Biographies & Memoirs


“I Wish You Would Be More Reasonable”

Newly arrived in Warsaw, Napoleon wrote a letter to Josephine. He no longer wished for her presence. “I am inclined to think you should go to Paris where you are needed,” he told her. “The roads are bad and not at all safe; I cannot expose you to so many fatigues and dangers. Go back to Paris for the winter.”1 Josephine was miserable in Mainz, but Napoleon did not care. When he was not planning battle, he was thinking obsessively about the woman who had accepted his bouquet.

At home with her baby son, the beautiful nineteen-year-old countess Marie Walewska was visited by a Polish dignitary who told her he had heard of her triumph in grasping Napoleon’s attention. He invited her to a ball held in the emperor’s honor. Her husband, a nationalist count fifty-two years her senior, pressed her to attend.

In Countess Walewska, Napoleon had met his match. Even though her husband was over seventy-two, she fully believed in the sanctity of her marriage vows. Young and idealistic, she had no desire to be a tyrannical emperor’s fleeting sexual conquest. She was intelligent and highly educated—her tutor was Nicholas Chopin, father of the future composer—spoke fluent French, and was gifted at music, geography, and history.

Marie’s father had died when she was a child. At sixteen and a half, she returned home from school to find that mother had accepted on her behalf the suit of Anastase Walewski, the richest landowner in the area. Marie had little wish to marry him (his youngest grandchild was six years older than she was), but she had no choice. In June 1805, she gave birth to a son.

Count Walewski was delighted by the attention his wife had received from Napoleon. She herself was rather afraid of the emperor’s intense response. At the ball, she wore a simple white gown, looking more like a peasant than a countess. Napoleon took her as a dancing partner, enthralled by her beauty, thrilled by her seeming virtue, and stimulated by her obvious lack of interest in him. Next morning, he woke preoccupied by Marie. He scribbled off a letter. “I saw no one but you, I admired only you; I want no one but you; I beg you to reply promptly to calm the ardour and impatience of N.” He sent the missive with General Duroc, along with a large bouquet of flowers.

When Marie received the note, she told Duroc—who was awaiting a response—“There is no answer.” The emperor was shocked to receive no reply. As his valet recorded, “he simply could not understand it; he considered himself irresistible to women, and I really believe that his amour-propre had been hurt.”2

That evening Duroc returned with more flowers and another letter for Marie. This time Napoleon tried a softer approach, summoned the old romantic words he used with Josephine.

Have I displeased you, Madame? I had hoped otherwise. Was it a dream on my part? Your ardour has cooled, while mine burns more and more fiercely. You have destroyed my peace! Oh give some little joy and happiness to the heart that longs to worship you!3

For Napoleon, the siege had begun. He confessed a burning passion and pleaded with her to dine with him alone. He sent a red leather jewelry box, but Marie threw it to the floor in disgust. “He must take me for a prostitute,” she said.4 Napoleon would not be dissuaded. When his customary offers of favors and money were refused, he tried to blackmail her. If she attended him, he would look kindly on Poland. “Your country will be dearer to me when you take pity on my poor heart,” he declared. “Whenever I have thought a thing impossible or difficult to obtain, I have desired it all the more. Nothing discourages me … I am accustomed to seeing my wishes met. Your resistance subjugates me. I want to force you, yes force you to love me, Marie. I have brought back to life your country’s name. I will do much more!”5

The Polish dignitaries told Marie that she was their sole hope for independence. Only the emperor could protect Polish independence in the face of mighty Russia. Everyone had to try to please him, including her. Besieged by Napoleon and constantly pushed by her own husband and his political allies to give up her virtue, poor Marie was in an impossible position. Reluctantly, she agreed to attend Napoleon in private. She arrived, agitated and trembling, afraid of her fate. But Napoleon, busy working, said she should go to a palace apartment to take supper and rest. He carried on working until late. Then, when she was almost asleep, he burst into her room and began demanding details about the nationalist Polish nobles, as if she were an informer. Then he seized her and started to force himself on her (his strategy perhaps was to wait until she was nearly asleep and thus less resistant). She tried to fight back, but he was merciless. “Remember, if you push me too far the very name of Poland and all your hopes will be broken like this watch.”6He then threw a watch to the floor and smashed it to smithereens with his heel. Marie was so terrified that she fainted. She woke up to find Napoleon had taken her anyway. He had a different version: “She did not struggle—overmuch,” he said.7

When Marie came around and began weeping, Napoleon marshaled all his charming words to console her. “You may be certain, Marie, that I will fulfill the promise I made you.” She passed on his words to her husband and the dignitaries. She had done her duty by her country, at some cost. Napoleon wrote to her again, this time addressing her as tu.

