The love of Bonaparte’s life was an enchanting Creole – the term then used for all white West indians – with a shady past. Born in 1763 to a minor aristocrat and sugar planter on Martinique, Marie-Joséphe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie had arrived in France at the age of seventeen to enter an arranged marriage with Alexandre de Beauharnais.
As she soon discovered, her husband was a professed Republican and frightful snob who had awarded himself the title of viscount and classified his many mistress by their rank. He was also brutally unkind to his wife, who, having borne two children, obtained a legal separation in 1785.
Ever tactful, never pushing, the newly freed Rose de Beauharnais used her husband’s name – prominent during the early revolutionary years, when he was a deputy to and then president of the National Convention – as entrée into the world of political salons. Being fashionably Republican but with the pretty manners of the ancient régime, she thrived. She seems to have had several influential lovers; certainly she had many important connections by 1794, when Alexandre was imprisoned by the Revolutionary Tribunal. Never vindictive, she tried to save her husband. It was to no avail in the Terror. She herself was arrested and imprisoned in the bloodstained convent of Les Carmes with her husband. Alexandre was beheaded. Rose survived.
Thermidorian Paris, louche and pleasure seeking, was the perfect setting for her. Her best friend was the leading hostess, Thérésia Tallien. At tallien’s salon Rose met everyone of importance, including the Red Viscount, Paul Barras. In 1795, according to an acquaintance, Rose de Beauharnais was “admitted in Barras’s harem”.
The role of the official mistress to the easygoing and generous Barras suited her, but it was to be short. Barras introduced his Corsican protégé into the salons, where he was generally ignored, except by Rose. Not long after his suppression of the riots of Vendémiaire, they became lovers. Bonaparte dazzled by her style and elegance, insisted on marriage, which ended the liaison but not the friendship with his patron, Barras. Then he left for Italy.
“Sweet and incomparable Josephine”, her husband call her in one of his passionate letters, and she was. Although at thirty-two she was considered past her prime, Josephine Bonaparte was small, slender, and always exquisitely dressed. People admired her grace: “There was a suppleness, an incredible lightness to all her movements,” an admirer wrote. Then there were her eyes, “dark blue, always half closed under the long lids, fringed by the longest eyelashes in the world.” Most of all there was her voice, ever gentle and low, with lisped Creole r’s, a voice, Bonaparte would say, “like a caress”.
Josephine took the marriage lightly at first; she was amused by the torrent of letters he wrote during the Italian campaign (“I curse the glory and ambition which keeps me from the soul of my life” was one of his more temperate remarks), replying infrequently enough to send him into frenzies of jealousy. She put off joining him.
She delayed because she herself had fallen in love with Hippolyte Charles, a dashing young Hussar with a happy nature, who – unlike her nearly humourless husband – made her laugh. The affair would continue on and off through her eventual sojourn in Milan with Bonaparte, where she was treated like a queen and where her charming manners did much to temper the impression made by his crude style. When Bonaparte left for Egypt, she continued the affair with Charles.
In Cairo, Bonaparte learned from an aide-de-camp that he was a cuckold. He was devastated. “It is sad when one and the same heart is torn by such conflicting feelings for one person,” he wrote to his brother. The British seized the letter and published it. He took a mistress, known to the troops as “Cleopatra”. He determined to divorce Josephine.
It was not to be. On the terrible night when Bonaparte returned from Egypt to his Paris house, he locked himself in his dressing room, refusing even to see his wife. Josephine stood outside the door, pleading for hours in her beautiful voice for forgiveness. Her son and daughter joined her. And at last, Bonaparte let her in. For the rest of her life, Josephine was a perfect, faithful wife, always pliable and loving, adding distinction to her husband’s increasingly formal consular and imperial courts. She was tolerant of his many mistress and kind to his hostile family.
The only thing she could not do – unlike several of his mistress – was give him a child, and this became an obsession with Bonaparte after he became an emperor. In 1809, after heart-rending scenes, he divorced her and married Marie Louise of Austria the following year. She bore him the longed-for son.
Josephine carried her ill fortune with her usual grace. She retreated to the country house of malmaison, where she remained, sweet-natured and fading, among her greenhouses, her rose gardens, and her aviaries. She died of pneumonia – or as her children preferred to call it, a broken heart – in 1814.
As for Bonaparte, he visited Malmaison to mourn just before his final exile. “She was the most alluring, the most glamorous creature I have ever known,” he told her daughter, “a woman in the true sense of the word, volatile, spirited, and with the kindest heart in the world.” A week before he himself died in 1821, he had a vision of Josephine. Among his last words was her name.