Biographies & Memoirs


“He Owes Me Everything”

On the night of October 10, Josephine was dining with Gohier and his wife, discussing politics and Paris gossip. The cutlery and glasses clinked, the candles cast soft light, she smiled at Gohier’s jokes and talked about dresses with his wife. Then an urgent message came through from Eugène that he had landed at Fréjus with Napoleon. Josephine leaped from her chair. “I must reach him before his brothers can talk to him,” she cried. She made her hasty goodbyes, collected Hortense, and hurried into her carriage. She told her driver to speed south in the hope of catching Napoleon at Lyon.

She did not know which route he would take and so took her chances on the route via Châlons, begging the coachman to push the horses as fast as he could. As she sped south, she saw that every village and coaching inn had been speedily decorated for the returning hero, with triumphal archways erected over the roads and illuminations strung across the houses. Each time they stopped to change horses, people crowded around their carriage, imploring Josephine to tell them “if it was really true that the savior (for that was the name that all France had given him) had returned,” as Hortense recalled.1 Finally, they reached Lyon, only to be told that the general had already left and was traveling to Paris on a different road. Napoleon had remained briefly in Lyon to bask in the people’s praise, and the city had produced a quickly written new play, Bonaparte at Lyon, for him. Josephine had just missed him.

In shock, mother and daughter turned the horses around and raced through the night. The road back was nothing but a “series of ovations” for him, and each was a bitter pill for poor Josephine.

Her worst fears had come true. Lucien and Joseph had traveled to meet Napoleon at Lyon. All the way to Paris, his brothers talked to him of Josephine’s infidelity and her relationships with army profiteers.

Napoleon entered Paris to wild acclaim. The city sparkled with lights, bands played, and women—and even some men—fainted. But he wanted only to see Josephine. Even though he was angry with her, he longed for her soft embrace and her perfumed body, to hear her gentle voice, and to lie in her bed. He was ready to hear her defense. He expected a torrent of tears and then, when he deemed it fit, a passionate reconciliation.

But he arrived at their house at six A.M. and found her absent. Furious and miserable, Napoleon abandoned himself to melancholy in his lonely home. He believed that she must be with Hippolyte Charles, as everybody had said.

AS SOON AS he was able, Napoleon called on Paul de Barras and declared he would divorce Josephine. Barras counseled patience. He had his motives, of course; the Directory would only be further undermined if their favorite general embarked on the embarrassing course of divorce.

Then Gohier, who was desperately fond of Josephine, told Napoleon that divorce was a “black mark against the record of a man in public life.” He stressed how Josephine had rushed from their home to meet him, and said that the public was more likely to trust a married man.2 Napoleon, confused, turned to his family. Like vultures, they flocked to say that it was obvious she was away seducing her lover and he should be rid of her immediately.

The next day, Jean-Pierre Collot, a banker, visited rue de la Victoire and begged Napoleon to forgive Josephine, for the moment, at least. “Think of France!” he cried. Napoleon railed, “I will never forgive her! How little you know me!” Collot, like Barras, suggested that a public separation would expose him to ridicule—“You will be laughed at like one of Molière’s husbands”—and warned that he should not make any hasty decisions.3 “All this violence proves you still love her,” he argued. “Do but see her, she will explain everything.”4 Napoleon would not listen, avowing that people would grow bored with gossiping about him and his wife. “My determination is fixed,” he said, “she shall never again enter my house.”5 Eugène, who had just arrived in Paris (he had traveled separately from his stepfather in a slower coach), attempted to speak to him, but Napoleon was adamant.

Bonaparte visited Fortunée Hamelin, who also recommended caution. If he wanted the public to focus on his military victories, he shouldn’t get hauled into a domestic drama—and many of his middleclass supporters would be shocked by a divorce. But Napoleon was a wounded bear; despite all the advice to have patience, he stormed home and told the maids to pack up Josephine’s huge wardrobes of clothes.

JOSEPHINE ARRIVED AT eleven that night, exhausted and covered in dust and dirt from the journey. The porter told her that Napoleon would not see her and gestured toward her boxes of belongings, packed and ready for her to take away. Josephine and Hortense dashed past him into the house. The servants did not dare stop them. A maid told them that Napoleon was in his dressing room and would not come out. Josephine wept and begged at the door. Napoleon finally said that he would not see her and he would never open the door to her again. She crouched on the last spiral of a narrow staircase, crying noisily and begging him to forgive her. She wept and pleaded for hours, her sobs echoing through the house. For the first time, Napoleon resisted her tears.

At nearly five in the morning, still weeping, Josephine stood, unable to believe that her tears had not succeeded. In a last-ditch attempt, she went to find Hortense and Eugène and implored them to assist her. They climbed the stairs in their nightgowns and wept outside Napoleon’s room with her, pleading for mercy. He flung open the door, and the tableau of his wife in tears with her two children, all three of them supplicating him for help, was too much to resist. Eugène and Hortense begged him not to break their mother’s heart: “Ought injustice to take from us, poor orphans, whose natural protector the scaffold has already deprived us of, the support of one whom Providence has sent to replace him!”6 Napoleon relented. “I could not bear the sobs of those two children,” he later declared. “I asked myself, should they be made victims of their mother’s failings?”7

Napoleon took Josephine to their bed, and the reconciliation was complete.

