Biographies & Memoirs


“I Have Fulfilled My Destiny”

In April 1805, Josephine was embarking on a plan to receive another crown. Earlier that year, a Milanese delegation had come to the Tuileries to ask Napoleon to declare himself king of Milan (he of course had conquered it for France long ago). He asked his brother Joseph to accept in his stead, but Joseph refused, since he presumed that it would require him to give up his claim on the French throne. The emperor then suggested little Napoleon Charles, but his father, Louis, turned down the honor, declaring that he did not want to see his son set above him. Napoleon had to accept the crown, and eventually, he and Josephine set off for Milan. She would now be “Her Majesty Queen of Italy.” After a week of fetes and ceremonies in Lyon, a bumpy ride over the Mount Cenis Pass, and a stop to see the pope in Turin, they arrived in Milan.

Josephine walked in the coronation procession, but she was not crowned by her husband, as she had been the previous year. She merely watched, accompanied by her sister-in-law Elisa, as Napoleon ambled along holding the crown and then placed it on his own head. “God gives it to me,” he roared, “woe to him who touches it.” He had demanded celebrations reminiscent of imperial Rome, so there was a day of chariot races and gladiator-style games. Then the Italians put their own twist on the celebrations: A woman went up in a balloon and threw flowers down over the new king and queen. Nobles spent a whole year’s worth of income on the celebration.

Napoleon’s brothers and sisters watched the coronation in silent fury, fuming at how their most hated rival was now a queen. Napoleon then informed them that Eugène would be viceroy of Italy and officially adopted by Napoleon as a son of France. At this news, Caroline Murat fell ill, and her husband broke his sword across his knee. Josephine, it seemed, was impossible to unseat.

The empress, however, wept at the thought that her son would always be so far from her, despite the honor of the position. Napoleon scolded her. “If the absence of your children causes you so much pain, guess what I must always feel. The affection which you display for them makes me feel bitterly the unhappiness of having none myself.” He immediately sent her to Lake Como to take the waters, hoping against hope that she might miraculously become pregnant.

Napoleon returned to France to inspect his army for the endlessly proposed invasion of Britain. He wrote cheerfully to Josephine, who was on her best behavior, wisely restraining herself from weighing in on his affairs. She wrote to her son, “No more jealous scenes now, my dear Eugène, I can truthfully say, and so we are both much happier.”1

JOSEPHINE TRAVELED ON to Plombières, and Napoleon wrote to her fondly and teasingly: “I have a fine army here and a fine fleet, everything I need to pass the time agreeably,” he declared; “only my sweet Josephine is missing, but I should not say that, in matters of love, women are best left in suspense, uncertain of their power.”2

NAPOLEON HEARD FROM Talleyrand that Austria was preparing to join Britain and Russia against France. The emperor’s spies told him that Prussia was also considering allying with Britain. He had to embark on immediate action. He decided to march into Austria, conquer them quickly, and return to invade Britain. He was spoiling for a battle after the womanish occupation of planning ceremonies and donning robes. A magnificent win over the Austrians was just what he needed to gain favor and secure his position. After all, the route to his coronation had hardly been lined with cheering crowds. In September, he demanded eighty thousand more conscripts.

He wished to depart alone for campaign, but Josephine returned to Paris and pleaded to be allowed to come. At four in the morning, the imperial pair set off for Strasbourg in the emperor’s sleeping coach. They would travel for fifty-eight hours straight, stopping only to change horses. Napoleon was back on campaign, but he never forgot the importance of grandeur as well as strategy. Even though he would remain only briefly, the imperial apartments at the former Episcopal Palace in Strasbourg had been decorated to celebrate the emperor, and the tireless Fontaine had sent furniture and silverware so that Napoleon could dine in proper style.

