Biographies & Memoirs


“I Am So Distressed at Being Separated from Him”

As his fame grew, Napoleon became increasingly convinced that he would be poisoned. He employed someone to taste his food at all public events, took his own plate and glass to dinners, and kept a horse saddled and ready at the back of 6 rue de la Victoire in case he needed to flee. His friend Bourrienne declared that Napoleon had received a letter from a woman informing him that he would be killed. The woman was later found with her throat cut and her body mutilated.1 Napoleon seemed to believe the threats to his life came from members of the Directory. In spite of all the pomp and glory of the ball they had thrown for him, he was afraid of them.

“My health is ruined,” he complained to Joseph. “I can barely get into the saddle and need two years’ rest.” He was exaggerating—his health was fine. He was in fact living quietly in an attempt to win over the five directors. They were teetering on a political knife-edge and might turn against him at any moment. When he had boasted to Barras that the Italians wished to make him their king, he received a sharp response. “You are right not to dream of any such thing in France, for if the Directory was to send you to the Temple [the jail where King Louis and Marie Antoinette had been imprisoned before execution] tomorrow, you would not find four people who opposed it.”2 Barras had no qualms about threatening his protégé when he thought him too big for his boots.

The Directory was distrusted by much of the population. Inflation was rising, and the directors were seen as wealthy and corrupt, taking from the people for their own gain. Napoleon despised them as weak, “disturbed by the passions of the women, the children, and the servants,” but he had to pretend to be subservient to them.3 He could not glory in his success, as he had done in Italy. He refused invitations, sat in the shadows at the theater, and declined tributes. He also presented himself as a scholar, attending the Institut National des Sciences et des Arts. “I shall bury myself in a retreat,” he declared. Talleyrand had pressed the Institut to accept him as a member, and Napoleon was delighted to be recognized as an intellectual rather than a military bruiser. He put it about that he and Josephine had become retiring scholars. But ultimately, Napoleon was biding his time. As he said to Bourrienne, “I should overthrow them and be crowned king, but it is not yet time for that.”4

Josephine tended Napoleon’s salon and invited poets, writers, and scientists to the rue de la Victoire in order to bolster his pretense of being retired. In public, she played the consort so effectively that everyone was taken in by her husband’s act. He “shuns anything which might draw attention to himself,” one newspaper noted. Meanwhile, his mind was working obsessively on his next conquest. “This little Europe is a pinprick,” he wrote. “I must go to the Orient, all great reputations have been won there.”5

At the tender age of eleven at Brienne, he had read of the campaigns of Alexander the Great, who had embarked to the Orient at twenty. In 1789 Napoleon had been gripped by Voyage en Egypte by Constantin de Volney, a young Frenchman who had spent three years wandering the country in native dress; when he met Volney on Corsica in 1792, he had questioned him intensely. In Italy at Mombello, inspired after dining with the French ambassador to Constantinople, Napoleon had dashed off a letter to the Directory declaring that it was time to take Egypt. He received no reply, but he was not discouraged.

In July 1797, Talleyrand gave a speech before the Institut proposing an invasion of Egypt. A fortnight later, he was appointed to the role of foreign minister. Unaware that Talleyrand had raised Egypt in his lecture, Napoleon wrote to him. “We must take Egypt,” he proposed. “This country has never belonged to a European nation.” He asked for twenty-five thousand men and eight or ten ships of the line.

France needed a conqueror of international might. The empire she had gained throughout the seventeenth century had been gradually taken by the British. Pondicherry and trading posts on the east coast of India were lost in 1761, Louisiana had been claimed by the Spanish, and Britain took the Canadian colonies in 1763. And of course, Britain and France had fought a long and continuing battle over the islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint-Domingue. France wished for an empire—and Egypt was a great prize. Napoleon planned to continue from Egypt to India, following in the footsteps of Alexander. He would take scientists and philosophers and lead a voyage of discovery and cultural enrichment, as well as adding to France’s imperial might.

