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Chapter 3

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 5

 p40  Chapter 4
Storm and Stress

Josephine's first two wedded years were spent chiefly in the Beauharnais hôtel in Paris, on the now vanished rue Thevenot. The mansion faced upon stone walls and dark, narrow streets — 'a sort of prison', it has been called — a world removed from the blue seas, the mountains, and the tropical greenery of Trois-Îlets. It stood in that part of Paris lying between what now are the Grands Boulevards and Les Halles, an area where dilapidated survivals of old, dignified homes of aristocracy still remain. The building was tall and somewhat grim, yet with elegant staircases and high-ceilinged rooms, not far from the noisy, dirty, bustling centre of eighteenth-century Paris. It was a home dominated by the traditions of the family, the house in which Charles de Beauharnais, for twenty‑two years governor of French Canada, had died. The old marquis and Madame Renaudin were the hosts, and Josephine's invalid father stayed with them as their guest. Josephine, likewise, was more truly a guest than she was the châtelaine of the establishment. The ages of Josephine's closest associates, apart from her husband, were sixty-four, forty-five, and forty‑one; and we remember that Alexander, an officer in the army and a man of the world, was more often away than at home. No promising beginning, surely, for a sixteen-year‑old bride brought up in the warm, easy, indulgent surroundings of her West Indian childhood!

The pattern of Josephine's married life took shape when the last decade of what men soon would call the ancien régime began. Talleyrand's famous words, 'He who has not lived in the years preceding 1789 does not know the pleasure of living,' however true they may be in general, are less than precise as a picture of the young bride from Martinique in her new surroundings.  p41 In her case the 'pleasure of living' was marred almost immediately by suggestions of domestic storm and stress.

This young bride was a girl rather than a woman. Alexander, on first meeting her, had not found her beautiful, yet her chestnut brown hair, her hazel eyes, her excellent skin, her graceful arms, her attractive voice, and her general pleasantness of manner had won him to her, so that his early letters breathed a sincere warmth of affection. Josephine lacked the intellectual baggage that was standard equipment among the bluestockings of the ancien régime. She had been given no chance as yet to acquire the elegances and artifices of French society. She had not grown into the graceful, sophisticated, dazzling hostess of later years. She was young, she was inexperienced, and she had more than a touch of what writers like to call 'creole indolence'. It was entirely natural for her to feel unsure, frightened, and at times lost in her new surroundings. Absolutely nothing in her early training had provided any equivalent to the rich stimulus Alexander de Beauharnais had found in the household of the Duke de La Rochefoucauld. She came to her debonair young husband a warm-hearted, affectionate girl, not without a mind of her own, and was flung into situations of increasing difficulty, which, as it turned out, she could neither master nor accept.

In her new life, as in Martinique, Josephine had abundant leisure. She possessed money enough to shop for clothes and finery in what was then, as now, the centre of fashion. Her husband gave her jewels: earrings, bracelets, a watch, and a diamond-studded chain. These she carried around and played with, so an unsympathetic report had it, like a child with toys. She had little role, however, in society. The old marquis, contented with the company of Madame Renaudin, had few social ambitions and even fewer intellectual interests. The members of the Beauharnais family living in Paris apparently accepted with little comment the equivocal position of Madame Renaudin, who had obtained a legal separation but not a divorce from her actual husband. Josephine no doubt had the conventional social contacts with Alexander's relatives — his married brother, François; his uncle, Claude-Louis; and his  p42 cousin, Claude — yet in sum they meant very little to her.

Not even Josephine's dashing husband brought her much acquaintance with the fine world. Alexander, despite his position, his handsome looks, and his superb dancing, was of a nobility too recent to warrant presentation at court. Josephine's family, to his chagrin, was in this sense better than his own. Alexander, moreover, did not relinquish the connexions he had established before his marriage. Unhappily for Josephine, when he went occasionally to enjoy the stimulus of new ideas at his second home — the Duke de La Rochefoucauld's château of La Roche-Guyon — he left his wife behind.

