Biographies & Memoirs


Scenes with Bonaparte

“I am so miserable,” Josephine wrote to her old friend Madame de Krény, “every day there are scenes with Bonaparte, and for no reason. This is not living.” Napoleon had been acting cruel—and Josephine had discovered why. “Then eight days ago, I discovered that La Grassini was in Paris. It seems that she is the cause of all the pain I am suffering.”

Giuseppina Grassini, the tempestuous and divine twenty-seven-year-old contralto opera star, had first caught Napoleon’s eye in Mombello. In Milan, just before the Battle of Marengo in 1800, he watched her sing at La Scala and decided he must have her.

Before long, La Grassini was established in Paris in a house not far from the Tuileries. Josephine was in torment. She begged Madame de Krény to find out if Napoleon visited her or if La Grassini was smuggled into the Tuileries. “I assure you my dear, that if I was at all mistaken, I would tell you … Try too to find out where this woman lives.”1 Details such as where La Grassini lived or how Napoleon visited her could only cause Josephine distress, but she was desperate to find out. Napoleon was soon flaunting his mistress in front of Josephine, even going so far as inviting her to Malmaison to sing.

“I am not like other men, and the ordinary laws of morality and rules of propriety do not apply to me,” Napoleon vaunted. Like tyrants throughout history, he imposed morality on the people while using his own position to pursue his sexual desires. He needed Josephine, but his belief that only she could satisfy him had waned. He still loved her, they still shared a bed, and he was still sexually fascinated by her, but he was no longer obsessed by being faithful to her. Now he was first consul, and beautiful and aristocratic women were flinging themselves at him.

Napoleon openly dallied with actresses and aristocrats, enjoying his newfound power over women. He did not mean to hurt his wife; he simply thought she should accept his behavior as befitting his greatness. But Josephine was distraught and furious when she discovered that the Bonapartes were pushing women into her husband’s path, weeping bitterly to her ladies-in-waiting of her ill treatment. However, there was little she could do. Her power over him came from her gentleness and the respite he gained in her rooms, but every time she challenged him, she lost a little of his affection. She had to understand that the price of Napoleon’s love was allowing his affairs.

Josephine’s jealousy gave her much pain. But Napoleon’s nights with his conquests bore no comparison with those he had spent with her in their early days of passion, when he had been so wildly obsessed by their boudoir that he thought of nothing else. He had showered her with kisses, craved her for hours, and never tired of her. With the new mistresses, he was practical. The consul would instruct that the lady be lying in bed, already disrobed, so that he did not have to bother watching her undress. The act of love was usually over in minutes. He took other women to slake his desire for power, not to fall in love.

There may have been one exception. The Duchesse d’Abrantès described Hortense as being “truly charming at this time, with her slim waist, her beautiful blonde hair and her big, gentle blue eyes and her grace, utterly Creole and utterly French at the same time.”2 Hortense’s influence over Napoleon did not go unnoticed. Cruel gossip began that she was having an affair with her stepfather. The British gutter press leaped on the story, but it was also impossible for the French to resist: Napoleon seduced women, and Hortense was beautiful and so close to him. But Bourrienne declared he saw nothing in all his time with Napoleon to suggest “a connection of the nature of that charged against him,” which “was neither in accordance with his morals nor his tastes.”3 It seems unlikely that Napoleon would seduce his virgin stepdaughter, whom he claimed he loved like a daughter—he was never a great seducer of virgins, preferring to take married women or those who had enjoyed male protectors—though the gossip swirled unrelentingly.

AS CONSUL, NAPOLEON was under threat from the monarchists and the Jacobins alike, but he was more afraid of the former. “My power depends on my glory, and my glory on my victories,” he said. For all his achievements, his position was by no means secure. He needed another military victory. “Conquest alone can maintain me.”4

Early in May 1800, Napoleon hurried from the palace, saying goodbye to Josephine and telling her to keep his final destination secret. His aim was to rout the Austrian army.

