occasion of one of Grassini's to Paris as follows:

I am very unhappy, my dear. Every day Bonaparte makes scenes without giving any explanation. This is no way to live. I have tried to find out what could be the reason and I have learned that for the past eight days La Grassini has been in Paris. It seems that she is the cause of all the unhappiness I experience. I assure you, my dear, that if I had been at fault in any way I would tell you. You would be doing me a favour if you would send Julie [a maid] to see if he is visiting anyone. Try also to learn where this woman is staying.​10

This, to be sure, is looking ahead, and during the first year of the consulate after Bonaparte's return from Italy life at the Tuileries proceeded on an amicable and affectionate basis.

Josephine found considerable pleasure in renewing her summer visits to the pine woods and the mineral waters of  p207 Plombières. She went without her husband, as well she might, for the imagination boggles at the thought of Bonaparte in that atmosphere of sulphur water, embroidering, and trivial gossip. In Josephine's case, however, there were what she might well consider legitimate and substantial reasons for her going. Joseph Bonaparte's wife, Julie Clary, who had been childless for six years, took the waters of Plombières and in the following year triumphantly bore her husband a daughter. Joseph could have some reason to hope that her failure to bear Napoleon a child could meet the same happy solution as had been the case with Julie. To Plombières therefore, she made her pilgrimage in the summer of 1801 with a company that included Hortense, Madame Lavalette, and Napoleon's mother (surely an incompatible member of this holiday group).

During her absence Bonaparte regaled his wife with the timeless trivialities penned by the husband who remains behind:

The weather is so bad here that I am staying in Paris. Malmaison without you is too melancholy. The festival [14 July] was fine though it tired me somewhat. The plaster which has been put on my arm is causing me to suffer greatly. I have received some plants for you from London and have sent them to your gardener. If the weather is as bad at Plombières as it is here you must be very uncomfortable. A thousand amiable greetings to maman and to Hortense.​11

The weather was good enough at Plombières for Josephine to enjoy her stay thoroughly. On her return journey, too, she and her party were royally treated when they passed through Nancy. The town offered her a civic reception and a dinner, following which the company attended a play and a ball. Travel, for Josephine, had now become in almost all respects a kind of royal progress, and there is every reason to think she liked it.

Josephine's domestic affairs were soon affected by matters of public policy. When she moved into the Tuileries her daughter was seventeen. Though seldom described as actually beautiful, Hortense was intelligent and amiable, with a considerable  p208 talent for theatricals. At her age marriage was the obvious next step. In the last year of the Directory Josephine had enlisted the aid of Barras in seeking a wedding with the son of Reubell, an old Jacobin and one of the original directors. This plan had not materialized. Hortense then had a passing infatuation for one of Bonaparte's aides, Duroc, yet it was clear that the choice of her partner would have to be based on other reasons than infatuation and made by other persons than herself. Josephine's intention now was that Hortense should marry Napoleon's younger brother, Louis, and her reasons for this unlikely choice take us directly into Bonaparte family politics.​a

As we know, the Bonaparte clan had never looked favorably upon Josephine. While Napoleon's prestige and power steadily rose, it was natural his brothers and sisters to think of the future in terms of their own family interests. Bonaparte was a soldier, to whom the hand of Death could beckon at any moment. Joseph, who was older than Napoleon, and Lucien, who was the next younger, had both engaged in an intrigue for the control of the succession. This Conspiracy of Marengo took shape in the year 1800. The brothers were prepared to accept Napoleon's lifetime rule on the assumption that Joseph, and then Lucien, would be next in line. A small brochure, urging the need for a 'succession' and entitled, Parallel between Caesar, Cromwell, and Bonaparte, appeared in October; its anonymous author was Lucien Bonaparte.