Napoleon drew up careful plans, demanding 30,000 men and 3,000 horses. The Directory deemed the campaign impossible—the soldiers were needed to defend French interests in Italy. Aside from Talleyrand, the gray bankers of the Directory thought Egypt a romantic pipe dream. Undaunted, Napoleon deputized Josephine to win them around. She sent letters, entertained them, hung on their every word, and turned the full force of her seductive personality on Barras. “I wait in the hope that our friendship prompts you to sacrifice a quarter of an hour to come and see me, where you will find me absolutely alone. I hope, my dear Barras, that you will not refuse this mark of interest from a woman whom you care for.”6 Josephine smiled, caressed, fluttered submissive eyelashes, and lit candles for intimate suppers, but the men of the Directory remained unconvinced. Set on invading Britain, they sent Napoleon to survey the Channel ports in northern France and Belgium in February, leaving Josephine on her own again. She dined with Barras, saw Hippolyte, and met with Bodin, who was still earning money from his shady practices.

Napoleon returned on February 21, earlier than she had expected. She wrote to Barras’s secretary: “Bonaparte has come back tonight. Will you, my dear Bottot, express to Barras my regrets that I cannot dine with him tonight. Tell him not to forget me. You know better than anyone how I am placed. Farewell, I send you my sincere friendship.”7

Josephine greeted her husband warmly, and Bonaparte was delighted to see his wife so attentive. Unfortunately, the haze of passion did not last long. In March, the newspapers erupted in fury over Bodin, his cheap horses and poor weapons, the exploited army, and the French people who had been let down by the greedy businessman. The Bodin Company became the bête noire of the French people. Napoleon, like most soldiers, hated army profiteers, “the scourge and leprosy of the service.”8 He was stunned by suggestions that his wife was linked to an organization that had been revealed to be so corrupt. Unfortunately, the dismissed maid, Louise Compoint, chose that moment to avenge herself by spilling the beans about Josephine’s relationship with Hippolyte. Normally, Napoleon would have paid no attention to a disgruntled servant, but now her words were yet another piece of evidence to Josephine’s disadvantage.

Joseph heard the news and struck fast. He went to Napoleon and told him that his wife had been working with Bodin through Hippolyte Charles. The two brothers confronted her, with Joseph relishing every moment. They demanded to know whether she was acquainted with Citoyen Bodin and if she had gained him contracts with the Army of Italy. Josephine denied it, and they moved on to more serious questions. Napoleon pushed his wife into a corner and asked whether Captain Charles lived with Bodin at 100 Faubourg Saint-Honoré, and did Josephine go there every day?

She resorted to her typically dramatic responses. She wept, railed, and cried that if he wanted a divorce, he had only to say so. She bewailed her fate and said that he was distressing her; then she pretended to faint and said she was cowering from his blows. Later, she wrote to Hippolyte in panic, describing the ruthless interrogation.

I said that what he was talking of meant nothing to me; if he wanted a divorce he had only to give the word; he had no need to use such means; and I was the most unfortunate of women and the most miserable.

Napoleon was won over, as delighted as ever by her theatrics and the tableau of her in tears, her rouge streaked over her face.9 But he had not forgiven her entirely. He made it very clear that she would not be allowed out and she must never see Hippolyte again.

Josephine wept again and thanked her husband. But behind her tears, she was desperately in love with Hippolyte.

Yes, my Hippolyte, they have my unalloyed hatred; you alone have my tenderness and my love; they must see now, as a result of the terrible state I have been in for days, how much I abhor them; they can see my sadness—my despair at not being able to see you as often as I wish. Hippolyte, I shall kill myself—yes, I wish to end a life that henceforth would be hopeless if it could not be devoted to you. Alas! What have I done to these monsters? But they are acting in vain, I will never give in to their disgraceful behavior!10

She was also thinking carefully.

