Biographies & Memoirs


“My Stepfather Is a Comet”

“I am his superstition rather than his love,” Josephine told a friend. “He considers me one of the rays of his star.”1 But wives needed to breed. So she conjured up a plan. If eighteen-year-old Hortense married Louis Bonaparte, they could have a child, and that child would be the heir to Napoleon and Josephine, a sharer in the blood of both of them.

She told Napoleon, and he was delighted by the idea. Bourrienne was sent to break the news to Hortense. “You know it is her great sorrow no longer to have a child,” he said to the teenager. “I assure you intrigues are constantly being formed to persuade the First Consul to obtain a divorce. Only your marriage can strengthen the bonds on which depends your mother’s happiness.”2 He praised Louis, told her that otherwise she would have to marry “some foreign prince,” and talked of her debt to her mother.

Hortense was shocked. Like most girls of her age and class, she had expected her parents to arrange a marriage for her but believed they would also allow her a say in the matter, even though they had blocked her marriage to Duroc. She knew how highly Napoleon esteemed her, and she could not imagine that he would ever give her to Louis. At twenty-three, he was ugly, prone to wild paranoia, and already tormented by gonorrhea. He suffered cruelly from curvature of the spine and was often ill. When he was well, he was idle, violent, and neurotic.

All this might have been leavened if he were as dazzled by Hortense as every other man, but he barely acknowledged her. She believed he hated her because he despised her mother. He was interested in books and good with money, but that was little comfort.

Hortense pleaded with her mother and stepfather to no avail. Eugène sympathized, but there was nothing he could do. “It was a question of sacrificing my romantic fantasies for my mother’s happiness,” Hortense said.3 As a child, while playing with jewelry with Madame de Rémusat, she had declared that she wished to be the owner of hundreds of diamonds one day. Now she would be wealthy, a princess, even a queen, but her heart was broken.

Josephine moved fast. She had to marry Hortense to Louis before the Bonapartes threw their customary spanners in the works. Though the family had to admit that Hortense was gentle, beautiful, and accomplished, they had no desire to link themselves further to Josephine.

Within a few months, on January 4, 1802, the entire clan was in the drawing room in the Tuileries, watching a white-faced and sick Hortense say her vows to Louis by a makeshift altar. Josephine had given her daughter a splendidly embroidered gown and a necklace and headpiece of diamonds, but Hortense insisted on wearing a simple white dress and a string of pearls. She did not look at her groom, and he avoided speaking to her. Pale and dignified, she received a religious blessing with her new husband. Caroline and Joachim Murat, who had married two years earlier, were also blessed.

The wedding night was dismal. Lucien had told Louis that the marriage was rushed because Hortense was already pregnant with Napoleon’s child. That night, Louis tormented Hortense by reciting a list of her mother’s lovers and criticizing Josephine’s behavior. He then told her that if she gave birth to a child before the allotted nine months, he would banish her and never see her again. Hortense had to bear her situation. “My stepfather is a comet of which we are but the tail,” she said. “We must follow him everywhere without knowing where he carries us—for our happiness or for our grief.” She later received a beautiful gold and enamel watch from Josephine as a thank-you present. It was scant consolation.

The Bonapartes were furious at Josephine’s successful maneuvering. But her position was not secure. She had told Napoleon that her great wish had been to see their union blessed at the same time as that of Hortense and Louis and Caroline and Murat. A blessing, of course, would make it much harder to divorce her. Napoleon had flatly refused.

Hortense became pregnant quickly. Even that was not a joyous occasion, as she knew that behind her back, people were accusing her of being pregnant with Napoleon’s child. The British press mocked the marriage and implied that Bonaparte was keeping his stepdaughter close so he could continue the affair. In August, they speculated that she’d already had the child or was about to, suggesting it had been conceived before the wedding. Adamant to stop such “scandalous rumors,” Napoleon forced her to dance an energetic quadrille with him in public at an August ball to prove she was not in the late stages of pregnancy.4 From a man who hated the sight of pregnant women and thought the spectacle of them dancing one of the most disgusting things in the world, this was quite a gesture—although some said that the two of them dancing only fed the gossips.

To Josephine’s delight, on October 10, Hortense gave birth to a son, Napoleon Louis Charles (known as Napoleon Charles), just a few days past the nine-month term. Napoleon declared the boy his heir, although he did not give him any such official status. Josephine felt safe—at least for the moment.

