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Chapter 8

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 10

 p117  Chapter 9

Less than a year before that long-distant autumn of 1779 when Josephine with her father had taken ship from Martinique to marry Alexander de Beauharnais, an obscure government official on the Mediterranean island of Corsica had likewise embarked for France. The month was December 1778. With this official was his nine-year‑old son, Napoleone Buonaparte, who still used the Italian form of his name, and still spoke only the Corsican-Italian dialect. By virtue of belonging to the island nobility the boy had been given a government scholar­ship, first to a school at Autun where he could master French, thence to the military academy of Brienne where he would train for a career in the armies of Louis XVI. Boy and girl alike, each an utter stranger to the France where they were being taken, stood on the threshold of extraordinary lives, which after many turns of fortune would unite and find them a common destiny on an imperial throne.

The man who was to give Josephine her place in history came from an island setting strikingly different from that which she had known in Martinique. Each island had its singular beauties. The coastal areas of Corsica, where vineyards and chestnut forests are hemmed in by the blue waters of the Mediterranean, give place inland to a thinly settled countryside that is mountainous, wild, and semi-desert. The towns are small, and the simple life of the inhabitants, most of whom are farmers, shepherds, or vineyard keepers, has suggested to many visitors, not the least of them being James Boswell, the proud, stubborn, half-barbarous existence of the Highlanders of Scotland.

In the middle of the eighteenth century to be a native of Corsica was to wear a badge of honour. The Corsican people aided by France, had plunged into a struggle to win freedom  p118 from the unwelcome rule of the Republic of Genoa. The champion of Corsican independence, Pasquale Paoli, whose name became a household word to lovers of freedom throughout Europe, counted among his many followers the father of Napoleon. Napoleon's elder brother, Joseph, was born in the midst of the struggle and was carried, an infant in the arms of his mother, again great with child, as she loyally shared the rigorous campaigns with her husband. Napoleon himself was born soon after the conflict ended. In 1768 Genoa admitted defeat, ceding Corsica to France for a large cash payment. Many patriots, however, followed Paoli's lead and fought on, refusing to recognize this transfer to French sovereignty. Paoli himself did not actually give up the struggle until the following year when he left Corsica for an English exile. Just two months after Paoli's departure, Napoleon was born on 15 August 1769, at Ajaccio, thereby providing historians with the interesting, if inconclusive, speculation as to what might have been the course of history had his family followed Paoli to England and Bonaparte had been born a British subject.

Napoleon's father, Charles-Marie Buonaparte, was a member of the Corsican nobility — a nobility hardly noted for its elegance or sophistication, and one that was denied formal recognition in France. He had studied at Pisa and Rome, having the degree of doctor of laws. Extravagant and restless, the holder of various administrative posts in Corsica, he owned several houses, vineyards, and mills. He was a writer of poetry. A portrait of him in wig, lace ruff, velvet coat, and gold braid suggests a man very different from the picturesque rustics fighting with Paoli in the Corsican mountains.

Bonaparte's mother, Letizia Ramolino, was of Neapolitan descent; her father was an inspector-general of roads and bridges under the Genoese régime. Letizia was a remarkable character, so poorly educated as to be almost illiterate in the narrow sense of the term, yet dignified and intelligent. Many have described her as strikingly beautiful and, although she never could speak or write French without ridiculous mistakes, she had native ability and solid common sense. Throughout his life Napoleon was invariable in his admiration and respect for  p119 her. Letizia, for her part, accepted the meteoric rise of her son with unassailable caution, a quality that may go far to explain the reputation for parsimony unkind critics were quick to give her. 'She had her own version of Newton's law of gravity, and realized too well that what goes up must surely soon come down.'​1 She was to appear and reappear in the lives of Napoleon and Josephine and to outlive her famous son by fifteen years.

Thirteen children were born into the family, only eight of whom survived infancy. Joseph, the eldest to survive, preceded Napoleon by a year and a half. There were three younger brothers: Lucien, Louis (later to marry Joseph's daughter, Hortense), and the baby of the family, Jérôme. The three sisters were Elisa, Pauline, and Caroline. By the time this family of eight was completed Letizia was thirty-four; she had borne altogether thirteen children in less than twenty years; and she might well have had more. Her husband, however, died before fame had come to his second son. Napoleon's meteoric rise was to make possible splendid careers for all the members of his family, yet despite this, of perhaps even because of it, most of them displayed a hostility towards Josephine that grew with the years and continued to be directed towards her Beauharnais descendants throughout the nineteenth century.