After four days of celebration, he took a long bath and set off again on October 1, leaving Josephine behind. She was to be his representative in Strasbourg, giving dinners and receptions, receiving the diplomats, and touring the hospitals as the wounded soldiers arrived from the front. She even presided over an initiation ceremony for a Strasbourg Masonic lodge. “Rest easy,” he wrote. “I promise you the shortest and most brilliant of campaigns.”3

But it was not the campaigns she was worried about. Bored and lonely, convinced Napoleon would take mistresses as he traveled, she consoled herself in her usual way, buying art, plants, animals, dresses, and toys. She could not restrain herself from fretting. “You should have more fortitude and confidence,” he sighed. “You must be cheerful, amuse yourself.”4

Napoleon was determined to reach the Austrians before the Russians arrived to ally with them. He sped off in his carriage, with fifty-two more trundling behind. He was accompanied by General Berthier and his most important supplies: a telescope, brandy, a compass, pens, ink, and sealing wax. Dispatches were scribbled and flung from the window at an officer galloping beside the carriage. He dashed off a letter to Josephine every day. The whole operation proceeded at such speed that meals were kept ready to serve at any minute. Whenever Napoleon decreed it was time to eat, he hopped down from his carriage, silver dishes were whipped out, and he wolfed down his meal while his Imperial Guards stood by. The ordinary soldiers bought (or stole) food from the people they passed, storing it up so they looked, according to one soldier, like “walking larders, hung about with long sides of bacon.”5

Winter was falling, and the sleet and mud were so thick that Napoleon had to abandon his carriage and travel on horseback. Despite his pampered new role, he was the old Bonaparte—oblivious to bodily needs, riding for ten hours without stopping, plowing through driving rain without complaint. “I have a slight cold,” he wrote to Josephine with some understatement.

Napoleon and his army took the Austrians by surprise. They had believed he was still on the French coast, fussing over his invasion of Britain. Their soldiers were surrounded, and General Mack and his fifty thousand men surrendered at Ulm on October 20. With fifteen hundred men dead, the French saw their losses as light. Napoleon dashed off a delighted letter to Josephine. “I have fulfilled my destiny. I have destroyed the Austrian army,” he gloated. “This will be the shortest, the most successful and the most brilliant of the campaigns I have fought.” He signed off, “Adieu my Josephine, a thousand sweet kisses everywhere.”6

Meanwhile, the plans to attack Britain by sea were limping on. Ever since the argument with Lord Whitworth, Napoleon had cherished plans to invade, but the fleet was never quite ready, and he was never sure of the naval superiority he needed. One problem was that it was impossible to get the flotilla to sea on a single tide—it would take three tides, which would leave the ships vulnerable to attack as they waited. In August, he was ranting against Admiral Villeneuve, who was at port in Cádiz, taking cover from the harrying of the British with his combined French and Spanish fleet. When Villeneuve and his captains heard that Nelson was on his way, they agreed to stay put, but Napoleon, infuriated by the idea of his sailors trying to shelter in a port, ordered them to sail out and head to Naples. Villeneuve refused but heard Napoleon was about to dismiss him, so he had to obey. He took the fleet out of Cádiz and right into the arms of Nelson and his ships. The Battle of Trafalgar, on October 21, was a victory for the British, as they took twenty-two enemy ships and lost none. But there was a price—Admiral Nelson died from a shot in the shoulder, leaving his mistress, Emma, Lady Hamilton, to be looked after by the nation as he took his last breaths (the government, unsurprisingly, refused to fund Emma, and she died in penury in Calais in 1815).

The death of Napoleon’s great rival was small consolation for the French. For the British, Trafalgar and its near-decimation of the Franco-Spanish enemy fleet was the most magnificent victory they had ever enjoyed. The entire population bought Trafalgar brooches and Nelson mourning jewelry; the dignitaries wept at his funeral at St. Paul’s. Villeneuve was taken prisoner by the English and kept at a pub in Hampshire, with the rest of the men living at nearby houses. While there, he was allowed a day release to attend Nelson’s funeral. When he was set free, he tried and failed to return to fight. He was soon found dead of stab wounds—a verdict of suicide was recorded, but the British press declared Napoleon had ordered it (unlikely, since Villeneuve was a disgraced man without power, and Napoleon tended to kill only those who were a threat).

