Biographies & Memoirs


“Like a Wounded Soldier”

On the evening of Thursday, November 30, 1809, Josephine and Napoleon shared a miserable dinner. She struggled not to cry and could eat nothing. According to the Comte de Beausset, the palace prefect who was attending them, she looked the “image of sadness and despair.” Napoleon’s only words while they dined were “What time is it?” Before the comte had a chance to reply, the emperor rose from the table. Josephine followed him, her handkerchief over her mouth. The coffee arrived, and the tray was offered to Josephine, so she could perform her task of pouring it for her husband. Instead, he took the tray, poured the coffee into his cup, and added the sugar, staring all the time at his wife. She gazed back in horror. He drank down the coffee, handed the tray to the page, and dismissed the comte, shutting the door behind him. “I saw in the expression of his countenance what was passing in his mind, and I knew that my hour was come,” Josephine said.

He stepped up to me—he was trembling, and I shuddered; he took my hand, pressed it to his heart, and after gazing at me for a few moments in silence he uttered these fatal words: “Josephine! my dear Josephine! You know how I have loved you!… To you, to you alone, I owe the only moments of happiness I have tasted in this world. But, Josephine, my destiny is not to be controlled by my will. My dearest affections must yield to the interests of France.1

She fell into hysteria and began to cry out. The emperor opened the door, and the comte saw her lying on the floor in tears. “I seemed to lose my reason,” she later recalled. Napoleon told the comte he must help get Josephine to her chambers, alerting no one. The two men bundled the empress down the stairs, the comte stumbling over his sword, Napoleon too agitated to hold the candle still. In a state of nerves, almost weeping and breathless with emotion, he poured out his heart. The comte was a renowned gossip, so perhaps it was fortunate that Napoleon was near incoherent. “National welfare,” he panted, “violence to my heart … political necessity … took me by surprise … her daughter was to have prepared her” was all that the comte could make out from the torrent of emotion.

Josephine kept up the tears and hysteria all the way down the stairs, except for one moment. She put her head close to the comte and hissed, “You are holding me too tightly.” The pair finally dropped her, none too gently, on the bed, and Napoleon pulled the bell for her ladies to come. He then made a hasty exit. Josephine passed a night of despair and misery. The humiliation of the preceding days had been awful, the anticipation painful, but receiving the news was not a relief. “With what eyes do courtiers look upon a repudiated wife! I was in a state of vague uncertainty worse than death until the fatal day when he at length avowed to me what I had long before read in his looks!”2

Napoleon summoned Hortense and told her to go to her mother. “Nothing will make me go back on it, neither tears nor entreaties,” he cried. Hortense responded with the calm dignity that he had always esteemed. “You are the master, Sire. No one will oppose you. If your happiness requires it, that is enough. She will submit and we will all go away, taking the memory of your kindness with us.” Napoleon looked at her in shock. He could barely speak. “What! You are all going to leave me?” he cried. “You are going to desert me? Then you don’t care for me anymore?” He had not truly accepted that he might never see them again. “We cannot live near you anymore,” said Hortense with grace. “It is a sacrifice that has to be made and we will make it.”3

Eugène arrived and agreed with his sister. “We will all go away quietly,” he said. He told the weeping Napoleon that his first loyalty was to his mother. Devastated at the thought of losing all three, the emperor repined that Josephine should stay at court and even said the divorce should be stopped. Eugène disagreed, for “what was in his mind being known to us, the Empress could not live happily with him.” Napoleon then begged him to accept the kingdom of Italy, but Eugène refused—he did not wish to be rewarded for his mother’s despair.

“Alas! I had good reason to fear ever becoming an Empress!” Josephine cried.4 The princely kings and vassals of Germany were arriving for a celebration of Napoleon’s Austrian victories. So every night, she had to smile at receptions and dinners attended by hundreds, regard military performances, and host the ladies at her court. But in order to prepare the ground for the divorce, Napoleon decreed that she must come to all official functions alone, so she attended the fifth anniversary of the coronation but did not travel to Paris with Napoleon or sit by his side in the cathedral. At the gala banquet that evening, the emperor was escorted by one of his sisters. Josephine walked alone to the dais and sat quickly, her legs almost collapsing beneath her.

Josephine was at her most dignified in her final weeks as empress. Napoleon was less so, often in tears, declaring himself the plaything of fate, cruelly treated by his destiny—and yet under all the hysteria, he was rational, always attempting to get the marriage certificate from her. Many were on her side, most of all the shopkeepers and fine tradesmen of Paris. Josephine’s wild spending had single-handedly supported many of the city’s luxury goods makers.

Napoleon wished the ceremony of the divorce to be a court occasion; all the courtiers jostled for an invitation and fretted over what to wear. Josephine feigned calm. The night before the ceremony, when many were openly ignoring her, she gave a polite bow to those who came up to acknowledge her. “I doubt,” wrote Pasquier, the future chancellor, “whether any woman could have acted with such perfect grace and tact.”

The night of the divorce ceremony was the grandest social occasion the court had seen in months. On December 14, everyone flocked to the throne room, resplendent in jewels and finery. The Bonapartes, as Hortense noted, “betrayed their joy by their air of satisfaction and triumph.”5

Josephine entered in a plain white gown, supported by Hortense. Napoleon was waiting for her, trembling so hard that his valet thought he might faint. The emperor proclaimed the divorce. “God only knows what this resolve has cost my heart,” he said. “But there is no sacrifice beyond my courage if it is in the best interests of France … I have only gratitude to express for the devotion and tenderness of my well-beloved wife. She has adorned thirteen years of my life, the memory thereof will remain forever engraved on my heart.” He wept as he pronounced that he would wish her to retain the privileges of empress.

It was Josephine’s turn to speak. All the eyes of the court were upon her. “With the permission of my dear and august husband, I proudly offer him the greatest proof of attachment and devotion ever given a husband on this earth.” She could not go on. Her words choked her, and for the first time her courage failed her. After a minute of silence, she handed the speech to one of her attendants to complete. He, too, was tearful as he read out her words: “The Emperor will always be my dearest love,” she had written. “I know how much this act, demanded by politics and wider interests, has crushed his heart.”