When Bonaparte, at the age of nine, arrived with his father in France he left behind the fleeting world of childhood for his lifelong career as a soldier. The contrast is striking between the dedicated career of this strange young Corsican, now moving through the five disciplined years at Brienne to one further year of training at the famous École Militaire in Paris, and the easy, fashionable ascent of Alexander de Beauharnais. Bonaparte was poor, and his Corsican nobility — such as it was — gave him no entry into sophisticated society. He was an aspiring professional soldier, an artillerist, a student of mathematics and topography, a lonely reader of Plutarch's Lives, of Bossuet's Universal History, of Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws, and of Rousseau's Social Contract. His commission as second lieutenant in the Régiment de la Fère — a crack French regiment — was won in 1785, at the age of sixteen. This new career made him  p120 a soldier, but at first little else. In the same year he began his regimental duties, Josephine, having won her 'amicable separation' from Alexander de Beauharnais, had left the convent of Pentemont for a life of independence in Paris.

The moody young Corsican officer found ample time to commit to paper the many reflections arising from his reading. His notebooks were filled with annotations on Plato's Republic, on Rollin's Ancient History, on Buffon's Natural History. In his first year as an officer he composed his Thoughts on Suicide. A striking passage in his comments on Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins of Inequality reads as follows:

I think that man has never been a wanderer, isolated without connexions, without need of his fellows. I believe on the contrary that having emerged from infancy and arrived at the age of adolescence man felt the need of his fellows, that he became united to a woman and selected a cavern which had to be the centre of his excursions . . . The union was strengthened by custom, and by the tie of children, but it could be broken at will.​2

There has survived, too, a curious personal document of another sort — Bonaparte's account of what he calls a 'philosophic experience', a chance encounter with a girl in the arcades of the Palais-Royal on a November evening of 1787. He picture of this poorly clad, half-frozen fille, who had been brought to Paris from Nantes by an army officer and then abandoned, telling the young lieutenant bitterly of her sordid manner of existence ('one must live'), and then going with Bonaparte to his warm room, is an odd record of what seems to have been a novel episode in the young officer's life.

The French Revolution speeded up and transformed Bonaparte's career. For a time he was in the south of France with his regiment. Then for over a year he enjoyed an extended leave to Corsica visiting his family. Here some local sentiment had turned against France, and Bonaparte was in the unusual position of opposing some of those alongside whom his father fought. Early in 1791 he rejoined his regiment. Some unhappy encounters on the journey may have now prompted him to compose a brief sketch, his Dialogue on Love. 'I do more than dispute the existence of Love,' he wrote, 'I consider it to  p121 be actually as injurious to society as to the personal happiness of mankind. I believe that it adds to our lot more evil than it does good, and it would be a lucky chance if some kind fairy were to set us free from it.'​3 His scepticism ran deep: the boy of thirteen, he declared, has a friend; at twenty-three he has a mistress; at forty he loves his fortune; at sixty he loves nothing but himself.

Returning to Paris, he watched the mob attack the Tuileries in June 1792 and saw it massacre the Swiss guards in the uprising of the following August. The collapse of the monarchy made him a republican. In June 1793, he brought his almost impoverished family from Corsica to France, establishing them first at Toulon. A little pamphlet he wrote in 1793, Le Souper de Beaucaire, stamped him as a Jacobin. When Toulon, tiring of Robespierre's dictator­ship at Paris, opened its harbour to the British fleet and defied the Republic, Bonaparte was one of the officers sent to recapture the city. He made his plans, brilliantly. 'From that date,' Las Cases wrote at St Helena, 'history took him up, never to let him go. Then began his immortality.'​4 Toulon fell in December 1793, and Bonaparte, a marked man, became general of brigade. Throughout the following year he was in the south of France, involved in plans for an invasion of Piedmont. On the fall of Robespierre he became suspect and was imprisoned for ten days in the Mediterranean town of Antibes. His release after this brief imprisonment, which curiously parallels that of Josephine, meant that his position in the new régime following the Jacobin ascendancy was secure.