Josephine was aware of this family hostility, and also that her childlessness might possibly lead her husband to divorce her and remarry. If she could not give Napoleon an heir, she might boldly destroy the plans of the brotherly opposition by having Hortense marry into their number. Therefore she undertook to encourage a marriage between Hortense and Louis. There were complications, however, because for a time in 1798 Louis had shown an interest in Josephine's niece, Emilie de Beauharnais. Emilie, as we have seen, was removed from the picture by being married to Antoine de Lavalette. Louis once more became available, and Josephine's plans fitted in well with the fact that Louis, nine years younger than  p209 Napoleon, was a great favourite of the first consul, and owed to him his education and his military advancement. 'We have no need to torture our brains in looking for a successor,' Bonaparte told his secretary, Stanislas de Girardin. 'I have found one in Louis. He has none of the defects of his brothers and all their virtues.'​12 So generous an evaluation of Louis unmistakably demonstrated a blind spot on the part of Napoleon, however much we may credit him with a warmth of affection for a younger brother who, unhappily for himself and for others, suffered some tragic disabilities.

In the early autumn of 1801 the marriage plan gradually crystallized, for during his visits to Malmaison Louis showed signs of becoming seriously interested in Hortense. He sent her a twenty-page letter presenting in elaborate detail the history of his emotional life. Hortense's Memoirs permit us to learn very little of her personal feelings in this matter — she refused to complain publicly — yet the facts about Louis are clear enough. He was a devotee of romantic melancholy, a man touched by those currents of 'sensibility' that had produced Goethe's Werther, Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloise, and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Paul et Virginie. Unattractive in appearance, he had a mild paralysis of one side and he suffered repeatedly from vertigo, constrictions of the throat, and headaches. This moody and introspective youth went unhappily about with inexpressive face and dull eyes that rarely showed any feeling save suspicion. The suggestion, clearly, is of emotional unbalance. It is difficult to believe that Josephine, warm-hearted and devoted to her daughter, could have agreed to such a marriage if she had suspected the misery that would result. The explanation must be that she could not have known all the unhappy circumstances, and that she acted simply and protectively from an ill‑considered calculation of family advantage, that of Hortense included.

The betrothal plan succeeded. Hortense and Louis were married in January 1802 in a civil ceremony followed late in the same evening by a religious marriage performed by the papal legate, Cardinal Caprara, who to his intense surprise had been summoned at the last moment to officiate. The pair took  p210 up their residence at Josephine's old home in the rue de la Victoire; yet after two months Louis left his wife for the south of France. He did not return until October, when a son, Napoléon-Charles, was born to them. This marriage, as could have been predicted, proved disastrous; it was embittered by complete incompatibility, by constant strife, and by scandalous gossip of the cruelest sort, spread about by Madame de Rémusat and others. This gossip descended to the depths of asserting that Napoleon himself was the father of Hortense's child. After some years of total unhappiness during which two more sons were born and the ill‑matched couple were promoted by Napoleon to the throne of Holland, they separated. Hortense lived until 1857 and Louis until 1846. Josephine's plan had not worked; it did not in the end save her from divorce, and it did not produce a child whom Napoleon was willing to accept as his direct heir in default of a child of his own by Josephine. Yet strangely enough, Josephine in the end had her triumph. The third son of Hortense, born in 1808 and baptized Charles-Louis-Napoléon, was one day to be known to history as the Emperor Napoleon III.

Early in 1802 the press of great affairs took Josephine with her husband to Lyons for the inauguration of the new Italian Republic. Following his Italian victories, Bonaparte had in 1801 made the Peace of Lunéville with Austria. Negotiations for peace were also under way with England. He therefore found it tempting to meddle in the affairs of Italy, drafting a new constitution for the Cisalpine Republic he earlier had put together out of some of the northern Italian states. To complete his work he had summoned several hundred Italian delegates from the Cisalpine to meet him at Lyons. At a dinner in the Tuileries shortly before leaving, Bonaparte spoke to Josephine about the trip and asked her if she knew what people were saying. Josephine replied that it was being asserted that he was about to have himself elected king of Italy. At this Bonaparte laughed, yet the forecast was to become true.