One striking figure was an exception in this colourless milieu. Alexander had an aunt, Marie-Anne-Françoise Mouchard, Countess de Beauharnais. She was the wife of the brother of the marquis. Known as Aunt Fanny, her substantial ambitions as a hostess and writer had led her to maintain a drawing-room in the rue de Montmartre and later in the rue du Tournon, near the Luxembourg palace. This salon of aunt Fanny was, surely, one of the curiosities of Paris in the last decade of the ancien régime, constituting one aspect of the fashionable world where Josephine now became, if not a full participant, at least a spectator.

Fanny de Beauharnais wrote tirelessly. We can list some thirteen works — one running to three volumes — from her ever-fertile pen. She had composed a pamphlet in 1773 with the ringing title, To All Thinkers, Hail! She was the author of a novel, Blinded by Love, and, much later, of a poem of high topical interest most explicitly titled, To Bonaparte, at the Moment When the French People Vote on the Question: Shall Napoleon Be Consul For Life? It has been suspected that Aunt Fanny did not write all that appeared under her name, and she is now remembered chiefly for the neat epigram about her by Lebrun, which in translation could be given thus:

Of Chloe, fair and a poet, we may two faults rehearse:

While she makes up her features, others make up her verse.

On the eve of the French Revolution the salon of Aunt Fanny became one of the most frequented in Paris, as much  p43 because of the decline of the more noted gatherings, where death had taken its toll, as because of its intrinsic merits. In the stifling atmosphere of her drawing-room, for Fanny detested fresh air, coughing, it was said, was more common than conversation. One can say little for those attending — they have been described as canaries rather than nightingales. Cubières, Restif de la Bretonne, and Sebastien Mercier, 'the triumvirate of bad taste', were her devotees. A memorable picture has survived of Fanny listening to a reading of her poems, enthroned on her silver-and‑blue settee, over-rouged, a chaplet of pink rosebuds tilted on her powdered hair. She was pleased to museum of natural history wearing a coiffure à la giraffe. Cubières called her salon 'the egg of the National Assembly', which we may doubt; wits more truly compared it to the prefecture of police because, running from eight in the evening until five in the morning, it rarely closed.

Josephine's connexion with Fanny de Beauharnais was much more personal than it was scholarly or literary. Aunt Fanny stood as a godmother to her second child. A tradition that suggests the pattern of their relation­ship says that Fanny looked after the two children when Josephine was imprisoned during the Terror. It is too much to believe that the artificially scented literary atmosphere of the rue du Tournon could have meant much to the young Josephine — except possibly to alarm her. Indeed, little evidence shows that she was closely in touch with it. Some women, most notably Madame de Staël, were able to find enormous intellectual stimulation in the Paris of the ancien régime. 'Oh for the gutters of the rue du Bac!' exclaims Madame de Staël amid the placid beauties of Switzerland. She, with the powerful advantage of her unusual family training, would have managed somehow to find intellectual stimulation on the surface of the moon — provided only that she had an audience. Josephine's background and disposition were altogether different, and thus the new and strange world of Aunt Fanny's salon struck no responsive note. Yet, only a few years later, when she had separated from her husband, Josephine did flit like a gleaming butterfly through Aunt Fanny's fantastic surroundings.

 p44  The blue skies of marriage were quickly clouded for Alexander de Beauharnais by a most painful discovery. He found that his young wife was totally devoid of those intellectual interests to which, from his first acquaintance with Patricol at the age of ten, he had been exposed. He need hardly have been surprised at this deficiency in the equipment of a typical creole daughter of the eighteenth century, for creole ignorance in such matters was proverbial. Many of the grandes dames of the West Indies could hardly read or write, and, while Josephine wrote a clear hand, could express herself moderately well, and had some facility with music and dancing, the Dames de la Providence would have found it hard to take credit for equipping her with much more. In her letters Josephine often failed to add the correct plural endings to her words, and at a much later date she still spelled phonetically — trafayé for travaillé, for example.​a However common such failings, Alexander chose to be disturbed.