Was he Napoleon’s son? Some thought him so, the British perpetuated the gossip that he was, and certainly Napoleon was much fonder of him than he was of Hortense’s second son, Napoleon Louis. But though the consul had long since given up being faithful to his wife and was fond of his stepdaughter, he was also loyal to Lucien, and to get her pregnant would have been a betrayal. And Josephine might have been desperate, but she never could have put her daughter in her husband’s bed to keep her position. Furthermore, if the child had been Napoleon’s, he would have been much less likely to still consider divorce—and to refuse Josephine her wish for a religious blessing.

NAPOLEON CONTINUED TO wage war, threatening mainland Europe with his army and chasing the British with his navy. But as the French well knew, the British ships were much stronger than theirs—and they kept losing territory to Nelson. Napoleon decided to counter by making it clear that he would agree to peace. In March 1802, he signed a treaty with Britain at Amiens. It proved a wise move; the British economy was weakening due to the ongoing conflict, Pitt’s government had fallen, and the king was suffering from delusions. Weary of war, the ministers gave great concessions.

Amiens returned Martinique and Guadeloupe to the French and gave back territories to Holland and Spain. The treaty was a triumph for France, and Napoleon’s popularity soared once again. Towns and villages across France had been sorely tried by losing their young men to the army, and the people were tired of war. They looked forward to dominating the world through economic might rather than bloody battle.

In under two and a half years, thanks to looted gold and brutal campaigns in Italy and Europe, France had thrown off the misery of the days of the Directory. Napoleon poured money into the reconstruction of Paris, improving the parks and building bridges and roads. As he later said, “I wanted Paris to become a town of two, three, four million inhabitants, something fabulous, colossal, unknown until our time.”5 Tourists marveled at the palaces, sampled the restaurants, and filled their trunks with souvenirs. After the imprisonment of the king, the royal collection had become public property (aside from the paintings taken by Napoleon and Josephine), and in 1793 the Louvre had opened with an exhibition of 537 paintings. The public crowded in to see the pictures once owned by the king, as well as those of the Church and nobility, and the Republic decreed that a hundred thousand livres a year should be set aside for expanding the collections. They had not reckoned on Napoleon and his avarice for art. The Louvre closed for renovations from 1796 to 1801, and when it reopened, Napoleon crammed it with his stolen booty. In 1803 it was renamed the Musée Napoléon.

The British had been banned from France since 1792, and after the Amiens treaty, they came in droves. When the British politician Charles James Fox visited in July, he declared one felt “almost breathless expectation at the thought of seeing so celebrated a city.”6 The luckiest might be presented to Josephine at one of her receptions or shown the art at Malmaison. There, they were often rather surprised. Men such as the stolid dramatist Edmund Eyre were mesmerized by the Parisian ladies and their “state of undress really immodest” (Napoleon’s attempts to encourage higher necklines were not always successful).7

Josephine was thrillingly appealing to the British. Most queens were stolidly virtuous; she had been a kept mistress, veered close to being a courtesan, and been unfaithful to her husband. A British visitor said he had hardly arrived in the Palais de’Egalité—the traditional center of prostitution in the city—when a man sidled up to him. Would he care to buy The Licentious Life of Madame Bonaparte?8 Everyone was fascinated by the woman who held the mighty Bonaparte in her hands.

Martinique paid for Josephine’s grandeur. The conquered European countries suffered huge taxes, but perhaps the biggest toll was levied on the newly regained Caribbean islands. In 1799 the Republic had ended slavery in Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti), but by 1802 Napoleon was reintroducing it, allowing more African slaves to be brought to the islands. Politically, he knew he could not push the French much harder; it was far easier to oppress colonies overseas. He wanted more money for his coffers and did not care how it was brought in. “Bonaparte is very attached to Martinique and is counting on the support of the planters of that colony; he will use all means possible to preserve their position,” Josephine wrote to her mother in 1803.9 “You will like Bonaparte very much,” she assured her royalist mother. “He is making your daughter very happy.”10 Still horrified at Napoleon’s failure to reinstall the king, her mother refused once again.

In August 1802, Napoleon was elected “Consul for Life” by a massive majority. Only around nine thousand of the three and a half million men who voted had not plumped for him. He had become a king, with more power than a Bourbon had ever enjoyed, thanks to his direct control over the army. He steered his way between the republicans and the royalists, offering concessions, promising favors, and flattering everyone. As he said, “There was not a party in France which did not build some special hope upon my success.”11 For him, his people were children who could always be pacified with the promise of presents. And they rewarded him, putting as much faith in their consul as if he were a miracle worker. He was so convinced of his position that he had his birthday, August 15—a date that in Catholic countries was the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin—declared Saint Napoleon’s Day and celebrated as an annual public holiday. Within a few months, the mint was producing gold coins stamped with “Napoleon Bonaparte: First Consul.”