Early in January 1802, they made a midnight departure from Paris, completing the long journey southward over snow-covered  p211 roads in less than three days. At Lyons the weather continued to be bitterly cold. Although Bonaparte was busy enough with his Italian problems, he also engaged in a round of social activities, and here for the first time Josephine was vested with official dignity and appeared beside her husband at concerts, balls, illuminations, and civic receptions. In addition there were visits to various industrial establishments in the city.

The Italian delegates at Lyons made the unfortunate mark of nominating one of their number, Melzi, to be president of what was now to be called the Italian Republic. They were rescued from their blunder when Talleyrand hinted tactfully that the honour should go to Bonaparte — an honour that they then quickly proposed and he gracefully accepted. As usual, a number of Italians, eager for posts in the new government, calculated that the best line of approach was through Josephine. This was the case with the candidate for the vice-presidency and also with the aspirant for the ministry of finances. This latter intriguer gave Josephine a sapphire parure said to be worth a hundred thousand francs. Bonaparte discovered this and, outraged, demanded that she return the jewels, but according to the recollections of her old friend, Antoine Hamelin, she managed not to do so.

From Lyons Josephine wrote an unhappy letter to Hortense:

At last I see the time approaching when I shall be able to hold my dear daughter in my arms; I shall forget, when I see you, all the sadness I have felt in this country . . . I will tell you everything that has happened during my stay at Lyons, and will describe the fêtes and performances offered to us. But when you are not here to share it there is no pleasure for your mother. Kiss your husband for me. Tell him that I am beginning to love him deeply and that I thank him for his little notes which are very kind.​13

By the end of the month they were back in Paris.

At a diplomatic reception in March 1802, Bonaparte announced the signature of the Peace of Amiens with England. His visitors noticed that the first consul had abandoned the military costume that had been usual ever since Marengo and now wore a silk habit, white stockings, and buckled shoes. In April  p212 the papal legate, Cardinal Caprara, who had married Hortense and Louis in January, celebrated a pontifical Mass at Notre Dame assisted by the combined choirs of the Conservatory. This was to commemorate the signing of the Concordat between France and the papacy by which, after more than a decade of turmoil, the Roman Catholic Church was restored to an official position in the state. It was a Mass preceded by a splendid procession from the Tuileries to the cathedral, the like of which had not been seen since the days of the Bourbons. The carriages of the ministers and ambassadors were each drawn by four horses, those of the second and third consuls by six, and Bonaparte's carriage by eight. For the first time all the attendants were in full livery: yellow for the ministers, red and blue for the second and third consuls, and green for Bonaparte. Josephine did not share in these proceedings. The first consul rode alone, dressed in scarlet velvet embroidered with golden palm leaves and wearing a hat with tricolour plumes. Amid such splendours monarchy could not have seemed far distant. The Mass was celebrated in the presence of four battalions of infantry, and it was saluted by sixty salvos of cannon. At the end of the ceremony the archbishops and bishops, as provided in the Concordat, tendered their allegiance to the first consul.

A week later the Prussian minister at Paris wrote to his government summarizing his impressions of the new régime as follows:

Everything around the first consul and his wife is resuming the general character and etiquette of Versailles. Ostentatious luxury, fine carriages, liveries, crowds of servants are seen on every side. Much care is taken in the reception of foreign gentlemen; and the foreign ladies who are presented to the first consul and his wife are announced by one of the prefects of the palace. He is developing some liking for the chase, and the forests where the kings of France and the princes of the blood once hunted are now being reserved for him and the officers of his suite.​14

An almost immediate sequel to the signing of the Peace of Amiens was a flood of visitors from across the Channel. Before the year's end an estimated ten thousand Englishmen had  p213 arrived in France. All wished to have a glimpse of the Tuileries and its celebrated inhabitants, and a few, such as Lord Erskine, Lord Holland, and Charles James Fox, were honoured with invitations to dine. From such visitors come accounts of the new era. John Dean Paul, the author of A Journal of a Party of Pleasure to Paris in the Month of August 1802, tells of going to the Théâtre Français and seeing Bonaparte with Josephine and their entourage in a box. 'He is a little man,' Paul observed, 'but with an intelligent spirited countenance, and an eye that speaks an uncommon mind; he wears his lank hair out of powder, very short, and was dressed in a blue coat most richly embroidered.'​15 Paul briefly noted the presence of Madame Bonaparte and her ladies, but had eyes, evidently, only for the first consul.

