Biographies & Memoirs


“All I Have Suffered”

Though Paul de Barras put pressure on the French newspapers not to reprint the news about Madame Bonaparte, copies of the Chronicle passed hands, and the rumors spread about the marriage of the Bonapartes and about Josephine’s behavior. She knew she had been exposed. She grew desperate and terrified of the power of Napoleon’s family to destroy her.

Joseph was deeply gratified that his brother’s letter to him had been published. He did not visit Josephine and refused to give her money from the family funds, as Napoleon had directed him to do before he departed. When Louis Bonaparte returned from Egypt, he, too, declined to visit her. In Paris, Josephine found herself shunned, mocked, and ignored. The French never received the letter.

Now that everyone knew about her infidelity, her creditors began to call in their debts. She could not pay even the smallest bills.1 She tried to charm and influence the Directory and other men of power, but this only gave her enemies more ammunition.

In his letter to Joseph, Napoleon had suggested that, after their divorce, he’d keep 6 rue de la Victoire. Josephine knew she must do something for herself. Malmaison, the country home Napoleon had turned down, became her last hope; in her mind, it represented the security she needed and the possibility of a rural retreat where Napoleon might fall in love with her all over again. He would return, the great conquering hero; she would throw herself at his feet, and then he would pay her bills. She had ammunition of her own: Joseph had purchased the Château de Mortefontaine for 285,000 francs, and she knew Napoleon would not want to be outdone by his brother.

Josephine visited Malmaison again with Hortense. She was particularly delighted by its beautiful situation amid lush green lawns, woodland, and vineyards. She had always missed the foliage and flowers of Martinique, and Malmaison, she hoped, would be her chance to cultivate gardens full of exotic plants. In October 1798, she asked her old friend Jean Chanorier, the mayor of Croissy, to approach the Molays about selling the property. All through that miserable winter of 1798–99, Josephine fretted about money, had Barras fight off the debt collectors, borrowed funds to get by, and haggled through Chanorier for Malmaison.

The first written mention of Malmaison in the land records appears in 1244 as a listing for a simple barn. By the fourteenth century, the site had become a substantial manor house, and it would remain with the same family until 1763. Josephine was a typical example of someone who had grown rich under the Directory and had started to buy up the property of old French families, much to their despair. Monsieur du Molay loved the house and could not bring himself to be involved in its sale (especially not to a nouveau riche wife like Josephine).2 But the Molays were in need of money, so his wife took over negotiations. The women’s drawn-out correspondence, with Chanorier acting as arbiter, is a testimony to female prowess, determination, and business acumen. Neither party was prepared to give in easily.

In a letter dated March 1, 1799, Chanorier declared Malmaison to be not only “the prettiest property I know” but also, as a working farm, exceedingly “useful” in a financial sense.3 He informed Josephine that Madame du Molay was asking three hundred thousand francs and claiming that Bonaparte had agreed to the price with a Molay relative who was “prepared to testify to it.” He answered firmly: “I told her that the General had only ever spoken of 250,000 francs; but that even if he had, the land would have decreased in value since then.”4

Josephine responded unequivocally. “The price asked by Mme. du Molay is too much,” she informed Chanorier. “Whatever desire I might have had to come to an agreement over Malmaison, I am obliged to withdraw my interest. My last offer is 100,000 ecus [250,000 francs], for immediate occupation.”5

On March 17, she conceded.

My final offer, taking into account your opinion and the information you have given me [her way of saving face over paying more], is 310,000 francs, to include everything and for immediate occupation. I firmly believe that I should not have to pay any more than this, and I’m keen to resolve the matter one way or another.6

Madame du Molay eventually found Josephine’s offer suitable. But she was not to be moved out easily. “Poor Mme. du Molay shuddered,” Chanorier wrote, “when I told her that, being tired of Paris, if you purchased the property, it was quite possible that you would take up residence within a fortnight.” The Molays asked to stay in one of the apartments on the farm until mid-July. “That way, you could move in the day after you bought it.”7

For all her firm words, Josephine had been ruled by her heart. She later admitted that the final asking price amounted to well over 325,000 francs. Joseph had bought his grand château with seven hundred acres of land for much less. An undated letter from her to Barras, published in 1820 and recorded as being “for Malmaison,” suggests he helped her find the money to buy the house.