Malmaison, he decreed, would no longer suffice for him. There had been hurtful suggestions that it was shabby and small. One British visitor declared it “a poor old affair, washed yellow and backed by a good square patch of wood and planted without the least taste.” Bonaparte rejected Versailles as “monstrous” and instead chose the Château de Saint-Cloud as his new country seat.

Only fifteen minutes by carriage from the Tuileries, Saint-Cloud was a splendid château, with extensive grounds overlooking the Seine. Marie Antoinette had bought it from the Duc d’Orléans, for she thought the fresh air would be good for her children and wished for a property to leave them after her death. She had transformed it into her own pastel, feminine vision of beauty, with pale blue and green walls, drapes of white muslin and gilded sphinxes in her private apartments, golden furniture, and bronze decorations. At the time, the idea of the queen having her own palace was terribly shocking to the people, and there were rumors that she was planning to give it to the Austrian royal family. Overdecorated, overcolored, and spattered with gilt, Saint-Cloud had been for the French people yet another symbol of the corrupt and lavish Bourbon monarchy.

The contents of Saint-Cloud had been sold off after the Revolution. Now Napoleon reclaimed it for the nation, covered all the pastel colors with heavy gold wooden panels and imperial colors, and filled the place with the air of court formality Marie Antoinette had been trying keenly to escape. He stuffed the rooms full of Maison Jacob furniture, gilded ornaments, luxurious hangings, and ornate mirrors. Napoleon’s eyes could not stand bright lights or gaudy colors, so he had the mirrors draped in soft material and the lights shielded with gauze. Josephine had decorated Malmaison to pay tribute to him, with Egyptian figures and statues inspired by the Greeks and Romans. Saint-Cloud was similarly adorned with sphinxes, statues of Napoleon as a Roman hero, and giant “N”s on the doorknobs and plates. As with Malmaison, Napoleon set his beloved Percier and Fontaine to work on plans for renovations. He spent six million francs on the building and huge sums on landscaping the gardens, adding fountains and cascades that rivaled those of Versailles.

Josephine was depressed by the move to Saint-Cloud. She loved Malmaison and found the new palace forbidding and gloomy. But to Napoleon, it enshrined intimidating glory. The informality and lazy summer evenings of Malmaison were about to be a thing of the past. For Josephine, life as Napoleon’s wife was soon to be all ritual and formality, as stiff and gilded as their new furniture.

Bonaparte saw no irony in occupying a folly of Marie Antoinette’s that once incensed the French people to a murderous pitch. Instead, he began planning a court that outdid that of Louis XVI for splendor. Monarchs across Europe now prided themselves on their simplicity and lack of pomp. King George III in Britain was nicknamed “Farmer George” for his humble interest in plants and his plain court at Windsor Castle. Napoleon, conversely, believed that the lessons of Marie Antoinette’s fate were irrelevant to him; he thought the populace was more likely to pay tribute to the man who appeared in front of them adorned in gold. He began to wear a uniform of a red velvet coat embroidered with gold and a sword inlaid with some of the crown jewels. As far as he was concerned, his people would be won over easily with the cheap gift of fancy dress. Even the former Jacobins on his staff had not complained when he suggested they wear red velvet coats with a blue sash. “I have only to gild the court dress of my virtuous Republicans for them to belong to me,” he crowed.

Napoleon felt that the naturally nostalgic French would welcome a new court and that it would encourage the royalists and aristocrats to his side. Unfortunately, he had little interest in the minutiae of courtly life. He left that to Josephine, who in turn consulted Hortense’s old headmistress, Madame Campan. Jeanne-Louise Campan had been first lady of the bedchamber to Marie Antoinette from 1786 until the storming of the Tuilieries in 1792, and thus was an expert in etiquette. Bows, curtseys, court dress, and precedence became the hot topics of conversation. Napoleon took four prefects, and Josephine had to appoint four ladies-in-waiting from aristocratic backgrounds. She chose Madame de Luçay and Madame Lauriston, whose husbands worked for Napoleon, and Madame de Talhouët, who probably gave information to the royalists. The fourth woman, twenty-two-year-old Claire de Rémusat, an old friend of Hortense, would appear to be the most loyal of all—although she wrote her memoirs of the court, published by her son in 1880, in which Josephine’s failings were laid bare.