In Edmund Eyre's Observations Made at Paris During the Peace we have other notes on Paris in this new age. Eyre was shocked in good, substantial, English fashion at the statues that adorned the gardens of the Tuileries. He was shocked even more at the beauties who 'sweep the muddy streets of the capital with flowing and Athenian muslin robes, or draw the pendant fold on their right arms to imitate the drapery of some sculptured Venus.' To judge from Eyre's account, some of the naughty extravagances of the Directory period still survived in this new and disciplined age of the Consulate:

The women of Paris have made one change for the better, amongst many for the worse, namely, having discarded the use of rouge for the toilet. Their dresses are certainly elegant, but indelicate, and give to every woman a meretricious appearance. They appear in public places in a state of undress really immodest . . . in truth, the gross display of bosom and shoulders seems to inspire sensations of disgust and disrespect, rather than of admiration. I do not wish to see the ladies swaddled up like mummies, nor that the sweet symmetry of their forms should be lost in an unnecessary mass of clothing; but I could desire fashion only to reveal so much as should mingle admiration with respect.​16

The respectful Edmund Eyre then went to Malmaison, hoping to view the château and catch a glimpse of Josephine, 'but the guards, who are stationed at the gates and neighbouring  p214 barracks, peremptorily resist the solicitations of all strangers, who are denied all admission.'

In this mellow and promising period Josephine wrote to her mother at Martinique. 'The frigate which is leaving for Guadeloupe,' she explained, 'to bring General Lacrosse the news of peace with England is the carrier of my letter.' Josephine begged her mother to come to France, assuring her that her husband joined in the request. 'You will like Bonaparte very much,' she told her mother, 'he is making your daughter very happy; he is kind, pleasant, in every way a charming man, and he truly loves your Yeyette.'​17 In a subsequent letter Josephine renewed her invitation and announced that splendid presents were on the way for Madame Tascher: a box set with diamonds and having portraits of Josephine, Napoleon, Hortense, and Eugène (the gift of Napoleon); and a chaplet that the Pope had blessed and sent to Josephine on the conclusion of the Concordat. Neither presents nor appeals, however, could persuade the ageing mother to leave the island where she had been born.

During the summer of 1802 Josephine again renewed her visits to Plombières.​b Bonaparte's letters to her showed warm affection:

I have not yet heard from you; I believe that by now you have begun to take the waters. Here we are a little sad, even though your charming daughter does the honours of the household admirably. For two days I have been suffering mildly from my complaint. Sturdy Eugène arrived last night; he looks wonderful.

I love you as on the first day, because you are above all else kind and good. Hortense says that she has written to you often. A thousand warm greetings and a loving kiss, tout à toi.​18

In another he sent conventional gossip:

I have received your letter, dear little Josephine. I am sorry to learn that you suffered from the trip; but several days of rest will do you much good. I keep well. Yesterday I hunted at Marly and wounded myself in the finger while shooting a boar.

Hortense is well. Your son has been indisposed, but he is improving. I believe that this evening the ladies are to play The Barber of Seville. The weather is fine. I beg you to believe that  p215 nothing is more genuine than the love I have for my little Josephine.​19

Still later he wrote again:

I have received your letter of 28 June. You don't tell me about your health or about the effect of the baths. I see that you plan to be back in a week. This will give great pleasure to your dear one who suffers the ennui of being alone. . . .