Napoleon, Josephine, and members of the family signed the record of proceedings. Then, in front of everyone, Napoleon kissed Josephine, took her by the hand, and led her to the apartments. Hortense battled to control her tears. Eugène fainted as soon as he left the throne room. He later referred to the time of the divorce as “the most dreadful moment of my life.”6

That night, her hair untidy, her face in distress, Josephine arrived in Napoleon’s bedroom. She fell on the bed, put her arms around him and caressed him. He pressed her to him. “Allons, dear Josephine. I will always be your friend.” They wept together, and then he prompted her to leave. She spent the night alone.

Now that the deed was done, Napoleon offered a generous settlement. He initially worried that her presence in Paris would be unsettling to the people and the court. But she was horrified when he asked her to consider living in Italy, and he did not force the matter. He said she would keep the title of empress, retain Malmaison, be given the Élysée Palace in Paris, and receive an allowance of three million francs in gold. He had thought carefully about her household: She was to have thirty-six attendants, including nine ladies-in-waiting, four ladies of the bedchamber, a doctor, and a knight of honor. He ordered her a Sèvres dinner service as a gift and gave her four thousand livres to “do as much planting as you like” at Malmaison.7 He pored over the inventory of her belongings, including a fourteen-page description of her wardrobe—ten pages full of details of court dresses, notes about 280 pairs of shoes, even lists of her chemises and camisoles and nightgowns. He did not demand from her any of the gifts he had given her, most notably the art collection at Malmaison. Josephine kept her spoils of war.

As quitting lovers tend to do, Napoleon pretended to himself that things could stay the same. He fussed over her title and asked archivists to search the royal records for answers on how to treat a divorced empress—which, of course, no previous court had entertained. He made the decision that in all functions, Josephine would sit on the right of his throne and his new wife would be positioned on the left.

“I HAVE DRAWN out the path that I must follow and I will not stray from it,” Josephine wrote. “The arts and botany will be my occupations.”8 Her departure from the Tuileries was a lengthy operation, packing her gowns, ornaments, books, pets, and other belongings into multiple carriages. On the morning after the ceremony, Napoleon came to embrace her and then hurried off, claiming he had to see to his duties. Accompanied by Hortense, the fallen empress was taken in the early-afternoon rain to Malmaison, with no emperor to see her go. Napoleon went straight to Versailles and shut himself away in the Grand Trianon. He tried to distract himself from grief by rehanging every painting. He was not so broken, however, to forget to demand Josephine’s marriage certificate. She declined to give it to him.

“We were sad and silent all the way to Malmaison,” recalled Hortense. “Her heart was heavy as she entered this place she loved so much.”9 The next day, Josephine walked around the grounds in tears. Napoleon, in the Trianon, was equally despairing and finally could bear it no longer. He drove to Malmaison, where he and Josephine walked hand in hand in the rain. Careful to keep up appearances, as he did not want any spies reporting to foreign courts that he still had relations with his wife, he did not enter the house or embrace her but told her of his distress and described to her how lonely he was, dining on his own. That evening, he wrote to her, telling her to feel courage that he could not.

My dear, I found you today weaker than you ought to be. You have shown courage; it is necessary that you should keep it up and not subside into sadness. You must be contented and take special care of your health, which is so precious to me. If you are attached to me, and if you love me, you should show strength of mind and force yourself to be happy.10

However, he sent her letters about his unhappiness without her. Claire de Rémusat begged her husband to ask the emperor to “moderate his expressions of regret.” Josephine was crying so hard that her eyesight was troubled: Soon she could not bear any bright light and her vision was failing.

She kept Napoleon’s study exactly as it always was. She dusted it herself daily and showed her visitors everything, even the old armchair that he had cut with his penknife. She kept, as one put it, “a veritable cult of the Emperor” and would not allow so much as a chair to be moved. It was a shrine to him; everything was left as it had been when he was last there, right down to a book of history open at the page he had been reading.11 His bed was there, his coat of arms hung on the walls, and items of his clothing were scattered around, just as if he were about to return. Josephine always wore full dress, in case Napoleon arrived.

She could not be consoled. “Sometimes it seems as if I am dead and all that remains is a sort of faint sensation of knowing that I no longer exist,” she wrote. Napoleon chastised her. “Savary tells me that you are always crying: that is not good,” he wrote. “I shall come to see you when you tell me you are reasonable, and that your courage has the upper hand.”12 He was angry that the servants had seen her weeping. Malmaison, he wrote, “is full of our happy memories, which can and ought never to change, at least on my side.”13 On Christmas Eve, he visited there, and on Christmas Day, he invited her, Hortense, and Eugène to dine with him at the Trianon.

On January 1, she called Madame de Metternich, wife of the diplomat, to meet her at Malmaison. Josephine suggested that only a marriage with an Austrian princess would make her sacrifice worthwhile. She hoped to prove to Napoleon that she only wished to help. He relented to her pleas to live at the Élysée Palace, where she would be nearer to him. Indeed, they were probably still intimate. Even in February, Napoleon was pondering a meeting with Josephine at the country house of a friend—a more private place for them to rendezvous than Malmaison. In the end, he decided they should not be under the same roof for the first year after the divorce.

On January 9, 1810, the religious marriage between Napoleon and Josephine was declared void, on the grounds that it had not been witnessed properly, the parish priest had not been present, and Napoleon’s full consent had not been obtained. The last was a provision in the law for young girls forced into marriage against their will, not a great general on the brink of crowning himself emperor of France, but Napoleon used it anyway. Though they were both free, the emperor still could not put aside his former wife. He noted that there were few other visitors at Malmaison and promptly went around his court, asking everyone if they had visited the empress. In response, carriages rumbled off, packed with courtiers eager to pay their respects to Josephine. Laure Junot visited and saw the drawing room, billiard room, and gallery thronged with people. To reach Josephine in her gallery, guests had to pass through an antechamber filled with thirty footmen and a salon of four valets with swords, as well as ladies and attendants.14Josephine herself was sitting by the fireplace, under a portrait of Napoleon. She wore a simple dress and a green hood that she drew over her face when she needed to hide her tears.

