Biographies & Memoirs


“Cold and Often Embarrassed”

“The Emperor since his return from campaign has behaved toward his wife in a cold and often embarrassed manner,” wrote the diplomat Prince von Metternich gleefully to Vienna. “They do not share a bedroom. Many of his daily habits have changed.” Napoleon was preoccupied with his own brilliance, resentful of Josephine for not having sufficiently celebrated his victories, and thinking more and more about his need for a son.

His time with Marie Walewska had proved to him that he could live with another woman in a domestic setting. He threw a magnificent party for his thirty-eighth birthday and picked out ladies of the court for affairs. Believing they might have a chance to seize Josephine’s position, the women jostled for his affections more intensely than ever. But Napoleon also wished his next wife to be a royal princess, with money, cachet, and blue blood (so Marie had no chance of being his wife). Marriage to an Austrian or a Russian would make an alliance between his two enemies much less likely, and a foreign princess would give him the regal status he craved, as well as the true grandeur that he felt the Tuileries lacked. The courtiers, eager to please him, turned secretively to pondering possible matches. Talleyrand, Josephine’s long-trusted ally, was now working against her. Her enemies’ reasons were simple: As Fouché put it, “Napoleon’s brothers are disgracefully incompetent and we must prevent the return of the Bourbons.”1Lists were drawn up of viable royal brides, and ambassadors competed to push the advantage of their own princesses, showing lovely miniatures and talking of sweet tempers, grace, good health, and fine accomplishments. Talleyrand was in favor of an Austrian princess, while Fouché voted for Grand Duchess Catherine of Russia.

Josephine was terribly anxious about her fate—and she was worried about Napoleon without her. “If they should succeed in separating me from him, it is not the loss of rank I should regret,” she wrote to Eugène, “sooner or later he would discover that those who surround him are more interested in themselves than in him and he would know how he has been deceived.”2 Eugène replied that he had heard much about divorce in Munich and Paris, but he felt sure that the emperor would treat her kindly. “He must treat you well, give you an adequate settlement and let you live in Italy with your children,” he replied. “If the Emperor wishes to have children who are truly his there is no other way.”

After Mass one Sunday, Fouché told Josephine that she should begin the “inevitable sacrifice” of a divorce and allow Napoleon to have a legitimate son. Josephine was prepared. “Did the Emperor direct you to tell me this?” The minister refused to answer, and she responded with dignity. “I see my link with the Emperor as written in the record of the highest destinies. I will never discuss the matter with anyone but him and I will never do anything without his orders.” She went straight to Napoleon and—bravely—demanded whether he had directed his minister to speak. The emperor declined all knowledge. “You know very well I could not live without you,” he said. He then asked what she thought of the proposal and whether she might “take the initiative to help him make the sacrifice if he found it necessary.” Josephine told him she would not. “Our joint destiny has been too extraordinary not to have been decided by Providence. Only you must decide my fate.”3 She had thought carefully about what she would say. “I am too afraid of bringing us both bad luck if, of my own accord, I should separate my life from yours.” It was a brilliant strategy. Napoleon seriously believed she was his good-luck charm, and he dreaded losing his magic touch. He burst into tears at her words, and they embraced passionately. He returned to her bed once more.

He found it easy to consider the reasons for a divorce when he was apart from Josephine. But when he saw her again, he could not help loving her. He watched her presiding gracefully over the court and doubted anyone could be a more befitting consort. “I would be giving up all the charm she had brought to my private life,” he said to Talleyrand. “She adjusts her habits to mine and understands me perfectly.” And even though he took his sexual pleasure elsewhere, he still needed her. “I truly loved her, although I didn’t respect her,” he said on St. Helena. “She was a liar and a spendthrift but she had something that was irresistible. She was a woman to her very fingertips.”4

Although Napoleon could still fall back into Josephine’s arms, he remained angry about what he saw as her and Hortense’s excessive grief over Napoleon Charles. When he first laid eyes on Hortense after his return, he was furious. She was nervous and emaciated, tears glimmering in her eyes. “Come, come, stop this childishness. You have wept enough over your son. It is becoming ridiculous … Be gay, enjoy the pleasures of your age and don’t let me see any more tears.”5 He soon dashed her remaining hopes that he would make her second child, Napoleon Louis, his heir, claiming that people would only think he was the father of this boy as well (really, of course, he was anticipating having his own son by another wife). Hortense wept at his words, and Napoleon was angered by her outburst when, once upon a time, he would have forgiven Hortense anything.