During the opening months of 1795 Napoleon came close to marriage with Désirée Clary. In the previous August his older brother, Joseph, had taken as his bride Julie Clary, daughter of a wealthy banker and silk merchant of Marseilles. Joseph and his wife then hoped that Julie's sister, the graceful, sensitive, seventeen-year‑old Désirée-Eugénie, would in turn wed Napoleon — and this despite the expressed view of Monsieur Clary that one Bonaparte in the family was enough. Désirée, it seems, was more in love with Napoleon than he with her. In April, nevertheless, they made some tender pledge to each other. How nearly the young general escaped marriage we  p122 can only guess; he told Bertrand at St Helena that on one occasion he found Désirée hiding under his bed. 'Take care of your life,' she wrote to him when he left for Paris, 'in order to preserve that of your Désirée, who could not live without you. Keep the vow that you have made to me, even as I shall keep mine to you.'​5 Désirée never destroyed the first drafts of these affectionate letters written to the man whom she did not marry. She was to become ultimately the wife of a marshal of France and go on to reign as queen of Sweden; she was to have many adventures and to live to be eighty-three; yet on her death these papers were still in her possession. And throughout her life she detested Josephine.

The Bonaparte who now came to Paris in May was a tormented man. In a military sense he had prospered. Only twenty-five, he had risen in ten years from second lieutenant to brigadier general. He had been put temporarily on the retired list because he would not accept a command in the Army of the West, which was engaged in fighting French royalists in Brittany. He even considered leaving for a time in order to serve as adviser on artillery to the Turkish government. He could, nevertheless, expect other more congenial army appointments in France. Though hardly popular, he was coming to be well-known, and he was liked and respected by Barras, the most powerful politician of the capital.

Now that Bonaparte was in Paris his understanding with Désirée was becoming clouded, for despite her avowals no more letters came. He was ready to send her his portrait, so he told Joseph in August, 'if she still wants it.'​6 In September he suggested that Joseph find out from her brother what Désirée's intentions really were. 'Either we settle this affair,' he wrote unhappily, 'or we break it off.'7

Bonaparte's letters to his brother show him to have been moody to the point of despair. There were hints of suicide. 'Life is but a light dream that soon vanishes,' he wrote.​8 Paris society, such as it was, appalled him. He intensely disliked the speculators and financiers who crowded the salons of the Directory. Ouvrard, one of these speculators, thought equally little of Bonaparte, labelling him in what is surely one of  p123 history's greatest misjudgements as 'the least notable of all those who made up the society of Madame Tallien, and the least favoured by fortune'.9

The continuing uncertainty about his relations and about his career provoked Bonaparte to impetuous moves. 'If I stay here,' he confessed despondently to his brother, 'it is not impossible that a mad desire to get married (la folie de me marier) will take possession of me.'​10 He turned from Désirée to an old Corsican friend, Madame Permon, a woman of noble Greek origin, widow of a wealthy government contractor. According to her daughter, the future Duchess d'Abrantès, Bonaparte at this time proposed to Madame Permon, fourteen years his senior, only to be promptly refused. He likewise made unavailing overtures, with what degree of seriousness we cannot tell, to a Madame de la Boucharderie. In such an atmosphere and in such a mood he was to make the acquaintance of Josephine — associate of Thérèse Cabarrus, good friend of Tallien and Barras, and, in this hectic autumn of 1795, shining ornament of Parisian society.

In turning to women considerably older than himself Bonaparte may well have been demonstrating the powerful subconscious influence exercised on him by his mother. All through his life he kept a deep affection for the handsome, dominating Letizia Ramolino, who had married at the age of fourteen and had borne Napoleon — her fourth child — when she was still only nineteen. 'She was a woman of great courage and great talent,' Napoleon told Dr O'Meara at St Helena, 'proud and high-minded.'​11 Was it this lurking image of his mother that aroused his uncertainties with respect to the youthful Désirée? When, soon after, he proposed to Madame Permon he sought the hand of someone who lacked only a few years being his mother's age. Josephine could make no such claim, to be sure, but she was cast in entirely different mould than was Désirée. She was six years older than Bonaparte, she was a widow, she was the mother of two children, and life had brought her extraordinary trials.