Tell Bodin, I implore you, to say that he doesn’t know me; that it has not been through me that he got the contracts for the Army of Italy; let him tell the door-keeper at No. 100 that when people ask him if Bodin lives there he is to say that he doesn’t know him. Tell Bodin not to use the letters which I have given him for Italy until some time after his arrival when he needs them … Ah, they torment me in vain! They will never separate me from my Hippolyte!11

These few incredible letters, found among Hippolyte Charles’s papers, put her in a terrible light. Reckless and desperate to be with her lover, she said she would go clandestinely to Bodin’s.

I will do everything to see you today. If I cannot, I will spend the evening at Bodin’s and tomorrow I will send Blondin [a servant] to let you know the time when I can meet you in the garden of Mousseaux. Adieu, my Hippolyte, a thousand kisses, as burning as is my heart, and as devoted.12

I am going, my dear Hippolyte, to the country. I shall be back between half past five and six, to see you at Bodin’s. Yes, my Hippolyte, life is a continual torture. You alone can make me happy. Tell me that you love me, and only me. I shall be the happiest of women.

Send me, by means of Blondin, 50,000 livres from the notes in your possession. Callot is demanding them. Farewell, I send you a thousand tender kisses. Tout à toi.13

Josephine’s addiction to Hippolyte was pure danger. Underneath all her gentle smiles and flirtatious banter with Napoleon’s generals and political friends, she was craving adventure and rebellion. The deception, the undercover assignations, and the secrets that constituted her affair were intoxicating.

But Napoleon was touched by his wife’s kohl-streaked tears and believed her promises of fidelity. He cemented their reunion by promptly buying their house in rue de la Victoire on March 26 for just over 50,000 francs. Indeed, it would have been foolish not to, since Josephine had spent 300,000 on the decorations. She was also fortunate. The Directory abandoned the plans to invade Britain. Napoleon was told he could advance to Egypt, and all his energies were soon devoted to his new campaign.

The Directory set firm conditions for their brave young general. He could have 25,000 men, he must raise much of the money for the expedition, and he was forbidden to march on to India. Talleyrand would assure the authorities at Constantinople that Napoleon had no aims to attack the Ottoman Empire and merely wished to overthrow the Mamelukes of Egypt, allowing the French to trade in peace.

The Directory’s decision threw Napoleon into a frenzy of activity; he worked day and night, planning his strategy. His way of raising the money was simple: He would steal from the countries he had “liberated” from tyranny. Berthier, his chief of staff, traveled to Rome to rifle the Vatican; General Joubert did the same in Holland; and General Brune stole three million gold francs from the Swiss—the entire exchequer.

The greatest minds of Paris, including architects, artists, composers, astronomers, botanists, surgeons, literary scholars, cartographers, zoologists, and printers were invited. The ships would be packed with everything from telescopes to chemistry sets. Napoleon even ordered one of the newest Montgolfier balloons—not to view enemy troop positions but in the hope of stunning the Egyptians into awe.

Bonaparte’s official line was that he was aiming to invade Britain. Only his inner circle of generals and Josephine knew the truth. Even the minister of war was kept in the dark. Indeed, some of the scholars refused Napoleon’s invitation because they thought Britain too chilly and lacking in scientific potential. Josephine had to keep her mouth closed and did not even tell Hippolyte of the plans. Hippolyte may have been her lover, but she was not prepared to betray her husband militarily—even if she could have profited from sharing such important information.

Finding money, discussing balloons, and drawing up strategies preoccupied Napoleon completely, though he did attend to pleasing Josephine’s children, finally winning over Hortense with gentle expressions of interest in her hobbies, and offering to take Eugène as his aide-decamp. And Bourrienne, who had been attempting to make himself useful to Napoleon since their school days at Brienne, received his reward: Napoleon appointed him his private secretary and agreed to take him to Egypt.

Josephine begged him to allow her to come too, telling him that her childhood on Martinique meant she would be accustomed to the heat. The Directory had commanded him to return in six months, but she knew that he had been suggesting he might stay six years, depending on the course of events. “I shall colonize that country,” he said. “We are only twenty-nine years old, we’ll be thirty-five then.”14 She would be in a vulnerable position if Napoleon was away for longer than six months. The credit she was given by shopkeepers and bankers was contingent on her promise that he would be present to pay her debts. While he was traveling around the Orient, her lenders might very well call in their loans. Napoleon refused her permission to come to Egypt and told her she could accompany him to see him off—but no farther.

