A light on Josephine

This first part of our two- part series explores the captivating and complex relationship between Empress Joséphine and Napoléon Bonaparte.

Inspired by David Halliday’s recent article Who killed Napoléon Bonaparte? (French Provincial Magazine October/November 2008), I found myself considering the role of Napoléon’s consort, Empress Joséphine. While countless books have been written about Napoléon, Joséphine has not always been afforded the same recognition, even though she was a remarkable woman in her own right and a pillar of strength to her husband.

Even our most basic information links the pair, as can be surmised from the well-worn phrase, “Not tonight Josephine.” Purportedly Napoléon’s response when rejecting her advances, it conveys his perspective and only indirectly yields any knowledge about Joséphine herself. Yet even this is misleading: as some researchers contend, the words first appeared in a vaudeville song of the early 1900’s and have been wrongly attributed to Napoléon. As the view that many have formed of Joséphine seems to be based on an incorrect premise, we may need to return to the beginning to form a proper picture of this extraordinary woman.

Joséphine de Beauharnais was born Marie Josèphe Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie in Trois-Ilets on the Caribbean island of Martinique, on June 23, 1763 to a white Creole family that owned a sugar plantation; a poverty-stricken family of noble heritage. She was a daughter of Joseph-Gaspard de Tascher, a lieutenant of Troupes de Marine, and his wife, Rose-Claire des Vergers de Sannois – a girl of “good breeding but no money.”

The family struggled financially when hurricanes destroyed their estate in 1766. This prompted one of Joséphine’s aunts to arrange a marriage of her niece Catherine (sister of Joséphine) to a much older man, Alexandre François, Vicomte de Beauharnais and a rich French aristocrat. This marriage would be highly financially beneficial for the impoverished Tascher family.

However before the appointed time, Catherine died and thus in October 1779, Joséphine left Martinique for Europe with her father and she married Alexandre François two months later. Joséphine and Alexandre had two children: a son, Eugène de Beauharnais (1781–1824), and a daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais (1783–1837). Hortense was later to marry Napoléon’s brother Louis Bonaparte in 1802 and they became the parents of Napoléon III.  But their marriage was not a particularly happy one, partly because of her husband’s repulsion of her “provincial ways.” Ashamed of her lack of sophistication, Alexandre declined even to present her at the court of Marie-Antoinette at Versailles; his indifference grew so great that in March 1785 she obtained a separation.

Joséphine found herself abandoned with two children and, with no access to family assistance, she took refuge for a time in a convent, which was also home to other outcast women. Meeting these women proved important to Joséphine and her education in the good and the bad of human conduct. She learned the manners of sophisticated Parisian society and the rules governing extra-marital interaction, and thus cast aside the provincial ways that had previously precluded her from acceptance in the upper echelons. Her extraordinary charm, sensuality and natural cunning would later help her become mistress to some of the most powerful politicians in post-Revolutionary France.

The French Revolution – that tidal wave of social and political upheaval – occupied the decade 1789-1799.  At its height, Joséphine and Alexandre François were briefly re-united when the Comité de Salut Public – the de facto executive arm of government of the time – ordered his arrest and he was jailed in the Prison des Carmes, a prison where most royals were sent prior to execution. In 1794 Joséphine was also arrested and imprisoned there. Her husband, considered an aristocratic “suspect”, was sentenced to death by the guillotine. Joséphine was luckier: five days after her husband’s death, the trial and execution of Robespierre ended the Reign of Terror and thus she was saved from imminent execution.

Joséphine resumed her former lifestyle and during this period she met Napoléon, a Major General with the French Army and a man with grand ambitions. To achieve his goals and social standing he needed a wife of wealth and position for the Bonapartes themselves were not aristocrats. They were a bourgeois family (or low-level nobility at best when compared to French aristocracy), and known for being rude, vulgar, arrogant, pretentious and greedy. Napoléon saw in Joséphine, a woman of noble birth, a political and diplomatic asset who could be vital for the advancement of his career.