Napoleon’s hopes of invading Britain were finally over. He tried to brush the defeat under the carpet, telling the French press to make only a brief reference to Trafalgar in their newspapers; instead, he trumpeted the cataclysmic surrender of the Austrian forces at Ulm on October 19. Neither did he write about Trafalgar to Josephine; he boasted about his successes in Austria.

On October 22, Napoleon asked Josephine to travel to him in Munich, stopping in Baden and Stuttgart on the way. He had planned her first lone imperial journey in typically exhaustive detail. Accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting, she rode in her grand carriage, followed by those carrying her chamberlains, her luggage and the imperial jewel case. She would ride his victory march through to Vienna, staying at the courts of the electors, princes, and dukes who were his vassals. Every time she arrived in a town, she should be greeted by fanfare, cannons, and the ringing of church bells. “Be civil to all of them,” he wrote, “but accept their homage as your due.”

Josephine charmed the conquered courts with gifts and seemingly heartfelt thanks for displays of singing or fireworks, triumphal arches, and odes in her honor. Napoleon was gratified by her success at smoothing over his hard-won victories. “Have the grand fetes at Baden, Stuttgart and Munich made you forget the poor soldiers who live covered with mud, rain and blood?” he teased.7

Napoleon and his army battled on through Austria, but the men were exhausted and supplies were low. He knew that the allies would see him as easy pickings, far from Strasbourg and leading a demoralized, hungry army. He decided to pretend that he was about to withdraw his armies, hoping that surprise would allow him another victory. On December 1, the eve of the first anniversary of the day he was declared emperor, he waited in silence with his men at the village of Austerlitz, crouched in the freezing cold. The weather was on his side. Mist descended, and the French troops were hidden from enemy eyes. The Austro-Russian troops decided that the French were retreating, and bedded down comfortably, sure there was no need to prepare for war.

As the sun broke through at eight in the morning, the order was given and the French charged at the enemy. Within three hours, the enemy army was in tatters. The Austrian Imperial Guard was smashed, and by nightfall the Russians were retreating across an iced-over lake. Napoleon ordered his cannons to fire on the ice and declared that twenty thousand men were killed. “This is the happiest day of my life,” he told Méneval. He wrote to Josephine that it was “the grandest of all those I have fought … more than 30,000 dead, a horrible sight.” He was also tired, complaining that “my eyes have been rather bad.”8 Fourteen-year-old archduchess Marie Louise, daughter of the Austrian emperor, burst into floods of weeping when she heard the news and scribbled down that the French emperor was the “Beast of the Apocalypse” and she hoped he would die that year.

The Russians retreated and Napoleon pushed on to Vienna, taking up residence at the palace at Schönbrunn, gratified to occupy yet another royal residence. The occupation of Vienna was a terrible signal to Europe: The great Austrian empire had been humbled.

On December 5, Josephine reached Munich and heard of her husband’s great victories. She was caught up in a round of celebrations that left her no time for writing letters. “Mighty Empress! Not a single letter from you,” he complained. “Deign from the height of your splendour to concern yourself a little with your slave.”9 Though he was still reliant on her, the talk of separation had grown so intense that those close to him were emboldened to propose other wives. A general wondered if Napoleon might capitalize on his success in Austria by marrying an Austrian archduchess, but the hero refused: “The memory of Marie Antoinette is too recent.”10 Against the advice of Talleyrand, who recommended allying with Austria in order to intimidate Russia, Napoleon broke Austria and those it had protected into pieces—to the benefit of his relations.

Eugène, he decided, would be married almost immediately to Augusta, the eighteen-year-old daughter of the elector of Bavaria, who was, he noted to his stepson, “better looking than the portrait painted on the teacup I am sending you.”11 He put the announcement in the French newspapers and wrote to Josephine telling her to arrange the celebrations. Eugène obeyed the instruction to “set out at all speed” and galloped from Italy, carrying the cup bearing a picture of his fiancée. Josephine begged to invite Hortense to the wedding, but Napoleon was in too much of a hurry to wait for his stepdaughter to return to Paris.