Hortense played Rosine in The Barber of Seville yesterday with her usual intelligence. I beg you to believe that I love you, and that I am most impatient to see you again. Without you here, everything is gloom.​20

In this same year, 1802, Josephine played some part in the very odd business of Talleyrand's marriage. This 'king of the weather-cocks', this nobleman of the old régime who had once been bishop of Autun, who had accepted the Revolution and abandoned his holy orders, now served as Bonaparte's foreign minister. His private life had been disorderly in the extreme. To the considerable indignation of some ambassadors' wives, there now presided as hostess over the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Talleyrand's mistress, the frail, lovely, empty-headed Madame Grand. The liaison of this figure from the demi-monde with the ex‑bishop had become so much a matter of scandal that Bonaparte, who was determined to bring about a new standard of public morality in France, told Talleyrand to get rid of her. Talleyrand demurred, proposing marriage instead. He had used the occasion of the Concordat to request from the papacy an official recognition of his Laicization. This new legal status Pius VII was now willing to grant, although nothing would induce him to give authorization for this marriage of one who had once been a bishop. No precedent existed, so the Vatican scholars declared after learned search, in the entire eighteen centuries of Church history.

Madame Grand appealed to her friend Josephine to do what she could to soften Napoleon's hostile attitude. Josephine immediately obliged, Madame Grand had a tearful interview with the first consul, and the path to a civil marriage became  p216 clear. As evidence of their interest, the names of both Josephine and Napoleon appeared on the marriage contract, and in September 1802, without any blessing from the Church, the oddly matched pair were united in a civil ceremony. How much Josephine had contributed to the restoration of morality by her assistance we may question. Years later, when Talleyrand was asked by his niece how he ever came to make so strange a marriage, he gave her a simple, and what we may take as an adequate, explanation: 'It happened,' he said wryly, 'in a period of general disorder.'21

For Josephine these were splendid, intoxicating days. The proclamation in August 1802 of Napoleon as consul for life with power to name his successor was overwhelmingly ratified in a national plebiscite. Josephine was in the very centre of the ensuing celebrations. A reception was held at the Tuileries for the members of the various legislative bodies and the foreign ambassadors, followed by a concert given by three hundred instrumentalists playing the music of Cherubini, Méhul, and Rameau. In the afternoon a Te Deum was celebrated at Notre Dame. In the evening the Tuileries were illuminated. The city of Paris erected a thirty-foot star on the towers of Notre Dame, outlined by lamps, while on the Pont Neuf rose a forty-two‑foot statue of Peace. Framework displays were given at the Hôtel de Ville and along the Champs-Élysées. Josephine and Napoleon meanwhile went to Malmaison for family celebrations, where Hortense, although seven months pregnant, took the lead in amateur theatricals. A week later the Senate gave a brilliant reception at the Luxembourg, and at the end of the next week there was a dinner for two hundred at the Tuileries. Talleyrand was only one of many who encouraged Napoleon to think of a truly hereditary régime — a prospect that would mean even greater splendour for Josephine and her family.

Josephine's life in these years of the Consulate alternated between the lurid glare of public events and the mellow glow of her domestic activities. She accompanied her husband on an inspection tour of Normandy in the autumn of 1802, visiting  p217 Evreux, Rouen, Le Havre, Honfleur, Dieppe, and Beauvais. Everywhere there were warm welcomes from the inhabitants and also the endless, inescapable visits to factories and commercial establishments. In May 1803 war was resumed with England. Consequently the even longer tour through northeastern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands that the pair undertook in that summer was less concerned with fostering the arrest of peace than with preparations for the cross-Channel invasion of England that Bonaparte, after his original opposition, now definitely intended. The tour was more regal than any of its predecessors — witness the instructions given to Barbé-Marbois, minister of finance. Bonaparte ordered him to select some of the finest pearls held in the treasury as well as precious stones of various hues, so that Josephine on formal occasions could appear in a splendour that had not been seen since the days of the ancien régime.