I was sure that this would interest you; I was no less sure that you would succeed. Here I am now certain of possessing a refuge, and thanks to this kindness, which is made all the sweeter by the grace with which it is offered, this refuge meets all my requirements, and I can allow my passions to flourish there. These are peaceful and pure tastes which in more prosperous times, I cultivated whimsically and which today I embrace wholeheartedly.8

With the furniture included in the price, Josephine could move in right away. She did not waste a moment. She took occupation in April and promptly began planning a housewarming party.

Despite the Molays’ modifications, the château needed sprucing up and was crying out for expansion. But the grounds were magnificent, and the farm boasted a fine production of wine, a healthy wheat crop, and a variety of livestock. Josephine was delighted by how she could “freely breathe the country air.”9 In years to come, the Île de Chatou on the edge of the property would be portrayed repeatedly by the Impressionists. The house was a sanctuary from Paris yet was only ten miles away. If the solitude became too monotonous, Josephine would be able to access the capital in under an hour by coach.

She thought Malmaison the perfect place to hide from prying eyes. She invited Hippolyte Charles to visit her, at first in secret so that no one would see him arrive. Little by little, as his visits became more frequent and a routine established itself, the couple became complacent. He even had his own bedroom next door to Josephine’s. He spent whole weeks there, though he left when guests were expected.

The gossips repeated that a country neighbor had spotted Josephine and said, “Poor Mme. Bonaparte can be seen at dusk walking in her garden, leaning on the arm of a young man, probably her son.” Josephine, incredibly, was amused that the locals thought Hippolyte was her son. He was leading a precarious existence, engaging in the odd bit of shady business and still working with Bodin. Josephine, too, was receiving kickbacks from the profiteers. At a time when her enemies were collecting evidence against her, and the Bonaparte family looked forward to their ultimate triumph, her obsession with Hippolyte was very unwise.

He had a wandering eye, and she already suspected he had another lover. In February, she had written that she wished to see him. “You can be assured, after this meeting, which will be the last, that you will no longer be tormented by my letters or by my presence. The respectable woman who has been deceived retires and says nothing.”10 Still, they seemed to reconcile, and Josephine continued behaving with shocking disregard to the risk. A general’s wife should have acted more wisely, especially considering the affair had already been revealed in the papers. But she loved Hippolyte’s lighthearted air and his energy, and she could not give him up.

THE DIRECTORY WAS falling apart. In June 1799, the ruthless intellectual former priest Emmanuel Sieyès had allied with Barras to expel the directors he did not trust and brought in fifty-three-year-old Louis-Jérôme Gohier and two others in their place. Another rising star was Joseph Fouché, a former cleric, pale-eyed and pale-faced and utterly without morals; he, too, had dealt in army supplies. In July 1799, he became minister of police, tasked with quashing all criticism of the government.

Josephine marshaled her beauty and her redecorated salon at rue de la Victoire to win over the men who would control Napoleon’s career, and thus lure her husband back to her. Sieyès was dismissive of her, but Gohier was both eager to dine with her and sexually fascinated by her, although she was close friends with his wife.

Gohier advised Josephine that her relationship with Hippolyte compromised her in the eyes of the world, and she should either give him up or divorce Napoleon and marry him. She assured Gohier that they were just friends. She had no wish to divorce Napoleon or to be Hippolyte’s wife. As she knew, the little gallant would never marry her—there was no way he could afford to keep her.

The War Ministry had launched an inquiry into the Bodin Company and discovered the poor horses, various bribes, and numerous unpaid suppliers. Josephine was keen to save Hippolyte, now codirector, from disgrace. “A report on the Bodin Company is to be made today to the Directory, and I beg you to intervene for them,” she wrote to Barras. “The firm is in such a bad way that it needs powerful sponsorship.”11 Every time she gained her former lover’s sympathy with her vulnerability, she also drove him to exasperation with her pleas to favor Bodin’s dodgy dealings. He grew tired of her supplications. One evening at dinner in the Luxembourg, Barras turned his back on her and spoke only to Thérésa Tallien. Josephine departed in tears, convinced that he believed she would be divorced by Napoleon on his return from Egypt and thus was shunning her.