He set off across Europe, scribbling to her as he went. “I’ve had no letters from you,” he wrote, “a thousand tender thoughts, my sweet little one.”5 Though his words were affectionate, he no longer wished her to join him, as he had in the past. “Here is an example to be followed,” he told the other wives and camp followers. “Citoyenne Bonaparte has remained in Paris.” The consul and his men traveled over the St. Bernard Pass and came down behind Austrian lines. On June 14 at Marengo, the Austrians fought back, and by two o’clock in the afternoon, the French army had been all but overcome.

On June 20, Josephine was about to host a reception for dignitaries and members of the government when a messenger hurried into the room and told her Bonaparte had been killed and the army defeated. She refused to believe it and continued to preside over the celebrations. Just as the dignitaries were about to go home (and the news was spreading about Bonaparte’s fall), another messenger entered the room and laid two Austrian flags at her feet, both torn apart by bullets. He announced that the French had won and Napoleon had achieved a great victory over the enemy.

As Josephine later discovered, one of Napoleon’s favorite generals, General Desaix, had arrived in the nick of time with reinforcements. He had rushed into battle and routed the army, but he had been killed by a musket ball in the process. Thanks to him, the French won the Battle of Marengo. However, it was Napoleon, as overall commander, who was seen as the champion of the hour. People poured into the streets, cannons fired, windows were hung with flags and illuminations. Napoleon returned to Paris, accompanied by his bloodstained men, on the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. He announced that the “acclamations were as sweet to my ears as the sound of Josephine’s voice.”6 Not everyone supported him: Madame de la Tour du Pin declared that in reality, the people were unhappy under his rule.7 “I hoped that Bonaparte would be beaten, because it was the only way to put an end to his tyranny, but I did not yet dare admit this desire,” said Madame de Staël, no longer a passionate admirer (and under intense surveillance by Napoleon’s spies for complaining about him).8 Still, for Napoleon and his circle, Marengo made him a hero, the supreme ruler of Europe, and the man who could never be unseated.

Thanks to General Desaix, Napoleon held his grip on the public imagination. The raggle-taggle return of the decimated Army of Italy in the autumn of 1801 barely dented his popularity. The would-be Louis XVIII, aging and corpulent in Courland, was still hoping to be installed as king by the royalists, but he could not compete with Napoleon’s military might and his ability to transform himself into a legend. Napoleon set his minions to celebrating his victories in plays, tributes, and art, the most significant of which was a painting by Jacques-Louis David, former ally of Robespierre. His emotionally charged and hastily completed Napoleon Crossing the Alps (c. 1800) depicted the hero astride his rearing horse. “Commemorate me!” the consul cried to artists, musicians, and writers. “Celebrate me!”

Fouché’s network of spies hardly fostered the climate for imaginative literature—art was liable to be attacked or even quashed unless it praised the first consul. Few artists rebelled and most writers fell into line, afraid of losing their patronage. François-René de Chateaubriand and Madame de Staël were the only writers of note to protest, and both were eventually sent into exile. As Napoleon himself put it, the “minor works of literature are for me and the great are against me.” It was not an impressive time for imaginative literature in France. Empire readers secretly lapped up translated British fiction, especially the Gothic tales of Ann Radcliffe and novels of opposition.

Napoleon was suspicious of everyone, even his former allies, and artists and writers were closely monitored. “Spy on everyone except me,” he told Fouché. His minister sent his policemen to follow people who once were Napoleon’s friends; he ordered them to open and read the letters of half the population of Paris and to bribe neighbors to inform on each other.

In 1802 Madame de Staël published Delphine while living in Switzerland. She’d had more influence on the city than if she had hosted a hundred salons. “The whole of Paris is behind closed doors reading Madame de Staël’s new novel,” said the senator Pierre Louis Roederer.9 Madame de Staël was disingenuous when she said there was “not a word about politics in it.”10 Set in 1790–92, the novel harked back to the idealism of the Revolution. As one character declares, “Liberty is the chief happiness, the only glory of a social order.” Talleyrand was thinly disguised as a cruel and unscrupulous female character. “I hear that in her novel, Madame de Staël has described us both as women,” Talleyrand shrugged (suggesting, in other words, that she was a mannish intellectual).11But Napoleon was furious that the police had not suppressed the book. He told Madame de Staël never to come back to Paris. Her son begged him to reconsider and was firmly rejected. “Women should stick to knitting,” said Napoleon.12

