Short URL for this page:
In the last days of the Terror, during which Josephine came within a hair's breadth of destruction, she was saved by the dramatic working of events. Three days after her husband's death, on the ninth day of the revolutionary month of Thermidor, the seemingly all‑powerful Robespierre fell. The great Jacobin was brought down by other, lesser Jacobins, fearful that the Terror by means of which he had hoped to inaugurate the Reign of Virtue would destroy them too. On the hot 28th of July — the tenth of Thermidor — Robespierre and his little group of zealots were taken to what is now the Place de la Concorde and there guillotined as many thousands had been before them.
With Robespierre's fall the extreme Terror quickly subsided. The Revolution, to be sure, still continued. The great Committee of Public Safety, the Revolutionary Tribunal, and the other political machinery of these bloodstained years could not at once be put aside, but since new and less fanatical men were at the helm the whole tempo of revolution gradually changed. This 'Thermidorean Reaction', so different from what preceded it, has been compared not improperly to the stage of exhaustion in a patient following the crisis of a desperate illness.
What lucky chance was it that had helped Josephine to escape her husband's fate? She seems to have anticipated death. Witness the story which says that soon after Alexander's execution she found that the straw mattress in her own cell was gone. Despite her companion's urging her to regain it, she said there was no need to complain, as she too would soon make the journey to the guillotine. The facts proved to be otherwise, and the explanation of them may lie in a strange tale.
p101 There has been uneartheda the mysterious name of one Delperch de la Bussière, a minor actor employed by the Committee of Public Safety, who is said to have made a practice of removing the dossiers of certain favourite prisoners, so that, through the default of documents, their trials would have to be postponed. We are asked to believe more than this — that La Bussière not only stole selected dossiers, he then literally ate them, thereby most decisively bringing the machinery of revolutionary justice to a full halt. It has been asserted that in all he caused 1,153 compromising documents and dossiers to disappear. Josephine gave evidence of believing that she owed some debt to La Bussière. Much later, in April of 1803, she paid handsomely for tickets to a benefit performance put on at the Porte Saint-Martin Theatre on behalf of this unusual character. She attended with her husband and sent him a purse of a thousand francs with the notation, 'in grateful remembrance'. Whatever the explanation for the failure of Josephine to come to trial, it is a fact that the folio in the national archives that contains the documents for Alexander's trial does not have those for his wife.
One after another the doors of the prisons swung open. General Hoche, leaving the Conciergerie, soon offered a post on his staff to the youthful Eugène de Beauharnais. On 6 August 1794 an official order signed by Jean Tallien, a member of the Committee of Public Safety, declared that la citoyenne Beauharnais was to be released. Josephine had come in contact with Tallien during the preceding year when she had written to him asking for the release from prison of thence of the aged Marquis de Moulins. She had also sought his help at the time of Alexander's arrest, but without success. Much later Eugène wrote in his Memoirs about Josephine's liberation as follows:
My mother was freed some little time after [the death of Alexander]. I would like to name here the man to whose kindness we owed this good deed. It was the deputy, Tallien. I have always been grateful to him for this, and fortunately I have been in a position to give him repeated proofs of what I felt.1
Josephine collapsed on hearing the news that she was to be p102 free. Despite the rigours and stains of the Carmelite prison, her charm had not deserted her. One of the inmates tells of how at this critical moment a crowd of her companions applauded the good news. 'When she came to herself,' the account adds, 'she made her adieux and went forth amid the good wishes and benedictions of the whole establishment.'2
A new age was beginning for France. A revolutionary, republican régime was, to be sure, still in the saddle and the so‑called 'new men' — the 'Thermidoreans' — were in reality not new at all; they were simply agile revolutionaries who had survived the Terror. Slippery careerists such as Barras, Tallien, and Fouché, names that will recur in the life of Josephine, now took up the reins of power from the grim Robespierrists whom they had overthrown. Gradually the most savage of the revolutionary legislation was repealed. In November the Paris Jacobin Club, with whose aims Josephine had so desperately asserted her sympathies (surely the most bizarre claim she ever made), was closed.