The next morning Lucien arrived, expecting to push forward the matter of the divorce. To his horror, he found the pair in bed together, his sister-in-law fully reinstated as the ruler of Napoleon’s heart.

Josephine had been forgiven, but the balance in the marriage had shifted, and she was no longer the all-powerful, dishing out her favors from a pedestal. Napoleon was now sure that she had been unfaithful to him. His success in Egypt, and his affair with Pauline, had made him more vainglorious and less dependent on her.*1 He would never again worship at her shrine; she would never again treat him so cavalierly. Without a child, she knew she was weak, and her exposure as an adulterer had made her realize that men of power and her friends alike would turn their backs on her if they felt her hold over him was slipping. When they had married, she had been the sought-after woman, and few could understand why she had accepted Napoleon’s proposal. Now he was seen as the savior of France and she a mere wife. Her position could be taken from her at any time.

Unsurprisingly, his family was livid about the reconciliation. Her sister-in-law Pauline and the brothers were from then on “at open war with Josephine.”8

NAPOLEON CLAIMED HE had forgiven Josephine for the sake of her children. He was very fond of them. In Italy, not long after their marriage, he had written to her, “Be sure to tell them that I love them as if they were my own. What is yours or mine is so mixed up in my heart, that there is no difference there.”9 He told her that he thought Hortense “entirely adorable” and had come to see Eugène as his adopted son.10 It was hard not to admire the pair: Eugène was dutiful and steadfast and had served him well in Egypt; and golden-haired, graceful Hortense was the jewel of Madame Campan’s school, about to graduate and make her debut with a set of accomplishments worthy of Versailles. She was also rather terrified of Napoleon and would tremble when she spoke to him, asking others to request favors on her behalf.11 Such a display of fear could hardly fail to endear her to him.

But Napoleon was driven by more than mercy. He was bent on political power, and for that he needed his wife. Having a wife and stepchildren made him look reliable; he also required Josephine’s quiet powers of influence, her ability to please and flatter, her talents as a hostess, and her continued hold over Barras, Gohier, Talleyrand, and the others. Most of all, as a survivor of imprisonment, she gave legitimacy to his claim of protecting the Republic, while at the same time her aristocratic title persuaded the royalists into believing that her husband would espouse their cause. As Barras had said, she made him seem French.

Distracted as he was in the stormy days after his arrival, Napoleon saw that the words of the informers who had written to him while he was in Egypt were correct: The Directory was struggling. The populace of France, facing economic decline and distressed by the failures of the army in Europe, had lost faith in their government. The Directory was riven with personal rivalries and grudges. No one trusted anyone else, and each member was trying hard to hold on to his position by ousting his rivals. The door was wide open for Napoleon to step in, adored by the people and, as a general, seemingly unsullied by politics. As Hortense put it, “With Italy lost, the finances spent, the Directory devoid of energy and authority, the return of the General was seen as a favor from heaven.”12

The irascible Emmanuel Sieyès had been preparing a secret coup d’état to seize power by ousting his fellow directors—Barras, Gohier, and Jean-François Moulin. The fourth, Roger Ducos, Sieyès thought spineless enough to follow him. He gained the confidence of Talleyrand, Joseph Fouché, and Lucien Bonaparte. He needed only a general on his side to provide military might. General Bernadotte, minister for war, refused. General Joubert was killed in Italy, and both General Macdonald and General Moreau were reluctant to involve themselves in a political plot.

On October 14, Sieyès was awaiting Moreau in his office at the Luxembourg Palace. Moreau arrived at the same time as a messenger delivering the thrilling news that Bonaparte had returned and was nearly at Paris. “There’s your man,” Moreau said, and promptly departed.

Napoleon wanted more than to be the strongman for another man’s political desires. He listened to Sieyès, nodded politely, and then made his own plans to launch a coup, hoping that Gohier and Barras would back him up. He employed Josephine to charm certain influential men and persuade them to espouse his cause—and to persuade Barras that he was still loyal. She obeyed gladly, keen to please, and planned dinners, receptions, and intimate meetings as required. Six rue de la Victoire was a revolving door of politicians, ministers, and generals all eager to sample Josephine’s delicate desserts and hear her flirtatious words, close in their ears. She flattered Barras and Gohier and lulled them all into a false sense of security about Bonaparte and his goals. As she did so, the Directory breathed its last.

Napoleon sounded out Barras, asking him what he would do if there were a coup to unseat the Directory. Barras refused to listen to the idea. He tried Gohier, who made it clear to Napoleon that he thought him too young to be involved in government. His plans for a coup in tatters, Napoleon was left with no choice but to throw in his lot with Sieyès, although he despised him.

On November 9, Napoleon got up at five A.M. and sent letters to favorable members of the Council of Elders, requesting their presence at the Tuileries at seven A.M. (the rest would receive their letters too late, long after the voting had ended). Four hundred dragoons were already assembling there. He set about trapping the other directors. “Will you, my dear Gohier, and your wife have breakfast with me tomorrow at eight o’clock in the morning,” Josephine had written to her friend the night before. “Do not fail: I must speak to you of interesting matters.”13 Gohier thought the hour suspiciously early for Josephine and sent his wife alone. She found Josephine’s house full of soldiers, ready to arrest her husband and force his resignation.