Visitors were properly awed by the gilt, the excess, and the fine liveries of the footmen. “The household of the First Consul is increasingly taking on the appearance of a court,” said the Prussian ambassador. Swedish count Armfelt decided the “grandiose public splendor” hardly less lacking than Versailles. Napoleon was sometimes so confident that he simply wore his uniform waistcoat, sword, breeches, stockings, and boots. He looked ridiculous amid all the luster and rich dress, but nobody dared laugh.

Goldsmiths and jewelers worked day and night to keep up with orders from the new court. The needles of fine dressmakers and the brushes for painting gilt onto carriages were working overtime. In the winter of 1801, more than one million yards of satin and tulle were bought for ball gowns and receptions. Napoleon encouraged dances and masques and reinstated the tradition of balls at the Opéra. It was good for trade, but also, as he put it, when people were dancing, they were not “poking their noses into politics.”12

Despite his affairs, Napoleon was still fascinated by his wife. “Bonaparte’s superstition about his wife is very extraordinary,” commented one British visitor. “When he came from St. Cloud, though quite ill, she came with him to satisfy his feelings, and went to bed as soon as she arrived at the Tuileries.”13 He depended on her as a lover, a companion, and an adviser, though he was growing more impatient with her as he grew more irascible with age and power. He shouted at her in public as freely as he once caressed her. On one terrible occasion, he drove her to inspect a property he had acquired. On the way, Josephine saw a great ditch ahead. Already suffering from a migraine, she begged him to allow her to descend and make her way over the ditch on foot. Napoleon roared at her not to be such a child and whipped the horses to make them jump the ditch as fast as possible. The horses just made it, but the carriage shuddered and almost broke in half. Josephine burst into hysterical tears while Napoleon reproached her wildly for not trusting him. Such violent outbursts were becoming ever more common—but they were always followed by ardent sexual reunion. Josephine was often resentful of his anger during these reunions, but she knew not to turn him down.

At Saint-Cloud, Napoleon and Josephine slept together every night, as usual, allowing her access to him in his most private moments. Then she threw a jealous scene about a mistress, and Napoleon lost his temper. “I resolved not to return to my subjugation,” he recalled.14 He took up residence in a room across the corridor, though he continued to spend many nights in her bed.

Although Josephine had no official title, she was the queen of Saint-Cloud. She was expected to preside over the social life of the palace. As one of her ladies-in-waiting said, “social events constitute the canvas which she embroiders, which she arranges and which give her a subject for conversation.”15 Napoleon, who could hardly bear the small talk and endless courses of banquets and receptions, might scuttle off on the excuse of business, leaving her to entertain the guests. He decided that all young women at the court should learn to make the “Versailles Curtsey,” a low dip, and perform it when he and Josephine entered the room for formal receptions. On other occasions, ladies would have to stand when Josephine entered the room and again when she departed. Pauline and Caroline Bonaparte were spitting with fury at having to stand for Josephine, who sometimes threw them a sly smile as she floated by. The revolutionary heroine was moving into the position Marie Antoinette once occupied. In fact, the most prestigious invitation of all was to one of Josephine’s weekly dinners in her apartments. The guests would be received by the first consul and his wife, seated on thrones.

Josephine herself was rather unnerved by her new position. When ambassadors were presented to her, Napoleon commanded her to remain sitting, in the same fashion as the old queens of France. Josephine could not: She rose to meet them, holding out her hand. “I feel that I was not born, my child, for such grandeur, and I would be happier in retirement, surrounded by those I love,” she wrote to Hortense. She had always been disquieted by Napoleon’s lofty ambition; now she was positively afraid. On one occasion, witnessed by Bourrienne, she came in her “gentle and beguiling way” and settled herself on her husband’s knee, “caressed him and brushed her fingertips softly across his cheek and through his hair. Her words came in a tender rush. ‘Bonaparte, I implore you, don’t go making yourself a king. It’s that horrid Lucien who puts you up to such schemes. Please, oh, please, don’t listen to him.’ She had begged him before not to make himself a king—and Bonaparte laughed off her pleas. ‘You must be out of your mind, Josephine,’ he smiled.”