As insurance, she begged Napoleon to buy the country estate of Malmaison before he left. This was the beautiful house she had admired from her window when she lived at Croissy with Madame Hosten. Napoleon could certainly understand the appeal of a country estate. He agreed to view the house. The owners, the Couteulx du Molays, had bought the property in 1771 and once had thrown lavish receptions where they entertained members of the highest society and artists such as Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the great painter of one of Marie Antoinette’s most celebrated portraits. But aristocratic fortunes had declined after the Revolution, and they needed to sell. Unfortunately for Josephine, the hero of France was scandalized by the asking price and told his wife to abandon her plans.

The house at 6 rue de la Victoire became overwhelmed by preparations for departure. Generals, messengers, scholars, and artists were constantly at Napoleon’s door as his brilliant mind oversaw the loading of thousands of men, horses, and civilians, and all their equipment, onto vessels at six different ports. Time was of the essence: He needed to be in Egypt before the annual flooding of the Nile made campaigning impossible. On the evening of May 4, the Bonapartes dined with Barras and saw Macbeth at the theater. Then they departed Paris at four in the morning, hoping that the early start would mean no British spies had spotted them leaving. Napoleon and Josephine hurried to Toulon, arriving on May 9. There she saw for the first time the French fleet bound for adventure. One hundred and eighty ships stretched for miles, their masts swaying in the breeze.

The crown jewel, L’Orient, was Napoleon’s flagship, the most powerful warship in the world. Made from 6,000 oak trees, it was 214 feet long, had 120 cannons, and carried 2,000 men.15 Napoleon’s fine chamber contained a library of nearly 300 books, carefully chosen by the poet Arnault. He had the Koran, the Hindu Vedas, and Volney’s Voyage. He also had a printing press on board, to make pamphlets declaring his excellence to the people of Egypt.

Bonaparte assumed his position on the admiral’s barge and boarded each warship to inspect it. After months of pretending retirement, Napoleon had his reward of setting off with a display of pomp and grandeur in front of thousands. His soldiers cheered him, along with the scholars and their instruments (who were finally beginning to wonder if they were really going to Britain). Stowed away on the ships were more than three hundred women. Along with the washerwomen and seamstresses who officially accompanied the army were the wives of officers, bundled up in men’s uniforms while boarding and ensconced in cabins for the long journey. Napoleon proudly showed Josephine his quarters on L’Orient, which included a special bed on rolling casters to assist with seasickness and storage for eight hundred bottles of wine. This only intensified her desire to go, but he remained staunch in his refusal. Egypt was a voyage into the unknown and he wanted to play the great man—with no distractions.

Bonaparte was not yet thirty, and his mission to Egypt would be the first great seaborne invasion of the modern world. The following day, he inspected the troops and told them that the ideal of liberty of the Revolution meant France should conquer distant countries. If they succeeded, he promised, they would each be given six acres of land.

Bonaparte did not depart immediately, for there was a storm reported at sea. While they waited to leave, Josephine continued to beg to accompany him. At last he agreed that she could join him later at Naples, once he had passed the British fleet sailing under Nelson’s command, which he knew was heading into the Mediterranean. On May 19, the sea was calm, and the French fleet departed. Josephine watched from a balcony and wept as her husband left amid the firing of cannons, the shouts of people, and the music of brass bands.

NAPOLEON SET OFF toward Egypt, the conquering hero at the front of the fleet funded by money he had stolen from half of Europe. For him, it was a time of hope and almost unbounded opportunity. On the journey over, he initiated conversations with fellow officers on topics ranging from the age of the world to whether other planets were inhabited. Even the realm of space travel seemed open to him!