Napoleon arrived at the Tuileries at eight-thirty, surrounded by his generals. He addressed his troops, telling them the Directory had betrayed them. The Elders were essentially tricked into declaring that the two legislative bodies—themselves and the lower house, the Council of Five Hundred—should move to Saint-Cloud. Napoleon thought it would be easier to pass a new constitution away from the center of Paris. He had Gohier and Jean Moulin arrested. Talleyrand went to Barras’s house and told him that the others had resigned and he had no choice but to do the same. Napoleon had given him two million francs to bribe Barras. When Barras gave in without a fight, Talleyrand kept the money for himself. At Saint-Cloud, Napoleon was criticized by the Elders, but the real violence came when he attempted to address the Council of Five Hundred, who were angrily questioning his actions. They grew so heated that he was forced to flee for his life, but then he sent in his troops, led by General Murat, to expel the council from the Orangerie. The council members were forced to submit to the soldiers and effectively gave over their powers to Bonaparte. “It didn’t go too badly,” he shrugged.14 That night, he and Josephine slept with loaded revolvers under their pillows.

On November 10, Napoleon asserted again that the Republic was in danger and he was the man to save it. He ensured that he was installed as a consul, along with Emmanuel Sieyès and Roger Ducos, both of whom Napoleon secretly planned to oust very quickly. Almost unbelievably, thanks to his might, his clever plotting, and the help of his wife, Napoleon had moved from feted general to the most powerful man in France. Barras kicked his heels in his country seat of Grosbois. “I see Bonaparte has tricked me,” he mourned. “And yet he owes me everything.” The same was true for Josephine. Barras had cared for her, protected her, and lent her money, and miserable exile was his reward.

“I found division reigning amongst all the authorities,” Napoleon declared, describing his return to France. “They agreed only on this single point, that the Constitution was half destroyed, and was unable to protect liberty!” He announced that the Council of Elders had begged him to help them, since the “men whom the nation has been accustomed to regard as the defenders of liberty, equality, and property,” or the directors, had been planning to restore the king. “I was bound, in duty to my fellow-citizens, to the soldiers perishing in our armies, and to the national glory, acquired at the cost of so much blood, to accept the command.”

All lies, but believed. The men and women fighting for the fall of Louis XVI had hoped for a representative government. In 1799 they were given a tyranny. There would be no elections but three consuls and four assemblies, and every member of the senate and the Council of State would be nominated by the first consul. Furthermore, Bonaparte declared that the first consul would be appointed for ten years, and he would choose the other consuls. The entire country, effectively, would be ruled by one man.

At three in the morning, Napoleon returned home, fretting to Bourrienne that he had said the wrong thing. “I like better to speak to soldiers than to lawyers. Those fellows disconcerted me. I have not been used to public assemblies; but that will come in time.”15Josephine was in bed when he arrived, but awake, and she begged his help for Gohier. Napoleon was not to be won over. As he saw it, he had given Gohier a chance to be part of the coup, and he had refused it. “What would you suggest, my dear?” he replied. “He is respectable, but a simpleton. He does not understand me!—I ought, perhaps, to have him transported.”16

Bonaparte, clever as ever, lulled Sieyès into believing he would be first consul. Of course, he never would be. “The Revolution is finished,” Napoleon announced on the last day of the year. He wasted no time maneuvering himself into position as first consul, with two patsies, Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès and Charles-François Lebrun, as his colleagues. Sieyès was unceremoniously packed off with a pension to the country.

The general was now a little king. Josephine, the Martinique widow, was the consuless. It had happened in the blink of an eye. Napoleon had achieved a shocking reversal of everything the French had fought for, and he had been allowed to do it because he had acted under the guise of liberty and peace. With bands of royalists and Jacobins stalking the streets and black marketeers making fortunes, the people were desperate for order. But they had traded one evil for another: With Talleyrand as the foreign minister and Fouché, brutal organizer of killings in Lyon under the Terror, as minister of police, the new regime was just as restricted and self-serving as the Directory. Lucien Bonaparte was appointed minister of the interior. Napoleon, the ruler of all France, cheerfully voted himself a salary of five hundred thousand francs.

The republicans were still afraid of a monarchist restoration and believed Napoleon was the man to save them. The royalists fooled themselves that he was simply taking temporary charge of the country before handing it over to the exiled Louis XVIII—they had been swayed by Josephine to believe this was the case (and by their own wishful thinking of restoration). Bonaparte’s strongman image pleased the middle classes, and he offered men of influence more power to ensure their support. He decided that the way to please the people was with grandeur and pomp; he demanded carriages and palatial settings and officially announced that the terms of address would no longer be citoyen and citoyenne but monsieur and madame. He believed the people would be pacified by pageantry and promises and would give up their hope of representation to a man who seemed to offer a secure government.