Josephine did not impress everyone, particularly the British. The writer Mary Berry thought her “distinguished looking” but much older than her portraits made her out to be. Another thought her rather ordinary. “If chance had not placed her on a pinnacle, she would escape minute observation.”16 Certainly, her teeth—which gave her much pain—were in poor shape. All agreed, though, that Josephine’s tact and grace worked wonders; people forgot her fading beauty and rather humble past. “Her sense of the right word and the right action and her irresistible attraction convinced us all that she might have been born for the role fortune had given her.”17

Costume took up ever more time in her day. Napoleon told her that she must outshine every woman present. “Mme. Bonaparte, who understood to a high degree the art of being well-dressed, set an example of the greatest elegance,” observed Laure d’Abrantès.18Josephine bought spectacular outfits. One celebrated pink crepe dress was covered entirely with real rose petals. A tribute to her love of roses, it was divine, but she could not sit and could barely move in it. Another fine gown was made of toucan feathers, each one adorned with a pearl. She adored luxurious gloves and purchased more than a thousand pairs a year.19 When she desired a fresh pair, they would be brought to her on a silver tray.

Napoleon wished for his wife to look opulent, but he did not always comprehend the cost. On one occasion, Claire de Rémusat saw him lecturing Josephine that she should appear “at her dazzling best in jewels and dress.” When she did not respond, he prompted, “Did you hear me, Josephine?” “Yes,” she replied sweetly, “but then you will reproach me or even go into a tantrum and refuse to pay for my purchases.” She gave him such a gently flirtatious smile, “the desire to please him so unmistakeably bright in her eyes that he would have had a heart of stone to resist her.”20 She dreaded the times when she had to present her accounts to him. He railed that she spent excessively, gave too many presents, and did not understand the value of money. He used her spending to torment her, then compelled her to spend more.

Napoleon was trying to stake a claim to a court of spotless virtue, but he never criticized Josephine for her past. When he found out that Talleyrand had a mistress, Catherine Grand, a divorcée and former demimondaine, he forced him to marry her immediately, declaring that the diplomatic corps would protest at his behavior. At the Tuileries, Napoleon berated Catherine in front of the whole company, saying she must atone for her immorality by behaving with dignity. “In this respect, as in all others, I cannot do better than to model myself on Mme. Bonaparte,” she replied. Talleyrand resented having to marry her: He found her annoying, she was losing her looks, and his family thought little of her. Bonaparte, as Madame de Rémusat thought, “took a malign pleasure in making Talleyrand marry.”21 From then on, Talleyrand became an enemy.

The British were particularly fond of titillating gossip, and the scabrous cartoonist James Gillray loved to recall Josephine’s dubious past. He drew her and Madame Tallien dancing naked behind a gauzy curtain, with Barras enjoying the spectacle while drinking wine and a tiny Napoleon spying from behind. Barras, Gillray said, had offered Napoleon his great promotion on the condition that he take Josephine off his hands, even though she was “smaller & thin with bad teeth, something like Cloves.”22 Another cartoon,The Progress of the Empress Josephine, showed her different incarnations: prisoner, empress, Barras’s mistress, and “loose fish”—or lady of low morals.23 But few paid much attention. Only one visitor, Lord Morpeth, refused to let his wife be presented to her. And certainly Napoleon did not see Josephine as his Achilles heel; for him, she was all grace and excellence.

“Love is a singular passion, turning men into beasts,” Napoleon said. “I come into season like a dog.”24 Even though he was growing plump and had crude manners, once he was made consul for life, he found he had more sexual opportunity than he could have ever imagined. In the autumn of 1802, he dismissed Bourrienne, declaring him guilty of financial corruption. He took the keys to his secretary’s old room, adjacent to his study, and had it filled daily with fresh flowers. Actresses, dancers, and demimondaines crept in to be his lovers. His skills of seduction had not improved; he still sat and stared at those he wanted until they blushed and gave in, dazzled by his riches and power. Mademoiselle Duchesnois, an actress from the Comédie-Française, was once shown to Bourrienne’s former room by Napoleon’s faithful valet, Constant. The consul was working late in his study, and when Constant knocked on the door, he cried out, “Tell her to wait!” An hour later, Constant knocked again and he replied, “Tell her to get undressed.” The actress did as she was bade and waited undressed. Constant knocked once more and Napoleon cried: “Tell her to go home!”25

In the early days of their marriage, Napoleon had been delighted by Josephine’s expressions of jealousy. Now, when he was no longer faithful and was taking many lovers, her teary questions only annoyed him. “As soon as he acquired a new mistress,” wrote Claire de Rémusat, “Bonaparte became hard, violent, pitiless towards his wife.” He told her the details and liked to show an “almost savage surprise that she did not congratulate him.”26 If she wept and complained, he turned on her ferociously.