'Revolutionary government' was clearly becoming a thing of the past, so much so that by September of 1795, the surviving deputies of the Convention were able to complete a new constitution for France. Executive power was to be in the hands of a committee of five directors, elected from the legislative body, and legislative power was divided between two elected groups, the Council of Ancients and the Council of Five Hundred. Constitutional developments had, as such, little interest for the unpolitical Josephine, yet it was to be the changing fortunes of politics between the years 1794 and 1799 that made Josephine's new life what it was. The most prominent of the directors, Paul Barras, soon came into close association with her. Moreover, by challenging and overthrowing the authority of the Council of Ancients and the Council of Five Hundred, a certain Napoleon Bonaparte, having made himself master of Josephine, likewise made himself the master of France.
Josephine undertook her new life, not in the arena of politics, but in the neurotic atmosphere of a sick society. p103 Europeans of the twentieth century who have lived through the fevered aftermath of two world wars can doubtless appreciate the nature of the uprooted, cynically immoral society that followed the austere period of 'republican virtue'. The Revolution had earlier found its heroes in such noble Romans as Brutus, Cicero, and the Gracchi. These ancient shadows of the Roman past were now ignored by the living exponents of a life of dissipation and pleasure.
Groups of foppish young men known as the Gilded Youth (the Jeunesse dorée) roamed the streets, wearing fantastically cut clothing with tight trousers, coats with very narrow waists, and huge neckerchiefs concealing the chin, often the mouth, and sometimes the nose. They carried daggers, sword-sticks, and heavy canes, armed with which they would enter cafés and theatres in order briskly to crack open the heads of former Jacobins. Their speech was marked by an affected lisp. The letter 'r' disappeared entirely from the vocabulary who vouched for their assertions with the simpering oath, 'paole supême'. In their eccentric manner of conversation a new, single word, 'Sexa?' replaced the conventional question, 'Qu'est‑ce que c'est que ça?'
'Pleasure,' wrote a Swiss visitor, 'is the order of the day.' Paris had at least thirty-three public theatres and over two hundred smaller halls for amateur performances. Gambling was all the rage. On the streets the crowds of prostitutes began to operate with what a police report called 'their former audacity'. Above all, the public devoted itself to dancing. This became such a mania that the more than six hundred dancehalls of the capital could not suffice. Dances were held everywhere. With reckless affectation people danced in the former prisons — the Carmelites, for example. The Bal des Zéphyrs was held among the very tombs of the cemetery of Saint-Sulpice. 'They would have danced,' writes an outraged historian of a later generation, 'on Noah's Ark. They would have danced on the Raft of the Medusa.'3 An especially popular entertainment was the Bal à la Victime to which only relatives of those who had been guillotined could be invited. As if in preparation for the guillotine, men cut their hair short and p104 women wore theirs high on the head leaving the nape of the neck bare. A narrow scarlet ribbon worn by the ladies seemed to make a blood‑red line around the throat, while during the dance the head was jerked back and forth as if ready to fall into the basket of the guillotine.
These gruesome pleasures went on while some Frenchmen waxed fat and others starved. Fortunes were made and then recklessly squandered by the war profiteers, the contractors, and the speculators who had flourished in these years of crisis. This was at a time when a vicious inflation affected France. A bushel of flour which in 1790 would have cost 2 livres now in 1795 cost 225 paper livres. The cost of a pair of shoes in the same time had risen from 5 to 200 livres, and a half-hogshead of wine from 80 to 2,400 livres. While some people begged and shivered in the streets, others gorged themselves at magnificent banquets.