Alexander's concern about the lack of intellectual depth that he discovered in his wife appears in a letter he wrote to her from La Roche-Guyon in the May following their wedding. This letter (the very first from Alexander to Josephine that has survived) shows that he had already launched on the dangerous course of trying to improve his wife, and that she at this point had responded with all reasonable willingness. Yet we can also hear a faint note of disagreement and strain. Josephine, apparently, had reproached him for not writing to her:

Rely on my fairness [he answered her very sharply], and do not poison the pleasure which I take in reading what you say by reproaches which my heart does not deserve. . . . I am delighted at the desire to improve yourself which you have shown me. Such a taste, which one can always gratify, brings delights which are always pure, and has the precious advantage of leaving no regrets in the one who heeds it. By persisting in the resolution you have made, you will acquire knowledge that will raise you above the others and, combining wisdom with modesty, will make you an accomplished woman.​1

How can one characterize this letter other than to say that it shows Alexander de Beauharnais as a pedant and a prig? As the  p45 months went by, Josephine's intermittent and yet well-intentioned efforts to please him, these disagreements became more marked.

The first real test of separation soon came, when Alexander left for Brest in order to do service with his regiment. On the way he wrote to Josephine, telling her how much he anticipated her letters. 'You know how dear they are to me,' he declared, adding with his inescapable touch of officiousness, 'I do not doubt that you will keep yourself safe from any reproach.'​2 From Brest came a note of disappointment: 'I counted on finding letters from you on my arrival, but I was only half satisfied, for I was given a packet which contained letters from my friends only. Their promptness charmed me, but yours would have flattered me even more.'​3 Whatever concern Alexander may have had, in his next letter he breathed contentment: 'How tender, how pleasing, is the letter just received; the heart that inspired it must be sensitive indeed, and worthy of being loved. So it is. Yes, my heart, I truly love you, I long greatly to see you; and this expected moment, however near it may be, seems all too far away.'4

Josephine had told him of her hopes that she was to be a mother. Although these turned out to be false, they naturally enough caused Alexander to write tenderly to her. He vowed his delight in domestic tranquillity, urged her to take harp lessons with the famous Professor Petrini, and, ever alert to the problem of Josephine's literary improvement, suggested that she always send him the rough drafts of her letters so that he could go over them for her. He also wrote at this time to Madame Renaudin, seeking to mobilize her help in his great project, to determine, as he put it, 'what is to be done about my wife's letters'.5

Alexander visited Paris briefly in December. Then, after a short turn of duty at Verdun, rather than return to his wife, he went still again to La Roche-Guyon and the La Rochefoucauld entourage. Signs were already appearing of a certain unwillingness on the part of Josephine, whether through indolence or through pride, to be 'moulded' as her husband would have wished. One recalls the initial reluctance of the  p46 Marquis de Beauharnais to request Josephine as a bride for his son, on the grounds that she was too near Alexander's age and therefore not easily bent to her husband's will. Yet on the whole the two seemed content. The news had come that Josephine was unmistakably pregnant, in response to which Alexander wrote to Madame Renaudin, saying that he was trying to rearrange his duties so as to get a leave for August and September. 'My greatest desire,' he explained, 'would be gratified if I could have the means to be present at the accouchement of Madame de Beauharnais. Even though the conditions should be very hard I will certainly take my leave.'​6 He could hardly have offered to do less.

The second year of marriage witnessed Alexander pouring forth his troubles to his old tutor, Patricol, whom he saw at La Roche-Guyon. He had believed at first that he could live happily with his wife. He had subsequently formed a plan to 'commence' (the word should be noted) her education. He formed a determination, as he expressed it, 'to repair by my zeal the fifteen neglected years of her life'. Unfortunately, as he told Patricol, Josephine soon displayed 'such indifference and so little will to learn' that he renounced his plan, convinced that he was wasting his time. The failure led Alexander to change the pattern of his domestic life. He no longer stayed at home in the company of one who had nothing to say, but resumed in part his 'bachelor existence'. This, so he told Patricol, was costing him dearly, for he still preferred 'the happiness of a home and of domestic peace' to 'the tumultuous pleasures of society'. Alexander's hope had been that his wife would now make some efforts to attract him and to acquire those qualities he valued so highly. But what had been the result?

She wants me to occupy myself in society solely with her; she wants to know what I say, what I do, and what I write, and she never thinks to acquire the true means of . . . gaining my confidence — which I keep from her only with regret, and which I would gladly give her at the first indication of her eagerness to become better informed and more agreeable.​7

 p47  In answer to this outburst Patricol gave Alexander some sensible advice. Alexander might well be at fault through impatience and over-eagerness. Patricol therefore suggested that he cease the effort to direct his wife's training single-handed, and that others be mobilized in the struggle to provide Josephine with an education. He was sure that Madame Renaudin could find individuals, Josephine's father among them, who would read poetry, drama, history, and geography with her. During the forthcoming winter Patricol would find someone to take general charge of her studies.

