Biographies & Memoirs


La Pagerie

One day in the spring of 1763, a young woman climbed to the top of a hill on a plantation in the south of the island of Martinique. Six months pregnant with her first child, Rose-Claire de Tascher de La Pagerie was twenty-six, a scion of one of the greatest families on the island, and not easily intimidated. For the last seven years of her life, she had watched the British and French war for control of the island. French forces had filled the nearby port, Fort-de-France, and both sides had fought bitterly. The French settlers on Martinique huddled in their homes, terrified of losing their land to soldiers or slave rebellions. Rose-Claire’s handsome husband, with whom she was deeply in love, was among those who had defended the island. Finally, in early 1763, the British and French signed a treaty—Martinique would remain French. Clambering up the hill, accompanied by her slaves, Rose-Claire watched the British ships on the horizon sail away. She patted the swell of her stomach, convinced that she was carrying a boy.

Three months later, on June 23, 1763, Rose-Claire’s first child was born. The child who would later be empress of France had only narrowly avoided being born British. “Contrary to our hopes, it has pleased God to give us a daughter,” wrote Rose-Claire on the occasion of the little girl’s birth. “My own joy has been no less great. Why should we not take a more favourable view of our own sex?”1 But Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie was a terrible disappointment to the rest of the family. Rose-Claire’s husband, Joseph de Tascher de La Pagerie, desired a boy who one day might gain greatness for his line. Her family wished for a boy to take over the land. As a girl, Marie-Josèphe was not valuable, intended at best for an early marriage to one of the local landowners and life as a busy matron to half a dozen children.

Martinique was tiny, barely forty miles across and fifteen miles wide. It was four thousand miles and several weeks’ sailing from France—and both culturally and geographically remote from the motherland. The French fought for its lush lands but saw the place as a cash cow and the people who lived there as provincial and ill educated. Some families came out from France to make their fortune there, but rather ashamedly, for the capital, Fort Royal, now Fort-de-France, was no bastion of culture. “Everyone hurries to get rich in order to escape a place where men live without distinction, without honor.”2 The women were indolent, while the men struggled to resist the temptations of drinking island rum, gambling, and dueling. Children were raised to take over plantations, as masters or wives, and few left the Caribbean.

Josephine was the name that Napoleon would give her. Marie-Josèphe was known to her family as Yeyette, or Rose when they were being very formal. She was born into a dynasty in decline. Her mother, born Rose-Claire des Vergers de Sannois, was a member of a wealthy plantation family and a descendant of both Pierre Bélain d’Esnambuc, who had established the first French colony on the island in 1635, and Guillaume d’Orange, who had defended the colonials from the Dutch navy’s attempt on the island in 1674. Rose-Claire was a proud member of an elite family—the Sannoises owned swathes of land on Martinique, and her father was a true grand blanc, one of the prosperous landowners who retained near-absolute control over the island.

Rose-Claire should have married a son of another wealthy family. But she was still unmarried at the shockingly advanced age of twenty-five, when most other girls had been wed for eight or so years and were already mothers. So when the rather poor Joseph-Gaspard de Tascher de La Pagerie asked for her hand, she was delighted at the prospect, and her parents had no choice but to agree. Joseph was a charmer with an eye for the ladies. His father, Gaspard-Joseph, had been a steward on the plantations, with a reputation for irresponsibility and hedonism. Thanks to his skill at making connections, Gaspard managed to secure his son a position at the French court, as a page at the Palace of Versailles. The young man returned after three years, elegant, polished, and in search of a rich wife.