Feminine society in these last months of the Convention and in the new era of the Directory was a strange, hot‑house growth. 'Good' society had disappeared. On the streets, in the walks and arcades of the Palais Royal, in the pleasure gardens of Tivoli, in the rustic haunts of the Champs-Élysées, in the theatres, the dance-halls, and the cafés, everywhere paraded the women of this new age, the 'Marvellous Ones' — les Merveilleuses. They read little except erotic romances, and talked little except scandal. Their dress was at first ridiculously ornate, with skirts so long and full that they had to be carried looped over one arm. Women wore enormous bonnets which made the face almost invisible, and were prone to festoon themselves with a wild litter of trinkets, fans, satchels, and jewellery. Their faces, first dusted white with rice-powder, were then heavily rouged. It was fashionable, too, to have a small dog on leash, preferably a mongrel, or carlin. Josephine had hers — the much-loved Fortuné, with its weasel head and corkscrew tail, that Eugène and Hortense had brought with them when they visited their mother in prison and that later bit Napoleon on his wedding night. For reasons that are not clear it was understood that such dogs were to be led by ribbon that must be green.
p105 Les Merveilleuses soon discovered the charm of the antique Greek costume, a charm all the more alluring because its exponents could make use of fragile, diaphanous fabrics. After the sans-culottes now came the sans-chemises. The elements of this costume were a classic diadem on the head, a clinging, gauzelike robe having a belt fastened with large cameos, a very light cashmere shawl, sandals fitted to bare feet, and toes covered with rings. This attire underwent increasingly daring modifications, all intended much less to cover than to reveal the charms of nature — most particularly those intimate charms elegantly described by a contemporary as the twin reservoirs of maternity. The dazzling Madame Tallien was pleased to appear in a diaphanous robe under which she wore flesh-coloured tights spangled with golden stars. Even in Paris, however, it was possible to overdo (or underdo) such matters, for when Josephine's creole friend, Madame Hamelin, undertook to walk from the Luxembourg to the Champs-Élysées, in a costume that left her naked to the waist, she was followed by a jeering mob. Josephine, who soon became a part of this society, achieved a certain distinction by refusing to adopt the wilder vagaries of such fashions.
The leader of this society — 'the sorry queen of a motley court' — was Thérèse de Cabarrus, the lovely daughter of a Spanish banker, once married to a Monsieur de Fontenay and subsequently divorced. During the Revolution she had plunged into a reckless life that led her, after imprisonment under the Terror, to become the mistress and then the wife of Tallien, one of the most prominent of the victors of Thermidor. One of the directors, Barras, took Madame Tallien for a time as his mistress; she then turned from him to the banker, Ouvrard. Under the Empire she married again to become Countess of Caraman — a title later changed to that of Princess of Chimay. So prominent was Thérèse in these first months of the Directory that she became known, in the blasphemously cynical phrase of the times, as 'Our Lady of Thermidor'. Jean Tallien introduced Thérèse to Josephine and, discovering a mutual affinity, the two women became in some sense the twin rulers of this strange society.
p106 In July of this year Commander of Brigade Napoleon Bonaparte, then anything but a ladies' man, wrote from Paris, to his brother Joseph as follows:
Women are everywhere — applauding the plays, walking in the promenades, reading in the bookshops. You will find the lovely creatures even in the professor's study. Here is the only place in the world where they deserve to steer the ship of state; the men are mad about them, think of nothing else, and live only for them. Give a woman six months in Paris, and she knows where her empire is and what is her due.4
And in August the moody soldier wrote again:
I hardly care what happens to me. I watch life almost indifferently. . . . Everything leads me to face death and destiny without flinching, and if this continues I shall end by not stepping out of the way of a passing carriage. I am sometimes astonished at myself, but such is the abyss to which I have been brought by the moral spectacle of this country and by my familiarity with danger.5
Amid this 'moral spectacle' Josephine had to find her way.