Napoleon decided the house in rue de la Victoire was too humble for the city home of the consul and set Josephine and the maids to packing up their belongings. They would move to the Luxembourg Palace. Josephine had often visited Gohier and Barras for dinners there. Her first meeting with Napoleon had been at an evening reception in one of its rooms. And yet she dreaded moving to its cold opulence. Built on the orders of Catherine de Medici, it held the ghosts of many who had come to power only to lose it all, and Josephine was already growing nervous about her husband’s wild ambition. To console herself, she spent excessively on dresses, jewelry, and furniture, and threw thousands of francs at Malmaison—still indulging her “love of luxury grand enough to swallow up the revenue of ten provinces.”17 She had also become newly careful of her own reputation: She informed her agents that she would have no further dealings with companies selling army supplies.

Napoleon was delighted with himself. Despite the privations of his campaigns, he had filled out a little and lost some of the skinniness of youth. In the early days, his hands had been dirty and unkempt, but now they were rather beautiful (Josephine presumably used some of her potions on them). In conversation “he would often look at them with an air of self-complacency.”18 Josephine had improved his dress, and his accent had softened. He was not handsome, but he was imposing, and the possession of power gave him a great charisma.

By February, he decided he and his wife should occupy the Tuileries Palace in the center of Paris. With three pavilions, nearly four hundred rooms, and a long gallery, built by Henry IV, that linked it to the Louvre, the Tuileries was grand but decayed. Cheap streetwalkers sheltered with their clients under the shabby hedges outside. After Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were taken away in 1792, the Tuileries had fallen into terrible disrepair, looted for its furniture and even the wood of the window surrounds. The stairs still bore spots of dried blood from when the Swiss Guards and courtiers had fought back against the coup. The dreaded Committee of Public Safety had met in the queen’s apartments. The main gate was inscribed with a warning, “On 10 August 1792 royalty was abolished in France and will never return.” The gardens were overrun with sellers of lemonade and hot pies, catering to all the gawping sightseers and petitioners waiting to plead with the officials. The residence of every monarch since the mid-seventeenth century, it was to the people the symbol of Bourbon privilege and oppression. But Napoleon did not care. He wished to be king.

Today the Tuileries is no more, destroyed in a huge fire in 1870, but ghosts remain in the buildings of the Louvre and the gardens on the Place de la Concorde. Napoleon and his wife occupied apartments once lived in by the Gohiers, surrounded by servants in uniforms embroidered with gold. Josephine sat on chairs owned by her old friends and dined off their tables. She walked through rooms once occupied by Barras. She was living in a goldfish bowl: The newly and fashionably landscaped gardens were opened to the public and had fast become a popular place for Parisians to take leisurely afternoon walks. They peered into the windows and knocked at the doors. Every time she went out, she was dressed in rich gowns befitting her new status, transported in a carriage driven by six horses and accompanied by an escort of cavalry. The formality made her uncomfortable; she missed the rue de la Victoire. But still, she had won—over all those who had tried to unseat her, over the Bonapartes, and also over her husband.

Four years previously, Napoleon had clambered up the steps to toil at the Topographical Bureau of the Committee of Public Safety, a position he had gained thanks to Paul de Barras. The Revolution was barely ten years old, but for Napoleon, it belonged to a different era. One of his first acts was to have the revolutionary symbols daubed on the front of the palace painted over. “I don’t like to see such rubbish,” he said.19

He ignored the derelict rooms and the patches of damp. On their first night in the Tuileries, he swept Josephine into his arms, crying, “Come, little Creole, get into the bed of your masters.”

NAPOLEON WAS OFFICIALLY installed at the Tuileries on February 19. The carriages left the Luxembourg at one P.M. to the stirring sound of military music and the beating of drums. As Napoleon and his retinue passed by, more than three thousand soldiers lined the streets, and the crowds cheered. Josephine, in her customary flowing dress, had left the Luxembourg a little ahead of him, accompanied by Hortense. The populace gazed at their Merveilleuse, the wife of the man they hoped would bring peace. After them came the Council of State, forced to use cabs because so few carriages were available—they had been commandeered to load up the slaughtered dogs seven years earlier and then destroyed. The registration numbers on the cabs were crudely concealed with pieces of paper.

It seemed as if all of Paris had arrived to see Napoleon’s grandiose parade, along with swathes of tourists. Josephine was cheered enthusiastically, but her inferior position was drummed home, for she was not allowed to participate in the rituals. Instead, she was obliged to remain on a balcony to watch Napoleon conduct his military review. Accompanied by Hortense, Napoleon’s sister Caroline, and a few other ladies, she gazed from above as he took the salute of his regiments and then the cavalry in a great show of martial might. Among the plumes and the pomp, he was a tiny figure.

Napoleon beamed and waved joyfully at his wife. Josephine responded in kind, her handkerchief clasped in her hand. After the review, he clambered up the stairs to take possession of Louis XVI’s apartments on the first floor. “I watched the siege of the Tuileries from there and the capture of that good Louis XVI,” he said, pointing out a window to the house of Bourrienne’s brother, “but I will remain here.” That “good Louis XVI” was his new model for grandeur, if not governance. He was utterly convinced of his right to live in the palace.

Napoleon decreed that Josephine should have Marie Antoinette’s rooms on the ground floor. The new first consul wished the rooms to be returned to their earlier resplendence. Decorators and designers draped the chamber in blue and white silk with gold trimmings. Josephine decked the salon with violet taffeta, arranged Sèvres vases and bronzes on the tables, hung the walls with paintings, and brought in woodwork repairers to beautify the queen’s enormous mahogany bed.