Poor Josephine! What Alexander was unable to accomplish alone, the combined energies of all these might somehow achieve. The effort, moreover, seems to have been made. The defenceless, unschooled oiseau des îlets was pushed into borrowing the four volumes of the Abbé Vertot's fluent and imaginative Roman History in an attempt to improve herself, yet nothing indicates that she did more than borrow them. After Vertot had written his account of the siege of Malta someone had belatedly forwarded him certain relevant historical documents for which he had previously asked. Vertot's famous acknowledgment was, 'The siege of Malta is over.'​b Josephine, as it turned out, had little need to concern herself about Vertot's historical accuracies or inaccuracies. She abandoned her Roman studies almost as easily as Vertot abandoned his account of the siege of Malta, for she could now summon an unassailable womanly defence against this organized onslaught of the pedagogues. By now she was six months pregnant.

Patricol still did his best to improve the domestic atmosphere. He urged Madame Renaudin to persuade Josephine that 'brusqueness and dictatorialness are two bad ways to attract to her a husband whom she loves.' He guaranteed that Alexander had a tender heart and wished to be loved. After some sensible reflections on matrimony, he concluded hopefully, 'Do everything, Madame, which your zeal and affection dictate, and I have no doubt that we shall succeed, you and I, in reuniting the two spouses whose happiness is so inseparable from our own.'​8a Sensible and honest words, these, which raise Patricol far above the pedantic level of some of his earlier letters!

 p48  Josephine was delivered of a son on 3 September 1781 at the family home on the rue Thevenot. She was now eighteen and Alexander twenty‑one. The child, destined some day to be viceroy of Italy and to have three of his children upon royal thrones, was baptized the next day at the church of Saint-Sauveur as Eugène-Rose. Alexander was at home for an event that seemed to strengthen the ties binding two young parents. Yet 'a taste for liberty and an inflexible will' (these are Josephine's words) soon led her husband on further adventures. On 1 November he left alone on a tour of Italy that occupied him until the following year. Madame Renaudin is said to have encouraged him to go away, for even after the birth of Eugène apparently all had not been harmony in the home.

When Alexander returned in July of 1782 Josephine received him 'with the greatest evidences of joy', and he in turn 'seemed enchanted to find himself with her again'. (These too are Josephine's later words.) About this time the Marquis de Beauharnais moved to a more fashionable residence on the rue Neuve-Saint‑Charles, not far from the church of Saint-Philippe du Roule. As Josephine's father now left for Martinique, and as the new home was leased in the name of Alexander de Beauharnais rather than of the old marquis, Josephine was nearer to having a ménage of her own than she ever had been before.

In these circumstances Josephine now found herself pregnant for the second time. Unfortunately, the domestic rapprochement was brief. In a few months the restless Alexander was away again, this time on the high seas for Martinique, and with him aboard ship was the Madame de Longpré of his romantic amours in the summer before his marriage.

Why did Alexander thus determine to leave France and his wife for Martinique? Although events can be described, motives, especially at the distance of two hundred years, often elude us. Alexander's decision to go abroad may have been inspired by his domestic troubles. It may have been due to the legitimate ambition of a professional soldier, for since the  p49 American Revolution continued, French forces were needed to meet the English threat to the West Indies. The decision may have been a secret plan arranged by him because of his infatuation for Madame de Longpré.

A more complicated explanation, involving the Tascher de la Pagerie family, is also possible. Like Alexander, Madame de Longpré had relatives who had been involved in the humiliating surrender of Martinique to the English in 1762, and these relatives had been the subject of bitter criticisms from the Taschers. Some local historians of Martinique have claimed that Madame de Longpré, deeply resentful of such criticisms, sought her revenge in wrecking Josephine's marriage, and with this plan in mind took passage for Martinique on the very ship on which she had persuaded Alexander to embark.