MEANWHILE, POOR JOSEPHINE was struggling at the Tuileries, since Napoleon’s family had truly unsheathed their claws. Rather than being grateful that he had lifted them from virtual poverty to incredible wealth, the Bonapartes complained that he treated them unfairly—and continued to criticize Josephine’s spending. “On hearing my brothers and the impudence with which they daily demand new sums, you might think that I had spent their patrimony,” he wailed.13 Jérôme went to sea and disobeyed his brother by marrying an American shipowner’s daughter, Betsy Patterson. When Napoleon declared she would not be allowed on French soil, Jérôme allowed the marriage to be annulled, on the promise of receiving a kingdom, and Betsy fled to Britain, where she became an attraction, trotted out at parties to declaim the horrors of life with the insane Bonapartes.

Lucien was little better: He told everyone he was responsible for the coup that had made his brother consul. Napoleon believed he had published an anonymous pamphlet, A Parallel Between Caesar, Cromwell and Bonaparte, and promptly sent him off to be ambassador to Spain. Napoleon was infuriated by his siblings’ failure to marry as he wished. Lucien refused a dynastic marriage with the queen of Parma, instead marrying Alexandrine Jouberthon, the widow of a bankrupt speculator. When Napoleon chastised his brother because he had “married a whore,” Lucien shot back “at least my whore is young and pretty.”14 After he departed in a terrible temper, Napoleon gathered Josephine in his arms. “It is painful to find in one’s own family such stubborn opposition to interests of such magnitude. Must I, then, separate myself from everyone? Must I rely on myself alone? Well! I will suffice to myself, and you, Josephine—you will be my comfort.”15

At the age of thirty, the man who ruled all France could not control his family. Even the youngest, Caroline, would not do as he wished. Seventeen, blond, and only just out of Madame Campan’s, she had fallen passionately in love with General Joachim Murat, a handsome, thuggish, vulgar man with a strong Gascon accent. Napoleon looked down on him, for he was an innkeeper’s son, and thought him stupid—and also hated him for boasting (untruthfully) that he had seduced Madame Bonaparte. But Murat, thirty-two and dripping with masculinity and ambition, was determined to marry Caroline. Napoleon refused, and it was actually Josephine who attempted to push his sister’s cause. She had always tried hard with Caroline, sending her presents and fond letters when she was at school with Hortense, and now she saw her chance to be helpful.16 Added to this, she knew Murat disliked her, and she wanted to win him around. On January 20, 1800, Josephine’s plan came to fruition: Caroline married Murat in an intimate civil ceremony at Mortefontaine, Joseph Bonaparte’s grand estate. Napoleon was annoyed, but with his wife and his family united, he had been unable to prevent the marriage from going ahead. Caroline was ecstatic. “Her beauty was striking,” wrote the Duchesse d’Abrantès. “She was fresh as a rose.” Her head was a little too big for her body, but her “skin looked as smooth as pink satin.”17

In encouraging the marriage, Josephine had made a major mistake: Together, the Murats were united in a mutual desire to unseat her—they still disliked her for her influence over her husband and saw no reason to be grateful to her for pushing forth their marriage. And Napoleon, peeved at being outmaneuvered, took his revenge on his wife. He gave his sister a very small dowry of thirty thousand francs but supplemented it with a diamond necklace from Josephine’s own jewelry box.18

Josephine was furious. Not to be beaten, she hunted for an even more expensive replacement. She settled on a set of pearls worth 250,000 francs, designed by the fashionable jeweler Foncier, which once belonged to Marie Antoinette. Having identified her prize, Josephine found the money to buy it by asking General Berthier, minister for war, for a loan. It was a shrewd move. Berthier was anxious to stay in her favor, since he was hoping to get his Italian lover, Madame Visconti, accepted at the evening soirées at the Luxembourg.19 Josephine always listened patiently when Berthier needed to discuss his emotional problems, and he was keen to show his gratitude. He promptly offered some army contractors payment for a hospital service in Italy—if they paid him kickbacks. The money flowed in, and Josephine had her beautiful pearls. It was a story reminiscent of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.