Marie, my sweet Marie! My first thought is of you, my first desire is to see you once more. You will come again, won’t you? You promised me you would. If not, then the eagle will fly to you. I shall see you at dinner, a friend tells me. Deign, then, to accept this bouquet, let it become a mysterious link which shall establish between us a secret union in the midst of the crowd surrounding us.8

Marie had become his mistress and could not go back. Napoleon was so delighted by her that he called her to him constantly and tried his best to be gentle with her. She was gradually won over. He admired her innocence, her patriotism and stringent virtue, and valued her loyalty. Above all, he was a vain man; through Marie’s interest in his ventures, he saw a flattering reflection of himself. For the first time since Josephine, he fell in love.

When he set off to East Prussia, Marie left behind her husband and little boy and moved to her mother’s estate, ready to attend Napoleon whenever he called her. He wrote her romantic letters from every stage of his journey, promising he would obtain a guarantee of Polish independence from the tsar.

He wrote regularly to Marie—and to Josephine, whom he was still encouraging to return to Paris. “Believe me, it is sometimes harder on me than on you to put off the happiness of our meeting. Say to yourself, it is proof of how precious I am to him.”9 But he was much less sympathetic with her low spirits than he had been before he met Marie. “Be worthy of me, show more strength of character, I don’t like cowards.”10 Paradoxically, he still expounded on his sexual passion for her. “I kiss you everywhere—everywhere—even on the little cousins.”11

Josephine knew she had to obey and return to Paris. Her spirits were so depressed that she struggled to maintain the grandeur and style of an empress on her return journey. She arrived back to an equally gloomy city. The ban on trade with Britain and its empire was causing great hardship. The peasants could not export their massive surplus of the harvest of 1808, and prices fell. The middle classes were without coffee, sugar, rum, chocolate, and other goods from the West Indies. Everybody resorted to speculation, the black market, and bribes.

The mood of despair did little for Napoleon’s popularity—there was talk that the army had been suffering excessively and some of the men had committed suicide. People were saying that if the Austrians and Russians allied, Napoleon would not be able to overcome them. With so many husbands, sons, and lovers away, the court was dreary and sad, with too many women cooped up together, all desperately hoping for news that their loved ones had survived.

Josephine found the Tuileries dispiriting and could hardly bear to preside over the round of court entertainments. Napoleon had no time for complaints—and he was unhappy about some reports he’d received regarding low-key outings. “If you really wish to please me, you must live exactly as you live when I am in Paris,” he told her. “Then you were not in the habit of visiting the second rate theatres.”12 She asked him if she might receive Thérésa, now that she had married Prince de Chimay and had, in her eyes, shaken off the association with Tallien (they had divorced in 1802). Napoleon sent a furious refusal: “I find her more despicable than ever.”13 But Josephine needed the support of friendship. She had heard the news of his “Polish wife.” Although she had little detail, she understood that he had been dissuading her from joining him because he already had a companion. Her fears about beautiful Polish women had been realized, and there was nothing she could do but try to behave as Napoleon wished. She held state receptions and dinners, attended galas at the Opéra, and received ambassadors. But the smile on her face was painted. She wrote to Eugène that her heart was “very sad at the long absence of the Emperor, in spite of his frequent letters.” The following week she wrote that if his absence went on longer, “I do not know if I will find the courage to bear it.”14

Napoleon spent every spare moment organizing equipment and accommodation, studying maps, and sending out reconnaissance parties. On February 11, 1807, he attacked the Russians at Eylau. He won, but only just, and twenty thousand French soldiers lost their lives. When the news of the loss arrived in Paris, the stock market plunged. Although the reports fudged the numbers, rumors of men dying in freezing conditions, stranded so far from home, traveled back anyway. Men began to flee Paris at the thought of another round of conscription into the army. Napoleon was predictably furious at his subjects’ lack of faith. “Never has France been in a better position,” he announced to Fouché. “I repeat that the Bulletin exaggerates the losses … what after all are twenty thousand dead for a great battle?”15

His letters slowed, and he wrote to Josephine apologizing for not being in touch, “knowing how much you worry.” She still was not allowed to come to him, though. “I am just as anxious to see you as you are to see me, and yes, I do know how to do other things besides make war, but duty comes first. All my life, I have sacrificed everything to my destiny—tranquillity, pleasure and happiness.”16 He instructed her to be cheerful and throw banquets.17 As he put it, and as Josephine knew so well, “An Empress cannot go where a private individual may.”18

Eventually, Napoleon submitted to the weather and decided to wait until the thaw before progressing. He was in good spirits when he wrote to his wife that he had moved his headquarters to a “very fine castle” in Finckenstein, in eastern Prussia. “I have several fireplaces, which is a great comfort to me: getting up often in the night, I like to see the fire.”19 He had a very compelling reason for getting up after dark: Marie Walewska had joined him, and he would visit her rooms at night.