Whatever the reasons for his going, Alexander moved quickly. He applied to the Marquis de Bouillé, now appointed as governor of the Windward Islands, for a post as aide-de‑camp, submitting a letter from his old mentor, the Duke de La Rochefoucauld. The duke claimed to have known him since infancy and vowed him to be 'a young man full of uprightness and character, having wit and a great desire to learn . . .'​9 Because Bouillé left France hastily without heeding the letter, this project fell through. Alexander, nevertheless, was not rebuffed. Applying for leave from his regiment, he arranged to go to Martinique on his own, planning to offer his services to Bouillé as a simple volunteer. On 6 September, with no farewell to his wife, he left Noisy-le‑Grand. Echoes persisting all through their exchange in the next two months show that they had quarrelled again.

During the time that Alexander spent en route from Paris to Brest, and while he subsequently waited impatiently for his ship to sail, he sent Josephine at least eighteen highly revealing, if somewhat repetitive letters. His is a remarkably well-documented departure. Although not one of Josephine's letters has survived, it is clear from Alexander's comments that she wrote on numerous occasions to her husband. By turning the pages of one half of this correspondence we can reconstruct a  p50 good deal of the couple's relation­ship, we can obtain some direct insight into the character of Alexander, and, more important for our purposes, make some revealing inferences about Josephine.

Alexander had left Noisy for Paris late at night and by stealth. In a letter to Josephine he professed, in Werther-like fashion, to lay bare his bleeding heart:

Will you pardon me, ma chère amie [Alexander wrote at three o'clock in the morning], for having left you without farewell, for having gone away without warning, for having fled without having told you again, a last time, that I am all yours? Alas! What can you not read in my soul? . . . Love of my wife and love of glory, each rules supreme in my heart. . . . You disapprove of me today; this afflicts me cruelly; but the day will come, ma tendre amie, when you will be grateful to me for having courage to make so many sacrifices. . . . Adieu! My heart is, and always will be, yours.​10

Reaching Brest, Alexander was shocked to find that no letter awaited him. Having quickly composed an indignant protest, he sat down to dinner, during which the courier arrived, bearing the letter from Josephine he awaited, which now melted him to tenderness — of his own peculiar sort. Some indication of Alexander's petulant nature appears in the manner of his response, for though he now hastened to add further paragraphs avowing his satisfaction and relief, he evidently saw no need to conceal those stinging passages, hot with indignation, which he had first composed.

Alexander's letters written to Josephine from Brest — 'this bitch of a town', as he called it — where he awaited the ship that would take him to America, are reminders of a relation­ship in which Alexander's affection grew to be more and more obviously a pretence. News from his wife would cause him to send her messages avowing his devotion while, when couriers arrived without letters from her, anger and bitter denunciation would pour forth. More than once Alexander vowed never to write again. Yet not only did he write when he had vowed that he would not, in language worthy of W. S. Gilbert's Nanki‑Poo he itemized those of his complaints which in the same breath he swore he would not itemize:

 p51  I will not, then, say that I love you, whatever pleasure I may find in repeating this to you. I will not say that since my departure I have not received, on the average, even two letters a week from you. I will avoid explaining to you that, for myself, I do much work here, that I have duties to perform and a very extensive correspondence to handle. I will avoid saying that you, assuredly, do not have as much business as I have. You would find it wrong [for me to say all this]. I will say simply, therefore, that I believe my letters have not reached you and that I have been no more fortunate in the case of several of my friends.​11

In our twentieth century, when letter writing is becoming a lost art, the husband who can count on two letters a week from his wife may feel has little reason to complain. Not so Alexander. In addition to objecting he frequently showed signs of being carried away by his own eloquence. He concluded:

I am excessively sad and melancholy. The most effective means of driving out the blackness of my spirits, you possess. With your assurance of tenderness I would destroy one part of my suffering and would acquire the strength to rise above the other. Adieu, ma chère amie, I have promised not to speak of love. I must then, do no more than move my lips as if to kiss you a thousand times.​12

Alexander had no doubt persuaded himself that he had good reason for his complaints. Since he kept careful inventory of these letters of the heart, he could argue that he had received only one letter from Josephine in return for every two he sent. We have to imagine Josephine's replies from Alexander's comments. It appears that in some fashion she managed to answer, and that this girl, whose very syntax had been subjected to Alexander's minutest scrutiny, took what steps she could to defend herself against his attacks.