Napoleon never understood why his wife cared about his dalliances. “She is always afraid that I will fall seriously in love,” he told Rémusat. “Does she not know then that I am not made for love? It is not in my nature to surrender to any such overwhelming feeling. Why does she worry about these fancies in which my affections are not engaged?”27 Indeed, he was too busy to fall in love, but he had plenty of time for fast seductions. After all, as he proudly told one mistress, he could get the job done within three or four minutes. But Josephine, unable to bear his child and hated by the Bonaparte family, remembered his intense passion for her in the early days and dreaded him falling for another woman with the same ardor. Napoleon would point out that her past conduct gave her no right to complain, but she was still jealous, upbraiding him and weeping and paying spies to report back to her about his affairs.

Mademoiselle Duchesnois, like all the rest, did not last long. Soon Napoleon became entranced by her archrival on the Paris stage, the fifteen-year-old actress Marguerite-Josephine Weimar, or Mademoiselle George. The grand battle between the divas captivated all Paris. Duchesnois was generally judged the better actress, although rather plain. George was no great tragedienne, but she was beautiful. In order to try and beat her rival, she went all out to capture the first consul. An affair with Napoleon would catapult her to stardom.

Mademoiselle George met Josephine and watched her carefully, saying, “It was impossible not to succumb in the face of that soft, mysterious charm.”28 Cleverly guessing that the best way to capture Napoleon was to be as gentle as his wife, she feigned the mien of innocence. After she followed his summons to Saint-Cloud, flunkies took her upstairs and then left her in a room “with an enormous bed and heavy curtains of silk.” Napoleon arrived, and she played the virtuous maiden for an hour or so before claiming that she could not help but give in to his charms.

Napoleon was delighted by his schoolgirl-age mistress. “I am very fond of the name Josephine but I shall call you Georgina, if you’ll allow me.”29 With her he acted the child, romping around the staircases and playing hide-and-seek behind the curtains. All Paris heard of the affair, and when Napoleon openly visited Georgina at the theater, Josephine felt humiliated. One night Napoleon and Josephine went to see Mademoiselle George play the lead role of Emilie in Cinna, a play written in 1639 that Napoleon favored, as it congratulated absolute power. In the play, the Roman emperor Augustus orders the death of Emilie’s father. She begs Cinna, who is in love with her, to kill Augustus in revenge. In the final act, Augustus challenges Cinna, and Emilie attempts to free him by saying she seduced him into it.

Georgina was ready for her stardom. At the dramatic high point of the play, she paused before giving the line: “I have seduced Cinna, I shall seduce many more.” The crowd roared with delight, leaped up, and turned to applaud Napoleon in his box. He smiled and puffed out his chest. Josephine had to sit, ramrod-straight and smiling, hiding her humiliation.

One night she was in her Yellow Salon with Claire de Rémusat, tormenting herself with the knowledge that Napoleon was in Bourrienne’s chamber with Georgina. “I cannot stand it any longer; Mlle. George must be up there. I am going to surprise them.” She marched up the stairs with Claire following. They nearly got there—and then thought they heard Napoleon’s rather terrifying guard coming toward them. “He’ll kill us,” cried Josephine. Claire fled in terror, and Josephine chased after her. When they reached the bottom of the stairs, they began to laugh, and Josephine realized she had been deluded to think she could storm into the room.30

One evening some weeks later, Josephine heard Georgina screaming in fear. She dashed to Bourrienne’s room, along with valets and guards, only to find Napoleon suffering from a seizure and Georgina making her exit in a state of undress. The actress was terrified that the consul had died and she would be blamed. Josephine stood there and saw with her own eyes the evidence in the rumpled sheets: Her husband could find sexual passion with women other than her.

Not long afterward, Napoleon stuffed forty thousand francs down Georgina’s dress as a goodbye present and set off in search of a replacement. He tried his hopelessly boorish seductions on every young woman he saw. Men found him naturally charismatic and fascinating, but he left women cold. Mademoiselle George had used his attentions for her advantage, but there were many women who had to submit because they had no protectors. Napoleon used them all for pleasure.

When General Junot and his young wife, Laure, came to stay at Malmaison, Napoleon promptly sent Junot away. He had known eighteen-year-old Laure since she was a child, and he had proposed to her mother, Madame Permond, before meeting Josephine. Such family connections did not dampen his fervor. At five A.M. he entered Laure’s room, sat on her bed, and read his morning correspondence. He gave her a pinch, and she pretended to be asleep. He left the room. Laure begged her husband to disobey orders and remain with her. The next night, she locked the door before going to bed—and within an hour or so, she heard Napoleon rattling at it in vain. Not to be dissuaded, he set off to find a master key. He burst into the room, ready for love, but found Junot in bed with his wife and exploded in fury.