Newly married, the ill-matched pair settled in their home, the place where Rose-Claire had lived for most of her life, a large and beautiful plantation near the little village of Trois-Îlets in the southwest of Martinique. Habitation de La Pagerie, as it became known, was 1,230 acres of highly fertile land, bordered by lush hills. Cocoa, coffee, cassava, and cotton flourished on the slopes, while sheep and cows grazed on rich green pastures and field after field of sugarcane surrounded the house. A small river—also named after the family—snaked through the grounds. Like most plantations, La Pagerie was self-sufficient and had its own carpenters and ironmongers, as well as a flour mill, sawmill, and hut for treating injuries and illness. Over three hundred exhausted, often sick slaves tended the sugar, the cows, and the cocoa, all of them crammed into poky hovels near the main house. Yet almost as soon as Joseph turned his hand to management, the plantation’s fortunes began to decline. “He means well,” his brother said of him, “but he must be pushed.”3

Yeyette, the future empress of France, had, as she herself claimed, a “spoilt childhood.”4 Her parents, grandparents, and unmarried aunt let her do as she pleased. Her home was a large plantation house, a single-story white wooden dwelling with large open windows, without glass. Like all plantation houses, it was in the center of the grounds, to allow the owner to oversee the labor of his slaves. There were more than four hundred plantations on the island, and La Pagerie was comparatively small and humble, though pretty to look at—for the white inhabitants, at least. Nestled against three sides of the house was a sheltered veranda decked with blossoms. Around it were the outbuildings and a pretty garden, overhung with tamarind, mango, and frangipani trees and surrounded by a floral hedge. Today all that remains of the domestic buildings is the kitchen, for, as was customary, it was built of stone rather than wood. It is now part of the La Pagerie Museum in Martinique, and without all the paraphernalia of saucepans and pots, its sheer size indicates how much food even a small family and their attendants would require.

Yeyette grew into an engaging, happy child with limpid amber eyes and a fine complexion. Like all plantation children, she had a black wet nurse (a custom that shocked the French). The little girl spent her days with her nurse, Marion, and her maids, Geneviève and Mauricette, who devoted themselves to her care. Anxious to preserve their position as house servants, they obeyed Yeyette’s every whim and treated her like a princess.

“I ran, I jumped, I danced, from morning to night; no one restrained the wild movements of my childhood,” Yeyette rhapsodized.5 Her sister, Catherine, arrived on December 11, 1764, and the two were companions, playing hide-and-seek among the bushes and making toys out of sticks. Few other inhabitants on the plantation were so free. Sugar was an exacting master—as soon as one crop was harvested, it was ready to be planted again. The underfed slaves worked from six in the morning until seven at night throughout the year, digging, planting, reaping, and then beginning once more. They toiled under the broiling sun and were treated harshly, punished with the lash of the whip. As soon as the sugar was harvested, they had to extract the juice, a process that had them working up to eighteen hours a day. In the sugar mill, at the center of the property, female slaves pushed the cane through rollers to crush it. Cutlasses were kept on hand, for the slaves frequently caught their arms in the machinery and the quickest way to free them was to cut off the arm. Elsewhere, in the sucrerie or purgerie (the sugarhouse), the slaves struggled in the terrible heat of the boiler room to press the juice into thick sugar syrup.

Martinique was the third stop on the well-traveled French slave trade route. African men and women were captured and sold on the Ivory Coast in exchange for gold, tobacco, guns, gunpowder, or cloth, and were then crammed into ships bound for France. In France, the ships took on supplies required in the Caribbean and set off, full of slaves and books, gowns and furniture. When little Yeyette went to the port, she saw the slaves being taken off the ships and hauled to market, branded, shackled, and then sold. Emptied of their human cargo, the ships were loaded up with bundles and crates and sent back to France, where eager ladies awaited sugar for their tea and cocoa for their stores.

The children of slaves were the possession of their mother’s owner. Slaves were not permitted belongings or even to pass down a family name. The punishments allowed in colonial French society were severe—ranging from brutal beatings to brandings to being burned alive. Slaves could be covered in honey and placed on anthills to be stung to death, shot (although owners thought this a waste of bullets), drowned, or thrown into ovens. The average life expectancy of a slave was twenty-five.