While Napoleon pondered alien life-forms, Josephine followed his orders and waited at Toulon for two weeks for news that the fleet had passed Sicily safely. Once she had it, she set off for the spa town at Plombières to take the waters before traveling to Naples. On the way to Lyon, she wrote to tell Barras that General Brune—the French commander in Switzerland—was trying to break the government contracts held by the Bodin Company. “Write on their behalf, I beg you, to General Brune,” she urged. “Both you and I owe everything to them.”16 Even though she knew how much Napoleon hated army profiteers, she was still trying to help Bodin’s company—and thus Hippolyte.

Plombières was a quiet town in the lush pine forests of the Vosges Mountains in Lorraine, made up of small houses with balconies. Dating back to Roman times, the original baths had been destroyed and then restored in the early seventeenth century. Since then, hundreds of well-heeled invalids had flocked to Plombières: rheumatic old women and gout-ridden men, along with dozens of frantic infertile women.17 The local doctor, Johannes Martinet, ran a roaring trade and in 1791 published a book promoting the waters and their wonderful effects—Observations sur quelques maladies chroniques et sur les effets des eaux de Plombières dans ces maladies. He was an advertising genius holding out the ever-inviting promise of eternal youth. Josephine lodged in the Pension Martinet with her maids and her huge wardrobe; she took the waters and promenaded in the town. Plombières was a good place to prove her virtue to her husband, for it was full of ladies trying to cure their health and become pregnant. One visitor who attended a ball reported that there were sixty women to twelve men, and only four of the men were fit to dance.

Having learned from her previous mistakes, Josephine wrote eagerly to Bonaparte, sending the letters by courier to Barras to forward. “I am so distressed at being separated from him that I cannot overcome my sadness,” she told Barras. “His brother, with whom he corresponds so closely, is so horrible about me that I am always worried when I am far from Bonaparte.”18 She dreaded Joseph. “He is a vile, abominable person,” she wrote heatedly, “some day you will know what he is like.”19 And yet she was still flirting with her former lover. “I wish that the waters of Plombières could be prescribed for you,” she told Barras coyly, “so that you could decide to come here and take them. It would be very kind of you to have an ailment in order to be able to cause me pleasure. I am very devoted to you.”20

The woman who once infuriated Bonaparte with her failure to write was now scribbling every day. “You know him and you understand how he would hate not getting news from me regularly,” she wrote to Barras. “He says that I am to rejoin him as soon as possible and so I am hurrying to finish the cure.”21

The debacle with the Bodin Company had made Josephine feel nervous about her husband traveling without her, and she genuinely desired to go to Egypt, at least for a short time. And yet after her cure, she planned to return to Paris for a few days before setting out to Italy to meet the boat. While in the capital, she would have found it hard to resist seeing Hippolyte.

Either way, she did not have a chance to prove her newfound devotion. On June 20, two days after she wrote the letters to Barras, a maid called Josephine and her visitors to the balcony to see a little dog on the street. They all rushed outside and the terrace collapsed under their weight. The party fell twenty feet to the ground. One of her companions broke her leg, and Josephine herself was very badly hurt, for she was at the front and her visitors had landed on her. She had a suspected broken pelvis, and her spine was so bruised that she could not move.

The physician Martinet, a man more used to treating country burghers than the wife of the conqueror of Italy, promptly wrapped her in the bloody skin of a newly killed sheep, bled her, administered an enema, and plunged her into a hot bath. Martinet sent daily reports to Barras, intent on ensuring the health of such an estimable patient. Poor Josephine was tormented by douches, hot baths, more enemas, poultices, plasters, leeches, camphor, and compresses of brandy and boiled potatoes. Determined to make his fame out of the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, Martinet took notes of his treatments and would eventually publish everything in his Journal physico-médical des eaux de Plombières. He informed the horrified Josephine that she had to stay there for two months, imbibing the waters and submitting to his treatments.