The fateful meeting of Bonaparte and Josephine arose out  p124 of political events in the capital. Appointed in August to the topographical bureau of the Committee of Public Safety, Bonaparte plunged with expert enthusiasm into plans for a French invasion of northern Italy. Quite unexpectedly he was projected to the very centre of the public stage. When, in October, the three years of rule by the Convention came to an end and the new Constitution of 1795 was to be submitted to popular ratification, resentment at some of its provisions led to mob demonstrations in the street and threats of an imminent attack on the government offices in the Tuileries. Barras, responsible for the defence of the capital, placed Bonaparte in charge of the artillery, and his cannonades from outside the Church of Saint-Roch on the rue Saint-Honoré — Carlyle's famous 'whiff of grapeshot' — helped to disperse at a cost of two or three hundred casualties the mobs threatening the Tuileries. This was the celebrated day of Vendémiaire (5 October) that saved the government and confirmed Bonaparte's reputation. 'We have disarmed the Sections,' Napoleon wrote to his brother, 'and all is quiet. As usual, I was unharmed.'​12 Removed some time before from the active list, he was now restored as general of division, second in command of the Army of the Interior.

The meeting with Josephine soon followed. If Bonaparte had earlier been briefly presented to Josephine in the salons of the Directory it could have been little more than a passing encounter. At St Helena Bonaparte admitted that as a young officer he had been awkward and extremely timid in the company of women. Chance now brought him into the presence of one who by nature and experience was well qualified to conjure away such inadequacies.

The Moniteur for 14 October carried a notice stating that Barras had announced in the Convention a few days before that all unauthorized weapons in the sections Lepelletier and Théâtre français were to be surrendered to the authorities. When a commissioner visited the Beauharnais household to enforce the rule, the boy Eugène, not yet away at school, protested in truly Roman fashion at having to surrender the sword of his father — once a general in the armies of the Republic. He was told, not unkindly, to seek permission from  p125 the commanding general in Paris. In this way General Bonaparte at his headquarters in the rue des Capucines received a visit from a solemn, fourteen-year‑old boy, asking as a matter of honour to retain his father's sword. Moved by the request, Bonaparte agreed. Soon after, an elegant lady called to thank Bonaparte for his sympathy to her son and for his respect to the memory of her husband. Struck by her charm, Bonaparte requested and was granted permission to visit her in her apartment in the Chaussée d'Antin.

It is not hard to imagine this meeting between the revolutionary soldier and the former viscountess. Josephine, radiant in her new social position, was mistress of the art of charm. Bonaparte was pale, thin, awkward, careless of his appearance, with lank hair reaching to his shoulders, wearing ill‑fitting boots and wretched clothes — presenting anything but the image of a victorious general of the new Republic. His appearance, however, did not prevent him from being invited to call again. 'One day,' he long afterwards recalled, 'when I was sitting next to her at table, she began to pay me all manner of compliments on my military qualities. Her praise intoxicated me. From that moment I confined my conversation to her and never left her side. I was passionately in love with her, and our friends were aware of this long before I ever dared to say a word about it.'13

Napoleon much later told General Bertrand that he had been led to believe by Josephine that she possessed a considerable fortune. As an ambitious young man, he had naturally wished to advance himself, and so he managed to rout out her banker, Emmery, and make inquiries. He learned that Josephine's fortune was not considerable at all. Her mother, so Emmery said, had a plantation worth about fifty thousand francs a year from which he was authorized to draw from twenty to twenty-five thousand francs yearly at Josephine's request. Only ten days before this conversation Josephine had cashed a bill of exchange for ten thousand francs. She had money, then, but hardly a large fortune, especially in view of the current inflation of prices. Yet there were reasons for this marriage which the older man, looking backward, would be more likely than his younger self to set high in importance. 'On  p126 the whole,' Napoleon observed philosophically to Bertrand, the marriage was an excellent thing for me. A good French family suited me very well, as I was a Corsican by birth.'14

Within two weeks of their first meeting Bonaparte was made commander-in‑chief of the Army of the Interior, assuming new burdens of work and responsibility. 'My health is good,' he informed his brother, 'but I lead a terribly busy life.'​15 Social visits were not easily managed, and his connexion with the widow Beauharnais was almost in danger of lapsing. It was Josephine who saved the day. On 28 October she wrote him her first letter:

[image ALT: A 12‑line handwritten note. It is Josephine's first note to Bonaparte, transcribed and translated on this webpage.]

vous ne venez plus voir mon amie, qui vous aime. vous lavez toute en fait délaissées, vous avez bien tort Car ellevous est tendrement attachée. venez demain Septidi déjeuner avec moi, j'ai besoin de vous voir et de Causer avec vous Sur vos interets

Bonsoir mon amis jai vous embrasse

marie Beauharnais​a

Josephine's first note to Bonaparte.