Even when a mistress fell out of favor, Josephine knew it would not be long before another beautiful, younger woman would be frequenting her husband’s chamber. She knew Napoleon loved the way she presided over the court with grace and diplomacy, and that her presence mollified the royalists and the aristocrats. But she would no longer be his good-luck charm if one of his mistresses became pregnant.

“AMBITION IS NEVER content, even at the summit of greatness,” Napoleon declared. The peace with Britain was fragile. He had deployed French troops to Holland, which contravened the treaty with the British. For his part, he was pitched into rage by the expansionist desires of the British and their irreverent newspapers. Day after day, he stared at caricatures of Josephine in a state of undress, jokes that Hortense was his mistress, and pictures of him as a pygmy with a giant nose. Lord Whitworth, the British ambassador, calmly told Napoleon that the British press mocked everyone, but the constitution would not allow them to be silenced—which was not entirely true, since the newspapers were prevented from expressing pro-French opinion.

Napoleon detested Whitworth and was personally annoyed by his impressive height of six feet. When he demanded the British quit Malta, Whitworth replied that his government expected the consul to give up on his aggressive policies of invasion. In March 1803, Napoleon lost his temper and raged at the ambassador in public with insults so terrible that Whitworth declined to repeat them in his letters. “England wants war,” the consul roared at the ambassadors of Russia and Spain. Within two months, Whitworth had left Paris, the tourists fleeing behind him. The British promptly seized all French and Dutch merchant ships near their coasts. On May 18, they declared war on France once more, with the excuse that France had intervened in internal Swiss politics and sent troops to the country. Four days later, Napoleon declared all British men in France between the ages of eighteen and sixty would “immediately be constituted prisoners of war,” an act of capturing civilians that outraged international opinion.31

Simply, Bonaparte wanted to be at war with Britain again. Talleyrand was furious at the breakdown of the short-lived peace with Britain brokered by the Treaty of Amiens, his suspicions confirmed that Napoleon was happy only when he was sending his subjects into battle. As Madame de Staël put it, the “natural restlessness of his character, independently from his need to dominate, is such that he could not be content with a mere thirty million people to govern and make happy.”32

It was a powder keg, and Napoleon ignited it. “In three days, granted favourable circumstances and foggy weather, I could be master of London, the Parliament and the Bank,” he boasted. Peace had not suited him; he could spend only so many days watching ladies curtsey. By June, he was in his element, bustling around newly created camps for his forces and talking of erupting onto British shores. He had seen the newspapers mocking Lord Nelson for his desperate infatuation with Emma Hamilton, and he thought his old enemy had lost his desire for blood. “I will take you to London,” he boasted to Josephine. “I wish the wife of the modern Caesar to be crowned at Westminster.”

While he was surveying his ships, Josephine wrote him a heartfelt letter.

All my sadness vanished, as I read your touching letter and the expressions of your feelings for me. I am so grateful to you for taking the time to write at such length to your Josephine. You cannot think how much joy you have given to the woman you love … I will always keep your letter which I press to my heart. It will console me for your absence, and guide me when I am near you, for I want to be always in your eyes as you want me to be, your sweet and tender Josephine, my life devoted only to your happiness.

When you are happy or for a moment sad, may it be upon my bosom that you pour out your joy or your grief; may you have no feelings that I do not share. All my desires amount only to pleasing you and making you happy … Adieu, Bonaparte, I will never forget the last sentence of your letter. I have it locked in my heart. How deeply it is engraved there and with what ecstasy my own has answered it! Yes, oh yes, that is my wish too—to please you and to love you—or rather to adore you.33

Josephine dreaded Napoleon venturing overseas. If he died, she would be completely unprotected, as his siblings, ministers, and army generals battled to become the next consul. Fortunately for her, Napoleon changed his mind about invading when intelligence suggested he would need his armies to quell rebellion in his empire and fight back against Austria. Moreover, though he would not admit it, his naval capacity was not equal to Britain’s. The war situation changed to a game of standoff and stalemate.

On June 14, Josephine set off with Napoleon on a monthlong royal tour, traveling through northeastern France and the Low Countries. She was greeted by delighted crowds who had turned out to see her as much as the consul. For a month, she hosted receptions; for the first time, she was wearing the French crown jewels. In Picardy, Napoleon was given a pair of swans, a gift traditionally reserved for kings. He sent them back to Paris and let them swim in a lake at the Tuileries.