BONAPARTE SOON HEARD of his humiliation in the British press and was bent on revenge. After attempting to amuse himself with dancers, he spotted pretty Pauline Fourès at a hot-air-balloon launch in the Ezbekiya Gardens. The wife of a lieutenant, twenty-year-old Pauline was a cheery, accommodating soul who had the slender figure Napoleon liked and looked well in her disguise of the uniform of her husband’s regiment. She had long golden hair, a rose-petal complexion, a perky temperament, and an eagerness for adventure. Lieutenant Fourès had come across her working at a milliner’s shop in Carcassonne and married her just before setting off on campaign.

Napoleon ignored the balloon and stared at Pauline openly and without flinching, a tactic that many of his amours found disturbing. Junot was sent off to make a proposition to her; unfortunately, he did so in coarsely practical language, and Pauline was shaken. General Duroc was sent to make another attempt, bearing a handsome jeweled bracelet as a gift. This time the lady proved much more receptive.

On December 17, Lieutenant Fourès was assigned to take a letter to Admiral Villeneuve, who had been commanding one of the few ships to escape the Battle of the Nile but had been captured in Malta. He was also tasked with carrying letters to the Directory in Paris. Napoleon hoped the journey would take three months or so. Fourès was refused permission to take Pauline with him. As soon as the husband’s back was turned, Napoleon invited her and several other officers and their wives to a dinner at the palace. After dessert, an officer spilled coffee “by accident” over her gown. Napoleon leaped to her rescue, ushered her upstairs to change, and neither returned to the dinner. She was soon living in a villa on the palace grounds, and others dubbed her Napoleon’s “Cleopatra.”

Bonaparte treated the milliner’s apprentice as a true companion. He admired her staunch determination to travel through Egypt with her husband, and he was pleased by her vivacious personality. He flaunted her, hoping the news would get back to Paris. For the short period they were together, she presided at his dinner parties and accompanied him everywhere in his carriage. Napoleon even forced seventeen-year-old Eugène to escort him and his new mistress around the city, until the poor boy begged to be excused.

On December 24, 1798, barely a week after capturing Pauline, Napoleon set off for Suez. He wished her a touching goodbye and told her to make a son while he was away, always hopeful for the proof of his virility. He came back briefly after Suez, only to set off again in February on a grandiloquent expedition to Syria. He meant eventually to take on the Turks, who had declared war on France.

Pauline’s husband was captured just outside Alexandria and was promptly returned to Cairo. Fourès was outraged when he learned of his wife’s betrayal, but he could do nothing. Napoleon pronounced the Fourès divorced (he saw himself as the de facto ruler of Cairo and so judged himself able to dissolve a marriage), which left him free to enjoy Pauline. Her only fault was that she would not get pregnant. “What’s to be done,” said the great hero, “the silly girl … can’t do it.” Pauline vehemently defended herself. “Good God!” she cried. “It’s not my fault.”12 She presumably meant that his cursory technique made conception unlikely.

Napoleon soon set off again. He could not bring himself to stay in one place for too long (even if he had a pretty girl like Pauline waiting for him). “I saw myself on the way to Asia, riding an elephant, wearing a turban, attacking the English in India,” he later wrote.13 The reality of the campaign was less romantic. The men hated the conditions of the desert and suffered in the heat. At Jaffa in Palestine (now part of Tel Aviv), they were plied with alcohol to give them courage and then sent to massacre all those who were in the enemy garrison, including women and children. In the morning, Napoleon dispatched Eugène and another young aide, Crosier, to call for peace. Turkish soldiers holed up in a citadel told Crosier they would come down if their lives were spared. He brought all four thousand of them as prisoners.

Napoleon was furious with Crosier and Eugène. “Have I any provisions to feed them?” he railed. “What the devil can I do with them all?”14 It was impossible to expect them to become loyal members of the French army, and there were not enough troops to march them back. Napoleon ordered the men to be shot. For three days, his demoralized soldiers were forced to chase fleeing men into the sea and shoot them. Weeping children clung to the necks of their fathers as they, too, were killed, and the sea turned red with blood.