In this cynical, disillusioned world of 1795 Josephine appears in a new light. Her problem — starkly simple — was that of survival. The boy, Eugène, now under the wing of General Hoche, was no longer a prime responsibility. After a short service with Hoche he was sent to a school at Saint-Germain — the Collège irlandais directed by one Patrick McDermott. Hortense returned to the care of Madame Renaudin and the Marquis de Beauharnais at Fontainebleau. From here she was soon sent to the thriving school, the Institution nationale de Saint-Germain-en‑Laye founded and directed by Madame Campan, once first femme de chambre to Marie Antoinette. Now freer than ever before, mature, sophisticated, and surely a woman of few illusions, Josephine, by the testimony of observers, had developed an elegance, a charm, and a sympathy for others that served her well and kept from succumbing to the wild extravagances and shrill vulgarities of her surroundings. The writer Frénilly, who knew Josephine in 1795, while conceding her kindliness and charm described her p107 rather acidly as one of those women who are able to stay for fifteen years at the age of thirty — no small achievement, surely, in view of fortune's buffetings. A woman for whom the ties of family had been now sharply broken, for whom religion seems to have offered little consolation or guidance, is it surprising that she should have drifted with the currents of her times?
The charm that Josephine demonstrated in these months did not lack an element of calculation. A member of the Convention, Jean Debry, had taken occasion in a public session to speak well of her late husband. She wrote at once to thank him for 'doing justice to a virtuous republican who had perished, victim to his aristocratic lineage'. Josephine sent Debry a copy of Alexander's last letter:
You will see [she explained] that as he approached the close of a life devoted entirely to the Revolution, and at the moment what a man would have no reason to hide his true feelings, he was happy to expound still further that ardent love of country which has never ceased to be his inspiration.6
Josephine ended her letter by urging Debry to continue likewise to serve his country with zeal, and to protect wherever he could innocence and virtue. Sensibly enough, Josephine sought to have friends in court.
Unwilling now to fling herself upon the sympathy and help of the ageing Madame Renaudin at Fontainebleau, Josephine sought her means of support elsewhere. With her husband dead and his estates sequestered she could count on nothing from this source. During the revolutionary years she had been advanced substantial sums by a banker of Dunkirk named Emmery who traded with the Antilles and for years had done business for the Tascher family. Emmery had been a member of the Legislative Assembly in Paris and was imprisoned for a time during the Terror. Besides having this connexion with Josephine's family, he had in some degree, therefore, shared her prison experiences. From 1792 onwards she had practically lived on loans from 'our good friend Emmery', who, as she told her mother in Martinique, 'has fed me for three years'.7 By 1795 she had come to owe him what she described p108 only as 'considerable sums'. Josephine also wrote several letters to the Hamburg bankers, Matthiessen and Guillem, who had acted as a transfer agent for funds, telling them, too, of her hardships and offering jewellery as a pledge for cash from them. Sometime in 1795 she managed even to make a hasty trip to Hamburg, seeking to expedite the arrival of money.
Several letters to her mother in these anxious months of 1794 and 1795 tell the same story. Since England and France were at war and Martinique had been captured again, communications were difficult. In November, apparently giving news of her troubles for the first time, she wrote as follows:
A person leaving for New England has agreed to forward this letter to you. I shall be very happy to have it bring you the news that your daughter and grandchildren are well. Doubtless you have heard of my misfortune. I have been a widow for four months. For consolation I have only my children, and you, dear mama, for my support. My most eager wish is that someday we may all be united.8
In December she wrote again:
As for your poor daughter, she exists, as do her children, but they have the misfortune to have lost their father. I had reasons for being attached to my husband which cause me to regret his loss; my children now have only me for their support, and I cling to life only to make them happy. Even as I do, they owe to M. Emmery of Dunkirk their means of subsistence.9
And again in January 1795:
Without the care of my good friend Emmery and his associate I don't know what would have become of me. I know your affection too well to have even the least doubt that you will provide me with the means to live, and that you will recognize and pay off what I owe to M. Emmery.10
Again and again the requests went forth to Martinique. Madame Tascher de la Pagerie, widowed and poor, was in no position to do much. Some funds, however, were sent, and with their aid Josephine survived.