As she skipped in the garden, Yeyette often heard the slaves cry out. When she and her family sat indoors, dining on fish, roast meats, pastries, and sweet fruit, the red flames of the slaves’ night fires shimmered at the windows, and their songs rang through the darkness. The air of the plantation was always slightly sweet, and during syrup-making time, it was thick with the smell of burned sugar. Typically, Yeyette played with the slave children who were her own age: She was especially fond of one-legged Boyoco and weak, often sick Timideas. Yeyette’s daily life was bound up with the slaves, and she did not question it. Slaves, she thought, were the way of the world.

About forty slaves had the better luck to work directly for the family as maids, cooks, laundresses, and manservants. For the families, they were both friend and foe, the serpents in the bosom they feared might turn to poison or the knife in a moment of rage—or, for the women, seduce their husbands. Female slaves were accepted as a sexual resource for the colonial men. Some of the slaves closest to Yeyette were probably also her relations. Her devoted mulatto nurse, Marion, could have been the daughter of her grandfather or perhaps the overseer, and her delicate maid, Euphémie Lefèvre, who traveled with her to Paris and whom she supported for the rest of her life, was very likely the daughter of Joseph, her father. Euphémie was her day-to-day companion, her maid, and her friend.

The slave owners lived in fear that their slaves would rise against them. They worried about the runaways, who hid out in the hills and plotted revenge, and they fretted about murder—indeed, Yeyette’s mother would later prosecute one of her house slaves for attempting to poison her. The news of the abolitionist movement, gaining credibility in France, infuriated the grands blancs, who became increasingly defensive of their way of life. Across the rest of the world, there was a growing sense that slavery was unfair and cruel. The British and French economies were reliant on the produce of the Caribbean islands, but Quakers and other religious groups had long been suggesting that the price was too high to pay. One later cartoon showed drops of sugar as slaves’ tears in ladies’ cups of tea. In 1771, John Somersett, a slave who had been brought to Britain by an American customs officer, escaped and was recaptured. After a highly publicized trial, it was declared illegal to hold and remove him against his will. In Britain (if not the wider British Empire), a man could not be a possession. The question of whether slavery should be abolished was swirling in settler society, even though many tried to ignore it.

Creoles, the name given to whites born in the Caribbean, had a reputation in France for being pleasure-loving, lazy, sensual, capricious—and possessed of arcane sexual skills. As an adult, Josephine traded on her reputation as seductive—but the other characteristics were true of her as well. She had scant discipline as a child. While she was running wild on the grounds of La Pagerie, her future friends in France were strictly educated in chilly houses, dressed in stiff frills for show, always told to sit up straight, and kept to a rigid timetable of lessons and a diet of plain food.

Rose-Claire had little time for educating Yeyette and Catherine. They lived in a paradise of pleasure, and their lives were unintellectual and free. Yeyette dashed about with Euphémie and Marion, wearing the loose cotton dresses that were customary for colonial children, and discovering lizards and butterflies, picking flowers and the fruit that hung heavy on the trees. As she grew older, she rode around on her Spanish pony, took long walks to the hills and splashed in the sea like a dolphin. She sucked on sugarcane plucked from the fields, and drank the syrup so enthusiastically that she gave herself a cavity in her front incisor. In adulthood, her teeth gave her pain; to hide them, she smiled with her lips pressed closed, looking enigmatic and mysterious to those who did not know the truth.

She adored her home, but her father was less content. After living off his father for years, he had expected to be cosseted by his wife’s family. To his horror, he found that Rose-Claire and her parents wished him to be the head of the family, stewarding La Pagerie through crises and devoting himself to their care. He was incompetent and unlucky at business, with no aptitude for the dreary tasks of supervising the overseer, checking the books, and keeping careful accounts of what was bought and sold, and he was uninterested in befriending fellow traders. His health was poor, he hated the heat, he suffered frequent bouts of malaria, and he resented his wife for not having a son. Marooned owing to bad roads, La Pagerie received few visitors outside of feast days, and Joseph became consumed by nostalgia for the balls and soirées of Versailles. Soon he was hardly ever at home, throwing himself into gambling at cards and nights with mistresses in the capital. “He spends his time in his charming Fort Royal where he finds more pleasure than he does with me and his children,” Rose-Claire wrote to Edmée, her husband’s sister, in 1765.6 She was pregnant again and yearning for a boy. “I hope with all my heart that it will be the little nephew you desire; perhaps that will give his father a little more love for me,” she said.