You no longer come to see a friend who is fond of you. You have completely deserted her. You are wrong, for she is affectionately attached to you. Come tomorrow to lunch with me. I need to see you, and to talk with you about your affairs. Good night, my friend. Je vous embrasse.​16

Probably on the same day Bonaparte wrote her a note:

I cannot imagine what has been the cause of your letter. I beg you to allow me the pleasure of believing that no one desires your friendship as much as I do, or is as ready as I am to give proof. If my  p127 affairs had permitted I would myself have been the bearer of this letter.​17

This was the simple beginning to what, soon enough, exploded into an ardent affair. An undated letter, usually listed first in the collection of letters from Bonaparte to Josephine, and probably of December, tells the story:

[image ALT: An 18‑line handwritten note. It is Bonaparte's first love letter to letter, transcribed and translated on this webpage.]

7 heures du matin

jemereveille plein de toi ton portrais et le souvenir de l'enivrante soiree d'hiers nom poinc laissé derepos a mes sens Douce et incoparable Josephine quelle effet bizzare faitevoussur moncoeur vous fachez vous? Vous vois‑je triste? estes vous inquiète? monâmeencrise de douleur [two words unreadable] poinc derepos pour votre ami . . . . Mais [one word] il donc davantage pourmoi lorsque vous [one word] au sentiment profond qui me maîtrise je puise sur vos levres sur votre coeur uneflame qui me brule. ah oui cettenuit que je mesuis bien apercu que votre portrais [one word] pas vous. et que tu pars a midi je te verai dans 3heures enattendant mio dolce amor recois unmillier debaisé Mais nem'en donnepas Car ils brule mon Sang


The first love letter from Bonaparte

 p128  At seven in the morning

I awake, full of you. Your portrait, and the memory of the intoxicating evening leave my senses no rest. Sweet and incomparable Josephine, what strange power do you have over my heart? Are you angry? Do I behold you sad? Are you ill at ease? My heart is broken with grief and my love permits me no rest . . . But how can I rest any more when, yielding to the feeling that masters my innermost self, I drink from your lips and from your heart a flame which burns me. Ah, this night has shown me how far your portrait falls short of your true self! You leave at noon: in three hours I shall see you again. Till then, mio dolce amor, a thousand kisses; but give me none, for they set my heart on fire!​18

The frustrations, the pent‑up emotions, and the ardours of the young Corsican pour forth in this and subsequent letters — historic documents in the language of passion. We do not need letters from Josephine to realize how entirely she was able to captivate this officer who now moved awkwardly into a world of which she seemed to be so completely the bewitching genius. Did she love him? In 1804 she told Count Ségur that she had 'inner struggles and long reluctance' before she could agree to marry Napoleon.​19 We cannot read her heart. It is evident that she gave herself to him as she had to others before him. Yet, if we are disposed to think that little but the calculation of material advantage entered into Josephine's surrender to Bonaparte's ardent courtship, we must remind ourselves how strangely this dark, unfathomable soldier differed from the Talliens, the Barras, and the Ouvrards whom she had come to know.

The young general was daily growing in authority. One of his aides, Marmont, later to become a marshal of France, described him as having at this time an extraordinary self-possession, an air of grandeur that was quite new, and an ever-increasing sense of his own importance:

Bonaparte was in love in the full sense of the phrase, in all its force and in its widest meaning. It was, by every appearance, his first passion, and he experienced it with the full energy of his nature. . . . Although she no longer had the freshness of youth she knew how to please him, and we know that to lovers the question, 'why',  p129 is superfluous. One loves because one loves, and nothing is less susceptible to explanation and analysis than this emotion.​20

In January 1796 Hortense Beauharnais, though only thirteen, was invited by Barras to come with her mother to dinner at the Luxembourg Palace. She was seated between Bonaparte and her mother. 'In order to speak to Josephine,' she recalled, 'he constantly thrust himself forward with such vigour that he tired me out and forced me to draw back. He spoke with fire in his voice and was solely preoccupied with my mother.'​21 It was long, indeed, before either Hortense or her brother Eugène could come truly to like Bonaparte and approve of his suit. Nor could they be at first sure of the new state of affairs. There was the inevitable lovers' quarrel, with its 'dreadful scene', as Bonaparte later recalled it in a letter to Josephine. Moreover, in January and February Josephine still invited other friends — Barras among them — to dinner at the rue Chantereine. Phrases such as 'Je vous embrasse' and 'Je vous aime tendrement' are the common termination of her letters to Barras. These may well have been only rhetorical flourishes. As for Bonaparte, beyond any doubt he had succumbed utterly to Josephine's spell.