p109 Little trace of the timid bird of the islands appears in the hard-driving woman of this new age. In February of 1795 Josephine petitioned the Committee of General Security to have the seals taken from her apartment on the rue Saint-Dominique, so that she could take over her furniture and belongings. The Committee approved, 'as an act of justice', over the signatures of Josephine's good friend, Tallien, and others. In April she organized a 'family council' of close friends, which appointed her as tutrice of her children; on the strength of this she went to Fontainebleau and borrowed from Madame Renaudin the sum of fifty thousand livres in inflated assignats in the name of her children, the money coming from the proceeds of the sale of the house at Fontainebleau. In June she ingeniously submitted a formal appeal to the Committee of Public Safety, asking them to supply her with two horses and a carriage in compensation for those horses which Alexander had left behind when he gave up command of the Army of the Rhine. Surprisingly enough, her request was granted, so that she could appear on the streets of Paris with a fine carriage and a pair of seven-year‑old black Hungarian horses. Soon afterwards she asked that Alexander's books, silver, and furniture, which had been impounded at La Ferté, be returned to her or, in the event they had been sold, that she be compensated for them. In March 1796 this request, too, was granted. Still later she asked (this time without success) that in return for the loss of a family plantation at Santo Domingo, pillaged by native insurgents, she be indemnified in actual quantities of sugar and coffee — commodities that would have been very profitable on the Paris market. No mean undertakings, these, for a woman whose life had given her little experience in the fine arts of diplomacy, financial bargaining, and backstairs intrigue.
The chance survival of two official passes from the Committee of General Security, granting permission for Josephine to travel from Paris to Fontainebleau, gives us an almost photographic impression of what she then must have looked like. The first, dated '27 messidor an III' (15 July 1795), is as follows:
p110 Age twenty-nine years, height five feet, nose and mouth well‑made, eyes orange, hair and eyebrows dark brown, face long, chin somewhat prominent.
The second, dated '5 brumaire an IV' (27 October 1795), reads:
Age twenty-nine years, height five feet, eyes dark, hair chestnut, mouth small, chin round, forehead medium, nose small.11
Beauty, and the classification of it, owe much to the beholder. The strange description of the eyes as 'orange' probably represents what we would call hazel — which under varying conditions of light and costume could vary from topaz to green or to blue. We can understand and accept, therefore, the obvious discrepancies in these documents. Josephine alone must be held responsible, however, for understating her age by three years. She doubtless had her reasons, for at this latter date (October) she had just made the acquaintance of an interesting Corsican officer six years younger than herself.
A little more than a year after leaving prison — to be exact, on 17 August 1795 — Josephine had signed a lease on the town house occupied by the citoyenne Julie Carreau, estranged wife of the celebrated French actor Talma. For this house, despite her perennial financial troubles, Josephine agreed to pay the large annual rent of four thousand francs in metallic currency. (The franc had replaced the livre in April as the basic monetary unit.) She took possession in October. In this soon to be famous dwelling, Number 6, rue Chantereine, Josephine and Bonaparte were to begin their married life. Here too, in November of 1799, was hatched the conspiracy of Brumaire that made Bonaparte master of France. And a few months later Josephine would leave this home to take up her residence at the Luxembourg and later at the Tuileries as wife of the first consul and first lady of France.
Not a stone now remains of Josephine's house, for it was demolished in 1859 to accommodate the splendid building plans of Napoleon III. Today, in the bustling centre of Paris, not far from the Gare Saint-Lazare, the modern banking and p111 commercial buildings of the present rue de la Victoire rise where it once stood. The establishment exists, therefore, only as a legend, yet one that is vivid and spectacular. In 1795 the scandals connected with the name of Julie Carreau, along with others in the vicinity like her, had helped to give an air of disrepute to this neighbourhood where gallant adventures, so it seems, were easily come by.