Napoleon might have been regularly popping over to see his former wife, but at court, he was fully engaged in pushing forward the matter of his second marriage. In early February, Napoleon’s ambassador in St. Petersburg wrote describing the prevarications of the tsar over giving his sister Anna to be the second empress. As he subtly hinted, the tsar was unlikely to come around. Realizing that a Russian wife was impossible, Napoleon hastily sent Eugène to the Austrian embassy to ask for the hand of the eighteen-year-old archduchess Marie Louise. Eugène, performing a task that weighed heavy on his soul, informed the ambassador that he must receive an immediate answer and the contract should be signed the following day. There was no time to consult Vienna. The ambassador had to accept. A jubilant Napoleon announced the news to the nation. He sent a missive to the tsar, informing him that he no longer required his sister’s hand. At the same time, the tsar wrote to Napoleon that Grand Duchess Anna was too young for marriage.

Marie Louise was given the shocking news: She was to be married to the man who had brutally attacked her country, who was divorced and twice her age. Only five years earlier, she had written in her diary how much she wished him to die. Like Marie Walewska, she was told to sacrifice herself for the good of the state. Her father ordered a splendid trousseau of clothes and jewels while fretting that the marriage was bigamous in the eyes of the Church, since the pope had not annulled Napoleon’s union with Josephine. Cardinal Fesch assured him that the pope was irrelevant and the decision of the French clerical authorities was sufficient.

Marie Louise had been prepared since childhood for a foreign marriage, and had been tutored in Spanish, English, Latin, Italian, and French, the language of the enemy. Although no great beauty, she was tall and fair and accomplished at painting landscapes and playing the piano and harp. She was also an enthusiastic reader, unlike Josephine. Spirited and not easily dominated, she had been brought up to hate the French people, who had executed her great-aunt Marie Antoinette. The archduchess rather resembled Marie Antoinette, thanks to her protruding Hapsburg lip, clear complexion, and fine golden hair, although she was taller and more robust. Her mother had died in 1807, when Marie Louise was fifteen, and her father soon married his cousin Maria Ludovika, only twenty-three herself. Marie Louise had been a much beloved, spoiled child—and now she was set to wed Napoleon, the bloodthirsty monster with a terrifying reputation. In Britain, Lord Castlereagh drily remarked that “a virgin must now and then be sacrificed to the Minotaur.”15 The proxy marriage took place in Vienna, the banquets were thrown, and the archduchess departed for France.

NAPOLEON ORDERED A round of balls and receptions to celebrate his union with Marie Louise. Unfortunately, the public refused to play his game; the newspapers were still filled with articles about Josephine. “I told you to arrange that the journals do not speak of the Empress Josephine, but they do little else,” he railed at Fouché. “See to it that they do not repeat this new publicity.”16 As he feared, the French populace had been disappointed by the news of his divorce. With the break from Josephine, it was to them as if the emperor had thrown his revolutionary past aside. He had claimed the glory of the Republic and now was divorcing to produce a hereditary line. Josephine was esteemed by the older generals and ministers who had participated in the Revolution, and the aristocrats and royalists saw her as their own. In a way, Marie Louise was Marie Antoinette all over again.

Josephine was beloved, but she was lonely. Napoleon refused to allow her to come to the balls and dances to celebrate the wedding. The dignitaries were too occupied to visit her, and Napoleon did not wish to do so. Every piece of news about the preparations for the archduchess’s arrival was a blow to her. All Paris seemed to be at the glittering receptions and dances—everyone except her. Napoleon even asked Hortense to be a lady-in-waiting to the new empress, a position she reluctantly accepted. One of Josephine’s few regular visitors, Hortense told her mother the details of the plans for the wedding.

Napoleon’s first marriage had been conducted speedily, during a break in composing military strategy, and had not been blessed until the night before the coronation. His second marriage, he decreed, would be very different. He demanded that it follow in exact detail the wedding of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1770, and he pored over the archives and the records to ensure that he missed none of the finer points. Spies told him that his fiancée was clumsy, her bosom too large, and her walk graceless. Her French was good but formal and she found small talk trying. She could not have been more unlike Josephine if she’d tried. Napoleon didn’t care.

The hardened fighter was behaving like a young man in love once more. He took waltzing lessons and had new clothes made, ordered a huge redecoration of the palaces, and devoted hours to Marie Louise’s trousseau. He had the contents laid out for him in the Tuileries and inspected court gowns, riding habits, ball dresses, shawls, shoes adorned with mink, diamond-encrusted fans, and the exquisite satin and ermine wedding dress. The Château de Compiègne, where Louis XVI had met Marie Antoinette, was chosen as the place for the first encounter between the emperor and archduchess, and Napoleon had it entirely redecorated. He studied the etiquette for the reception of Marie Louise with as much care as his battle plans, and sent his sister Caroline and a hundred attendants to meet the archduchess at Munich. Caroline was a disastrous choice: Marie Louise hated her for taking the throne of her aunt Maria Carolina of Naples, and Caroline detested the idea of her brother marrying at all. As the Bonapartes were finally realizing, their thirteen-year campaign against Josephine had not been in the family’s interest: If Napoleon produced a litter of children, they and their offspring would be thrust from the succession. They had underestimated Napoleon, hoping they might be able to marry him to a woman under their influence—and that he would struggle to have a child.

Marie Louise arrived in Munich to the icy greeting of her awful sister-in-law. Suffering from a bad cold, Marie was not in the mood to pander to Caroline, and the two proceeded together in ill humor. In 1770 Marie Antoinette had been met on an island in the middle of the Rhine, stripped of her Austrian clothes, and re-dressed in French gowns. She had given up all her belongings, even her beloved pug. Forty years later, Caroline oversaw the same ritual undressing and re-dressing of Marie Louise and also insisted that her dog be sent back. Poor Marie Louise felt nothing but dread for her impending marriage.

Napoleon, for his part, tried to please his bride, sending regular missives assuring her of his affection. “You will find a husband who wants your happiness above all else,” he told her, and then “Nothing now interests me but you.”17

The emperor told Josephine that she would have to leave Paris for a château in Navarre before Marie Louise arrived. “I trust that you will be pleased with what I have done for Navarre,” he wrote. “You must see how anxious I am to make myself agreeable to you. Get ready to take possession of Navarre, you will go there on 25 March, to pass the month of April.”18 The archduchess was due to arrive on March 27. Josephine, hardly able to stand the thought of such exile, did not leave until the very last minute, after Napoleon had departed to meet his bride. She had to go without Hortense and Eugène, as both were due to attend the wedding.