Although Napoleon could see the benefit in allying with Russia and marrying a grand duchess, he guessed his people might see it as betraying his duty to France. Most of all, there was no guarantee he could sire a child with another woman. One police report from December 1807 noted that the women of high society were saying that “the Empress’s sterility is not her fault, that the Emperor has never had any children; that his majesty’s relations with several women have never borne fruit but as soon as these ladies were married, they became pregnant.”6

The bottom line was that Napoleon was not in a position to do anything rash. His popularity was at its lowest ebb. The people were distressed by the huge loss of men in the recent wars. Theaters had stopped the custom of reading out army bulletins because too many people screamed and fainted when they heard the news of the fatalities. Men were doing everything they could to dodge conscription; unlike in previous years, their families and friends did everything they could to support them. Some fled their homes, while others were so desperate that they purposely caught syphilis or cut off one of their limbs. There were huge riots protesting conscription. If the economy had been strong, the people may have been more forgiving, but the wars in the east had been expensive, and the ban on trade with Britain had taken a terrible toll. The French, so proud of their country and so delighted by their military strength, were beginning to curse their emperor. One in ten of all conscripts had deserted.

Napoleon’s response to the resistance was to put the divorce on hold and clamp down hard on his people’s remaining freedoms. He weakened the bodies left over from the consulate. The legislative body would meet only a few weeks a year, and the Council of State would be simply a sounding board for his lengthy monologues. He had long controlled the content of the newspapers; now he suppressed all but four journals. He wished to go even further—surely, he said, all the people needed were two papers: the officialMoniteur and the Journal des Dames for the ladies. Spies were everywhere, intellectuals were censored, and the press was told firmly not to mention politics. The man who once tried to write a romantic novel now believed that the arts could undermine the state. “You can make politics by talking literature, morality, art, anything in the world,” he said.7 The emperor of the Republic was now in the position of a military dictator.

Obsessed with outdoing Russia, Napoleon had decided that his entire court would move to the hunting château of Fontainebleau that winter. While in Prussia, he had ordered the redecoration of the palace by his cherished Percier and Fontaine. No expense was spared: silk wall coverings, heavy furniture, ornate tapestries, and carvings. The throne room was entirely redecorated to promote the splendor of the empire. Napoleon wished to take the court hunting as a way to recall and outdo the ancien régime, although unlike the Bourbon kings, he was poor at shooting and struggled even to hit Josephine’s slow swans at Malmaison.

As a young woman looking for protectors, Josephine once followed the hunt, but the Fontainebleau she returned to as an empress was very different. One thousand two hundred people descended on the estates in the autumn, including all the Bonapartes and the entire Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Napoleon decreed that a hunt must take place three times a week, even in heavy rain. All the nobles and their households had their own hunting colors for riding coats—Josephine’s was purple, and Napoleon ordered that Hortense put aside her mourning dress and wear blue and silver. The men would go ahead to hunt, and then Josephine would lead the trail of ladies in open barouches before presiding over the hunt breakfast. While she once found hunting exhilarating, now she was cast down by the cruelty and hated the ritual her husband had imposed.