In February 1796 the banns for the wedding of Josephine and Bonaparte were issued. A marriage of the conventional type was not to be expected or even possible in revolutionary Paris. As early as September 1792 the legislature had entrusted the registration of marriages to the civil authorities, and in the following year, as the anti-religious tides rose, a decree of the Commune of Paris had closed all churches in the capital. Whatever the feelings of individuals — and there were many who now looked to a revival of Christianity — the new era following the downfall of the Jacobins had not as yet seen any restoration of religion to a position of importance. Given these circumstances, therefore, the wedding of Josephine and Bonaparte would inevitably be 'revolutionary' and 'republican'.

At this very time the career of the young general was about to attain new dimensions, giving him a leading role not merely on the French stage but also on that of Europe. Barras was later pleased to insist in his Memoirs that it was he who arranged  p130 that Josephine should leave the 'seraglio' at the Luxembourg for the arms of Bonaparte, and that it was he who likewise arranged for the command of the Army of Italy to accompany this marriage as a kind of splendid wedding gift. Actually Bonaparte was so clearly in the ascendant in these months that Barras can have little claim to be the architect of his career. Moreover, within the board of the five directors the voice that spoke with principal authority on military matters was not the voice of Barras but that of the great republican general and 'Organizer of Victory', Lazare Carnot. Carnot had become aware of Bonaparte's brilliant work in the topographical bureau and had concerted with him the plans for the Italian campaign. When the decision about a commander had to be made, Carnot staked his reputation on giving Bonaparte the post. For those who wish to pinpoint such details the facts are that the wedding banns were published on 19 February; on 25 February the nomination for the command of the Army of Italy was decided upon; on 2 March the appointment was signed; on the same day Bonaparte asked the director of the Dépôt de la Guerre to provide him with all available books, atlases, and charts dealing with Italy; and on 7 March he received his official letter of service. Amid this military hurly-burly Josephine, as best she could, undertook the preparations for her second marriage.

A hastily composed contract of marriage was signed on the afternoon of 8 March in the office of the notary, Raguideau, in the rue Saint-Honoré. Strikingly different from the elaborate contract that had accompanied Josephine's wedding in 1779, it suggested a curious independence on the part of the two signatories. The first article now stipulated that there should be no community of goods of any kind and that neither would be responsible for the debts of the other. The ensuing articles provided that Josephine was to have control and custody of her two children, that each spouse would pay half the marriage costs, and that if the marriage should be dissolved Josephine, as well as her heirs, would be entitled to all clothes, silver, and jewels for her personal use, as well as all the furniture and other things that otherwise belonged to her. Bonaparte agreed to  p131 settle upon his wife the relatively modest annual sum of fifteen hundred francs, in metallic currency. It remains true, therefore, that the impoverished Bonaparte, without home or belongings, contributed little more to the marriage than the shabby uniforms he wore. This situation is reflected in the story about Josephine's adviser, Raguideau, 'one of the shortest men,' says Bourrienne, 'I think I ever saw in my life'.​22 On looking over the contract, Raguideau urged her not to sign it, saying in effect, 'this man is bringing you nothing but his cloak and sword'. Bonaparte, according to the story, overheard him, but made no comment save to tell Josephine that Raguideau was a shrewd lawyer and that she should entrust her affairs to him. Eight years later, however, amid the jewels, silks, and splendours of the imperial coronation, the long-memoried Napoleon is reported to have turned to Raguideau, whom he had taken pains to invite, and to have said to him, 'Well, Raguideau, what do you think of my cloak and sword now?'​23 If the story it is not true, it ought to be.