On the evening of August 13, 1766, lowering dark clouds obscured the horizon. It was hurricane season, and soon rain was battering the trees and winds of up to a hundred miles an hour were slashing the island. In the middle of the night, three-year-old Yeyette was woken and seized from her bed by Marion. Joseph, Rose-Claire, baby Catherine, and a few domestic slaves hurried to shelter in the first floor of the sugarhouse. There Yeyette and her family crouched, hands over their ears, trying to block out the screams of the slaves as their dwellings were torn in two by the rapacious winds.

For two days, Martinique was battered by the storm. When the winds abated and the family emerged, they saw nothing but devastation. They had lost everything. The bodies of slaves lay strewn across the ground; their homes had been entirely destroyed. The trees were flattened, the crops wrecked, and most of the animals killed. Their grand plantation house was reduced to scraps of wood. The only remnants of grandeur were the stone outbuilding used as the kitchen and the sugarhouse, where they had so wisely sheltered.

The destruction was terrible—440 people dead, hundreds more injured, and close to fifty ships wrecked off the coast. The island’s crops of sugar, coffee, and cocoa had been wiped out and whole villages wrecked. People had lost their lives, their homes, and their ambitions for the future. In nearby Trinité, the wind tore a church from its foundations, threw it into the air, and smashed it to the ground. During the storm, houses, trees, and cattle soared up toward the clouds, only to crash down into the wet soil or the raging sea. One family found themselves using the door of their house as a raft, clinging to it until they were rescued.

Joseph gazed at his home in despair. To rebuild it would be a daunting task, insurmountable to a man who was as impractical and lazy as he was. The family adopted the upper floor of the sugarhouse as their living quarters and built a veranda over the south side. It was meant to be their residence for six months or so. A few weeks later, Rose-Claire went into labor and they all prayed for a son. But the child was a girl, Marie-Françoise, or “Manette.” Joseph felt he had been saddled with another useless mouth and he railed at the poor hand life had dealt him.

The defeat of the island broke the heart of Rose-Claire’s father, and he died six months later. The family had expected to inherit great wealth from his will, but they were shocked to find there were only debts to be paid, and Joseph did not have the gumption to investigate any possible mistakes in the accounts. The young husband now had a family of dependent women—a mother-in-law, a sister-in-law, a wife, and three daughters—and no money. Fortunately, he had an efficient overseer in Monsieur Blanque, who ensured that the slave quarters were rebuilt and the sugar-processing buildings restored. Even though all the crops were replanted, the estate dwindled, and Joseph spent more time than ever gambling and squiring mistresses in Fort Royal. Soon there were only 150 slaves, and sugar production was under half what it had been. Angry, frustrated, and left alone for long periods, Rose-Claire watched her childhood home collapse into ruins.

Joseph never had the money or the energy to rebuild their wooden house, so the upper floor of the purgerie became their permanent home. No genteel family would ever live over the workrooms—and island society was shocked at the La Pagerie living conditions. With the hurricane, the death of grandfather Sannois, and the birth of a third daughter, the family’s situation was dire. Oblivious, Yeyette continued skipping through the sugarcane, playing with her nurse under the breadfruit trees, and riding her pony.

Usually, the daughters of the great plantation families were sent to France at the age of six to be educated. Not only did their parents wish them to acquire polish, but it was a way to keep them from merciless tropical diseases that killed so many before the age of twelve. And indeed in 1770, at the age of seven, Yeyette caught a severe bout of smallpox—but luckily, she recovered and was left unmarked. In Paris, Joseph’s sister, Edmée, was eager to take Yeyette, but Joseph declared he could not afford to send her.