Hortense was rushed to Plombières from school in Paris, arriving to find her mother an invalid, unable even to feed herself. The whole plight was made worse by Napoleon’s missives; unaware of her accident, he assured her that he could not live without his Josephine and reiterated the instructions to embark at Naples. She told everyone who would listen that she was too ill to move. “I wish my health would permit me to depart now; but I don’t see the end of my cure,” she wrote to Barras in July. “I cannot stand upright for more than ten minutes without terrible pains in the lower back. I do nothing but cry. The doctors say that in a month I shall be cured.” She told Barras, however, that his letter had “put balm on my bruises.”22

Whether it was Barras’s letters or Martinet’s enthusiastic baths and potions, something did the trick, or at least did not hinder a natural improvement. By August, Josephine had recovered and agreed to act as godparent to Martinet’s newborn daughter—and she asked Barras to be a godparent, too. On August 15, she and Hortense arrived back in Paris to find pictures of Napoleon suspended around the city. She was still hopeful of joining him in Egypt, if a ship could be found. But then a shocking piece of news came through. Upon hearing it, Josephine wrote immediately to Barras. “I am so worried about the news that has just come in via Malta that I must ask to see you alone tonight at nine. Give orders for no one else to enter.”23

On August 1, at Aboukir, off the coast of Alexandria, Nelson had attacked the French fleet. All but four of Napoleon’s ships had been sunk.

When British spies had seen the ships assembling at the French ports, they began to debate Napoleon’s destination. The minister for war and the British consul in Livorno suggested he might be heading to Egypt. Earl Spencer, first lord of the Admiralty, ordered the dispatch of Horatio Nelson, then rear admiral of the Blue, to the Mediterranean to ascertain Napoleon’s destination. Though he was missing an arm and was wounded in one eye, thirty-nine-year-old Nelson was a genius for strategy and propaganda, and he was equipped with a pathological hatred of the French. Nelson had much in common with Napoleon: He was also a social outsider and impatient with etiquette. He had been living in miserable retirement with his wife, making model ships and reading The Times, and he was hungry to be back at sea chasing his prey.

Napoleon was aware the British had been dispatched, but he was too convinced of his own brilliance to worry. He avoided Nelson with ease and, on June 11, took Malta and raided the island’s coffers. The Knights of Malta, the possessors of the island, were aging, and the ten thousand men who made up the garrison were not loyal and were unlikely to risk their lives to defend their masters. Napoleon banished the Knights and set about making the island into a modern state. He issued dispatches, abolished feudal privileges, and freed two thousand slaves. Meanwhile, his men scoured the monasteries, churches, and knightly properties for treasure. On June 19, they set off once more, their trunks filled with gold.

On board, Napoleon pondered Islamic history and chattered about his wife. “Josephine almost always formed the subject of our intimate chats,” Bourrienne noted. “His love for her verged on idolatory.”24 The thought of Josephine was a distraction from the awful conditions on board, for the meticulously planned food stores had spoiled and the men were living on dry, wormy biscuits. When the fleet landed at Aboukir, Napoleon was concerned that Nelson might catch them—they were very vulnerable to attack just in port. He demanded his men disembark immediately, but the sea was rough and many boats capsized. Already exhausted, the soldiers began marching to Alexandria, spurred on by the thought of finding drinking water. Alexandria surrendered quickly, and Napoleon’s men won a victory over Mameluke troops at Shubra Khit, a village on the Nile. Buoyed by these triumphs, he commanded his battle-scarred men to continue on to Cairo.

If he had been missing Josephine on the boat, he was craving her in Egypt. In the calm after the victory over the Mamelukes, he had been boasting of his wife’s excellence. Junot, seeing the men laughing behind their hands as their leader extolled Josephine’s virtue, decided Napoleon must be told the truth. A cynical philanderer, Junot had little belief in love. Most of all, he hated Josephine for dismissing Louise because of their affair, and he wanted revenge.

As Junot accompanied Napoleon past an oasis, he seized his moment. He told him that Josephine had continued her affair with Hippolyte and that all Paris knew it. He reiterated that Louise had traveled with Josephine en route to Italy and she had seen everything. Napoleon fell into a state of shock: His face paled and his limbs began jerking. He beat his head with his fists. “I have no wish to be the laughingstock … I will divorce her.” He cried out, “Divorce—I want a public and sensational divorce.”