Marie attended him patiently, turning to books when he was occupied with military plans. The sultan of Turkey sent Napoleon thirty fine cashmere shawls, and rather than bundling them up to send to Josephine, he gave them to Marie. She accepted only one.

Josephine heard through her spies that the “Polish wife” was at Finckenstein, and she wrote to Napoleon of her suspicions. “I don’t know what you mean about ladies with whom you say I am connected. I love only my little Josephine, good, sulky and capricious, who knows how to quarrel gracefully as in everything she does; for she is always sweet except when she is jealous, then she becomes a demon … But to return to those ladies, I hope the ones you have in mind have pretty pink rosebuds.”20 Josephine was not fooled. Napoleon was reinvigorated by his new life with Marie. As he wrote to General Murat, his “amorous drive had never been more vigorous.”21

Josephine knew that everyone else at court had heard about the “Polish wife.” The Bonapartes were more openly rude to her than ever, and Letizia refused to dine with her daughter-in-law on their usual Sunday evenings. Gleeful about Marie and Eléonore Denuelle’s baby son, the Bonapartes felt sure that one way or the other, they would trump their enemy.

ON THE EVENING of May 4, four-year-old Napoleon Charles, living with Hortense and Louis in Holland, fell ill of what was thought to be the croup after a bout of measles (it was more likely pneumonia or acute encephalitis, common consequences of measles). Doctors covered him with leeches and dosed him with powders, but he could not be roused and died in his mother’s arms. Hortense was hysterical and could not be separated from his body until she fainted, whereupon her hands were pried away and she was carried to her rooms. When she came to, she was screaming with horror over her son’s death and pleading to die. After a few days, she fell into a stupor. Unable to weep, talk, or eat, she was paralyzed by grief.

Josephine begged Napoleon to allow her to visit her daughter, but he refused. He had become deeply attached to Marie, and his wife seemed a weak and whining harpy. “You have had the happiness never to lose a child, but it is one of the pains and conditions attached to our miseries on earth.”22 She was needed in Paris to maintain his status, he said; she should have more courage. “I wish that you would be more reasonable,” he wrote angrily. “Would you wish to increase my unhappiness?”23

The empress had been trying her best to make Napoleon the focus of her every waking moment, but now she was too tormented by grief to do so. She knew that the death of Napoleon Charles made her position very insecure. Napoleon had seen Hortense’s son as his unofficial heir. With the child dead, Josephine suspected he would be more bent on divorce.

Napoleon had lost patience with her—and also, for the first time, with his beloved Hortense. “Hortense is not being reasonable, she does not deserve our love since she only loved her child,” he blustered. “Don’t make my misery worse.”24 He was utterly wrapped up in himself. Talleyrand suggested he mute his vainglorious behavior in front of a delegation that had come to give him condolences, but Napoleon was impatient, saying he had “not the time to waste on feelings and on grieving, like other men.”25Still, he did establish a prize of twelve thousand francs—a huge sum—for the doctor who could write the best essay on how to cure the croup.

Eventually, Napoleon relented and gave Josephine permission to meet her daughter in Brussels, accompanied by Louis. Away from the memories of her son, Hortense made a slow recovery. But the emperor continued to harangue Josephine about Hortense’s failure to write to him. “Why haven’t you found her an occupation? Weeping won’t do it!”26 The party traveled on to take the waters at the Pyrenees, where Louis was kind to his wife. Hortense soon became pregnant again.

Just a month after Napoleon Charles’s death, Napoleon received further bad news. Josephine’s mother, Rose-Claire, had died at La Pagerie. Josephine had not seen her mother in nearly twenty years, since the days before the Revolution, and Napoleon knew she would be devastated. He also hated to see the court in mourning when it should be celebrating his brilliant victories. He sent orders that the funeral be splendid, as befitted the empress. Rose-Claire was buried at Trois-Îlets with great dignity. Her body was lowered into the tomb to the ringing sounds of a military salute. The news made its way to Josephine through her informers, and she sank into despair. She was shocked when Napoleon told her the news should not be made public because it would make the court unhappy. For Josephine, still pained over the loss of Napoleon Charles, it was another indicator that she was being pushed aside. She was wracked with headaches and found it difficult to sleep.