In the same year on the other side of the world, the dauphin, Louis-Auguste, was married to the fourteen-year-old Maria Antonia of Austria. She was met by officials on an island in the Rhine, stripped of her fine Austrian wedding clothes, re-dressed in French gowns, and sent to Versailles. “Meeting with Madame la Dauphine,” Louis wrote in his hunting journal of their first encounter at the Château de Compiègne. Two thousand people died in the fashionable avenue of the Champs-Élysées after a crush at a fete to celebrate their marriage.

The young princess was flung into a world of pomp, etiquette, formality, and treacherous courtiers. “Everything depends on the wife,” her mother, Maria Teresa, had told her, “if she is willing, sweet and amusante”—in other words, it was her fault if the marriage failed. Four years later, Louis XV died of smallpox, tears rolling down his cheeks after he sent away his favorite mistress, Madame du Barry. Then the palace resounded with a thunderous rushing noise as hundreds of courtiers left the king to hurry to Louis-Auguste and Marie Antoinette, now King Louis XVI and the queen of France.

Marie Antoinette, barely seven years older than Yeyette, became the primped young queen of Versailles, surrounded by dozens of servants and her favorites, the dizzy, softhearted Princesse de Lamballe and the sensual Comtesse de Polignac. Her tiny figure was swamped by heavy brocades, hooped skirts, and trains, and she piled her hair three feet high and topped it with feathers, ribbons, and diamonds. Her mother chastised her for “following fashion to excess.”7 But the queen could not stop powdering her hair, decking herself with precious stones, and covering her face with lead paint and rouge. She ordered four new pairs of shoes a week and three yards of ribbon every day so that her peignoir, or dressing gown, was always tied with fresh ribbon. A palace of exquisite, exotic desserts that no one ever ate, hairstyles that took days to perfect, and courtiers bent obsessively on guessing the queen’s every whim, Versailles was a labyrinth, the jewel in the French crown—and much of the money to pay for it came from the sugar islands of the Caribbean.

France at the time was riven by inequality. Peasants and laborers worked with little respite and for a few coins. Life expectancy across the board was very low thanks to the appalling rate of child mortality, and the average age of death was around twenty-five—the same as that of the slaves in the Caribbean. At the top were the nobles living in grand style through the rents from land tilled by peasants and tenant farmers; above the nobility was Versailles, a great iced palace built from the toil of thousands of hands. Martinique was nothing but a name to Marie Antoinette, choosing shoes and demanding that her maid adjust the position of her ribbons. But Martinique thought obsessively about her. Society gossip on the island was all about Versailles, the fashions of Paris, and the favorites of the queen.

Yeyette turned ten in 1773, and Rose-Claire decided to send her to boarding school in Fort Royal. After a long journey by canoe, she arrived at her new home, accompanied by Marion, her nurse. They took a carriage past brothels, slums, and shebeens, soon reaching the grandeur of colonial buildings and the Governor’s House. In the midst of it all was the Maison de la Providence, a convent school for young ladies, founded in 1763 in an attempt to instill proper morals in the lax girls of the island and prepare them to be “wives, mothers and mistresses of plantations” who would embed proper Christian tenets in their husbands and children.

Yeyette awoke at five, dressed herself in the red-and-blue-striped cotton uniform, and began two hours of supervised prayers. Then teachers from France, under the beady eye of the Mother Superior, instructed the girls in arithmetic, drawing, embroidery, penmanship, and geography. Rose-Claire had ambitions for her daughter, and the girl was given extra lessons in dancing and painting. She had Wednesday and Saturday afternoons off for gossiping and giggling with the other filles de la Providence, and one day in town per month, when she usually visited her grandmother. The main idea was that a young lady would befriend a circle of other girls and thus be introduced to their brothers or male relations—and find herself a plantation husband. Fortunately for Yeyette, who had little interest in applying herself, the education was light. “Her voice is sweet, she plucks prettily at the guitar, and, showing a general aptitude for music, she could with proper instruction perfect her singing, playing and dancing,” her father wrote—but her music remained a mere “aptitude.”8