Before leaving on this tour Josephine had been again at Plombières, where her short stay in these pastoral surroundings caused her to reflect on the burdens of greatness:

I feel [she told Hortense] that I am not made for so much grandeur. I would be happier in some retreat, surrounded by the objects of my affections . . . I know your attachment to Bonaparte well enough to be sure that you are being a faithful companion to him. For many reasons you owe him your affection and gratitude. Kiss him for me and be sure to accept for yourself all my tender regards.​22

She was still happiest, it would seem, amid the affections of her family.

Malmaison continued to give Josephine some of her happiest hours. She had arranged for its purchase, as we have seen, in the spring of 1799 while Bonaparte was in Egypt, but had been unable, characteristically, to find the money to meet the purchase price of 271,000 francs. Substantial sums were soon committed to its improvement, so that during the year 1800 Josephine's indebtedness grew at a calamitous rate, and was made even heavier by the steady drain of her personal expenses. Talleyrand learned of this state of affairs and mentioned  p218 it to the first consul. Bonaparte, fortunately, was then in possession of a very large sum of money paid to him by the free city of Hamburg as an indemnity for the detention there of two French citizens. Bonaparte told Bourrienne to use some of this money to pay his wife's debts, not realizing how large they were. When Bourrienne asked Josephine, she confessed that they amounted to about 1,200,000 francs, and that she did not dare risk her husband's anger by telling him. Seeing that some of the smallest charges in her bills involved expenditures for such items as thirty-eight new hats in one month and 1,800 francs worth of herons' plumes, her hesitation was understandable. She and Bourrienne finally agreed to halve the figure and put it at 600,000 francs. Bonaparte reluctantly agreed to honour this amount and Bourrienne, by vigorously beating down the creditors who no doubt had heavily overcharged Josephine in the first place, paid the bills.

No other setting has so completely associated itself with Josephine as has Malmaison. In 1799 the sadly dilapidated estate resembled a farm rather than a château. Yet its possibilities, as Josephine quickly saw, were rich, and the work of restoration and improvement became a constant excitement and challenge. Once Malmaison was acquired, Bonaparte kept watch on the purse-strings, yet he, too, developed a fondness for planning renovations and exercised to the full his natural inclination to improve whatever he saw. 'Nowhere,' wrote Bourrienne with unconscious irony, 'except on the field of battle, did I ever see Bonaparte more happy than in the gardens of Malmaison.'​23 Here Bonaparte worked, shot, chatted, and played chess. At Josephine's informal lunches he would dominate the company with talk of science, art, and literature. In the evenings he liked to tell dramatic stories or to discuss what his critical eye had observed of women's toilettes. Josephine was a pleasant rather than a brilliant hostess. Her gifts were those of sympathy and warmth. She was fond of games, embroidery, and desultory conversation. She had some little aptitude for painting and she played the harp occasionally, though, if we are to believe Méneval, always the same tune.

Quite early in her career Josephine demonstrated her  p219 instincts as a collector. She had paintings, so she told Madame de la Tour du Pin, that were the gifts of the sculptor, Canova, of the Pope, and of the city of Milan. It would have been truer to say, so her visitor thought, that Bonaparte had 'collected' them at the sword's point in Italy. Josephine somehow managed also to find funds of her own for purchases. She wrote to her old friend, Hamelin, who was in Rome, saying that she had made available through her bankers a draft of 100,000 francs with which Hamelin could purchase art objects for her at his choice. He could even go beyond this amount if it seemed advisable. Hamelin promptly did so, to the extent of 13,000 francs, with the sad consequence that two years later he still had not been paid, even after complaining directly to Josephine about his problem. Josephine also made substantial purchases of plants, draperies, and furnishings. In 1801 she wrote to Otto, agent of the French government in London, telling him of her interest in obtaining some English trees or shrubs, and suggesting that the gardener at Kew might be willing to provide her with some unusual seeds. She wrote also to her mother in Martinique with similar requests. Other letters show her constant concern in adding to what she had originally purchased.

