Napoleon Bonaparte was a man who felt no greater love than that he had for himself. He adored his own reflection, its image and its glory, and he craved power, and for twenty years he fought the combined Nations of Europe to acquire it. He was the great Man of Destiny. But there was a moment, perhaps a fleeting one, perhaps not, when he loved another more.
Josephine de Beauhernais was born Josephine Rose Tascher de la Pagerie on 23 June, 1763, on the Caribbean Island of Martinique. She was the daughter of a wealthy slave owning family who owned and ran a sugar plantation.
She didn’t arrive in metropolitan France until October, 1777. Her family had decided, that aged 14 it was time for her to make a good and profitable marriage. They didn’t have long to wait for just two years later she wed the wealthy aristocrat Alexandre de Beauhernais.
Unknown to the young Josephine she had just rescued the family’s fortunes for they were not as wealthy as they first appeared but the marriage itself was far from a match made in heaven, when the couple weren’t arguing they weren’t talking; but that wasn’t the point, she supplied the children, he provided the money.
Alexandre de Beauhernais wasn’t just a landed aristocrat who enjoyed the fruits of his inheritance he was a speculator on the financial markets, or someone who was perceived to profit from the misery of others. He had been opposed to the Revolution of 1789 and with the advent of the Terror and the Law of Suspects he was soon to be arrested and charged with counter-revolutionary activity and treason. Not long after a warrant was also issued for the arrest of his wife.
After a cursory trial Alexandre was guillotined on 23 July, 1794, and Josephine was only saved from a similar fate by the fall of Maximilien Robespierre a few days later.
Josephine was subsequently released from prison but in a state of destitution. It was time for her to reinvent herself.
She was considered pretty with long brown hair, pale complexion, small hands, pert breasts, and a voluptuous mouth though she rarely smiled because of her bad teeth. She was only of average height but even so she was to be taller than Napoleon. To these physical attributes she now added a graceful elegance and a modulated voice that rarely rose above a whisper.
Josephine, though she may have hit rock bottom financially still retained her status and she was now a woman on the make.
At the same time the fortunes of an obscure artillery officer from Corsica, Napoleon Bonaparte, were being transformed. They were to meet but not before Josephine had embarked upon a series of affairs with some the most prominent politicians in France.
She was first introduced to Napoleon by her lover Paul Barras, one of the five members of The Directory who were ruling France in the wake of the fall of the Revolutionary Government. It has been suggested that Barras tired of her spendthrift ways had deliberately introduced her to Napoleon in the hope of getting rid of her. If so it worked, Napoleon was hopelessly smitten and proposed almost immediately, and within two months they were married.
Love and mutual attraction was not necessarily the prime motivation behind their relationship, at least certainly not on Josephine’s part. She was eager to be married to the man who everyone could see would soon be the most powerful in France. Napoleon was also keen to have her political contacts. Even so it appeared that the ambitious Napoleon had at last found someone he could adore and he was to do so, but it was to be a puppy love. He was hopelessly love-struck in her presence and utterly distraught by her absence and he wrote constantly and cloyingly of his love for her:
“I awoke full of you. Your image and last night’s intoxicating pleasure has left no rest on my senses; you to whom nature has given spirit, sweetness, and beauty, you, who alone can move and rule my heart.”
His love letters and pledges of devotion to her were endless but Josephine rarely wrote back which hurt him deeply and he would frequently beg her to do so; but Josephine was a woman of the world and found his adoration of her silly and even childish. She would often read his letters out to her friends to their great amusement.
Even now she was determined to secure her financial future and whilst he was away campaigning in Egypt she took the first of a string of wealthy lovers. When Napoleon heard of this he was furious and very publicly had affairs of his own in response. Their relationship would never fully recover from this turn of events and from now on power and the pursuit of it would be Napoleon’s mistress.
On 2 December, 1804, Napoleon despite the enforced presence of Pope Pius VII decided to crown himself Emperor of France with the words spoken in his native Italian, “Dio mio la dona, gai a qui la tocca” (God has given it to me, beware who shall touch it).
He then, despite their differences and the now fractured state of their relationship personally crowned Josephine his Empress, as he had earlier promised he one day would.
For the next few years at least they shared a harmonious if not entirely happy marriage. Both continued to take lovers though now it was rarely spoken about.
Josephine was six years Napoleon’s senior and by 1810, aged 47, she was no longer able to bear children and the Emperor needed an heir. She was acutely aware of her husband’s need to secure the dynasty and in January of that year she conceded to his request for a divorce.
Josephine, despite being aware that divorce was inevitable was nonetheless devastated by it for even though she never came to love her ‘Little General’ there was a genuine affection between them. Also, with her looks fading and no longer able to bear children she could neither play the part of the flirtatious courtesan, or indeed of the fecund bride.
Napoleon was also greatly saddened for despite all their problems she had been the only woman he had ever loved, but Dynastic concerns must take precedence.
On 11 March, 1810, Napoleon married Princess Marie-Louise the daughter of the Hapsburg Emperor of Austria. It was a dynastic triumph for the commoner from Corsica though he was later to say that he had “merely married a womb.”
Josephine and Napoleon remained good friends and he continued to pay the debts of his spendthrift ex-wife. He confided in and trusted her more than he ever did Marie-Louise or any of his close colleagues.
On 29 May, 1814, Josephine died of pneumonia. Napoleon was visibly shaken at the news and struggled to hold back the tears.
It was to be ironic that it was Josephine through her daughter Hortense by her marriage to Alexandre de Beauhernais who would be responsible for the revival of Bonapartism when she gave birth to the future Emperor Louis Napoleon III. Napoleon’s own son by Marie-Louise was to die when still a child.
During his exile on St Helena, Napoleon was heard to remark:
“I loved my Josephine but I did not respect her.”
As he lay dying a few years later the last word he was reported to have said was – Josephine!