The whole palace radiated splendor, but it was also rather dark, cold, and oppressively formal. Napoleon adorned it with statues of Hannibal, Demosthenes, Alexander, and other great men and was happy. But Josephine was miserable and ill at ease; she longed for the informality of Malmaison. “I was never made for so much grandeur,” she confided to Hortense. “I will never be happy here. I can feel the Queen’s ghost asking what I am doing in her bed.”20 Napoleon had no patience with her unhappiness. He wanted her to fall at his feet, proclaim his excellence, offer sensual delights. And after the debacle of his return from Egypt, Josephine, walking on eggshells, did exactly that, forced to keep her reservations to herself.

She was now the unofficial queen of France. Napoleon had strict rules on how he wished her to behave. Thérésa Tallien, Fortunée Hamelin, and all the others were banned. The first consul hated Thérésa’s flirtatious glamour and did not trust her or her husband—they were kept under permanent surveillance. He did relent for Madame Récamier, whose banker husband was too wealthy to alienate. He instructed his wife to spend her time with those of aristocratic origin such as the Ségurs, the Caulaincourts, and Madame de Rémusat.21 On no account should she receive visits from men in her apartments; she was to dress far more modestly; and most of all, she should refrain from engaging in politics (rather rich, after he had used her diplomatic skills to gain his position). For Josephine, who was “the sworn enemy of all forms of etiquette,” life henceforth was to be fraught with strain.22

Napoleon was decided: Women had been possessed of too much power. “There is no feminine in the function of the Consul,” he said. “We need the notion of obedience, in Paris, especially, where women think they have the right to do as they like.” As a young man in Paris just after the Terror, he had been baffled by the conspicuousness of women, their influence and conversation. One might say he was paying them all back for snubbing him.

But Bonaparte’s ambition to rule in a world without women did not last long. He relied on his wife too much. He could not manage without her at his side on social occasions, and he needed her diplomatic skills and her ability to manipulate others into doing what he wished. And when he was not in his office or at committees securing his position and drawing up laws, he wanted to be with Josephine.

She was constantly watched and always on show. As one courtier said, “We turned their eyes toward the rising sun, Mme. Bonaparte, who was installed at the Tuileries, where the apartments had been entirely refurnished as if by fairies.” She had “already put on the airs of a queen,” but a kind and gentle one.23 Her every minute was planned. They were always together, and when he was not with her, Napoleon expected Josephine to ready herself in case he arrived. In the old days, she had been free. Now life was rather as it had been in Mombello—always the same.

Napoleon slept in her bedroom, leaving at eight for his own chamber, where he would bathe as Bourrienne read him letters and telegrams. He liked his bath boiling hot and often demanded more hot water from his servants. Bourrienne sometimes had to open the door to let in fresh air because he could not see through the steam. While Napoleon was being shaved, Bourrienne would read him the newspapers, paying special attention to the news in the German and British papers but ignoring the French. “Pass over all that,” Napoleon would say. “I know it already.”24 He would eat a simple breakfast of chicken and onions before returning to drafting papers.

The consul would usually join Josephine for a speedy lunch of no more than twenty minutes, gobbling his food so fast that she had barely begun her first course by the time he had finished. He allowed more time for dinner but generally did not eat until most of his work was finished, which meant Josephine often waited until past midnight for his presence.

Napoleon never ate much. “I cannot help thinking that at forty I shall become a great eater, and get very fat,” he worried.25 He thought excessively about his weight and tried to eat little (although he sometimes secretly stuffed himself with food). And he never stopped exercising. While dictating, he would sometimes walk back and forth for five hours, hardly noticing the time passing. As he walked, he stooped and clasped his hands behind his back. When he was deep in thought, he often gave a quick shrug of his shoulders, and his mouth would twitch from left to right as he came up with a new idea.

While Napoleon was working, Josephine attended to her correspondence and saw her dressmakers, milliners, portraitist, and tradesmen. In the afternoon, she sat with her ladies and played cards or listened to a little music. Few guessed how dreary she found her new life. Her mien was gay and pleased with what she saw. She always seemed eager to greet people at the Tuileries and host endless dinners, many with up to 150 guests. She met thousands of people at home and abroad, all of whom expected a special word of recognition.

Many days, Josephine simply had to wait, beauteously dressed and perfumed, for the moment when Napoleon might burst through her doors without warning and demand tea.26 He always came at five to watch her dress, and if he had a free moment, he would dash downstairs to see his “little Creole.” Sometimes he sat quietly, contemplating a military problem, and she sat with him (also in silence, until he chose to speak). Other times he would play his customary tricks on her, teasing and laughing, overturning her makeup pots, pulling her hair out of its style, and pinching her. “Do stop, Bonaparte,” she would say, for he wished to be treated as a naughty child. She worked hard to be his perfect companion, always ready to listen, to read, to go out driving with him, and to assume the soothing, unruffled air that so pleased him. “Josephine possessed an exact knowledge of the intricacies of my character,” he explained.27 She was the only one allowed to call him “tu” or Bonaparte.*2