Talleyrand, as well as anyone, has recaptured the carefree, rustic spirit of Malmaison in these happy consular years:

I arrived at Malmaison [he wrote] and do you know what I did, and where the First Consul has established his work-room? On one of the bowling greens! They were all seated on the grass. It was nothing to him, with his camp habits, his riding boots, and his leather breeches. But I, in my silk breeches and silk stockings! Can you see me sitting on that lawn? I'm crippled with rheumatism. What a man! He always thinks he is camping out.​24

If Malmaison represented the spirit and dreams of Josephine, life at Saint-Cloud carried much more the imprint of Bonaparte. Somewhat closer to Paris than was Malmaison, this royal residence had been bought and refurbished by Louis XIV near the beginning of his reign. Despite a petition from its inhabitants, Bonaparte was not at first disposed to take it over as a residence in addition to Malmaison. Late in 1801, however,  p220 he changed his mind, telling Berthier that Saint-Cloud would be more convenient for his purposes than Malmaison. He hoped to remodel it for a modest sum, yet when his architects, Percier and Fontaine, undertook the work they developed so lavish a programme that in the end the bills came to more than three million francs. Whatever their value, the restorations have been lost for ever, for the palace of Saint-Cloud, like the Tuileries, is totally gone — destroyed during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

The ambassadorial receptions at Saint-Cloud were affairs of high ceremony. The coaches drove through the tall gateways into a courtyard full of green-liveried attendants and soldiers of the guard. Ascending a fine staircase, the guests came to a circular vestibule in which was displayed David's heroic painting of Bonaparte crossing the St Bernard Pass. They then would pass through a gallery hung with paintings and having a frescoed ceiling that dated from the reign of Louis XIV. In the next salon elegantly clad ladies in silk dresses and jewels, waiting to be presented, grouped themselves gracefully beneath a large portrait of Madame Bonaparte sitting on a sofa. Josephine's four ladies-in‑waiting, charming in white Indian muslin, received the guests. Talleyrand was in attendance as minister of foreign affairs and made the presentations, while numerous officials hovered in the background.

When all were assembled the guests would move into the next salon for the presentations, the ladies forming a semicircle with the men behind them. For such affairs Bonaparte would enter, escorted by two prefects of the palace. He wore usually the green tunic, trimmed with red, of the Chasseurs of the Guard, a dark blue waistcoat, black silk breeches, and white silk stockings. A sabre hung at his side and he invariably carried his black hat under his arm. He would move quickly from one lady to another, bowing as heard her name and addressing one or two perfunctory questions to each. Josephine would enter shortly after her husband, likewise attended by two prefects of the palace, and make the circuit at some distance behind. She was a gracious figure in a toilette of white satin trimmed with lace, and wearing a fine diadem with three rows  p221 of stones and three fine ancient cameos. At the end of the circuit Josephine would be seated and other presentations of men and women would be made to her while Bonaparte stood chatting with a group of men in another part of the salon. The ceremonies over, the first consul and his wife would bow to the company and retire. The guests then moved quickly through a long gallery to still another grand salon where a magnificent buffet supper was served. Following this came the descent to the rez-de‑chaussée and the tedious wait while the carriages, sometimes as many as two hundred and many of them drawn by four horses, were punctiliously summoned in order of diplomatic precedence.

Similar ceremonial marked the presentations and receptions at the Tuileries: grace and sympathy on the part of Josephine; dignity and power, interrupted by sudden flashes of brusqueness and rudeness on the part of Bonaparte. 'I have seen that dress before, madame,' he would say, or, 'Your arms, madame, are very red.' After a decade of revolution the good manners of a shattered régime are not easily restored.