NAPOLEON REMAINED OBSESSED by his military might and saw his battle against Russia as the most important of his career so far. The students at military colleges were called up eighteen months early, and the German states were told to supply a hundred thousand men. His preparations were not in vain. On June 14, 1807, at Friedland, East Prussia, Napoleon and his men fought for nearly twenty-four hours straight to win a decisive battle over the Russians, a great victory although thirty thousand were lost across both sides.

The victorious emperor sent his faithful courier Jacques Chazal—nicknamed “Mustache” on account of his impressive facial hair—to give the news to the empress at Saint-Cloud. Mustache rode so hard that his horse dropped dead in the château courtyard. The French, weary of battle and afraid of losing more men, cheered for the win but hoped there would not be further fighting. Napoleon felt aggrieved by the lukewarm reaction and convinced himself that only Marie really cared for his victories. He could not resist dictating another aggrieved letter to Hortense. “I wish you were more courageous,” read the queen of Holland as she sat alone in her castle, still grieving. “Your mother and I had hoped to take up more place in your heart. I won a great victory on June 14.” Josephine also failed to please him. “I have received your letter of June 25 and I am hurt to see that you are entirely selfish and that you appear to be uninterested in my military success,” he wrote to her. “I too long for our reunion, when destiny shall order it.”27Marie Walewska, gracious and biddable, was delighted beyond measure about his victory over the tsar; by comparison, Josephine seemed like a monster of selfishness.

After Napoleon’s win, the tsar of Russia had requested an armistice, and the emperor agreed. He had no choice—his army was much depleted, and men had been fleeing the draft in Paris. Eager to style himself as a wondrous peacemaker, he set off to meet the enemy. The plan was that the tsar and the emperor would meet on a raft in the River Niemen, near the town of Tilsit in Prussia. “Sire, I hate the English as much as you do,” was Tsar Alexander’s first greeting to Napoleon. “In that case, peace is established,” replied the emperor.

“He is a pleasing-looking, young and kind-hearted emperor,” Napoleon wrote to his wife, “he has more intelligence than people usually give him credit for.”28 Thirty-year-old Alexander was nervous, afraid of fighting, prone to mood swings, and rather lacking in intellectual strength, although he made up for it with plenty of cunning. He was outrageously good-looking, and caricaturists painted him being admired by every lady from the queen of Prussia to Britain’s Lady Hamilton. Practiced in the art of deceit, he flattered Napoleon excessively. Dazzled, Napoleon began to ponder the tsar’s sister, twenty-year-old Grand Duchess Catherine. The sixth child and fourth daughter of Tsar Paul, she was vibrant, intelligent, and one of the most eligible women in Europe. Catherine was her mother’s pet and the tsar’s absolute favorite; he wrote her devoted letters full of affection and consulted her on political matters. If Napoleon seized such a prize, his position in Europe would be secure.

At the meeting, clever Napoleon asked for little from the tsar other than Russia joining the Continental Blockade, the ban on trade with Britain. But he was cruel to Prussia. The nation would lose half its territory, pay huge reparations, and accept a lengthy occupation. Queen Louise threw herself at Napoleon’s feet to beg for clemency, but he was not a merciful conqueror. Instead, he looked down at her with disdain and asked if her dress was made from crepe or Italian muslin. Her great effort to flatter amused him but did not win her anything. “The Queen of Prussia is really charming, she wanted to make me her husband,” he wrote to Josephine. “I didn’t take any notice.”29

Napoleon, not yet thirty-eight, was all-powerful. Britain seemed only a pipsqueak island with a fading overseas empire. Russia joining the ban on trade was a blow for Britain, since their navy used Russian wood and supplies. The vast extent of the French empire presented a spectacle that rather resembled the “dominion of the Romans and the conquests of Charlemagne.”30 The emperor now had forty-four palaces, and Europe was subject to his whims. But even the rulers he scorned—deranged George III, the hated king of Prussia, and all the pusillanimous princes—had the one thing he did not: a legitimate heir. As he later said at St. Helena, he returned “so certain of his destiny” that he knew divorce was inevitable.31

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