Josephine and her ladies traveled to Navarre overnight. They arrived at nine to be greeted by the entire town, the mayor, and a gun salute. Josephine was heralded as the “Duchess of Navarre” (something of a demotion from empress). They were then escorted to the château. So ugly that it was known locally as “the cooking pot,” or la marmite, the two-story building was sturdy and lumpen, topped with lead, and unhappily situated at the bottom of the valley. Inside, the vast reception room was paved in marble and lit only by slits in the dome of the ceiling, so it was impossibly gloomy. The ceilings were so high that the rooms were hard to heat, and the doors and windows would not close properly. Without the rugs, drapes, and curtains of the Tuileries, hot-blooded Josephine was constantly cold, even though her staff hauled in huge loads of wood and twenty-one cauldrons of coal every day. She found the other rooms small, the woodwork rotting, and she was scandalized by the state of the grounds. The castle’s situation in the dip of the valley meant that it was surrounded by puddles of rainwater. The garden had been laid out in the Chinese style, with crisscrossing canals and streams topped by bridges and pagodas, but the waterways had been severely neglected and the ground was entirely waterlogged. The walls of the palace smelled of damp. As her new lady Madame Ducrest put it, the building had been “left a mere ruin.”19 Josephine spent a hundred thousand francs on furnishings, but those obtained for her by one M. Pierlot were of poor quality—broken tables, torn armchairs, and tattered curtains.

She wrote to Napoleon begging for repairs and furniture. Her household was horrified by the château, and some demanded to leave, preferring to serve the new empress. Those who stayed found that the days passed so slowly, each seemed to last a lifetime. There was the occasional dinner for local dignitaries, but most evenings consisted of interminable games of patience or billiards, checkers with the elderly bishop of Evreux, or a little needlework while one of the chamberlains read aloud. Josephine could not give up her addiction to telling fortunes, and she and her ladies whiled away hours with the tarot cards, attempting to find better fates than the ones they had been handed.

As she sat in the chilly rooms of Navarre, ruing her fate but never uttering a word against Napoleon, Josephine did not contact Paul Barras or Hippolyte Charles or any other old friends—although Madame Ducrest suspected she had received Thérésa in secret at Malmaison. Her most recent admirer, Prince Frederick Louis of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, raised the possibility of marriage, but she refused. Poor Frederick Louis was forlorn, but there was no hope. Not only was Josephine still in love with Napoleon, she also dreaded having to live abroad and make a new start in her mid-forties. Perhaps she should have thrown caution to the winds. Although it would have been a comedown to the former empress to live with him in dreary Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the alternative was to remain in Navarre, listening to the tales of Marie Louise and her triumphs. Even worse, she heard rumors that Napoleon wished her to go into exile and never return to Paris.

“I have cried only occasionally for some time past,” she wrote to Hortense. “I hope that the quiet life I lead here, far from intrigue and gossip, will strengthen me and that my eyes will get well.”

While Josephine languished, the plans for Napoleon’s marriage sped ahead. On the evening of March 27, Napoleon arrived at the Château de Compiègne, counting the hours like the world’s most eager bridegroom (even though he had been with an Italian mistress until the night before). Unable to wait any longer, he catapulted off to meet Marie Louise while she was en route. He had his coachman flag down her carriage, then jumped in to embrace her. Unlike Louis XVI, who reported succinctly in his journal, “Meeting with Madame la Dauphine” regarding his encounter with Marie Antoinette at Compiègne in 1770, Napoleon was determined to celebrate his decision.

At the Tuileries, kings and queens, courtiers, little girls with bouquets, and assembled ladies had been waiting for hours. Napoleon pushed past them all and swept Marie Louise and Caroline upstairs, where he ordered supper for the three of them. He then demanded of his uncle Cardinal Fesch whether he and his new wife were properly married. Fesch told him they were married in a civil sense but not a religious one. That was enough for Napoleon; he bundled Marie Louise off to bed. He thought the evening had gone without a hitch—and for the bride, it was not as bad as she had expected. “She asked me to do it again,” Napoleon later said on St. Helena.20 Next morning, Hortense found Marie Louise’s expression “sweet but a little embarrassed.”21

Nearly a week later, Napoleon and Marie Louise were married formally in a blaze of festivities in Paris. The pair drove into the city followed by thirty-two carriages of their household. The fountains were running with wine, and food was laid out at intervals across the route, but the people were not cheering wildly. Some spectators even mistook the fat little emperor, resplendent in feathers and lace, for Marie Louise’s governess. As for the future empress, she stared nervously at the people who had hated and murdered her great-aunt, with only a teenager’s idealistic hope to reassure her.

During the ceremony at the Tuileries, Hortense was to carry Marie Louise’s train, along with the dreaded Bonaparte sisters and Joseph’s wife, Julie, now the queen of Spain. Elisa, Caroline, and Pauline could hardly bear to hold the train and pretended to be ill. Marie Louise’s wedding dress suited her rather sturdy figure. “Once she is properly dressed and arranged, she will be perfectly all right,” Metternich decided. Others noted that the bride was taller than the groom.

The Austrian prince Schwarzenberg, who had been instrumental in the marriage negotiations, invited the court to a ball at his home. He erected a huge ballroom in his garden, but disastrously, when the evening was in full swing, gauze drapes caught fire from a candle, and the blaze spread through the ballroom. Napoleon and Marie Louise escaped, but other guests perished, including Schwarzenberg’s sister-in-law. Napoleon was terrified by the bad omen and was mollified only when his advisers declared that Schwarzenberg was the unlucky one. Not long after, the emperor had a piece of good news to console him. On May 10, Marie Walewska gave birth to a son, Alexandre Florian Joseph. Her husband, Count Walewski, agreed to acknowledge him as his child—accepting his responsibility for pushing his wife into Napoleon’s arms four years previously.

AFTER THE WEDDING, Napoleon reveled in his marriage and spent his days at hunts and his nights at balls and the opera, leaving his study papers untouched and even coming late to council meetings. He directed all his attention to pleasing his new bride. “I am not afraid of Napoleon, but I am beginning to think he is afraid of me,” Marie Louise told Metternich with some pride. The emperor was intimidated by real royalty. Marie Louise, unlike most of the court, was not fearful of him and spoke to him with the courage of a confident teenager. The new empress loved eating, and Napoleon arranged lengthy banquets to please her, with fourteen choices of dessert. His bolted meals were largely a thing of the past, as was the work that had made them necessary. He had no desire to go to Spain to command the army. He wished to be by Marie Louise’s side, and indeed, there was no other way for him to conceive his longed-for legitimate son. “The Emperor is very much taken with his wife,” reported Metternich, “and if the Empress continues to dominate him, she could render very great services to herself and to all of Europe. He is so evidently in love with her that his habits are subordinated to his wishes.”