Some domestic sorrows still hung over Josephine. Occasionally she was aware of the fleeting figure of Madame Grassini, tiptoeing into the private apartments of the first consul; occasionally she heard of Mademoiselle George, from the Comédie Française. On one dreadful night she was roused from her apartment by the terrified screams of Mademoiselle George, waking the household as Bonaparte experienced one of the brief, convulsive seizures that were a part of his medical history. Josephine, moreover, could not escape the persistent and growing unkindness of the Bonaparte clan. A letter to her mother in these days carries a suggestion of her troubles:

I do not write to you as often as I should like, dear mama, because I have little time to myself. . . . I imagine that you may feel some occasional concern about me, but there is no reason for this. So, I beg you, do not give way to such feelings, and believe only the news which I send you.​25

If this represented one side of Josephine's feelings, another  p222 is found in a letter which she wrote to Bonaparte in November 1803, while he was away at Boulogne, busy with his plans for the cross-Channel invasion. This letter has a unique significance. It has been called by Masson the only certain and authentic surviving letter addressed by Josephine to Napoleon, as distinct from the few that survive as copies and the many which she addressed to others. What is it that has caused more than two hundred and fifty letters from Bonaparte to Josephine to escape time's ravages and has allowed only one from Josephine to Bonaparte to survive? What different light would the survival of more letters from Josephine to her husband shed upon the relations between the pair, and would history in this event have treated her reputation more kindly? We can only ask.

This 'one certain and authentic' letter of November 1803 tells much of the husband and wife of the Tuileries:

All my sorrows have disappeared in reading the good, sympathetic letter which contains such loving expression of your feelings for me. How grateful I am to you for giving so much time to your Josephine! If you could know, you would applaud yourself for being the means of causing so much joy to the wife whom you love.

A letter is the portrait of a soul, and I press this one to my heart. It does me so much good! I wish to keep it always! It will be my consolation during your absence, my guide when I am near you. I wish to be always in your eyes the good, the tender Josephine, concerned only with your happiness. . . .

Adieu, Bonaparte, I shall never forget the last sentence of your letter. I keep it in my heart. How deeply it is engraved there! With what emotion mine has responded!

Yes, my wish is also to please you, to love you — rather, to adore you!​26

The Author's Notes:

1 L. Constant, Mémoires de Constant, premier valet de chambre de l'empereur (Paris, 1830), II.153‑4.

2 Masson, MB, p248.

3 Ibid., p252.

4 Bibliothèque Thiers, Paris, Fonds Masson, no. 28.

5 Ibid.

6 Savant, p153. Omitted in Bourgeat.

7 Savant, pp155‑7. Omitted in Bourgeat.

8 Bourgeat, p77.

9 Corr., VI, no. 4938.

10 Masson, MB, pp336‑7.

11 Bourgeat, p78. Should be an IX.

12 S. C. de Girardin, Mémoires, journal, et souvenirs (2nd edn., Paris, 1829), I.199.

13 LNJ, II.219‑21. Should be 1802.

14 Masson, MB, 317.

15 (London, 1814), p87.

16 (Bath, 1803), p24.

17 BN, nouv. acq. fr., 9324.

18 Bourgeat, pp78‑80. Should be 1802.

19 Ibid., p80. Should be 1802.

20 Ibid., p82. Should be 1802.

21 Lacour-Gayet, Talleyrand (1754‑1838), II.91‑2.

22 LNJ, II.222‑3.

23 Bourrienne, I.341.

24 C. d'Arjuzon, Mme Louis Bonaparte (Paris, 1901), p78.

25 BN, nouv. acq. fr., 9324, fols. 403‑6.

26 Masson, MB, pp367‑8.

Thayer's Notes:

a See also The Bonapartes in America, pp149‑154, which goes into considerably more detail.

b While Josephine was at Plombières in 1802, the American Robert Fulton made his drawings and completed his plans for the construction of his first steamboat and presented her with a model of it. The event is commemorated by a monument and a street bearing Fulton's name.

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Page updated: 22 Feb 13