By mid‑October the domestic storms caused by these disagreements had subsided. So calm, indeed, was the atmosphere that Alexander wrote his wife what purported to be an abject apology. He declared that he was angry at himself for his injustice and asked pardon a thousand times. 'Since you assure me of it,' he wrote, still with a suggestion of stiffness,  p52 'I do not doubt that you have written to me regularly, but the contents of my last letter to you will prove that the post has not served you well.'​13 Later he wrote in the tenderest terms about the infant Eugène and about Josephine's unborn child, which, with his typical complacency, he assumed would be another boy. 'Kiss my dear little Eugène with all your heart, and guard his little brother,' he urged in one letter. 'I kiss you, Eugène, and the little Scipio. Mon Dieu! When shall I see him?' he wrote in another. 'Think of the little being whom you carry; watch over him, and over your health.' On still another occasion he was concerned about Josephine's physical condition. 'Get well fast,' he wrote, 'so that I may have one sorrow less. So Eugène is well.​8b Tell me how many teeth he has, and kiss him as you would your husband, with the same tenderness . . .'14

This happy atmosphere was soon clouded by Alexander's renewed protests. Trivial reasons, complaints about 'silence', complaints about 'sensitiveness', complaints about the other's 'complaints' were piled one on the other. In one letter Alexander grandiloquently vowed that he looked forward to death: 'Amid the risks of war and of the seas, where I go to seek death, I shall, without sorrow and without regret, see a life taken from me whose moments will have been reckoned only in misfortunes. Adieu!'​15 Having thus contemplated death, the versatile Alexander soon afterwards volunteered advice in the difficult realm of infant training. He was concerned lest Eugène be weaned too early. He was equally concerned lest Eugène be the subject of too much motherly affection. 'You will guard in advance,' the twenty‑two-year‑old soldier on his way to the wars instructed Josephine, 'against a sentiment . . . which is almost universal in your sex and which leads most mothers to spoil the children.'16

The long-awaited news of imminent departure reached Alexander on 18 November. Sailing orders had arrived and at last he could embark. A week later his vessel had moved from Brest to a position off the harbour of La Rochelle, where it anchored for another exasperating delay. The waiting dragged on; unhappily, no letters came from his wife; and the least of Alexander's virtues was patience.

 p53  The novel written in the form of an exchange of letters and the 'comedy of tears' were both standard forms of late eighteenth-century literature. It may well have been that during his long wait, which in sum came to more than three months, Alexander had found diversion and not a little pleasure in fashioning a comédie larmoyante of his own. Even so, a note of genuine indignation is discernible amid the self-pity of his last letter from the rather coast.

I hoped to receive further news from you; but I have hoped in vain. . . . The dinghy has just arrived, and there is not a word from you! Is it possible that you refuse this consolation to a poor husband who does nothing but toss back and forth without making any progress towards his destination? . . . Ah, unhappy absence! How many troubles you cause me to foresee! For the rest, if your inconstancy is inevitable do not keep me in ignorance, so that I may never see you again. Adieu! Forgive my letter, but I am furious.​17

After four days of anchor, Alexander's ship, appropriately named the Venus, began on 21 December the month-long crossing that took him and Madame de Longpré to Martinique.

The Author's Notes:

1 Hanoteau, Ménage, p85.

2 Ibid., p88.

3 Ibid., p89.

4 Ibid., p90.

5 Ibid., p96.

6 Ibid., p107.

7 Ibid., pp101‑3.

8a 8b Ibid., p106.

9 Ibid., pp112‑3.

10 Ibid., pp114‑5.

11 Ibid., pp137‑8.

12 Ibid., pp138‑9.

13 Ibid., p132.

14 Ibid., pp123, 134, 135, 140.

15 Ibid., p137.

16 Ibid., p142.

17 Ibid., pp145‑6.

Thayer's Notes:

a See for example Josephine's autograph note on p126.

b The reader shouldn't form the idea from this quick piece of writing that a siege of Malta had anything to do with Roman history: the 16c siege falls under a different work by the abbé Vertot, for whom see the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

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