The elector of Bavaria was very unhappy about the proposed marriage, and so was his young second wife, who once hoped to marry the Duc d’Enghien—the man Napoleon so ruthlessly executed. The elector complained that Eugène was a commoner and declared his daughter was already engaged to her cousin, the crown prince of Baden. If, he said, she had to marry another, the man should be no less than Napoleon himself. Of course, Napoleon ignored the elector’s plea that he should divorce Josephine and marry Augusta. He offered the now jilted prince of Baden Stéphanie Beauharnais, Josephine’s pretty niece, in Augusta’s stead. He bribed the elector by giving him the title of king of Bavaria at the end of 1805, and decreed Eugène an imperial highness as well as viceroy of Italy and his officially adopted son. The wedding took place three days after Eugène’s posthaste arrival on January 14, 1806. Fortunately, Eugène, a spirited but gentle man, was pleased by his princess, and the two soon came to love each other. At the wedding, Napoleon flirted with the elector’s wife and became convinced she was in love with him—a high state of delusion.

Josephine was too wise to complain that the decision about her son’s marriage had been taken from her hands. With Eugène as the emperor’s officially adopted son, he might be declared heir. It seemed impossible that Napoleon could divorce her after endowing her son so munificently. She spent the first weeks of 1806 with the emperor, celebrating his victories and cosseting his pride.

Bonaparte returned from Austerlitz in January 1806, puffed up with his invincibility. Even the fact that Paris was in the grip of a financial crisis—after millions of government bonds somehow disappeared—could not dent his self-confidence. His solution was to suspend the minister of the treasury. Then he turned his attention to his favorite subject: his own glory. At thirty-six, he bestrode nations and ruled an empire of many millions of people. He possessed almost all of Europe, save a few countries that annoyingly had resisted—including Spain, Britain, and Sweden.12 He was bloated, exhausted, a martyr to stomach pain and headaches, but the most feared man in Europe.

THE KING OF Diamonds was full of ideas to make his court even grander after attending those of Austria and Munich. He decided that the court should rehearse the ceremony of presentation, in which aristocratic ladies were “presented” to the emperor and thus admitted to court. Josephine herself had not been presented, and now she was to preside over a presentation ceremony more tortuously detailed than that of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The emperor and empress settled on their gilt thrones, flanked by the Bonaparte family on stools. Court officials and ladies-in-waiting advanced, bowing and curtseying. A lady due to be presented curtseyed at the door, then again a few steps on, then a third time in front of their imperial majesties—and then had to walk out backward, with three further curtsies. Not long into the ceremony, Napoleon was bouncing on his throne with impatience and barely able to last to the end. Etiquette, he decided, was much better if carried out by somebody else. He was bored and purged his feelings by roaring insults at anyone he considered badly dressed.

It was all the emperor’s new clothes: Foreign courts mocked the imperial court for its gold-splashed brashness, citing Napoleon as the perfect example of a nouveau riche. Yet Napoleon, a brusque fighter who cared little for the French people, saw himself as a virtual deity. As in the time of Louis XVI and his predecessors, there was a convention that the emperor could make the sun shine if he wished, and so on fete days, even in the depths of winter, shivering courtiers in light dress would declare that it was not cold and it was not raining, even as their clothes and hair were soaked through. Everyone had to pretend around the fairy king Napoleon, including Josephine.

“The life I lead here is as fatiguing as it possibly can be, never a moment to myself,” Josephine wrote to Eugène. “I go to bed very late and wake up early. The Emperor, who is very strong, copes very well with this busy life, but my health and my soul are suffering a little.”13 The etiquette was punishing, “a daily slavery.”14 Napoleon was obsessed with precision, and any movement too quick or aspect of costume out of place could prompt a furious dressing-down.