After all, it was a long time—if ever—since Napoleon had been with a virgin. And yet he did not let her share his bed, as Josephine had. His excuse was that he could not bear her Germanic habit of sleeping with the windows open. In truth, he was afraid of ceding control. As he later said on St. Helena, he had been afraid she would demand to sleep with him in his bedroom, for it was the way for a woman to have power over a man. Moreover, her allowance was exactly half that of Josephine’s—300,000 francs to live on and 60,000 francs for charity. She was given some of Josephine’s jewels, but Napoleon kept many of them. She did receive Josephine’s incredible Maison Jacob jewel cabinet, after workmen had changed the locks.

Marie Louise, a pampered daughter of royalty, expected more protection from the emperor than he was willing to give. She was hauled out for propaganda reasons on her first imperial tour, forced to tour lands that once were the possession of Austria. They visited Belgium, Holland, and the Rhine, followed by dozens of coaches carrying kings, queens, viceroys, attendants, and courtiers, along with ladies-in-waiting, trunks of dresses, and boxes of gifts to be distributed. Austrian imperial progresses had never involved such pomp, and Marie Louise was miserable at the interminable audiences, cross about the weather, and suffering from headaches. Napoleon was impatient with her and fumed when she failed to please local dignitaries at receptions. Poor Marie Louise was shy and often glacial, unable to make small talk and unable to hide her boredom. On one occasion, when she went to launch a ship at Cherbourg, the minister of police wrote to the chief of her Imperial Guard escort, begging him to ensure that she would be punctual and would smile and be gentle with those who approached her. “For God’s sake, my friend, no ice,” he implored.22

Unlike Josephine, Marie Louise did not obey Napoleon when he railed. “Nearly two o’clock and the Emperor would not allow me to eat in the carriage! He said a woman should never have to eat. I was so angry and hungry that it gave me a fearful headache and so much bad humor that the Emperor was furious. I didn’t care. If I return in another world, I would certainly not remarry.”23 The empress had reason to be hungry, tired, and suffering from headaches. By July, she was pregnant with Napoleon’s child.

Napoleon was thrilled by the pregnancy. Convinced he would have a son, he planned extensive celebrations and wrote down directives for the birth and christening, following exactly what had been done for the dauphin years ago. The news put the seal on Josephine’s downfall—despite all her hopes, there was no going back or living under the same roof. Marie Louise had succeeded in her duty. As Napoleon put it, “I have married a womb.” At last the decision that had caused him so much torment had proved itself the right one: He had been correct to divorce.

By this point Josephine had returned to Malmaison, after much pleading. She had written on April 19, thanking Napoleon for the permission to leave the cookpot castle after only three weeks there. “I feared I had been entirely banished from Your Majesty’s memory,” she said. “I see that I am not. I am therefore less wretched today and even as happy as it is possible henceforth for me to be.” She was all humility. “While I am at Malmaison, Your Majesty may be sure I will live as though I were a thousand leagues from Paris and Your Majesty will not be troubled in his great happiness by any expression of my own regrets.”24

She also promised not to remain long at Malmaison but to travel speedily to a spa. Though Napoleon encouraged her to remember that he was still her friend, his response was cool: “I have received your letter of 19 April; it is written in a bad style.” Now that Marie-Louise was pregnant, he was resistant to emotional blackmail. He encouraged her to remember that he was still her friend.25 She wrote back humbly begging his pardon:

There was not a word which did not make me weep; but these tears were very pleasant ones. I have found my whole heart again—such as it will always be; there are affections which are life itself and which can only end with it. I was in despair that my letter of the 19th had displeased you; I do not remember the exact expressions but I know what torture I felt in writing it—grief at having no news of you.26

Josephine’s promise to live at Malmaison as if she were “a thousand leagues from Paris” was not truthful. She hankered after her old Paris life. She wished for invitations and balls and, most of all, Napoleon’s idea of him seated at court between both empresses. She asked to meet the new empress. Napoleon replied via Hortense that it would be impossible, telling her that “the Empress Marie Louise is alarmed by what she has heard of your mother’s attractions and the hold she is known to have over me.”27 The new empress had wept when her husband drove her past Malmaison and proposed a visit.

Josephine was undeterred. She wished to befriend Marie Louise in an attempt to return to court. When Josephine sent a second request, Napoleon refused directly. “No, she thinks you are very old. If she sees you and your charms she would be worried, she would ask me to send you away and I would have to do it.” Marie Louise was predictably rude: “How can he want to see that old lady? And a woman of low birth!”28

Josephine left Malmaison and took the waters with Hortense at Aix. Hortense was newly free—her husband had abdicated his throne on July 1, largely because he no longer felt able to pursue the oppressive regime Napoleon expected, notably the ban on trade with Britain. He had left Hortense in power as regent for their eldest son, but after eight days, Napoleon declared Holland part of the French empire and removed his stepdaughter from the throne. She did not miss it. Separated from her husband, she traveled with her mother and spent time with her admirer, the Comte de Flahaut, a handsome soldier who may have been Talleyrand’s illegitimate child. In 1811 Hortense gave birth to his child in secret in Switzerland. Flahaut made her happy, flattering her and treating her like his personal goddess. It was a brief return to the days when she had just graduated from Madame Campan’s and was the jewel of Malmaison and the object of a thousand admiring glances.