An atmosphere of seclusion, impossible in the Paris of today, marked the house of 1795. One approached it through a massive porter's lodge on the rue Chantereine. From this a paved lane, flanked by high buildings opened into a courtyard, on either side of which were a stable and coach-house. In the stable were kept the two fine carriage horses from Hungary, and, with deceptive rusticity, a utilitarian red cow. The main house, in reality a small pavilion, stood in the centre of the open space with a small wooded garden beyond. Several steps led up to a kind of veranda that shielded the principal entrance.
Everything about the interior, in time to be elaborately re‑decorated by Josephine's orders, suggested both the fashions of the period and the particular quality of her taste. The house is best pictured, therefore, not as it was when Josephine took it over, but as it appeared after two or three years of her lavish attention, when it was to be the home of General Bonaparte, conqueror of Italy. A small entrance hall, the walls painted with military trophies, was sparsely furnished with a fountain of copper, an oak lowboy, and a tall pine cupboard. In the dining-room, which also served as a petit salon, stood a round mahogany drop-leaf table, four mahogany chairs covered in black horsehair, some serving wagons, and two elegant marble-topped side tables. Glass-doored cupboards fitted into the walls contained an English tea service of Sheffield plate in an Etruscan design, together with vases and dishes. On the walls were eight prints, one, in red chalk, representing Innocence in the Arms of Justice. Beyond this was another small salon, semicircular in shape. Its marble mantelpiece had gilt-bronze decorations; there was a fine pianoforte by Bernard; sixteen framed prints hung on the walls. This semicircular salon had white painted woodwork, green walls, ornaments of griffins' p112 wings, and stucco bas‑reliefs of scenes from Roman history. Amid this Roman décor Josephine also managed to include, for whatever reason, a bust of Socrates. Such classic magnificence undoubtedly represented the vogue, yet one is intrigued to think that somewhere the restless ghost of Alexander de Beauharnais could rejoice that sixteen years after he had urged his wife to the reading of vertot's Roman History the artistic fruits were thus manifest.
A narrow staircase curved upwards to next floor, which was low‑ceilinged and insufferably hot in summer. Josephine's bedroom had a kind of awning fitted to the ceiling on which were painted garlanded swans swimming in a sea of pink roses. The chairs were finished in bronze; the bed was covered in blue nankeen tufted with red and yellow; and a fine harp made by Renaud stood in the corner. On the door was painted a head of Diana, goddess of the moon and of various other matters, including fertility in women. An adjacent dressing-room had its walls, and even the doors leading from it, entirely covered with mirrors. After marrying Bonaparte, Josephine had the bedroom decorated in red, white, and blue to represent a soldier's tent. Instead of chairs there were stools covered with cloth and chamois to simulate regimental drums, while the twin beds, finished in bronze, had an artful spring arrangement enabling them to come together or be separated at will. Bonaparte was also provided with a tiny study so dark that reflectors were placed outside the two windows in an attempt to dispel some of the gloom. In the attic above were tiny chambers suitable either for servants or for the occasional visits of Eugène and Hortense.
To run such an establishment Josephine had need of a coachman, a manservant, a cook, a chambermaid, and a personal maid, the last being the faithful and long-suffering Marie Lannoy, whose wages, fixed at six hundred francs a year, Josephine usually kept for himself as a kind of perpetual and ever-expanding loan. Josephine also accepted in addition the larger sums that from time to time Marie somehow managed to scrape together for her impecunious mistress.
In these sophisticated and over-elegant surroundings, to p113 maintain which she would need resources far beyond her evident capacity to provide, a new Josephine took up residence about the end of October 1795. She did so just as the final rump sessions of the Convention had come to an end and France, at last freed from the wild fury of the Revolution, entered the uncertain era of the Directory.