She was not allowed to feel tired at the midnight dinners or to eat her lunch before he appeared. He expected her to be fully made up and coiffed, with no hint of fatigue or ill health, and perfectly gowned in exquisite French clothes that were not too revealing. He spent every night with her in an overheated chamber with the window firmly closed—neither liked the cold. “We were a very bourgeois couple,” he wrote, “sharing a bedroom and a bed,” ensuring “the wife’s influence and the husband’s dependency.” Cleverly, Josephine had persuaded him that occupying the same room would ensure his safety. “I told him,” she said, “that I was a very light sleeper, if any nocturnal attempt against him was made, I should be there to call for help in a moment.”28 Thanks to this, “no action of mine escaped Josephine,” he said. “She guessed, she knew everything, which was sometimes inconvenient for me.”29

She participated enthusiastically in the effort to fete Napoleon and shore up his image of himself as the ruler of a new world. She had befriended the painter Jean-Baptiste Isabey, former artist at Versailles, while he was a teacher at Madame Campan’s school. Josephine was fond of Isabey’s studied style; in 1797 he had created one of her first portraits, a sketch of her in a white dress and head kerchief, the ideal republican heroine. She introduced him to Napoleon, who saw no irony in the former artist of Marie Antoinette becoming his painter for hire. Isabey became Josephine’s makeup artist and the key director of the appearance of Napoleon’s ceremonials.

In public life, Napoleon was utilizing Josephine’s diplomatic skills to win over aristocrats, crusty bankers, and military men alike. She was by his side at dinners, balls, and receptions and hosted grand occasions of her own. She supplied the dignity, grace, and elegance that he lacked. Napoleon was “deficient in education and in manners,” Madame de Rémusat would explain, and had no idea how to enter or leave a room, how to make a bow, or even how to stand up properly.30 Josephine was acutely sensitive to social etiquette. More important, she was equable and engaging where he was boorish. His way of showing friendliness was to pinch the ear or bash someone on the arm or call them a fool. Josephine was kind, and her charm attracted “many persons to his court whom his natural rudeness would otherwise have kept away.”31 Her honeyed tones won people over when his shouting failed. When Bonaparte arrived in the drawing room, all eyes were fretfully directed toward him to try to guess his mood. If Josephine presided alone, everything was “gaiety and ease.”32

Nothing in Josephine’s upbringing had prepared her for such a life. Though she was unhappy in her new role, she had to learn to manage. She had a knack for remembering people; her time as a mistress had schooled her in the importance of showing interest in and attention to everyone, even those who bored her; and she was truly skilled at putting guests at ease. Josephine was also a human display of Napoleon’s power: her gowns, her jewels, her possessions, and her art all showcased his brilliance and wealth.

Even if Napoleon had stuck with his original plan of keeping his wife from power, she received so many letters from people begging for help that it was impossible to exclude her. Her correspondence in the months following the coup d’état is full of letters from influential figures requesting favors and promotions. Most of all, she was trying to help the émigrés—stripped of their wealth during the Revolution—restore their assets and clear their names from the list of enemies of the Republic.

Napoleon spotted Josephine’s postbag and saw another way she could be useful (his instruction to her to stay out of politics hadn’t lasted long). He needed the support of the royalists and the émigrés, for they had power, money, and, his spies told him, support from Britain. In fact, one of his first acts as consul was to abolish the law by which any returning émigré could be put to death. However, allowing them to return would be seen as undermining the principles of the Revolution. Josephine would be his device for covering his tracks. She would receive requests from the exiled aristocrats and apply to the ministers to have their names removed from the list of enemies of France. If republicans demanded an explanation, Napoleon would simply say that his wife had too kind a heart.

Josephine was delighted to receive requests from the greatest families in France and to entertain them in her salon. Previously so indolent, she read applications from morning until night. Eventually, Napoleon told Fouché, minister of police, to ensure that she did not go too far. She wrote letter after letter. “Would you oblige me, citizen Minister, by speeding up the processing of citizen Michon de Vougy’s forthcoming case with the commission of those inscribed on the list of emigrants,” she wrote to the minister of justice.33She also asked for favors, begging Fouché to “receive favourably Mme. Pasquier, one of my oldest friends.”34

Josephine assisted thousands of émigrés in returning to France. They called her the embodiment of “grace and goodness,” and she was respected and loved in equal measure for “inexhaustible charity.”35 In the first year alone, more than forty thousand families were reunited. The returnees felt loyal to her husband and less likely to ally together to reinstall a king. She was particularly generous to the relations of her first husband, including her brother-in-law François, who had been a member of the Army of the Princes at Koblenz, a group of young aristocrats who had plotted to invade France in 1792. Bonaparte was so led by his Josephine that he gave François a diplomatic post. By 1802, nearly all exiles had been permitted to return, apart from men who fought against the French in foreign armies (unless, of course, they were François). They were not allowed to retrieve any property seized by the government or army, but otherwise they had free movement in the country. Still, few of them truly liked the new, highly moralistic and repressive social regime Napoleon was leading. There was to be, as one returning émigré put it, “no more flirting, no sentimentality, no godlessness, no more sparkling wit, no more easy relationships, no more joy.”