She was ill at ease, and the entire court was barely more cheerful. People found it hard to celebrate with the emperor after so many men had died in battle. Napoleon complained to Talleyrand in frustration that the court “refused to be amused and sat around looking tired and sad with long faces.” As he saw it, he had given them the marvelous treat of Fontainebleau, and they repaid him with melancholy. He set up lavish entertainments celebrating his victories and decreed that every night would see a splendid ball in one of the princely apartments, conducted just as it had been in the Bourbon days. Still, his courtiers sat unhappily in their heavy robes. In truth, it was his own behavior reflected back at him; paranoid about plots and whispers, he had become so remote that, according to Madame de Rémusat, “no one could reach the Emperor except Josephine.” In the evenings he would dine with her, then expect the entire court to assemble in the room designated for the ball. Josephine would enter and take her place, then a deathly silence would settle over them until Napoleon entered, seated himself next to the empress, and “with a forbidding expression,” watched his courtiers dance. Nothing, recalled Laure Junot, could describe “the magnificence, the magical luxury that now surrounded the imperial couple,” and the contrast between it and their downcast mood.

Once, Josephine was able to lull hundreds of people into feelings of cheerful ease. Now she was sad and nervous, constantly sending her ladies to monitor the rumors about divorce. She could see that some courtiers were distancing themselves from her in preparation for a new empress. Still, she tried to obey Napoleon in everything.

At the end of the year, Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jérôme, was made the king of Westphalia, a country essentially created for him out of parts of Prussia, Hesse, and Brunswick. Princess Catherine of Württemberg was hastily brought over to marry him in a grand ceremony at court. One of the guests, the handsome widower Crown Prince Frederick Louis of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, was captivated by Josephine, but she was too afraid of offending Napoleon to respond to his blandishments. Still, while Napoleon was away, she went to the theater with the crown prince. Napoleon was infuriated, declaring his wife a second Marie Antoinette and demanding that his rival leave Paris within two days.

The Bonapartes were as intent as ever on pushing Napoleon toward a divorce. But this, as usual, only persuaded him to keep his wife; his family caused him endless distress, and Josephine’s presence soothed him. Napoleon’s beautiful younger sister Caroline Murat began an intense affair with the debonair General Junot. Only twenty-four, she was as hardened in her quest for power as her siblings. Annoyed that her husband had not been given a kingdom, she wanted Junot’s support in her mission to depose her brother and put her husband in his place. Eventually, the affair soured and Caroline turned to the wily Austrian diplomat Count Metternich. He seduced Junot’s wife, Laure, around the same time, and when Caroline told her former lover, he set upon Laure with a pair of scissors and nearly killed her. Jérôme turned out to be a hopeless king, imposing huge taxes, seducing every woman in sight, and plunging his treasury into debt. With him behaving like a lascivious satyr, Pauline taking a string of lovers, the Murats prompting crimes of passion, and Louis’s malicious treatment of Hortense, it was hardly surprising that Napoleon fled to the calm of Josephine’s room.

Although Hortense was pregnant with her third child, she was desperately unhappy again. The brief reconciliation after Napoleon Charles’s death had been forgotten. Louis was treating her as cruelly as ever, and she was losing her looks thanks to her suffering. Napoleon tried to intervene. “A King commands and seeks no one’s counsel,” he wrote to his brother. “In your domestic life you should display the paternal and effeminate character you show toward your government, and toward the government the severity you show your wife.”8 Louis did not listen. He knew that the wind was blowing toward a divorce, and he resented being stuck with the daughter of Josephine.

Napoleon’s ministers were infuriated with his indecision over the divorce. On the one hand was a son, a royal liaison, and a legacy. On the other was his Josephine, to whom he felt he owed loyalty for their long years of marriage and her support when everybody else had seen him as a Corsican upstart. The tsar hadn’t sent any firm commitment that he would hand over his sister Catherine; Napoleon read reports of various royal ladies and found none particularly engaging. At the end of the year, he traveled to Italy to celebrate his victories, without Josephine, carrying a list of twenty eligible princesses.