Josephine later told her lady-in-waiting Madame Ducrest how much “pleasure” she felt when anything interrupted “the chains of court ceremony.”15 Napoleon demanded a court of ostentatious ritual and procedure but had no patience for it; he interrupted receptions, fidgeted through balls, and hated attending plays in the brand-new theaters in his palaces. The best actors, the most beautiful scenery, the funniest comedies, and the most mellifluous music were brought out to please him, but he sat hunched through each performance, refusing to laugh. He would then blame the play for being a failure, and attack his courtiers for not finding something truly amusing for him to watch.

“Pleasure does not inhabit palaces,” wrote Madame de Rémusat. Napoleon’s youthful court struggled with the dictates of raiment and behavior. Some of the younger wives became so confused that they barely spoke to anybody, and girls fainted with fear at the thought of being presented to the emperor. His habits of shouting at women and criticizing their attire publicly were terrifying. A woman without rouge was asked if she was just “up from childbed”; he noted the “red elbows” of one and mocked another for her ugly face.16 The emperor, so powerful, ruler of millions, still took petty satisfaction from playground-style humiliation. Everything turned on the minutiae of etiquette—“a ribbon, a slight difference in dress, permission to pass through a particular door,” as Josephine’s lady-in-waiting put it.17 Those who had been at Versailles or in royalist company were much more at ease and made a performance of laughing, smiling, and behaving in an unaffected fashion. The Jacobins and republicans were nervous and stiff, unaccustomed to court life and finding the ritual rather dreadful. Life was much easier for everyone when Napoleon galloped off for another military victory and Josephine presided in his stead. At the very least, they could all start playing cards for money.

The man who pored over army lists at night had little real interest in his courtiers. He hardly ever remembered anyone’s name and would stomp up to guests at receptions, demanding, “And what do you call yourself?”18 Luckily, Josephine smoothed things over in his wake. She remembered names, the details of people’s health, families, and homes, and always had a kind word—she was the soft power. Thanks to her, Napoleon felt even more emboldened to be rude.

Josephine herself was growing ever more uneasy. She thought that her rivals were whispering about her in corners and making plans to undermine her in front of Napoleon. She was also convinced her life was under threat. She would never be left alone and each time she fell ill with indigestion, she was sure she was being poisoned.19 “It is much to be hoped that the Empress will die,” the dreaded Fouché pondered when he thought the emperor wasn’t listening. “It would remove many difficulties.”20

JOSEPHINE DID FIND consolation in the forthcoming marriage of her seventeen-year-old niece, Stéphanie. Napoleon’s passion for her had given his wife much pain. But Stéphanie found the stout, sleepy prince of Baden very unappealing and demanded a king instead. Napoleon was rather delighted by her rebellion, and the two were often seen giggling together at court; but the prince could not be jilted for a second time, and so the emperor reluctantly pushed the marriage on, giving Stéphanie the territory of Breisgau, a necklace worth a million and a half francs, and a huge trousseau, as well as calling her “my daughter” before handing her over. The wedding was one of the grandest the Tuileries had ever seen. A forty-person procession approached the altar; the bride was resplendent in a silver-embroidered gown decorated in roses; hosts of ladies-in-waiting were crowned with diamonds and flowers. Napoleon wore Spanish costume, and Josephine glittered in a gown covered in different shades of gold embroidery, along with the imperial crown and pearls worth a million francs. As the fireworks exploded that night over the palace, Josephine congratulated herself on ridding herself of another rival.

JOSEPHINE’S FAMILY MEMBERS were easily sated with presents of money. The same was not true for Napoleon’s. Nothing he gave them was sufficient. He piled on the honors for his mother, giving her a court of two hundred, with nine ladies-in-waiting, a bishop, and two sub-chaplains as her confessors and a former page of Louis XVI as her equerry. As her country home, she had a wing of the Grand Trianon and later a huge château near Troyes. Napoleon’s sisters tried to outdo Josephine in their incredible spending. Pauline and Caroline would squander fifteen thousand francs on a gown and then spend more to embellish it with diamonds and pearls. When Napoleon entered the room, flanked by his shimmering sisters, his mother in court dress and his brothers in their rich uniforms, they gave the impression of a united front. The reality could not have been further from the truth. Napoleon’s family was a party of incompetents, schemers, and gangsters. They behaved as if Europe was theirs to carve up.