Josephine then had to fool Napoleon, who had an uncanny ability to remember each and every piece of jewelry in her collection. The necklace had to sit unworn in her jewelry box, shining temptingly at her whenever she opened the lid. Unable to face an impending party without her new pearls, she asked Bourrienne to remain by her side so he could tell Napoleon that the jewels had been long in her possession.

“How fine you are today!” said Bonaparte at the party. “Where did you get these pearls? I think I never saw them before.” “Oh! mon Dieu!” she replied, “you have seen them a dozen times! It is the necklace which the Cisalpine Republic gave me, and which I now wear in my hair.” Loyal Bourrienne backed up her lie, and Napoleon trundled off, satisfied.20

IN HIS DAY-TO-DAY life, Napoleon struggled to control the women of his circle. His sisters and his mother did as they pleased, and Josephine often outwitted him. In law, however, he was determined to put a control on all women; he carried a little bit of the young man who had yearned after the glamorous Parisians who wouldn’t give him a second glance. Now, he decided, his ideal woman was one who remained at home, producing sons for his army.

Madame de Rémusat felt it no exaggeration to claim that Napoleon “despised women,” for “he regarded their weakness as unanswerable proof of their inferiority.”21 His views found their most public expression in the Civil Code, also known as the Code Napoleon.22

Before the consulate, there was no single set of laws to follow; instead, people were governed by local customs and charters, as in feudal times. Napoleon wished for one legal code that would define the lives of his people. The code was Napoleon’s monument, his attempt to show that he could be not only a great general but also a lawmaker and give “a direction to the public spirit.”23

“My greatest victory was my civil government,” he would later say while in exile on the island of St. Helena.24 Even though he would occupy the role of a monarch—with more powers than Louis XVI had enjoyed, thanks to his direct control of the army—Napoleon created the impression that his subjects were living in a world of post-revolutionary equality.

The Civil Code was, on its face, founded on the principles that had driven the Revolution in 1789: equality before the law and the secularization of the state. It put an end to privileges of birth and enshrined a meritocracy: Government jobs should go to the most qualified. The ever growing middle classes of France were pacified and convinced that the sacrifices of the revolutionary era had not been in vain. The code was meant to keep Napoleon’s key supporters on his side by abolishing feudalism and aristocratic rank, but also by preserving the rights of wealthy men of property and implying they would only get richer. The rights of workers were, of course, irrelevant. And the real losers in the Civil Code were women.

In his new laws, Napoleon instituted harsh limits on the rights of women. The laws granting them rights over property and money that they previously possessed were abolished and replaced with laws emphasizing their duty to be obedient to their husbands and fathers; they were essentially awarded the legal status of minors. “A wife must promise obedience and fidelity in marriage,” noted one of the articles. Acquiring a divorce became a relatively straightforward process for men but very difficult to achieve for women. A man could divorce a woman for adultery, but a woman could do so only if the mistress had been brought into the family home. An adulterous wife could be imprisoned for two years and would be released only if her husband took her back. A straying husband simply paid a fine. Even the happily married were restricted: A wife’s right to handle money was very much reduced, unless she was a registered trader.

“Women these days require restraint,” he declared. “They go where they like, do what they like. It is not French to give women the upper hand.”25 Napoleon felt the family should be treated in the same way as France. The code promoted the family as the basic financial and social unit—and the way to keep the family together was through the submission of women.

The code also reflected Napoleon’s political desire to bind the bourgeois to him. By 1804, his grasp on France was complete, with backing from the military, the property-owning classes, and the peasantry. The peasants supported him because they had been able to buy confiscated land, while the booming economy had created more work and driven down the price of bread. The property-owning nouveau riche and businessmen, speculators, traders, and bankers were delighted by their new protector. The upper echelons of the army lined their pockets with the loot they had obtained.