Josephine wrote to her son of her worries. “My own defense is to live a blameless life. I no longer go out, I have no pleasures.” She had come to resent the grandeur surrounding her. “How unhappy do thrones make people, my dear Eugène!” she wrote. “I would resign mine tomorrow, without any pain. For me the love of the Emperor is everything. If I should lose that, I would have little regret about anything else.”9 To her deep distress, she heard that Napoleon had brought Marie over from Warsaw and installed her in a house on the Quai Voltaire. There, he visited her secretly and loved to play a game in which they disguised themselves as a bourgeois couple and he engaged the local shopkeepers in chat about the devilish Bonaparte. Desperate, Josephine attempted to distract her husband by throwing one of her ladies-in-waiting in his way. He proved happy to dally with a new woman, but he still visited Marie. Late at night, his carriage left the palace for the townhouse of the beautiful Polish countess with golden hair.

One evening in March 1808, Josephine was about to enter the Yellow Salon when she received word that Napoleon was ill. She hurried to his apartments and found him in court dress, prostrate in bed, wracked by stomach pain, and weeping hysterically. She sat beside him and he pulled her into his arms. “My poor Josephine, I can’t possibly leave you,” he wailed. He demanded that she get into bed with him, and they made passionate love. She spent the night with him, although both were restless and slept poorly. That morning, she later found out, he had resolved on a divorce, but the thought of it was so painful that it had made him ill. “Why can’t the devil of a man make up his mind?” cried Talleyrand when he heard the news of the reconciliation.

In March 1808, King Charles IV of Spain abdicated after an uprising and allowed his son to take his place in an attempt to please the people. He hated his son, who had tried to depose him the previous year. In April he appealed to Napoleon for help—an unwise move. Napoleon sent Marie Walewska home and commanded the entire Spanish royal family to meet him in Bayonne, on the French side of the Pyrenees. Once there, he sent for Josephine; he required her gentle diplomacy to charm the king, the queen, the power-hungry crown prince, and the prime minister, who was both the king’s favorite and the queen’s rumored lover. Napoleon had no desire to actually help them; he wished to persuade them into accepting his “protection.”

Josephine played the role of gracious hostess, befriending the queen and lending her clothes and jewels. A second rebellion broke out in Madrid, and Marshal Murat and his men suppressed it with savagery. Napoleon informed Charles IV that only he could save the king’s life, and the royal family agreed to give the throne to the emperor. Napoleon decreed that Joseph Bonaparte would be crowned, and he sent the Spanish royals to live under luxurious arrest. He then spent the last days in Bayonne relaxing with Josephine, pleased with a job well done. They ran hand in hand along the beach and swam in the sea. He played his usual tricks, throwing her shoes into the water and pushing her over in the sand. They were like young lovers on honeymoon.

On the way back to Saint-Cloud, Josephine continued performing as the empress, receiving gifts, sitting as guest of honor at banquets, and listening to speeches. But almost as soon as they reached the palace, Napoleon heard that there had been further uprisings in Spain, and Joseph had been so afraid of the mob that he’d fled to the frontier rather than be crowned. Worst of all, the French troops had been defeated at Bailén in Spain. The rout of the seemingly invincible French troops was shocking news for all Europe, and Napoleon knew it would prompt Austria to attack.

Josephine paid much more attention to the news that Hortense had given birth to a third son, Charles Louis Napoleon (later to be known as Louis Napoleon), on April 20. She hoped that this boy might have a hold on Napoleon’s heart.

In September, Napoleon departed to meet the tsar in Germany. Before he left, he and Josephine played “prisoner’s base” in the dark with a few courtiers, a game in which players had to run to base before another player spotted them. Footmen with torches illuminated the emperor and empress running around in their finery, until Napoleon swept Josephine away, despite the protests of the others. His lightheartedness made her feel more secure. “For the last six months he has been simply perfect to me,” she wrote to Eugène. “So when I saw him leave this morning, it was with sadness at the parting but not concern about the future.”10 But as soon as she was out of earshot, courtiers again began gossiping. As everybody but Josephine knew, before he departed, the emperor had ordered a diadem in Paris for a new empress.