However his views were not shared by the large Bonaparte family which with its strong familial loyalties disapproved of the relationship. Other factors compounded the immediate clash of lifestyles. Napoléon’s mother, Letizia Bonaparte, true to her Italian Catholic origins, ideally wanted her son to marry a young virginal girl who could give him many children. Joséphine was six years older than Napoléon and Letizia not only regarded her as being “old” (age 32 years at the time), but also she already had two children. As this was not the ideal situation for a conservative Catholic family, Napoléon’s brother Joseph began urging his brother to leave her.

While these conflicts may have lessened Joséphine’s interest in having a serious relationship with Napoléon, she was nonetheless an ambitious woman. Napoléon was rising in rank and reputation within the new French government and this made him more attractive, as did the fact that he had been completely smitten with her from their first meeting. Against his family’s opposition Napoléon proposed and they were married in a civil ceremony in 1796.

Until meeting Bonaparte, Joséphine had always been called Rose, a name which Napoléon really disliked; it was he who first started calling her “Joséphine,” which she adopted from then on.

Two days after the wedding, Bonaparte left to lead the French army in Italy, but sent his new wife intensely romantic love letters, many of which have survived and are still intact today.

At this very early stage of the marriage Joséphine was a faithful wife. After a short while however, she resumed her adulterous behavior and began an affair with a handsome lieutenant. When the rumors reached Napoléon in Italy, he was infuriated and the relationship between them was never the same thereafter, evidenced from his letters which became less loving in tone. Though no subsequent lovers of Joséphine are recorded, Napoléon went on to take many mistresses, his series of lovers being regarded as a payback for her earlier lack of loyalty. This disloyalty on Napoléon’s behalf hurt Joséphine deeply, but her need for financial security overrode any other concerns – and no doubt she must have contemplated what life would be like if Napoléon was ever to divorce her. Her behaviour from this point forward was much more amiable and loving towards her husband, and she appeared to be more willing to accompany him on his many campaigns despite her overwhelming fear of carriage travel.

After the chaotic era of the Revolution and its aftermath, Napoléon became First Consul of the Consulate, finally providing France with some stability. With his popularity increasing, he gave the ever-diplomatic Joséphine the mission to negotiate with more than 40,000 aristocrats who had fled abroad during the Revolution and try to convince them to return to France. This she achieved with acclaim, and as a result many of the aristocrats became her fervent allies, while her success also reaffirmed her position as a diplomat.

Joséphine had a profound effect on Napoléon’s actions, and her influence extended to helping him advance in many areas of life. Early in the marriage, Napoléon discovered how useful she could be in promoting his position in society and in the military, her natural social skills easing the way and promoting his rise in popularity. If at first Joséphine’s social status boosted his prospects, later it was her good-spirited nature and likeable personality that helped to create a better image of Napoléon, thereby aiding his progress on various fronts. In general, Joséphine was a smart and intelligent woman whose opinions Napoléon valued when making significant decisions or taking important action at the broader or more strategic level.

Napoléon decided to declare himself Emperor of France and the couple was crowned in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame on December 2, 1804. Joséphine was crowned Empress by her husband, much to the dislike of his family – especially his mother, who was not present on the day of the Coronation. However even Joséphine herself had some misgivings: aware that many people believed Napoléon betrayed the ideals of the Revolution by claiming these titles, she did not want to become Empress and was reluctant to shine in the new position decreed for her.

Yet with her knowledge of Ancien Régime etiquette, the Imperial French Court became the most dazzling Court in Europe. France had not seen such splendor and ceremonial glamour since the days of Louis XIV. As Empress, she became known for many charitable works and her overwhelming generosity, and countless people came to her for assistance.  Loved – indeed almost adored by every sector of French society, Joséphine fulfilled the role of Empress flawlessly, appearing at public events and gaining further allies for her husband.


To be continued…

Mario E Dominguez-Gorga



Oxford Dictionary of Quotations


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