A curiously melodramatic quality characterizes this second marriage of Josephine. The incident — for it was hardly more — takes us to a once elegant but now dingy room, the mayor's office of the second arrondissement of Paris. If the visitor today wishes to find this spot he must walk away from the Opera, along the Avenue de l'Opéra, until he comes to the narrow rue d'Antin on his right. At No. 3, he will find what was once the hôtel Mondragon, a fine eighteenth‑century residence that formerly was in the Mondragon family, which under the Revolution had become the property of the municipality. Here a second-storey room, still having the marble fireplace, the large gilt mirrors, and the delicate Louis XV panelling of its former owners, had been rudely furnished as headquarters of the arrondissement. And here, on the night of 9 March 1796 Josephine came with a little group of witnesses to be married. Paul Barras, one of the five directors, Jean Tallien, member of the legislature, and Jérôme Calmelet, friend and financial adviser to Josephine and once tutor to Hortense and Eugène, were her three companions. The room, as Josephine recalled years afterwards, was miserably lighted by a single candle,  p132 which no one thought to trim, flickering in a tin sconce. The mayor, tiring of the long wait, had finally departed, leaving all authority to one Antoine Lecombe, a minor official hobbling about on a wooden leg. In these utterly drab surroundings the little wedding party waited restlessly for over two hours until at long last the clatter of footsteps was heard on the stairs and the newly appointed commander of the Army of Italy, accompanied by his aide, rushed in, having abandoned for the moment his books, his maps, and his statistical tables.

The ensuing civil ceremony by which Josephine became Bonaparte's bride was over in a few minutes. It has been pointed out that the proceedings were strewn with legal uncertainties. Such a ceremony was not recognized by the Church; it was performed by a subordinate lacking the proper legal authority; and it involved one witness — Bonaparte's aide — who had not reached the required legal age. Owing to the difficulty of obtaining the necessary documents from overseas, the officials had accepted sworn statements in lieu of the conventional baptismal certificates. Consequently the bridegroom was able gallantly to overstate his years by two and the bride coyly to understate hers by four, thus reaching a common ground of inaccuracy and historical confusion with the age of twenty-eight. The ages to which they swore would have made Josephine twelve at the time of her first marriage and Napoleon one month younger than his brother Joseph. Despite this catalogue of errors, to say nothing of deceptions, legal authorities have held that the marriage, given the conditions of the time and the intentions of the participants, must be accepted as valid.

No members of either family were present. None, apparently, had been invited. None, indeed, seem even to have known in advance of the marriage. Madame Renaudin and the former Marquis de Beauharnais quickly gave their approval. They might well do so, for they, too, were contemplating matrimony. The remarkably durable Monsieur Renaudin, for over thirty-four years an insuperable obstacle to their hopes, died in December 1795. After all these years of 'acquaintance' the elderly couple could be, and indeed soon were, wed.

 p133  Napoleon saw fit to inform only the Executive Directory of his wedding. On 11 March, the busy day of his departure for Italy, he wrote briefly to Letourneur, president of the Directory, as follows:

I have asked Citizen Barras to inform the Executive Directory of my marriage to Citizeness Tascher Beauharnais. The confidence which the Directory has on all occasions shown me makes it my duty to keep it informed of all my actions. This is a new tie binding me to my country; it is a token of my firm resolution to entrust all my fortunes to the Republic.

The General in Chief of the Army of Italy,


At this time, too, Napoleon seems to have established the use of the name 'Josephine' for his bride, a name that became official only with the proclamation of the Empire in 1804.

One letter soon reached Bonaparte from Marseilles. On hearing at last of the marriage, the young Désirée Clary wrote her farewell:

My life is a dreadful torment for me since I can no longer devote it to you . . . So you are married! I shall never accustom myself to this thought. It is destroying me, and I cannot survive. I will let you see that I am more faithful than you to our pledges, and even though you have broken the ties that once bound us I shall never become engaged — I shall never marry another . . . I wish you every kind of happiness and prosperity in your marriage; I wish that the wife you have chosen will make you as happy as I had intended to do, and as you deserve. But, in the midst of your happiness, do not forget Désirée; sympathize with her lot.​25

Two years later Désirée married Bernadotte, one of Bonaparte's most distinguished generals, soon to become marshal of France, and ultimately crown prince and then king of Sweden. When in due course a son was born to Désirée, she asked Bonaparte to serve as godfather. He did so, naming the child Oscar in tribute, we are told, to the poet Ossian. The Oscar married another Josephine, the daughter of Eugène de Beauharnais, and in time the pair reigned, too, on the Swedish throne.