Is it possible to see Josephine’s unreliable behavior as partly responsible for this enshrinement of female inequality in law? Certainly, Napoleon saw himself as surrounded by women who had excessive power, but he was not only resentful of his wife. Women on campaign had only hindered operations, in his opinion, and the intellectual women of the salons, such as Madame de Staël, infuriated him with their interest in female equality. Most of all, his plans for French world domination needed a constant supply of young, fit men to be sacrificed to his aims, and women who hoped for independence or a life of intellectual or financial endeavor were a threat to this. There was a fear across Europe at the time that men and women, particularly those of the gentility and aristocracy, were becoming too enervated or frivolous to have children, and Napoleon saw reinstituting the proper gender roles as the solution. Paradoxically, he could not endure the sight of a pregnant woman, and enceinte ladies were not welcome at his gatherings (perhaps partly because of Josephine’s own failure to become pregnant).26 But he endlessly proclaimed that it was the duty of women to be mothers. As he had told Madame de Staël, the woman he most admired in history was the one “who had the most children.”

Napoleon was always trying to impose proper gender roles on his courtiers. On one occasion, he cornered Madame de Condorcet, the beautiful salon hostess. “Madame, I do not like women who meddle in politics,” he announced. “General, you are quite right,” she replied, “but in a country where their heads are cut off, it is natural for them to want to know the reason why.”27 “Do you still like men as much as ever, Madame?” he demanded of Josephine’s old friend Aimée de Coigny. “Yes, Sire,” Aimée replied, “when they are polite.” Few others had the chance to get the better of him. “The terror he inspires is inconceivable,” said Madame de Staël. “One has the impression of an imperious wind blowing about one’s ears when one is near that man.”

AS WELL AS bringing in civil reform and reminding everyone of his great military victories, Napoleon announced the return of the Catholic Church, abolished in the Revolution, but this time subordinate to the first consul. “Society cannot exist without inequality of wealth and inequality of wealth cannot exist without religion,” he had told Roederer. “Religion is a kind of inoculation … The people must have a religion and that religion must be in the hands of the government.” 28 Only the Church could make inequality seem natural and death in war seem less senseless. “It is not we nobles who need religion,” Napoleon said loftily, “but it is necessary for the masses and I shall establish it.”

Those who had fought for the Revolution were infuriated by the idea of reinstalling religion, but the ordinary people craved the old ways, with women in particular practicing their religion in secret. Even the most cynical could see the benefits of resting every seventh day rather than every tenth.

On Easter Sunday 1801, the populace heard the bells of Paris ringing for the first time in ten years. Most churches were missing a few, as Napoleon had requisitioned them for the war effort. At seven in the morning, in his carriage escorted by dragoons, hussars, grenadiers, and Mamelukes, he essayed forth. Josephine followed behind and seated herself by her husband in the front pew of Notre-Dame. The ceremony itself was lacking in dignity: Both Josephine and Napoleon had forgotten the rituals of worship; in fact, the only members of the congregation who seemed to remember were the ex-bishop Talleyrand and the former priest Fouché. Everybody else stumbled, knelt at the wrong times, and stood openmouthed through the prayers.

Still, the point had been made. Loire peasants, Lyon market stall owners, Breton farmers, and Dijon housewives poured into the churches. As in the old days, church became a place for the rich to show off their wealth. At some of the churches in the more fashionable areas of Paris, there was barely a free seat on Sundays as the rich elites jostled for the front pews, eager to show off their fine clothes and jewels. After a grand ceremony to celebrate the return of Catholicism, Napoleon turned to General Bernadotte, now married to his jilted fiancée, Désirée Clary. “Well, now everything was just as it had been before,” he said. “Yes,” said General Bernadotte, “except for two million men who died for liberty and who are no more.”29

LANGUISHING IN HIS luxurious Château de Grosbois in Val-de-Marne, aged forty-five and in continued exile from Paris and political society, Barras wrote letters to Napoleon and Josephine. “Is this the reward for what you called my great services and for which you vowed eternal gratitude?” he demanded of Napoleon. “When you were buried in Italy and your enemies attacked your republican glory, I defended you … and when your brothers were threatened, they came to me for help.”30 The consul did not reply.