He dashed to Bourrienne and asked him the truth.

Josephine!—and I six hundred leagues from her—you ought to have told me. That she should have deceived me like this!—Woe to them!—I will exterminate the whole race of fops and puppies! As to her—divorce! Yes, divorce! A public and open divorce!25

Napoleon said he would write to his brother Joseph to pursue the divorce, but Bourrienne attempted to quiet him, urging that it would be unreasonable to rely on hearsay evidence while so far away. He told him that it was unfair to accuse a woman of such infidelity when she was not present to defend herself. As for divorce, “it would be time to think of that hereafter.”26 Napoleon eventually agreed to restrain himself from immediate action. His anger was subsiding. “I would give anything if what Junot had told me was untrue, I love her so much.”27 But the seeds had been sown, and it was clearly only a matter of time before he abandoned his wife. Night after night, Napoleon called his stepson to his tent to bemoan Josephine’s behavior. Eugène was powerless to defend her in the face of his emotion. Josephine was effectively ruined.

Napoleon was distraught, but he was able to put his feelings aside to focus on the campaign. At Embabeh, they took on the Mamelukes again, and he sent home news of his great victory at “The Battle of the Pyramids.” On July 24, he entered Cairo. Instead of the opulence they expected, his men found “shadowy houses often in ruins, even the public buildings seem like dungeons, shops are nothing better than stables.” Mercilessly, they complained that all the children were too skinny and covered in flies.28

Napoleon requisitioned the palace of Alfi Elfi Bey on the edge of the city. Only recently renovated, the residence was a riot of marble, mirrors, damask curtains, and silk-woven Persian carpets, with sunken baths on both floors. He settled in and sent the Directory his requirements for creating a properly French community in Cairo.

1st, a company of actors; 2d, a company of dancers; 3d, some dealers in marionettes, at least three or four; 4th, a hundred French women; 5th, the wives of all the men employed in the corps; 6th, twenty surgeons, thirty apothecaries, and ten Physicians; 7th, some founders; 8th, some distillers and dealers in liquor; 9th, fifty gardeners with their families, and the seeds of every kind of vegetable; 10th, each party to bring with them: 200,000 pints of brandy; 11th, 30,000 ells of blue and scarlet cloth; 12th, a supply of soap and oil.29

The conqueror also ordered the building of hospitals and bakeries, made mandatory the use of lit torches outside houses, and forbade the burial of bodies inside the city walls. Declaring himself the liberator of the Egyptian people, he set up newspapers, threw balls and receptions, and founded the Egyptian Institute for the scholars he had brought with him. The wives who had hidden themselves in uniforms now appeared openly, while the soldiers and scholars began to befriend the Egyptian women, though they were rather shocked at their size (to compliment an Egyptian lady, they learned, one should say “she was so beautiful, she could not get through the door”). The Egyptians complained that the Frenchmen were giving the women ideas about dominance, since they gave gifts and presents and “pride themselves on their submission to women.”

With Cairo secure, Napoleon went back to contemplating Junot’s revelations. On July 25, he sent Joseph an anguished letter. “I have a lot of domestic problems for the veil is completely torn away. You are the only person left to me in this world,” he mourned. “It is a sad state of affairs when all one’s affection is concentrated in a single person. You know what I mean.” In words not dissimilar to those in his novel Clisson et Eugénie, he said he wished never to see Josephine again. “I have had enough of people. I need solitude and isolation. Greatness no longer interests me. All feeling in me is dried up. At twenty-nine, everything is over.”30

Eugène wrote quickly to his mother.