At the end of the brief wedding ceremony the house on the rue Chantereine awaited Josephine and Napoleon. So likewise  p134 did the dog, Fortuné. 'See this fellow,' Bonaparte to some of his visitors, referring to the mongrel, 'he took possession of Madame's bed on the night I married her. I was told frankly that I must either sleep elsewhere or share the bed with him. Not a very pleasing alternative! Take it or leave it, I was told. The darling creature was less accommodating than I was.'​26 Thereupon Bonaparte displayed to his listeners the scars that Fortuné's teeth had left that night on his leg. This was the Bonaparte who had boasted of coming through the revolutionary day of Vendémiaire unscathed.

On the next day, 10 March, Napoleon and Josephine paid a surprise visit to Hortense de Beauharnais at Madame Campan's school in the pleasantly rural surroundings of Saint Germain-en‑Laye. Bonaparte, in a genial mood, announced his intention of placing his sister Caroline, now fourteen years old, in this same establishment. Caroline, he cheerfully assured Madame Campan, knew absolutely nothing, and it does seem to be true that at this time she could neither read nor write.

Eleven March was the day of preparation for the soldier's departure. In the evening a carriage drew up at the porte cochère on the rue Chantereine. Bonaparte, accompanied by General Junot, climbed in, leaving his bride of two days in order to take command of the Army of Italy. The Directory in its wisdom had withheld a passport from Josephine, feeling that her husband should devote himself without distraction to his command. He was about to launch a campaign so spectacular in its successes that almost overnight the names of obscure Italian villages — Arcola, Rivoli, Castiglione — would become an imperishable part of the history of France. The honeymoon had been all too short, but indubitably, there had been advance credits.

The Author's Notes:

1 J. Kemble, Napoleon Immortal (London, 1959), p14.

2 F. Masson and G. Biagi, eds., Napoléon inconnu: papiers inédits (Paris, 1895), II.286.

3 Ibid., p277.

Thayer's Note: A reminiscence of Rochefoucauld's maxim, "Si on juge de l'amour par la plupart de ses effets, il ressemble plus à la haine qu'à l'amitié."

4 Quoted in Kemble, Napoleon Immortal, p71.

5 F. Masson, Napoléon et les femmes (Paris, 1904), p13.

6 Corr., I, no. 42.

7 Ibid., no. 65.

8 Joseph Bonaparte, Mémoires et correspondance, I.131.

9 A. Lévy, Un Grand profiteur de guerre . . ., G. J. Ouvrard (Paris, 1929). p41.

10 Corr., I, no. 64.

11 Quoted in Kemble, Napoleon Immortal, p89.

12 Corr., I, no. 72.

13 G. Gourgaud, Sainte-Hélène: Journal inédit de 1815 à 1818 (Paris 1899), II.329.

14 H. G. de Bertrand, Cahiers de Sainte-Hélène, janvier‑mai, 1821 (Paris, 1949), p99.

15 Corr., I, no. 77.

16 Bourgeat, p6.

17 Ibid., p9. Savant, p28, questions whether this is really an answer to Josephine's note.

18 Ibid. A photostat of the original is in the Houghton Library at Harvard University.

19 P. W. Sergeant, The Empress Josephine (London, 1909), p86.

20 A. F. L. Marmont, Mémoires du duc de Raguse (Paris, 1857), I.93‑95.

21 Queen Hortense (Hortense de Beauharnais), Mémoires de la reine Hortense (Paris, 1927), I.42.

22 Bourrienne, II.399.

23 Bourgeat, pp14‑16.

24 Corr., I, no. 89.

25 Masson, Napoléon et les femmes, p17.

26 A. V. Arnault, Souvenirs d'un sexagénaire (Paris, 1833), III.31.

Thayer's Notes:

a The uncertain grammar quite confirms what was said earlier (p44) about Josephine's literacy. Of a different order of interest is the joining of the words elle and vous: she is, as she says, attached to him.

b Bonaparte's spelling and grammar are no better than Josephine's. Of interest are the constant run‑in words, the hybrid spelling bizzare (French: bizarre; Italian: bizzarro) — and even more so the shift from vous to tu at the end of the note: an unmistakable sign marking the transition to intimacy; not brought out in Knapton's translation.

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