Josephine left Aix to travel to Switzerland, where she was generously cheered and offered presents and tributes. Madame Ducrest went to visit her in Geneva, at l’Hôtel d’Angleterre, and saw her feted at the Festival of the Lake, where she was transported in a boat drawn by two swans to the sound of fireworks and cries of “Vive l’imperatrice!” Unfortunately, such a reception had to be rewarded with largesse: Josephine went next to the local factories, where, as Ducrest remarked, she spent hundreds of francs on souvenirs.29

“There is not the slightest doubt that the Empress has entered into the fourth month of her pregnancy, she is well and is very much attached to me,” Napoleon wrote to his former wife in September.30 When Josephine was in Italy, Claire de Rémusat wrote that she should stay traveling around Europe, away from France. “You will not without grief listen to the sound of so much rejoicing, relegated as you may be to oblivion by the whole nation.” Claire mentioned “Marie Louise’s jealous disposition” and evoked a tableau of family life at the Tuileries from which Josephine would be excluded. “The Emperor will be caring for his young wife although still moved by his sentiments towards you …[He] asks of you one more sacrifice … Will you write the Emperor that the winter will be spent in Italy?”31

NAPOLEON, GLEEFUL AND addicted to grandeur as ever, announced that a son would be the king of Rome, a daughter the princess of Venice. He asked the indefatigable Fontaine to draw up plans for a huge palace for his son, as “the Palace of the King of Rome.” A suite of apartments in the Tuileries was lavishly decorated for the baby, furnished with silver and heavy furniture, as well as an extensive library.

Josephine had no desire to stay in Italy. Napoleon permitted her to return to France (although not Paris), and she arrived at Navarre on November 22. She was pleased to see how the gardens had been completely renovated and drained according to her plans, with new flowers brought over from Malmaison. She enjoyed having a second garden to cultivate, and grew plants almost as rare as those at Malmaison—as revealed in the Description des plantes rares cultivées à Malmaison et à Navarre (1812–17), illustrated by Redouté.

At Navarre, life was rather stiff and formal. Josephine had her lady of honor, Madame d’Arberg; various ladies-in-waiting, including Madame de Rémusat; an almoner, equerries, chamberlains, a reader, ushers, a doctor, and a secretary. She met merchants and representatives of charities in the morning and took a walk or an accompanied drive around the grounds after lunch. At dinner, people sat where they chose, and there was rarely an order of precedence in the carriages. But she was exasperated by the hierarchy of her servants—at meals the staff members were served on twenty-two different tables, since the cooks would not eat with the kitchen maids, nor would the servants who scrubbed the floors sit with those who lit the fires. Madame d’Arberg only managed to reduce the tables to sixteen.

Money was always a problem for Josephine. Napoleon was as impossible to please as ever, demanding that she keep up the style of an empress but not providing quite enough funds to do so. He wrote angrily that she should behave as if she were in the Tuileries. Her household gentlemen should not be allowed to wear frock coats; instead, they must display the court outfit of embroidered dress, swords, and feathers. She must always, he instructed, travel with an escort. He did allow her ladies free choice in their gowns, as long as they were green.

Josephine’s spirits had lifted a little after the first shock of Napoleon’s new marriage. The renovations to the house and gardens made life much more congenial. Madame Ducrest had put together a jovial household who stayed up late chatting and playing cards. The party ate late into the night, dining off Josephine’s Sèvres divorce present from Napoleon and a golden plate given by the city of Paris on the day of the coronation. On one occasion, the household decided to play dress-up, and Josephine gave them her feathery headdresses, cashmere shawls, and gowns covered in gold embroidery. She had become careless of imperial trappings and wore simple crepe dresses and caps or diadems of flowers rather than the weighty headdresses of the empress. She preferred informal gatherings and begged the inhabitants of Evreux not to celebrate her birthday (they ignored her and illuminated the town all the same). When the Navarre waterways iced over, Josephine ordered sledges from Paris for her staff, while others were pushed about in armchairs newly affixed with wheels—unfortunately, a wheel dropped off Mademoiselle Avrillion’s, and the poor woman broke her leg. On New Year’s Day 1811, rather than giving presents (the custom in the early nineteenth century was to exchange gifts on New Year’s Day rather than at Christmas), Josephine declared that she would hold a lottery for her jewels, giving away crosses, rings, brooches, and pins. Despite the informality, people were formal with her. As Madame d’Arberg said, “so few persons appear in their true character that Her Majesty is very partial to those who display any candour.”32

Eugène, too, welcomed the opportunity to throw off ceremony at Navarre. When he arrived for a visit, he begged not to be announced so he could dash in without any of the company rising. He won over all the ladies, and Madame Ducrest claimed it was “impossible to display greater amiability, instruction or good nature.”33 One of their favorite occupations with him was to have a competition as to who could hook the most fish in the little rivers around the castle; they would then have the chefs fry them up for dinner. The visits of Hortense were rather sadder. Louis had begged Napoleon for a divorce, but the emperor had refused, so she was in the same position that Josephine had been in the years before the Terror—unwanted by her husband but unable to marry again.

Josephine dreaded the occasional journeys between Navarre and Paris, since Napoleon desired a true triumphal progress. She was so weary of it that on one occasion she told her ladies to dress humbly and tell everyone they encountered that the empress had passed incognito. She would then travel the next day. The ladies witnessed terrible disappointment in every town, for the burghers had all emerged in their costumes, the troops had been polishing their silver and shining their boots, and young girls had dressed up in white, holding nosegays in their hands, only to be told that the empress had already gone past and they had missed their chance of seeing her.

Still she was seen as a benefactor. “There is no danger of annoying or importuning Josephine when we enable her to relieve the distressed,” Madame de Rémusat said. Josephine received a steady stream of the poor and suffering. On one occasion, a musician came to Navarre and was so bad in his attempt at imitating a quartetto of different instruments that the ladies-in-waiting could not restrain their laughter. Josephine gave him food and money and gently reprimanded her ladies for mocking “a poor man who tried so hard to please me when he was dying with hunger.”34

ON MARCH 20, Josephine was dining with Madame d’Arberg, having sent her household to a dinner with the mayor of Evreux. She received an official dispatch and then heard the village bells ring out. A son had been born to Napoleon and Marie Louise. Briefly, pain spread across her features, and then she resumed her gracious manner and spoke of her pleasure at an event that gave her former husband such joy. She sent a courier with a message to congratulate her beloved Napoleon. Josephine’s household hurried back from the dinner to attend her. Torn between hope for the empire and allegiance to Josephine, Madame Ducrest wrote of “a violent emotion of anger when I recollected that the woman who held her place was completely happy.” Josephine was serene with her household. “I am well pleased to find that the painful sacrifice I made to France has proved of some advantage.”35 She sent Napoleon a five-thousand-franc diamond pin and planned a great ball in celebration of the news.

MARIE LOUISE HAD begun to feel labor pains on the evening of March 19. The courtiers, Bonapartes, ministers, and grand officials had been waiting on standby, and the minute they heard the message from the empress’s lady-in-waiting, they donned their court dress and dashed to the appointed chamber.