The consul gave the appearance of complete power, but he knew he was under threat. In 1804 a Vendéan rebel leader was arrested and confessed to his captors that he and his coconspirators had been plotting to assassinate the first consul and had been waiting only for a prince of royal blood to lead them. The government needed a scapegoat and settled on the thirty-two-year-old Duc d’Enghien, nephew of Louis XVI and a commander in the army of the prince of Condé, which had attempted to assist the Duke of Brunswick’s invasion of France in 1792. Enghien was resident in the neutral grand duchy of Baden. Napoleon sent dragoons to cross the Rhine and seize him at his home. He was imprisoned at the Château de Vincennes near Paris, where servants were already digging his grave near the dungeon.

Josephine was horrified when she heard the news from her ladies. She and her husband were at Malmaison at the time, and she hurried downstairs to find Napoleon serenely playing chess. Her royalist sympathies coming to the fore, she knelt before him and begged him not to execute the man. Her pleas were in vain. “How harshly he repelled my entreaties!” she recalled. “I clung to him! I threw myself at his feet!” He exclaimed angrily, “Meddle with what concerns you! This is not women’s business! Leave me!” He pushed her off with a violence she had not seen from him since the time he had accused her of an affair with Hippolyte on his return from Egypt.34 Later on, she tried again, and he was even gruffer. “Go away, you are only a child, you know nothing about politics.” That evening Josephine was unable to pretend to be merry, and Madame de Rémusat, her lady-in-waiting, was pale. Napoleon demanded to know why she wore no rouge, and she replied that she had not put any on. “That could not happen to my Josephine,” he publicly pronounced. “She knows that there’s nothing more becoming to a woman than rouge—and tears.”35 Later, he began to fondle Josephine brutally. Distressed but knowing better than to resist him, she allowed him to spend the night in her room.

Napoleon, by that point, hardly cared whether the stolid duc was guilty. He was convinced that there was nothing like an assassination attempt to firm his hold over the people and garner more power.

The consul was merciless. The duc was sentenced to death, with no proper hearing. Under a week after his arrest, on March 21 at two-thirty in the morning, Enghien was taken to the courtyard to be executed. He stood in the dark, his faithful dog beside him. Refusing a handkerchief to cover his eyes, he followed instructions to hold a lantern against his heart to direct the fire. “You are Frenchmen,” he said, “at least you will do me the service not to miss your aim.” The duc’s dignity and courage awed the marksmen. They were told they could help themselves to his clothes and money, but they refused.

The news spread like wildfire across Europe. Napoleon had crossed into a neutral state and executed a man without proper trial. The wanton killing of a royal was not only a terrible reminder of the bloody Revolution and Terror but a slap in the face to the many who still believed the royals had been specially appointed by God to rule. Josephine wept when she heard and struggled to control her feelings. “I am a woman, you know, and I confess I could cry,” she repeated over and over. She consoled herself that her husband was “not naturally cruel, it is his counsellors and flatterers who have induced him to commit so many villainous actions.”36

Napoleon, delighted at what he deemed an absolute success, commanded Talleyrand to throw a ball to celebrate. “The Duc d’Enghien was a conspirator like any other and he had to be treated as such,” he said. “These people wanted to throw France into confusion and to destroy the Revolution by destroying me.” Allying himself with the Revolution was absurd, but he kept it up—“I am the man of the State. I am the French Revolution. I say it, and I will uphold it.”37

His courtiers struggled to celebrate, and foreign visitors stood in their finery, shaking their heads at the horror.38 Just over a week after the death of the duc, Napoleon went to the theater. His habit was to dash to his box before Josephine’s carriage arrived. This time he entered with her—he needed her popularity. As they made their appearance, he was pale and anxious, while she looked ahead, smiling as if nothing had happened. He was fortunate this time. The people in the theater erupted into shouts and cheers.

For the Parisians, who had read the false newspaper reports that cast Enghien as a conspirator, Napoleon had proved his excellence and strength once more.39 “I have forever silenced both royalists and Jacobins,” he crowed. The Jacobins were delighted, convinced now that he would never put a Bourbon on the throne. The royalists, shocked by his actions, realized they had underestimated him. But it was too late. Three weeks after that awful night when the bullets felled Enghien, the senate assembled and duly declared that the life consul was now the emperor. Josephine was indeed, as the Martinique fortune-teller had suggested, “greater than a queen.”

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