Yeyette left school at the age of fourteen, knowing little more than when she had arrived. She began to attend gatherings at other plantations and the balls at the Governor’s House in Fort Royal. Attended by their house slaves, young ladies gowned in white and finely dressed gentlemen paraded on the lawn before entering the humid ballroom to dance to the music of the slave orchestra under bouquets of flaming tropical flowers. Yeyette was a popular girl to flirt with but not to marry, for, in the words of one man, she was “fused with grace, more seductive than beautiful,” entrancing and magnetic, but “the family in real life lives in mediocrity.”9 Without a large dowry, she was not sought after. But Yeyette wished for more than marriage to a plantation son. Seduced by her father’s nostalgic stories about Paris and Versailles, she wanted to go to France.

Yeyette was fifteen when she and two friends decided to visit the local witch. Euphémie David lived in the hills near La Pagerie, mixing potions, telling stories, and promising to cure all ills. She kept a healthy trade—in a world of disease and sudden violence, few could resist the pull of the occult. The old woman clutched the hand of each girl in turn. The first, she said, would marry a planter and live a contented life. The second, a distant cousin of Yeyette’s, would live a scandalous life and be captured by pirates. Yeyette was destined to marry one man in France, but unhappily, and then wed a “dark man of little fortune” who would “cover the world with glory” and make her greater than a queen. Even so, she would die unhappy and often yearn for the ease of life on Martinique.10 It seems too convenient to be plausible, but Josephine would later refer to it intently, and even brought it up in newspaper interviews long before she became empress.11 Most likely, the sorceress saw her yearning for adventure and guessed that she was destined for a new life in France—one that would not necessarily bring happiness.

France seemed like an impossible dream. But then Yeyette’s aunt Edmée wrote to suggest that one of the La Pagerie girls be sent over to marry her lover’s son, Alexandre. He was seventeen, born just over three years before Yeyette, handsome and eager for a Creole bride. As the eldest, Yeyette was the obvious choice.

The Tascher de La Pagerie family already had a poor reputation, and Joseph’s sister, Edmée—whose real name was Désirée—was a scandalous figure. In 1757, in the midst of battles between the French and British for control of the island, François de Beauharnais arrived on Martinique as the governor. His wife, a wealthy Saint-Domingue heiress, took an immediate fancy to the nineteen-year-old Edmée and moved her in as a companion. The forty-two-year-old governor fell passionately in love with Edmée and made her his mistress. Ambitious and amoral where her brother was quiescent and parasitic, she did as she liked. In order to hide their liaison, Beauharnais (who had declared himself a marquis), found her a husband, Alexis Renaudin, a handsome young king’s musketeer. He had been recently released from prison for the attempted poisoning of his wealthy plantation father, but Beauharnais was impatient, and the marriage was arranged in 1758.

The governor was so obsessed with ensuring the wedding of his lover that he ignored the plight of the nearby island of Guadeloupe. The British attacked, and Beauharnais delayed for three months before responding to the requests of the lieutenant in command for assistance. He was lazy, too cautious, and preoccupied with enjoying Edmée (for now he could take her freely, since if she fell pregnant, the child would be seen as her husband’s). By the time his fleet reached Guadeloupe, the British had won. For such appalling dereliction of duty, he was called back to France. He refused to leave immediately and instead whiled away his last months on the island fondling Edmée. Finally realizing that he was a cuckold, Renaudin angrily abandoned his wife and hurried to France to arrange a legal separation. She followed after him in an attempt to seize a financial settlement, though she did ensure that her brother’s marriage to Rose-Claire was arranged before she left. Beauharnais and his wife returned to France, leaving their three-month-old son,Alexandre, with Edmée’s mother (the journey was seen as too risky for an infant).

