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Bill Thayer

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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.

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Chapter 1

 p9  Preface

This book follows the career of the woman who came to be the Empress Josephine as she moved through one of the great formative periods of modern times. Her life, which biography after biography has sought to recapture, is interesting in itself and on occasion rises to moments of absorbing drama. The creole of Martinique who at sixteen undertook the life of a vicomtesse of the ancien régime became under the Revolution a widowed victim of the Terror. She sought to rebuild her life during the feverish years of the Directory. Marriage with Napoleon Bonaparte ultimately brought her to the very pinnacle of European fame. In this position Josephine played an imperial role for which in all truth she had been only modestly equipped.

In addition to its drama, what gives principal interest and distinction to her life is the vivid picture it presents of a society in the midst of intense change. The Napoleonic court was dominated by one of the most brilliant soldiers and administrators the modern world has known, a leader who sought along with so much else to consolidate his dynasty and to create a new imperial splendour far greater than any that royalty had been able to provide. Josephine was a central figure in this attempt. To some degree at the Tuileries and Fontainebleau, and much more at Malmaison, she played her unique part. Modern scholar­ship, the nature of which is suggested in the Bibliographical Essay, has made it possible for us to see her role in a richer, a more complex, and assuredly a more human perspective than was apparent to her earlier biographers. Along such lines this study has been written.

My first acknowledgment must be to Wheaton College for a sabbatical leave in 1959 during which some of the research for this book was undertaken in France and England, and also for assistance from the Faculty Research Fund in preparing my manuscript for publication. I thank most sincerely my colleagues, Professor Curtis Dahl and Dr T. K. Derry, for  p10 their painstaking critiques of the form and substance of what I have written. I owe no less thanks to my friend Dr Geoffrey May, whose acute judgement is equalled only by his invariable willingness to be of assistance. To Professor Crane Brinton of Harvard University I am likewise particularly indebted. I express my thanks to M. Pierre Schommer, Conservateur en Chef of the National Museums of France, for a most interesting conversation with him on the subject of Josephine and also to Mlle Marguerite-Marie Paul, Librarian of the Bibliothèque Thiers in Paris, for her equally valuable help. I gratefully acknowledge the permission accorded by Librairie Plon to quote extracts from the Beauharnais and Tascher de la Pagerie letters edited by Jean Hanoteau in Le Ménage Beauharnais (Plon, 1935) and Les Beauharnais et l'empereur (Plon, 1936). I thank, finally, my wife, Jocelyn Babbitt Knapton, not merely in conventional terms, but with a gratitude for which the dedication of this book to her can be only a most incomplete expression.

E. J. Knapton

Wheaton College
Norton, Massachusetts
March 1963

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Page updated: 25 Jul 12