By 1806, Joseph was king of Naples and Sicily, Caroline and Joachim were grand duke and duchess of Berg in Germany, and Elisa was grand duchess of Tuscany. But Joseph desired a grander kingdom, and the sisters wanted to be queens. They were all poor rulers, although all rulers of Napoleon’s vassal states were in an impossible position, since they had to implement repressive measures and punitive taxation commanded from Paris. As viceroy, Eugène tried hard to defend the situation of the Italians, and they esteemed him for doing what he could to improve their lot. He buried himself in papers and meetings. “My son, you work too hard; your life is too monotonous,” Napoleon wrote to him. “You must have some more gaiety in your home; it is necessary for your wife’s happiness and your own health.”21

In 1806 Napoleon made Louis and Hortense king and queen of Holland. The Dutch throne was a bribe; Louis had been refusing to allow Napoleon to decree their son heir to the empire because he did not wish to be outranked. Given the present of a kingdom, he agreed. Hortense wept bitterly when she was told by her stepfather that she must leave Paris. Her health was not good, and she dreaded living outside of France with a husband whose hatred of her increased daily. She threatened that if the sufferings became too much, she would retire to a convent, for she would have no difficulty “relinquishing a crown of which she could already feel the thorns.”22 She set off to Holland as if she were a victim about to be sacrificed.

She was right to be afraid. Louis initially demanded that she should have a fabulous court. Then, envious of her popularity, he changed his mind and made her accept a life of isolation, surrounded her with spies, and continued to insult her. He expelled those from his court who he thought were friendly with his wife. Louis was a king endeavoring to be fair to his people, and he tried to refuse the oppressive dictates from Paris. But to Hortense, he was unremittingly cruel.

Hortense had nothing to console her but painting and music and the chance to lavish affection on her small sons. Her close bond with her eldest, little Napoleon Charles, made things worse for both of them: Louis was jealous and attempted to prise the child away from her, much to the boy’s distress. Hortense sank into a state of lassitude and was so desperate for escape that she actually hoped the British might invade and take her prisoner.

AS HORTENSE AND Louis departed for Holland, Napoleon set to plotting again. After a long period of indecision, the king of Prussia had signed an agreement to ally with the tsar of Russia. They then threatened to join with Britain if the French did not withdraw from southern Germany. The French troops remained, so in August, the Prussians began to advance toward the French army. Napoleon again decided on subterfuge to gain the upper hand; he put about a story that he did not wish to go to war because he was so comfortable in his luxurious palace. In reality, he was making minutely detailed plans for conquest.

Josephine received the information that he was about to leave at four in the morning on September 24. She dashed down the stairs and threw herself on him, begging to be allowed to come. He ushered her inside his carriage, and they set off. Josephine’s ladies assembled her six carriages of clothes, equipment, and jewels and followed a few hours later. The plan was for her to remain at Mainz while Napoleon set off again. During the journey, he grew terribly dependent on her, and at Mainz, he parted from her reluctantly, weeping, convulsing, then beginning to vomit. He didn’t want to leave her, and he was feeling rather exhausted at the thought of fighting. He looked powerful in his uniform—Marshal Massena said that he looked two feet taller when he put on his general’s hat—but underneath he was suffering from an excess of fine living, and the thought of marching out into the cold was daunting. Still, he was the emperor and was better and stronger than those weak kings who sent out their generals to do their dirty work.

Left behind, Josephine carried out her duties as empress. She opened balls and receptions, listened to pleas and hosted delegations, visited the wounded and entertained German princes. She spent nearly fifty-five thousand francs on gifts for the people she met. Napoleon sent frequent letters ending with “I love and desire you” and “I love and embrace you.” But Josephine was miserable and spent every evening with tarot cards, trying to see the future. “I can’t think why you weep, you do wrong to make yourself ill,” Napoleon wrote impatiently to his wife.23 But she had reason to feel insecure; she didn’t know it, but Napoleon’s young mistress Eléonore Denuelle was six months pregnant. Napoleon knew that Eléonore was pregnant, but it was not earth-shattering news for him. He had never been convinced of her virtue, and he suspected (correctly) that Joachim Murat had been seducing the teenager as well. And yet it might be his—which meant he had the ability to impregnate a woman and have an heir with a wife other than Josephine. He set out to seduce his mistresses with renewed confidence.