Josephine had been Barras’s companion, and he had covered up her affairs, lent her money, and kept the letters about her adultery out of the newspapers. Yet she did not reply to his letters, either. A year after Napoleon became consul, Barras was arrested at Grosbois and deported to Brussels. His papers and letters to the Bonaparte family were confiscated, denying him the chance to prove his service ever again. Of Josephine’s former circle, only Juliette Récamier was still feted by society, thanks largely to the position of her banker husband. Foreigners, dignitaries, and even the Bonaparte siblings came to Juliette’s salons, where she performed the “Attitudes,” imitating the poses from Greek myths, borrowing from the celebrated performances of Emma, Lady Hamilton, wife of the envoy to Naples—and, by 1801, the flamboyant mistress of Horatio Nelson and mother of his baby daughter. A book by Friedrich Rehberg, with guidance on how to achieve Emma’s attitudes, had sold like hotcakes across Europe. Juliette performed the poses Emma had used to captivate Nelson, the most terrible enemy of France, but she did it to promote herself as a heroine of the consulate.

On Christmas Eve 1800, Josephine was preparing to attend the premiere of Haydn’s Creation at the Opéra. It was the event of the season, and the performers had asked specifically that Napoleon be present. Fouché had passed on a rumor to the consul that there would soon be an attempt on his life, but he ignored it. He told Josephine that she must be at her most beautiful and awe Paris’s most fashionable elite. After dinner, at eight, the couple made their way outside to the carriages. Napoleon was to travel in one carriage, while Josephine, accompanied by Hortense, Caroline (who was eight months pregnant), and Napoleon’s aide-de camp, General Rapp, would follow in the second. At the last minute, Napoleon gazed at his wife’s outfit and decided it was not right. He declared the shawl from Constantinople did not suit her dress and hustled her off to change. The entire party had to wait while she hurried to her apartments to find a new shawl. By the time she returned, Napoleon had already left. She and her companions hastily boarded their carriage and set off for the performance.

As Napoleon’s coach entered the rue Saint-Niçaise, the coachman was puzzled by a cart blocking their passage. As he turned onto the next street, there was a horrific explosion not far in front of them. Napoleon later said that it felt as though the whole carriage had been swept up by the sea and was being carried along by the waves.31 Coming behind, Josephine and the other women were thrown to the floor of their carriage, and the windows were smashed. Josephine fainted in shock; fortunately, the heavily pregnant Caroline remained calm and took charge. The roofs of several surrounding houses caved in, glass windows shattered, and some of the horses pulled free and bolted.32 Accounts said as many as twelve civilians were killed and thirty people injured.33Onecontemporary illustration showed a small child being catapulted into the air and debris blown many feet high. In the second carriage, which was just a little way behind the first, glass lay all around, and Hortense’s dress was stained with blood from a cut to her hand caused by flying debris.

The first consul was the target of the bomb—and if he and his wife had left on time, they would have been killed. Josephine, Napoleon, Hortense, Caroline, and General Rapp were saved by an ill-matched shawl.

Napoleon continued on to the Opéra and, after hearing that Josephine was safe, calmly took his place in his box. “The rascals wanted to blow me up,” he shrugged.34 The women arrived, pale and red-eyed, trying not to tremble as the audience greeted them with cheers and applause.

Napoleon maintained his unruffled demeanor until the party returned home to the Tuileries. Once he was back in the palace, he demanded angrily that Fouché hunt down the Jacobins responsible and ordered that a number of them should be deported. The minister’s efforts to explain that intelligence suggested royalists had coordinated the attack fell on deaf ears.35

Josephine had to hide her distress, as Napoleon did not like cowards. He was delighted at the way the bomb had bolstered his popularity and prompted “extreme indignation in the populace.”36 He proclaimed that he had made a heroic escape.

AFTER THE ATTACK, Josephine worried even more about her future. True, she was the consuless, rich, celebrated, sought after, and beautiful, and she was Napoleon’s love, the talisman he credited with his military successes; as one of her friends put it, she was the “woman whom popular suspicion regarded as his good angel.”37 But the “good angel” was desperate to have a child. At thirty-seven, she was not too old. Letizia had given birth to Jérôme when she was thirty-four, and only her husband’s death the following year had prevented her from having more children. Thérésa Tallien would have her tenth baby at the age of forty-two. But in addition to the fact that Josephine’s body had been weakened by her period of imprisonment during the Terror, her fall at Plombières had left her with a pelvic injury. It was unlikely that she would give the consul an heir.