“I wish the Emperor Alexander to be dazzled by the spectacle of my power,” Napoleon decreed. He ordered all his German vassal kings and princes to attend his meeting with the tsar at Erfurt, and adorned the palace in incredible style with paintings and ornaments sent from Paris. He brought French chefs to tend to the palates of the Russians, and the company of the Comédie-Française, including Talma, its star, came to entertain them. Josephine, hitherto the greatest display of Napoleon’s power, was absent. There was good reason; he had decided he wished to awe the tsar into allowing him his sister’s hand in marriage. He saw himself as doing a great act for his country. “It would be a real sacrifice for me. I love Josephine; I will never be happier with anyone else, but my family and Talleyrand and Fouché and all the politicians insist upon it in the name of France.”11

After his first meeting with Napoleon in Tilsit the previous year, the tsar had arrived back in St. Petersburg to find his family and ministers furious at his gesture of peace toward the emperor. They were outraged by the harsh strictures imposed on Prussia and resented Napoleon’s demand that any French citizen who had taken exile in Russia should be expelled. When the tsar saw his darling sister again, he was even more dubious about the marriage. As he well knew, his mother, the dowager empress, would revile the idea of her beloved Catherine becoming the wife of the emperor of France. Marriage to a divorcé was scandalous, and furthermore, Napoleon was a commoner and the merciless killer of so many Russian men, as well as the cruel aggressor of Prussia.

When the tsar arrived in Erfurt, he was determined not to be beguiled by Napoleon. He enjoyed the daily hunting parties, receptions, and balls but offered no concessions. Napoleon made every effort to please, even letting his rival shine on the dance floor. “The Emperor Alexander dances, but not I. Forty years are after all, forty years,” he wrote to Josephine.12 The emperor begged, promised, and bowed low in the hope of winning the grand duchess’s hand. “I am very busy,” Napoleon told his wife. “Conversations which last whole days and which do not improve my cold. Still all goes well. I am pleased with Alexander, he ought to be with me. If he were a woman, I think I would make him my mistress.”13

The emperor’s cause was actively undermined by Talleyrand, who was taking money from Austria to push its interests. On a personal level, he still resented the forced marriage to his mistress Catherine Grand, whom he did not love. Politically, he had come to fear Napoleon’s wild military ambition and believed that Europe could not be at peace if he were allowed to continue unchecked. Behind Napoleon’s back, Talleyrand suggested to the tsar that an alliance with Austria would give him more power and independence and stonewall Napoleon’s rampant desire for territory.

Napoleon decided to put his cards on the table. “Use any argument you like,” he told Talleyrand, begging his minister to persuade Alexander to hand over his sister. “Tell him I will agree with him on any of his plans for the partition of Turkey.” The tsar’s spies were aware that no movements had been made toward a divorce, and Alexander used the knowledge to play for time. He told Napoleon he would happily give his consent, but that of another was needed: Josephine. By remaining uncommitted, he got everything he wanted. In return for a promise of assistance if Austria declared war on France, Napoleon said that he would not intervene if Russia invaded Finland or Turkey, and the tsar could do as he wished with Poland. Marie Walewska’s sacrifice had been worthless.

When he returned home to his wife, Napoleon was shifty with her, failing to meet her eye. She was suspicious but too afraid to ask questions. After only ten days, he departed for Spain, asking for a good-luck kiss. She pleaded with him, “Will you never stop making war?” He replied evasively and refused to allow her to accompany him. “It is not I who direct the course of events, I only obey them.” When she wrote to him of her concerns that Austria was growing more powerful, he was dismissive. “You are in a black mood of depression,” he said. “Austria will not make war on me … nor will Russia desert us. People in Paris are mad! Things are going splendidly here.”14

The emperor was reaching a new low in popularity. The public was furious when they heard that he wished his armies to return to Spain to force the installation of his brother as king. It seemed as if their men were being sent to die merely to give his brother a throne. Riots against conscription soared again, Napoleon was caricatured and detested, and courtiers considered moving their loyalties elsewhere. The vassal states were rebelling and Austria was growing braver.