In France, the discarded Madame de Beauharnais retired to a country estate. The marquis wangled a generous pension from the king and set up home in Paris with Edmée, who was now separated from her husband. When Alexandre was five, he was sent to Paris to live with his father and Edmée, and he became as fond of her, he said, as if she was his own mother. Parisian society despaired—adultery was all very well, but it was immoral to live together in sin. Still, the marquis adored his much younger lover, and his wealth protected them from cruel comments, in public, at least.

When Edmée was thirty-eight, after nearly twenty years with her lover, she began to think about securing her future. The marquis was sixty-two and sickly, and she would be left virtually penniless on his death, as his estate and that of his wife would go to Alexandre. She wanted to keep this money for herself and suggested Alexandre marry her niece, in the hope that the couple would care for her after her husband’s death. Alexandre agreed, for he needed to wed in order to come into his inheritance. It was entirely acceptable to marry a Martinique girl; the French thought them wildly rich, and they had a reputation for beauty and sensuality. Although Alexandre knew the La Pagerie sisters were not incredibly wealthy, he thought they were comfortably off, and that was satisfactory enough. He had only one proviso: He wished his wife to be very young.

The marquis wrote to Joseph de La Pagerie telling him that Alexandre did not want Yeyette, since “my son, who is only seventeen and a half, finds that a young lady of fifteen is too close in age to his own.”12 He asked for Catherine, not knowing that she had recently died from a strain of yellow fever. Instead, Joseph offered eleven-year-old Manette, a girl equipped, he cheerfully wrote, with health, gaiety, and “a figure that will soon be interesting.”13

The family fell into uproar. Manette was hysterical at the thought of leaving her home, and her mother felt she could not permit her to marry so young. Yeyette was tearful and furious. She had dreamed of Paris for as long as she could remember—and now Manette was taking her place. She begged her father to send her instead. Otherwise, she had nothing to anticipate but a dreary future as a planter’s wife. Yeyette, normally pliable and indolent, was so passionately set on traveling to France that her father relented.

“The oldest girl, who has often asked me to take her to France, will I fear be somewhat affected by the preference which I appear to give to her younger sister,” he wrote. He continued that Yeyette had “very fine skin, lovely eyes, good arms, and a surprising gift for music. She longs to see Paris and has a very sweet disposition. If it were left to me, I would bring the two daughters instead of one, but how can one part a mother from both her remaining daughters when death has just deprived her of a third?”14

Back in Paris, Edmée was growing desperate. She wanted the marriage agreed to quickly, before Alexandre’s guardians could dissuade him. “We must have one of your children,” she wrote. “Come with one of your daughters or with both of them, but hurry.”15The marquis sent a letter authorizing the publication of the marriage banns on Martinique. Alexandre’s name had been added, but the space for the bride’s name was blank. By the time the letter arrived, Joseph’s decision had been made for him. Poor Manette had so exhausted herself from crying that she fell ill with a fever, and her mother refused to let her go. When Alexandre heard the news, he was not ecstatic. “Surely it is not your intention to have me marry this young lady if she and I should feel mutual dislike for each other?” he wrote to his father. Still, he was obedient. “I feel sure after the description that has been given that she will charm me.”16

Yeyette was to be married. But having won his battle, her torpid father dragged his feet. It was not until six months later that the priest stood in the church of Notre-Dame de la Martinique and announced the forthcoming marriage between Alexandre-François, chevalier de Beauharnais, and Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie. Then Joseph again delayed over the journey. For years, he had said he longed to return to France—and now he did not wish to go.

He ignored his sister’s pleas for urgency. He was ill, the journey was expensive, and travel was growing more dangerous by the day. After the uneasy truce shortly before Yeyette’s birth, hostilities between Britain and France had begun again, and Martinique was under siege. Moreover, the hurricane season was approaching, making it unsafe to travel by sea.

Edmée pushed and demanded until finally, accompanied by her father, her aunt Rosette, and her maid Euphémie, Yeyette embarked for France in September 1779. Sixteen, barely educated, pretty, and thoughtless, Marie-Josèphe was bound for a new life in Paris.

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