Napoleon’s family continuously exploited Josephine’s inability to have a child. One minute they told him to discard her because she was barren, and the next they teased him that he was the infertile one. Notably, Pauline Fourès never became pregnant, and she blamed Napoleon. If any actress or courtesan mistress of his said she was with child, his brothers claimed that it was because they had seduced her. Josephine was not above suggesting that Napoleon was responsible for their lack of children. He responded by pointing out that her menses were irregular and not healthy, and she disingenuously replied that it made no difference.

Napoleon knew that he would be a laughingstock if he discarded Josephine and then failed to make a second wife pregnant. At the time, infertility was generally seen as the fault of the woman, though there was a strongly held theory that the more vigorous-looking the man, the better able he was to impregnate his partners. Despite the polish of power, Napoleon was still small, sallow, and sunken. He suffered from seizures thought to be due to an excess of nervous energy, and he fidgeted excessively. Riven by digestive difficulties and suffering from headaches, he was hardly an inspiring figure of French manhood, even at the age of thirty-two.

“It is the torment of my life not to have a child,” Napoleon told Bourrienne. “I plainly perceive that my power will never be firmly established until I have one.”38 And the majority of the population who still loved Napoleon wanted to see him with a son.

The rumors that he was having an affair with Hortense persisted. Now, the gossips declared, he might wish to have a child with her. Hortense wept bitterly over the cruel talk, but Napoleon was rather vain about the idea, saying the gossip only reflected the “wish of the public that he should have a child.”39 This only made Josephine feel more insecure.

She was distressed by the rumors and hated Napoleon’s unrelenting affairs. So when he decided she should travel to Plombières to attempt to renew her fertility in the waters, which he firmly believed had magic powers, she agreed. There was hard evidence for their effects: Joseph’s wife, Julie, had failed to get pregnant for four years, but she had succeeded in late 1800 after a trip to Plombières.

Just before Josephine departed, Lucien Bonaparte took her for a private conversation. “You are going to the waters,” he said. “You must get a child by some other person since you cannot have one by him.” She was utterly shocked. “Well,” he blithely continued, “if you do not wish it, or cannot help it, Bonaparte must get a child by another woman, and you must adopt it, for it is necessary to secure an hereditary successor. It is for your interest; you must know that.” “What, sir!” she replied. “Do you imagine the nation will suffer a bastard to govern it? Lucien! Lucien! You would ruin your brother! This is dreadful! Wretched should I be, were anyone to suppose me capable of listening, without horror, to your infamous proposal! Your ideas are poisonous; your language horrible!” “Well, Madame,” he retorted, “all I can say to that is, that I am really sorry for you!”40

In anguish, Josephine set off to Plombières, escorted by a grand entourage of cavalry and aides. General Rapp, Hortense, Madame de Lavalette, and, less comfortably for Josephine, Napoleon’s mother were accompanying her. Miserable Josephine wept continuously, and soon everyone was suffering from either a headache or travel sickness. Nothing went well. The inns were awful, and their dinner on one night was “spinach dressed with lamp-oil and red asparagus fried in curdled milk.”41

Fortunately, matters improved when they arrived. The town was illuminated, all the dignitaries were assembled, and the cannons fired for them. Plombières was no longer a social desert. Josephine’s visit in 1798 had made it fashionable and frequented by many, and Napoleon urged her to give balls and receptions and to continue nurturing social relations there. No wonder the local doctor, Grosjean, who published a study on the medicinal properties of the baths in 1803, praised the “salutary waters which Providence has bestowed upon our commune”—thanks to Josephine’s attempt to get pregnant by visiting the baths, everyone was getting rich in Plombières.42

Napoleon was elated upon her return, for she told him that her menses had returned. But his elation was short-lived. She failed to get pregnant. When Napoleon’s sister Elisa hinted subtly that Josephine was the one at fault, Josephine reminded her that she already had two children, Hortense and Eugène. “But, sister, you were younger then,” Elisa answered. Napoleon arrived in the room just as his wife burst into tears. “There are some truths better left unsaid,” he remarked.

Josephine’s many enemies were constantly plotting her downfall—and hissing to Napoleon that he should get a divorce. And so she embarked on the most ruthless act she had ever committed. In a desperate attempt to keep her husband to herself, she decided to sacrifice her daughter.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!