He needed a huge army to subdue Spain, but he had no way of transporting supplies, as the roads were so poor over the Pyrenees. He did not care and forced his men to march. He managed to drag them to Madrid, but when he heard that the Austrians were re-arming, he immediately turned back. Even worse, news came by courier—and through spies to every ambassador in Europe—that Talleyrand and Fouché, formerly mortal rivals, had been seen in open discussion at the Tuileries. They declared they were debating a provisional government in case Napoleon died. In fact, they had plans to overthrow him.

Napoleon returned to the Tuileries and screamed public abuse at Talleyrand for three hours. “You are nothing but shit in a silk stocking!” he ranted. His minister did not reply. After the tirade, Talleyrand went to the Austrian ambassador and arranged to work for him—at a price of one million francs. Napoleon turned his attention to Fouché, saying that he wished to call up another half million men. Fouché warned him that this would be unwise. France was already at breaking point with a million men in the army—any more might push the people into a concerted riot against Napoleon.

The emperor finally recognized that his position was desperately insecure. He also had disappointing news from Russia. Grand Duchess Catherine was engaged to the Duke of Oldenburg. He resolved to retain his wife. “This year is an inopportune time to shock public opinion by repudiating the popular Empress. Already I am not loved. She is a link between me and many people, and she is responsible for attaching a part of Paris society to me which would then leave me.”15

AUSTRIA WAS INDEED convinced that Napoleon was weak, his army overextended and lacking support at home. In April 1809, the news reached Paris that Austria had invaded Bavaria, a kingdom he considered a vassal; Napoleon decided on immediate action. He tried to leave without Josephine, but she heard the sounds of departure and dashed down the steps in her nightgown, crying as she threw herself into his carriage. Napoleon did not have the heart to send her away. He put his coat over her shoulders and ordered her luggage to be sent on later. Her victory was a hollow one. He left her in the palace at Strasbourg and sent her curt letters from the front. Hortense came to stay and brought Louis Napoleon and the baby, Charles Louis Napoleon. But it was little consolation. Josephine’s only hope was that the emperor was too distracted by battle to divorce her. “I have only one passion, only one mistress—France,” Napoleon declared. “I sleep with her, she never lets me down, she pours out her blood and her treasure; if I need 500,000 men, she gives them to me.”16 In reality, the French had fled his army—it was made up of men from the occupied states, the poor, and the desperate. The old morale and strength of purpose were gone.

The emperor had initial success and pushed on to Vienna. Once more, he moved into the Schönbrunn Palace and hoped for word from the tsar. The two sides met in battle at Essling, not far from Vienna, and the result was a stalemate. The French lost more than twenty thousand men, and although the Austrians suffered similar casualties, it seemed so much worse as Napoleon had been halted. The Austrians claimed it as a victory. The news of the failed battle reached Paris and the stock market plunged again. The French no longer believed themselves invincible. They knew that one more defeat would bring the whole house of cards tumbling down as conquered states gained the courage to expel the French armies that occupied them.

In June, Napoleon encouraged Josephine to travel to Plombières and then return to Malmaison. She lived quietly. He did not write to her often, and when he did, he sent no demands that she preside over court balls or visit the Opéra. She retreated to her flowers and plants and sank into despair.

Napoleon sent for reinforcements and, six weeks later, routed the Austrians at the Battle of Wagram. Fifty thousand men were killed. Napoleon returned to Schönbrunn the victor and set his ministers drafting a new treaty with Austria. Marie Walewska, ever dutiful, wrote to Napoleon after the victory and asked to join him. “Yes, come to Vienna,” he replied. “I would like to give you further proof of the tender friendship I feel for you.”17 He meant to offer her more than friendship. As soon as she arrived, he began spending every afternoon with her. At the beginning of September, Marie was confirmed pregnant.

Josephine was doomed.

MARIE WAS THE first of Napoleon’s mistresses whom he was sure had been entirely faithful to him. Unlike Eléonore Denuelle, she truly loved him; there had been no gentlemen callers in his absences. Napoleon was now certain that he could father a child. Marie’s pregnancy secured his lasting affection for her and meant the end of her three-year period as his mistress. As he told Lucien, “Naturally I would prefer to have my mistress crowned, but I must be allied with sovereigns.”18 He left Vienna resolved to divorce his wife and find a royal to marry.