My dear mama, I have so much to say to you that I don’t know how to start. Bonaparte has been miserable for five days, as a result of a conversation with Julien, Junot, and Berthier. Their words have affected him more than I would have believed. All I have heard amounts to this: that Charles traveled in your carriage until you were within three posting stations of Paris; that you met him in Paris; that you were with him at the Theatre of the Italians in the private boxes; that he gave you your little dog; that even now you are with him. Such, in scattered phrases, is everything that I have heard. You know, mama, that I don’t believe a word; but what is certain is that the general is very upset. However, he redoubles his kindnesses to me. He seems to say, by his actions, that children are not responsible for the faults of their mother. Your son, however, chooses to believe that all this gossip has been manufactured by your enemies. Your son loves you as much as ever and is as eager as ever to greet you. I hope that when you do come all will be forgotten.31

Without Josephine there to fling herself weeping at his feet, Napoleon dwelled on her faults. The thought that everyone knew he had been shamed was deeply painful to him.

On August 1, many of Napoleon’s crew members were offshore when Nelson arrived at Alexandria, and most of the ships were undermanned. At three o’clock, Nelson took dinner and ordered fast action. At ten, L’Orient exploded into fire, killing hundreds of men. With it sank six hundred thousand livres in gold and diamonds stolen from Malta. Eleven warships were captured or lost, and at least twelve hundred men were dead, with thousands more taken prisoner.

When the news of the attack on his fleet reached Napoleon, he received it “without a flicker of emotion passing over his features.”32 Holed up in his handsome marble palace in Cairo, he told his men that Britain might control the sea, but France had an empire on land, in the place where three continents joined. “We are obliged to found a great Empire, and found it we will,” he announced. “The sea, of which we are not masters, separates us from our homeland; but no sea separates us from either Africa or Asia.”33“Everything is perfectly fine here,” he wrote airily to the Directory. He addressed questions of tax and property laws and made plans for further conquest.

The Battle of the Nile, as it became known, was an incredible victory for Britain. By the end of 1798, everyone in Britain and most people in Europe owned some sort of picture of Nelson in tribute, from cheap prints or a tankard with his likeness to expensive portraits. Women across the land draped themselves in Nelsonia, proudly wearing anchor necklaces, “N” brooches and headbands, and Nile-themed shawls. A popular print by the scabrous James Gillray showed a onearmed Nelson by the pyramids beating red, white, and blue crocodiles with his truncheon made of “British Oak.” The king and queen of Naples, via the British envoy’s glamorous wife, Emma, Lady Hamilton, begged the hero of the Nile to come to Naples to protect them. Lady Hamilton told him, “I walk and tread in the air with pride to think I was born in the same land as Nelson and his gallant band.”34 Nelson dashed to her—and out of Napoleon’s way.

SOON BESIEGED WITH news about Napoleon’s victories, Josephine decided that his defeat at the Battle of the Nile could be dismissed. She continued her life blithely unaware that Napoleon knew of her infidelity. She frequented the friends her husband disliked. Barras, Thérésa Tallien, and Juliette Récamier were often at her salons, along with the cream of society. Musicians and composers, including Méhul and Cherubini, artists such as Gérard and Girodet, and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, author of Napoleon’s beloved Paul et Virginie, all came to her receptions. The poet Arnault had fled Napoleon’s company at Malta and traveled back to Paris; he found the delicate company of Josephine much preferable to rotten biscuits with her husband. She also saw Hippolyte Charles, flirted with handsome men, and failed to write to Napoleon (though she did dutifully invite her sisters-in-law to her salons).

In October 1798, a Parisian newspaper reported that a French mail ship had been captured and letters written by Napoleon seized by the British. His letter to Joseph still lies in the British Museum, written across in Nelson’s distinctive spiky hand, “found on the person of the courier.”35 Among dreary lists of instructions and letters about domestic affairs from other officers was Napoleon’s missive of July 25, wailing to Joseph that the “veil is torn,” and Eugène’s to his mother, telling her that Junot had spilled her secrets. After the success of the Battle of the Nile, the letters were a gift to the British, another indication of a weakness in Napoleon’s armor. James Perry, the editor of the Morning Chronicle, grasped the scoop and printed sections of the letters on November 24, 1798. The readers goggled at Napoleon crying over his wife. The letters were read not only over the breakfast tables of London and Manchester; unfortunately for Josephine, the Morning Chronicle was available in Paris. Before long, everybody knew of Napoleon’s misery—and Josephine’s terrible disgrace.36

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