Josephine fretted and talked constantly of her husband. One night she called out to her ladies that the tarot cards had foretold a great victory. A few minutes later, the emperor’s page arrived with a letter bearing the news of the success: “Never was an army more thoroughly beaten.”24 Napoleon had won a decisive victory over the Prussians at Jena. The king and queen took refuge in the east of Prussia, and Napoleon entered Berlin in a show of splendor, surrounded by his marshals and the Imperial Guard. He was delighted to prowl about the palace and poke around the king of Prussia’s belongings. He sat at the king’s desk and took his sword and belt, as well as a very handy silver alarm clock, which he carried with him for years.

Napoleon blamed the queen of Prussia for encouraging her husband to aggression. “How unhappy are those princes who permit their wives to interfere in affairs of state,” he wrote to Josephine. Stung, she wrote back, expressing hurt. He replied, “You seem displeased by my speaking ill of women. It is true that I detest scheming women. I am accustomed to ones who are kind, sweet and persuasive. It is your fault—you have spoiled me.”25 Perhaps buoyed by his victories, he offered more sympathy than usual for her worries. “Talleyrand tells me you are always in tears,” he wrote after the arrival of his foreign minister in Berlin. “You must be brave and remember you are an Empress.”26

In November, he closed the Prussian ports to British trade—a decree he would extend to all France’s allies and vassal states. His hope was to starve Britain into surrender. His plan would bring poverty and privation to an already battered Europe, but he did not care. He was determined to be master of the continent and thus the world.

Bonaparte did not stay long in Berlin. News came through that the Russians were marching through Poland toward him. He decided to set off into Poland and crush the Russian army there, a daring plan considering his men were weary and homesick and had no greatcoats for the freezing Polish weather. When Josephine heard that her husband was advancing to battle once more, she was plunged into gloom. He sent her letters suggesting she might join him and then changed his mind. By December, she was imploring him to allow her to come. “I see that you have lost your little head. I wrote that you could come as soon as our winter quarters were decided,” he replied. “The greater one’s position, the less one can choose and the more one must depend on events and circumstances.”27Josephine was growing frantic. “There is only one woman for me. Do you know her? I could paint her portrait for you but it would make you conceited,” he wrote. “The winter nights are long, all alone.”28 She replied, desperately pained because she had dreamed he had found a woman he could love. Napoleon responded sympathetically. “You say that your dream does not make you jealous, I think therefore that you are jealous and I am delighted. In any case you are wrong. In these frozen Polish plains, one dwells little on beautiful women.”29

Josephine pleaded with him to let her join him at Warsaw, fretting about all the beautiful girls in Poland who were desperate to please the conqueror. “Your letter made me laugh,” he wrote to her on New Year’s Eve, traveling fast toward the capital. “You idealize the females of Poland in a way they don’t deserve.”30 Later that day, he received a message telling him that Eléonore Denuelle had given birth to a son, Charles. Convinced that Joachim had also been sleeping with the girl, he merely read the note and put it aside.

Unlike the rest of Europe, who saw Napoleon as a terrifying oppressor, the Polish saw him as a potential rescuer who would secure their independence from the Russians. The people had been dancing in the streets at the news that the French were drawing near; the ladies of influence established hospitals for the French wounded and made the palaces ready for the generals. On the approach to Warsaw, Napoleon’s carriage was surrounded by a crowd of people cheering for the French. A beautiful young woman with fair hair and blue eyes approached the carriage after begging Duroc for help through the throng. “We have been waiting for you to save us,” she gasped in perfect French. Touched by her beauty and innocence, the emperor gave her a bouquet of flowers from the coach. He kept waving his hat at her as the carriage drove away.

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