With the arrival of the émigrés, Josephine hoped that her husband might feel more sympathetic to the exiled Louis XVIII, son of the dauphin and Maria Josepha of Saxony. The forty-five-year-old younger brother of Louis XVI was living in exile at Courland (modern-day Latvia) in a palace owned by Paul I of Russia. There he had written a biography of Marie Antoinette and attempted to create an opulent court like that of Versailles.

Not long after Napoleon’s installation, Louis wrote to Josephine that he hoped she would use her influence to bring him back as monarch. To her husband, he was even more gaily optimistic, suggesting Napoleon use his military might to restore him to the throne. “I wish you would act more quickly. You and I could secure the magnificence of France,” Louis plaintively wrote to the first consul. “You would have to climb over 100,000 corpses first,” Napoleon replied. He offered small consolation: “I will gladly do what I can to make your retirement pleasant and undisturbed.”36 Napoleon sent his answer to the press to be printed, much to the pleasure of the republicans.

Privately, Josephine begged her husband to reconsider. After years of insecurity, she believed that a monarch was the only way to stop any further bloodshed; she even took Hortense to plead with her. “I implore you, Bonaparte, don’t go making yourself a King.” The consul brushed off their tears. “You see ghosts where there are none, my dear Josephine. You have been taken in by the Faubourg Saint-Germain,” he said, commanding her not to refer to the subject again.37 “They should return to their knitting and leave me in peace. But I don’t hold it against them,” he said to Bourrienne.38 An old snob to the core, Napoleon loved Josephine’s links with the aristocracy and her passion for royalty. But he knew that the people still saw him as the protector of the Republic, a caretaker until the installation of a proper government, and he was determined to prove them wrong. “To be at the Tuilieries is not enough,” he acknowledged to Bourrienne. “I need to ensure that I stay.”39 He could not do so without Josephine.

Thanks to her guile and finesse, she had emerged triumphant. Napoleon knew that he needed her. The rise of the Martinique girl, mocked by high society for her gruff accent and plump figure, seemed complete. Despite her spendthrift ways and failure to produce an heir, she had become Napoleon’s ideal wife, albeit largely for propaganda reasons: Her time in prison and her links to the aristocracy sparkled like the diamonds around her neck.

The British, who had laughed at the lovelorn Bonaparte’s letters, shook their heads at her continuing influence. In a caricature by an anonymous British artist, entitled “Johnny Bull on the Look-out or—Bonaparte Detected Drilling His Rib, at the Play of King and Queen of England—Scene St. Cloud” (1803), the couple’s power roles are playfully subverted.40 Johnny Bull is meant to represent England, while Napoleon and Josephine are seated on thronelike chairs. Josephine is larger and taller than Napoleon, and it is she who holds an orb and scepter and wears a crown. Her pose is dominant, masculine, in charge.

JOSEPHINE MIGHT HAVE been winning the battle against those who wanted to see her fail, but she was spending huge amounts of money to do so. Napoleon wished to see her in lavishly decorated apartments and set apart from other women, always grandly dressed and covered in jewels. He wanted her followed in the haute couture magazines. Periodicals such as Journal des Dames and Costume Parisien would circulate pictures of the finery worn by Parisian ladies, and they often reported on the styles of Madame Bonaparte. Once upon a time, European courts had looked to France as the leader of fashion. Napoleon was eager for those days to return.

After the simplicity of the post-revolutionary dress, Napoleon dreamed of his wife as an ancien régime fashion plate. Still, he forbade gowns that were brightly colored, declaring that they made his head hurt. He hated dark gowns as well. He threatened to burn Josephine’s cashmere shawls, which were an incredible luxury, and forced her to wear woolly wraps made from properly French sheep. And she had to keep her weight down as he had an “invincible hatred of a fat woman.”41 His fantasy woman was slender and graceful, clad in white, and he tried to make every woman dress the same way.

On the excuse of boosting the French silk industry in Lyon, the consul banned the import of Indian muslin, a fabric Josephine cherished.42 Whenever Hortense and Josephine appeared before him, he would immediately ask, “Is that muslin you’re wearing?” They lied that it was St. Quentin linen, but smiled despite themselves, and he would promptly rip the gowns into pieces with his hands.43 Napoleon demanded their clothing be made of more ostentatious fabrics, such as satin, velvet, and taffeta. What Josephine wore set the trend: Women began wearing heavier clothes with straighter skirts and stiff bodices, lengthened their sleeves, and raised their necklines.44 When Napoleon spotted Madame de Staël at a ball in a low-cut gown, he bellowed, “You must have nursed all your children yourself, Madame?”45

Josephine’s favorite high-waisted gown was the perfect way for her to show off her still-impressive form without revealing too much skin. The shorter bodice of the “Empire-line” gown was much closer to the neck and suited her figure entirely. Men, too, eschewed the more romantic look. They wore darker, thicker fabrics with a frock coat, tailcoat, and straight waistcoat, very like military dress. Secretly, though, Josephine yearned for the fashions of her youth, the freedom of flowing dresses and natural hairstyles. She had been at her most beautiful in her mid- to late twenties and spent the rest of her life trying to dress in similar fashion, even when it had become very outdated.