At Marie Antoinette’s first accouchement in 1778, the room had been so full of dignitaries that, as Madame Campan said, “anyone might have fancied themselves in a place of public entertainment.”36 The poor queen fitted and fainted before a doctor demanded that space be made for her and the courtiers open the shutters. After such a fiasco, Louis XVI had ordered that most of the court wait outside to protect the queen’s health. Other royal consorts had rebelled against giving birth in public—Queen Charlotte in Britain allowed only members of the cabinet and the archbishop to wait in the adjoining room. But Napoleon, as ever, wished to return to the high point of Versailles; everything was theater for him. Marie Louise’s labor was as crowded with spectators as a court jousting match. Doctors and nurses flittered among courtiers, all standing at attention. Hortense was there as Marie Louise’s lady-in-waiting, and Eugène had been summoned by Napoleon.

The labor was hard, and the emperor was shocked by what he saw. The man who could shrug off the horrors of the battlefield found his wife’s sufferings in childbirth unbearable and dashed from the room. The doctor told him that the baby was breech, and it was possible the infant might be saved only by killing the mother (he meant by an ad hoc cesarean section; so far no section had been performed in which both mother and child lived). Even though the whole point of the marriage had been to provide an heir, Napoleon did not hesitate. “Save the mother,” he said. “It is her right. We will have another child.”

Despite the difficulties, at 9:20 A.M. Marie Louise gave birth to a nine-pound boy. The doctors used forceps in the end, with Napoleon hiding in the bathroom, refusing to watch. After the birth, the child lay unmoving for seven minutes. The emperor gazed at his son, convinced he was dead. Finally, the child let out a noisy cry, and Napoleon took his son in his arms.

The Bonapartes were in an adjoining room, and Eugène watched with bitter satisfaction as Caroline and Elisa burst into despairing tears at their loss of influence when the news came that it was a boy. Outside, cannon fire was telling all Paris that Napoleon had a child. It was to be twenty-one rounds for a girl and one hundred for a boy. At the twenty-second, the people began dancing in the streets in the first spontaneous outpouring of enthusiasm for Napoleon since long before the coronation. Bonaparte watched his people celebrate with tears running down his cheeks.

“My son is fat and healthy,” he wrote to Josephine. “I trust he will continue to improve. He has my chest, my mouth and my eyes. I hope he will fulfill his destiny.”37 Josephine pushed ahead with her plans for a huge ball at Navarre, ordering a re-laying of the floor and repainting of the rooms, as well as deliveries of ornaments, flowers, furniture, and food that kept the tradesmen of Navarre entirely afloat. Despite the extravagance, few would travel from Paris, and the guests were mainly the stolid burghers of Navarre. In a silver lamé dress and diadem of diamonds, Josephine greeted them as if they were the highest nobility. The burghers danced and ate until four in the morning, delighted by the unforgettable ball of the empress Josephine.

Again she begged Napoleon to return to Malmaison and sent Hortense to plead with him as well. He replied that he would offer her anything else. She could be governor of Rome or live in Brussels and hold a brilliant court. She was adamant; she wanted only Malmaison. Finally, he gave in and let her return to her adored house and garden.

But Malmaison was in the clutches of a financial crisis. Money had been embezzled from her accounts, and the son of the prince of Monaco, who was in charge of the stables, had sold off several horses far too cheaply. Napoleon was furious with her. “Consider how ill I must think of you, if I know that you, with 3 million francs a year, are in debt.” He told her to save as much as she spent every year. “Look after your affairs, and don’t give to everyone who wants to help himself.”38

He sent his treasurer to tell the empress that she must moderate her expenses and keep accurate accounts. Marie Louise, she was told, was skilled in economy and never went into debt. Josephine wept at the lecture, doubly pained to be reprimanded by an official rather than Napoleon. When the emperor heard that she had burst into tears, he was as moved as ever. “You mustn’t make her cry!” he said to the treasurer.

“I was annoyed with you about your debts,” he wrote to Josephine. “Nevertheless, never doubt my affection for you, and don’t worry any more about the present embarrassment.”39

She did attempt to curb her expenses. Her comptroller rented out some of her land, tried to reduce the excessive spending on plants, and attempted to claim some of her money from Martinique. But Josephine still spent wildly on clothes, hospitality, gifts, and bequests. When she discovered that one of her gentlemen, the flirtatious Monsieur de Pourtales, had been courting the naïve Mademoiselle de Castellane, she took the pair for a walk in the gardens. “You possess nothing but your name,” she said to Mademoiselle de Castellane, “M. de Pourtales is very rich; you cannot believe that he intends to marry you.” Confounded, Pourtales promptly announced that he would, and Josephine offered a dowry of a hundred thousand francs and the trousseau. She was very generous with her money and too old to change her ways. Napoleon had told her to set aside a million francs a year for her grandchildren. It was unlikely. She soon was in debt for over three million francs, despite her hefty allowance.40

“Tranquillity is such a sweet thing,” she wrote to Eugène. “Ambition is the only thing that can spoil it, and thank God I do not suffer from the disease.” She was attempting to put her son at ease, and she hoped he might tell Napoleon that she was content with her lot, though she still cried bitter tears over her loss. When Bourrienne came to visit her at Malmaison, she could barely speak. “I have drained my cup of despair. He has cast me off! Abandoned me! He conferred upon me the vain title of Empress only to render my fall the more marked.”41 She also told Bourrienne:

You cannot imagine, my friend, all the miseries I have suffered since that awful day! I cannot imagine how I survived it. You cannot conceive the pain I endure on seeing descriptions of his fetes everywhere. And the first time he came to see me after his marriage, what a meeting was that! I shed so many tears!