The most obvious means by which Josephine could ensure her own survival and prosperity in this new world was to turn to those figures in whose hands influence lay. Tallien, one of the victors of Thermidor, had helped her win her freedom; and through Tallien Josephine had come to be a close friend of Thérèse Cabarrus. Thérèse was very well connected in government circles — she was the one whom the wits had dubbed 'government property'. Through Thérèse Josephine came to know some of the bankers, among them Ouvrard, who were making fortunes out of France's necessities. Through Thérèse also, Josephine now met Barras — another of the victors of Thermidor, a dominant power in Paris, and in the light of history surely one of most unattractive figures that the Revolution had produced. Josephine, so much and so inevitably a part of her times, saw him otherwise.
The biographers of Paul Barras have found few redeeming features in him. Yet in comparison with some of the blood-stained figures of the days of the Terror, savagely destroying all those who stood in their path, he might well have appeared to Josephine in a different light. He was, after all, an ex‑nobleman and an ex‑officer of the old régime; once in authority he sought to replace the rough surroundings of the Luxembourg with something of the elegance of a past era. His venality would hardly single him out from his immediate fellows. Most important of all, he was at the very centre of power. Josephine was in no position to judge too nicely. Only a year before she had been in prison, daily watching her friends go to their deaths and momentarily expecting the same fate. Now free, and alone, she made her way, like thousands of others, as best she could.
Barras, in his youth an officer in the regiment of Languedoc, p114 had sided enthusiastically with the Revolution, winning election to the Convention and voting without hesitation for the death of Louis XVI. He had made a fine career for himself as a 'deputy on mission' — one of those powerful agents of the central government sent periodically to the provinces to supervise both military and civilian affairs. At the siege of Toulon in 1793 he had come to know and respect Napoleon Bonaparte. Returning to Paris, he became a principal architect of Robespierre's downfall, and thus one of the most prominent figures in France. He had a remarkable instinct for survival. It is an interesting fact that of the five directors elected in the autumn of 1795 Barras received the smallest number of votes, and yet managed to remain a director until 1799 — the only one of the original membership to do so. At the time of the Vendémiaire rising (October 1795) in Paris against the Convention, Barras was the man who was put in charge of the troops and he was responsible for ordering Bonaparte to mount the artillery in the streets, which quickly dispersed the crowds.
By common report, which Josephine did much to encourage and nothing to deny, she now became the mistress of Barras. Her move was certainly one for which the exalted society of the ancien régime — to say nothing of the riotously immoral society of her own day — could have given ample precedent. It also provided generous scope for her enemies. A drawing by the English caricaturist, James Gillray — a violent opponent, to be sure, of everything connected with the Revolution and Napoleon — shows Josephine and Madame Tallien dancing naked before this most durable of the directors, while a startled General Bonaparte peers at the scene through a gauze curtain. One of his colleagues, La Revellière, has described Barras as follows:
With a fine carriage and a manly figure, he always had something of that common and brash air found in low society . . . He had a great, a tireless, capacity for intrigue. Falsehood and bottomless dissimulation, joined to other vices, grew stronger over the years. At the Luxembourg he was surrounded by the most dissolute fomenters of anarchy, by lost women, ruined men, 'fixers', speculators, p115 mistresses, and mignons. The most infamous debauchery was openly practised in his house . . . Though he always employed the language of a patriot, and even of a sans-culotte, he surrounded himself with an extraordinary luxury. He had all the tastes of an opulent, extravagant, magnificent, and dissipated prince.12
After November 1795, Barras set up his official residence in the Luxembourg Palace, where apartments had been allotted to each of the five directors. The setting was at first of Spartan simplicity. The years of revolution had worked their hardships, so that on arrival the new leaders of France were hard put to it to assemble even a few kitchen chairs and tables for their business, and were compelled to send out a footman for armfuls of firewood to counteract the bitter, freezing weather. Barras, the possessor of a considerable fortune, soon changed all that. Wearing the official director's costume designed by the artist David — a long, red mantle of richly embroidered fabric with a lace collar, knee breeches and silk stockings, a 'Roman' sword, and a plumed hat — and surrounded by cohorts of women 'more elegant than virtuous', he entertained constantly in a splendid setting of crystal chandeliers, gilt furniture, and red velvet armchairs festooned with gold lace. When he drove abroad the harness of his horses was mounted with solid silver.