Josephine was still at Malmaison when she received the news about Marie’s pregnancy. It seemed to her like an avalanche of bad news, for the British had also conquered Martinique, shedding much blood on the island she still loved. To her further distress, she heard that Pope Pius VII had been arrested for refusing to turn British ships away from the ports of Rome. In response, the pope had excommunicated the emperor and refused to give up his temporal power. Furious, Napoleon had him bundled roughly into a carriage and taken from the Vatican to a house arrest in northern Italy.

Josephine knew there was nothing to save her. Excommunicated, Napoleon would care even less about breaking the blessing of his marriage. Under French law, only the pope could annul a royal marriage, but Napoleon ignored the law. He needed a son to stay the ambitions of his family. More important, he no longer saw Josephine as his talisman. The good luck she brought had dissipated, and someone else might grant him more. Laure Junot went to visit the empress with her daughter, and Josephine confessed she “truly suffered” at the sight of the child. “I know I will be shamefully dismissed from the bed of the man who crowned me, but God is my witness that I love him more than my life and much more than the throne.”19 She no doubt hoped that the well-connected Laure would pass on such information at court. But Napoleon was puffed up with pride at his mistress’s pregnancy and convinced that a new marriage could change his fortunes. He ordered his ambassador in St. Petersburg to ascertain whether fifteen-year-old Grand Duchess Anna, the youngest sister of the tsar, was physically ready to bear children. He wrote to the tsar, reiterating that Alexander could do as he wished with Poland, saying that the words “Poland” and “Polish” should be “obliterated not only from any transaction but from history itself.”20 Poor Marie, who had given up everything for him, was told to go back to her husband, heavy with the emperor’s child.

If Grand Duchess Anna was deemed too young, Napoleon had a second choice. Metternich in Paris had been intimating the excellence of seventeen-year-old Marie Louise of Austria, daughter of Francis I. She spoke good French and was biddable, healthy, and ready for motherhood.

Napoleon wrote to Josephine saying that he was leaving Munich and would be at Fontainebleau on October 26 or 27, and she should meet him there.21 Unfortunately, the courier didn’t reach her until the morning of the twenty-sixth, and when she arrived that evening, Napoleon was already waiting for her. She entered his study to greet him. He looked up briefly from his work and said, “Ah, here at last?” She then retired to her rooms, only to see that the door between her room and his had been sealed. The order, she was told, had come from the emperor himself.

Yet he was unable to make the final break. Over the next few weeks, he dined with Josephine, but only briefly; she found she could never speak to him because there was always a gloating Bonaparte sibling sitting between them. In the evenings, Pauline threw him parties full of beautiful Italian women, but she did not invite Josephine. “There was no more tenderness, no more consideration for my mother,” Hortense recalled. “He became unjust, he tormented her.”

In the old days Josephine had awaited with pleasure Napoleon’s nighttime tap on her salon door: his request for her to read to him, soothe him, or come to his bed. In November 1809, the thought of such a tap pitched her into violent palpitations, breathlessness, and dread. She could not bear “to hear the confirmation of what she most dreaded to learn.”22 But still the emperor said nothing. He who barely batted an eyelid at conquering countries into submission, able to send hundreds of thousands of men to their death without a second thought, could not tell his wife he wished to divorce. Napoleon asked Hortense to tell her mother the marriage was over, explaining that it would “remove a heavy burden from my heart.”23 She said she could not.

Josephine saw all around the evidence of her fate. The ladies of the court were openly dismissive, even daring to sit in her presence. The Bonapartes laughed in her face. Through it all, she behaved with dignity, holding tight to her last days as empress.

On November 27, the court moved from Fontainebleau to Paris. Napoleon sent a telegram to Eugène asking him to join them right away. There was urgent business he required completed before the end of the year.

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