THANKS TO HER lavish lifestyle, the specter of money reared its ugly head once more. When he returned from Egypt, Napoleon instructed Bourrienne to investigate his wife’s debts. Bourrienne approached Josephine but found her reluctant to divulge the truth. Finally, after she became consuless, she admitted to him that she was in debt for 1.2 million francs (around $20 million in modern-day terms). Bourrienne was scandalized and terrified to give his master such awful news.

Josephine begged for Bourrienne’s help. He told Napoleon that the debts amounted to only 600,000 francs. Even that, for the first consul, was a shocking sum. He seized her bills and roared with fury. Why, Napoleon fumed, had she needed thirty-eight new summer hats, all purchased in the space of a month, when she was in retirement at Malmaison? There was a bill of 180 francs for feathers and 800 for perfume. It was an outrageous amount when the average Parisian worker supported a family on 600 francs a year. In one year alone, she bought 900 gowns, almost five times as many as Marie Antoinette. Josephine was spending hundreds of thousands of francs a year. Napoleon had already paid off the outstanding debt of about 300,000 francs for Malmaison, as well as funding the renovations for their old house in the rue de la Victoire, and his wife had spent twice that amount on fripperies.

As usual, Josephine wept and pleaded and threw herself at Napoleon’s feet. At last he declared he would pay the debts. He did have some sympathy for her, for it was clear to anyone that many invoices were wrong—she had been hugely overcharged for certain items. However, she had shown no interest in checking the bills for accuracy.

Bourrienne had some difficult maneuvering to do: He told the dressmakers, milliners, feather makers, perfumiers, and all the others that they should quietly take half of what they were owed; if they sued, he said, Napoleon might be forced from office, and then they would receive nothing. Grumbling, the owners of the finest shops in Paris agreed. But they could not resist the siren call of Josephine’s purse and soon returned to present her with more tempting delights, such as jewels, shawls, fabrics, and trinkets. She had learned nothing from the debacle; she bought without asking the price and promptly forgot what she had purchased.46

Napoleon could compel “the toughest of characters, the most untameable of men” to do his bidding.47 Yet he was powerless to curb Josephine’s astronomical spending. Her debts were not limited to tradespeople; she also borrowed money from friends. “I have not forgotten your 50 louis,” she wrote to her friend and fellow Creole Madame de Krény in 1800, “you will have them the day after tomorrow.”48 As Bourrienne put it, her desperate need to spend money “was almost the sole occasion for her misery.”49

Napoleon loved people to be in debt, since it was a way of keeping them in a state of dependence, but Josephine went too far: She was addicted to shopping. Having lost so much in the Terror, she was always afraid of being deprived again. She was also looking for control and security and a way to forge an identity separate from Napoleon’s demands. She simply could not stop buying things she did not need.

After Napoleon had cleared her arrears, Josephine almost immediately lurched back into debt. She resorted to very unfortunate methods to make money, notably sharing political information with men such as Talleyrand and Fouché for a price, as well as delving back into black-market army supplies.50 She even revived her foolish contact with Hippolyte Charles, after trying to recommend his company for an army contract. “I regret very much that I have failed,” she ventured, “since I would have been so happy to prove to you that nothing will change my feelings of the tenderest and most lasting friendship for you.”

In writing to Hippolyte, Josephine took a terrible risk. Her motives were purely nostalgic; she yearned for the days when she was younger, more hopeful, and not confined to the restricted role of wife of the first consul. It is almost impossible that this contact went unseen, but Napoleon’s spymaster Fouché protected her, as he was wont to do. It turned out she was wasting her time trying to prove her “most lasting friendship.” As she confessed to Madame de Krény, Hippolyte was being cruel to her in an attempt to break it off for good.51 The relationship was over. On Hippolyte’s deathbed in 1837, he asked that Josephine’s letters to him be burned. Five letters survived, and in them is the tale of the only woman who dared betray Napoleon.

Aside from spending her husband’s money, she devoted every hour to being the perfect wife. She ornamented her apartments with tributes to Napoleon’s glory, praised him excessively, and proclaimed herself distraught when he departed her rooms. He deputized to her the task of entertaining visiting statesmen and keeping his allies, particularly those of noble origin. Many years later, Napoleon would admit that his marriage “brought me closer to a group which I required for my plan of integration, which was one of the most vital principles of my government.” As he said, “Had it not been for my wife, I should not have had an easy means of approaching it.”52

The truth was, despite their tumultuous relationship, Napoleon loved her and could not be without her. As he had to admit, his life had changed beyond measure since he had met her. “To me, luck is a woman,” he said, and that woman was Josephine. “He became accustomed to associate the idea of her influence with every piece of good fortune which befell him,” her friend Madame de Rémusat marveled.53 As he saw it, he had gained majesty with her, and in order for his success to continue, he would have to keep her by his side. “I win battles,” he declared, “but Josephine wins hearts.”

*1 Napoleon had forgotten Pauline, still in Egypt with the rest of his army. She later returned to Paris, and although he never saw her again, he did (with General Duroc) arrange her marriage to a retired officer in 1801.

*2 Women of Josephine’s class ordinarily called their husbands by their surnames. Other family members would do the same, but Napoleon allowed only his wife to call him Bonaparte.

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