Barras also maintained a retreat near the Rond-Point of the Champs-Élysées. This dwelling, 'La Chaumière', romantically designed like a farm-house with a thatched roof, stood amid a setting of poplars and lilacs in what were truly rustic surroundings. Leaders of the new society, Josephine among them, were often invited there to his suppers. Barras had in addition a town house where Josephine sometimes acted as hostess, sending out invitations over her own name. As if this were not enough, the director became a regular visitor to Josephine's country villa at Croissy. It was still hers in the sense that she continued to be obliged for the rent — an impossible burden that Barras willingly assumed. A neighbour, the future chancellor Pasquier, has recorded how on the morning of Barras' arrival at Croissy basket-loads of luxuries — game, fowls, and fruits — would precede him from Paris. Josephine, a 'typical p116 creole' and never a good housekeeper, would send urgently to her neighbours for casseroles, glasses, and plates. Sooner or later Barras and a gay cavalcade of friends would arrive on horseback from the city, and the celebrations would begin.
One little vignette of this unsavoury world occurs in the Memoirs of an obscure civil servant, François Besnard. Even after her marriage to Bonaparte in 1796, Josephine evidently did not deny herself the attractions of society in Barras' headquarters at the Luxembourg:
One day [Besnard writes] I happened to be at the foot of the staircase leading to the apartment of Citizen Barras, when I saw three ladies appear, tripping lightly up the steps. Their beauty, and the elegance of their dress which, according to the mode of the day, veiled but did not disguise their charms, caused me to think of the Three Graces of Antiquity. After they were gone I imagined that I could still she said them. Later I found out that they were mesdames Tallien, Bonaparte, and Récamier and that they came regularly to adorn the salons of the director. This was a new kind of surprise for me, who took him to be one of the most austere of republicans.13
One is surprised indeed that Besnard should have been surprised.
To Josephine, surely, nothing quite like Barras had ever appeared before. Whatever his dissipated qualities, and however transient their relationship, he gave Josephine a prominent place in this strange, vicious society of the Directory. Tiring at length of her, Barras was widely believed to have deliberately arranged her marriage to Bonaparte — a belief that gives him more credit than he deserves. Though not the matchmaker, Barras was, without question, close to both Josephine and Bonaparte. Until his definite breach with Napoleon after the coup of 1799 the generous-hearted Josephine kept on excellent terms with Barras, firing letters at him on a variety of matters — usually concerning jobs and money for others, or, on occasion, money for herself.
1 Eugène de Beauharnais, Mémoires, I.30.
2 C. A. Dauban, Les Prisons de Paris sous la Révolution (Paris, 1870), p375.
3 H. d'Almeras, Barras et son temps (Paris, 1930), p276.
4 Corr., I, no. 44.
5 Joseph Bonaparte, Mémoires et correspondance politique et militaire (Paris, 1855), I.142‑3.
6 Masson, JB, pp246‑7.
7 Aubenas, I.267‑8.
8 BN, Nouv. acq. fr., 9324, fols. 382‑4.
9 Ibid., fols. 385‑7.
10 Ibid., fols. 388‑91.
11 G. de Sainte-Croix de la Roncière, Joséphine impératrice des français (Paris, 1934), p98.
12 D'Almeras, Barras et son temps, pp205‑6.
13 F. Y. Besnard, Souvenirs d'un nonagénaire (Paris, 1880), II.146‑7.
a Here is where I would have liked to see a footnote with citation. As far as I can tell, Knapton is the first author to tell the tale of Delperch de la Bussière: later writers all refer back to him, and some (Philip Dwyer, for example, in Napoleon: The Path to Power) call this a "legend".
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 25 Jul 12