The following day, the army was hit by bubonic plague. Napoleon declared that any man who was afraid of the plague would catch it. To prove his point, he visited a hospital and touched some of the patients and helped to reposition others. He believed that if one had control over the mind, the body would follow suit. The army progressed to Acre on the coast of Syria, but failed to take the garrison, which was protected by the British. Napoleon told his men to return to Cairo, after writing to the Directory that Acre was not worth seizing. He left behind two thousand wounded and plague-ridden soldiers. The British offered to take them on their ships, but Napoleon refused, and the men were beheaded by the Turks almost as soon as the French left.

He wrote missives to the French blowing his own trumpet, puffing his incredible victories, barely mentioning the plague. “We want for nothing here,” he exclaimed to the Directory, “we are bursting with strength, good health, and high spirits.” He had instructed that his men be welcomed in Cairo like conquering heroes, with grand ceremony and bands playing. Napoleon was good at assuming the mantle of a victor, even if he did not deserve it. He hoped that the news of his celebration would reach France. “We are masters of the entire eastern desert,” he wrote. “If you could send us excess of 15,000 men, we would be able to go anywhere.”

He hurried back to the arms of Pauline Fourès but was disappointed to find she was not yet pregnant. He dallied with her and planned more victories until the British cunningly sent him a set of recent newspapers.15 Napoleon was shocked at the news they contained. France was under fire. Austria, Britain, and Russia had banded together; the Austrians had pushed the French back over the Rhine; and the French had been forced to withdraw from much of Switzerland. Malta was blockaded, and the French forces were being driven back through Italy. Most of the territory gained during the Italian campaign had been lost.

Napoleon scoured the newspapers, madly reading of the failures of his country. “Italy is lost!!!” he cried. “All the fruits of our victories have disappeared! I must depart.” France needed a savior, and he was the man to do it. By August 11, Napoleon was preparing to leave, abandoning his ill and exhausted Army of the Orient under the command of Kléber, telling everybody but Bourrienne and his chief of staff that it was just another expedition. He took Eugène with him but left Junot, still unable to forgive him for telling the truth about Josephine. He refused to let Pauline Fourès come, in case the British took the ship. “You should think of my reputation; what would they say if they found a woman on board?”16 He suggested to Kléber that he take her as a mistress.

Once Napoleon had left Egypt, he was eager to get to France. At Corsica, the ships were stalled owing to a lack of wind. He stayed in his childhood home, saw relatives and his old wet nurse, and raged against the weather. “I will be there too late,” he moaned. On October 10, 1799, he finally landed in France and was greeted by delighted crowds. The cannons fired in Paris to announce the news. People wept with joy, and the theaters had to interrupt performances so people could sing patriotic songs.

In Cairo, governing from a palace, issuing edicts that had to be obeyed by a subject people, Napoleon had discovered a taste for tyranny and ruling over an empire. But he no longer wished to be emperor of Africa. In place of Alexander, his new hero was Julius Caesar, conqueror of Europe.

THROUGHOUT 1799, JOSEPHINE became increasingly nervous and unhappy. Exposed and guilty, she was afraid of Napoleon’s return and began to doubt that the purchase of Malmaison would win him over. She told her old friends that she was retiring, shunning social life. “I came to Paris, my dear Barras, meaning to see you, but I was told when I got there that you had a large party today,” she wrote. The woman who once thrived on admiration and reveled in society now wished to be private. “Since moving to the country, I have become such a recluse that social occasions frighten me,” she told her former lover. “Besides, I am so miserable that I do not wish to be an object of pity for others.”17

“Mama has bought Malmaison,” Hortense wrote to her brother in October 1799. “She lives a very reclusive life there.”18 She meant the letter to be read to Napoleon and for him to understand how quietly Josephine was behaving.

She has only given two big dinner parties since you both departed. The Directors and all the Buonoparte family were invited, but the latter always decline to come … Maman is, I assure you, very distressed that the family won’t live on friendly terms with her, which must vex her husband whom she loves very much. I am certain that if Maman could have been sure of reaching him, she would have gone, but you know how impossible that would be.

Josephine herself, after presumably overseeing the letter, wrote that she wished for Eugène’s return and that of Napoleon, “especially if I find Bonaparte as he was when he left me; then I will be able to forget all I have suffered as a result of your absence and his.”19 She was making a counterstrike: accusing her husband of neglect and absence. Luckily for her, Napoleon did not see the letter. He and Eugène were already on their way home.

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