She was spending more than ever in an attempt to dull her pain. She shrugged when she was told to avoid milliners, dressmakers, and jewelers. “I ought, indeed to be indifferent to it all, but it is a habit.”42 She poured money into her home, and Malmaison was consequently at its most beautiful, a true château-musée. In June 1813, Josephine wrote again to Eugène from Malmaison: “The life I lead here is still the same, occupying myself only with my gallery and my plants.”43 Her new gallery, built in the same year as the divorce, was, as Madame Ducrest said, “one of the finest sights imaginable,” and she had commissioned a proper catalog of her art collection. Foreign visitors would travel especially to see her paintings and sculptures.44

Josephine sent hundreds of letters pursuing the art she desired. Writing to Eugène’s minister, the general treasurer of the kingdom of Italy, she expressed thanks for advice he had offered on five paintings that he thought suitable for the gallery. “I will also buy the two paintings by Mme. Grimaldi,” she instructed.45 “All that I desire now is the painting [by Titian] which was shown to me on the evening of my departure. Be so good as to find out the asking price for me.”46 She busied herself launching the careers of lesser-known artists, suggesting to the directors of the yearly art exhibition in Paris, the Salon, that they display paintings by her favorite, M. Töpffer, “of whose work you have seen several examples at Malmaison.”47 Josephine, as a divorced woman, was denied entry to the Salon. She commissioned from her beloved Canova The Dancer and Paris but refused to allow Paris to go to the exhibition. If she could not go, why should her artworks?

In 1812 Josephine asked Canova to create a sculpture of the Three Graces for her. Euphrosyne, Aglaea, and Thalia, the three daughters of Zeus, presided over banquets for the guests of the gods, representing beauty, charm, and joy. Josephine, commissioning such a sculpture in the evening of her life, surely was remembering her days with Thérésa and Juliette, the three graces of Paris, and the time of wonder when all was freedom and anything seemed possible.

Carved from a single slab of white marble, The Three Graces is a masterpiece of softness and beauty. On a visit to Canova’s studio in Rome, the Duke of Bedford spotted the sculpture and fell in love with it. He was told there was no possibility of having it, for it was to go to the empress herself. Bedford was not the first art collector to be disappointed. To the chagrin of many collectors across Europe, Josephine tended to come first.

MALMAISON WAS A wonderland of exotic animals, art, and plants, and it was expensive to maintain. Guests flocked there to sample the delights of the table, to peer at the menagerie, and most of all, to tour the works of art. It was the height of fashion to partake of Josephine’s fabulous dinners, with bananas and pineapples from her greenhouses and her homemade ice cream. Josephine had brought from Italy a special ice cream maker who created the exquisite raisin- and liqueur-flavored “glacé Malmaison.” Cheerfully ignoring the ban on trade with Britain, she had a British attendant who served up Cheshire cheese and English muffins, which were rare treats for the French.

For the children of Hortense and Eugène, Malmaison was a marvelous playground. As Louis Napoleon, later Napoleon III, recalled, “I can still see the Empress Josephine in her salon on the ground floor, covering me with her caresses, and even flattering my vanity by the care with which she repeated my childish sayings.” For, he said, “my grandmother spoilt me in every sense of the word.” At Malmaison, “we—my brother and I—were at liberty to do just what we liked. The Empress, who was passionately fond of plants and conservatories, allowed us to cut the sugar canes to suck, and was always telling us to ask for whatever we wanted.”48

The sugar, the dinners, the muffins, and the ice cream had their effect on the empress—she was growing larger. Laure Junot recalled that “one special feature of her figure assumed really incredible proportions”; she was forced to wear boned corsets to keep her rapidly expanding bosom under control. “They say you are as fat as a good Normandy farmer’s wife,” Napoleon wrote cheerfully to her.49

Josephine’s chamberlain, Comte Turpin de Crissé, paid tribute to her hospitality, describing a court where “dignity, grace, wit, talents and good conversation made a seat of exile into a place of enchantment and a queen without a crown into a woman surrounded by real friends.”50 The comte was slightly biased. There was gossip that Josephine relied on him emotionally and in 1810 took a holiday with him, accompanied by only a single equerry and one lady attendant. If there was an affair, it was short-lived. The comte married in 1813 with Josephine’s blessing.

ON JUNE 8, the baby king of Rome was christened at Notre-Dame. As Napoleon had planned, the ceremony was a version of the one that had been held for Louis, grand dauphin of France. Predictably, Napoleon seized the limelight, twice taking the child from the arms of Marie Louise and raising him aloft to show the public.

Josephine desired above all to touch the child who had cost her so many tears. Napoleon was very resistant, but he finally allowed her an hour with his son in secret. The little boy was taken to play at the summer palace of Bagatelle on the outskirts of Paris, and his governess, Madame de Montesquiou, allowed Josephine to hold him and kiss him. When Marie Louise got wind of the meeting, she was furious and made Napoleon promise never to permit it again.

Napoleon was happy at the Tuileries, eating desserts with his wife and playing with his son. He had taken up with mistresses again, and brought Marie Walewska and her son, little Alexandre, to Paris. But as he dressed up as a shopkeeper to visit her, presided over celebrations, and watched the king of Rome play with gilded rattles, the empire was crumbling. The emperor had become plump and self-satisfied, indeed more like a contented shopkeeper than the obsessive military genius who once was able to ride for ten hours straight. Massively overextended, his empire was impossible to govern and police, and the resentments in the vassal states were growing. Thanks to the rapacious behavior of the French armies, states began their subordination full of grievances and distress, and matters only grew worse, with high taxes levied to pay for the price of occupation and to support Napoleon’s vast expenditure at home. His extravagant behavior (and that of Josephine) generated pure hatred in many subject states, as the people struggled to pay taxes in order to keep him and his huge court in pampered luxury in Paris. The people were also shocked by his treatment of the Church; he seized Church property and closed many of the orders, leaving monks and nuns no choice but to beg on the streets. France was no less restive than the vassal states. Scarred and traumatized after the Terror, the people had believed Napoleon would bring peace to the nation. Now they could not see where his ambition would end. “Soon Europe will not be enough for him,” wrote one, “he will wish for Asia.”51

Across the empire, conscription was a source of widespread misery, increased to encompass men from twenty to sixty years of age. Towns became ghostly, with women forced to take on double the work because their men were gone. The price of bread was soaring, there was widespread misery due to the Continental Blockade, and the thought of losing more men was almost too much to bear. The conscription notices posted on street corners filled towns with despair, as people gathered to look for the names of their husbands and sons.

Napoleon, the sun of his own world, thought himself immune to complaints. “I have three hundred thousand men to spend,” he said. The tsar recently had begun trading with Britain, and Napoleon saw the act as one of aggression. Determined to seize a significant military victory, he grew set on the ludicrous idea of invading Russia. He called up more than six hundred thousand men from all over his dominions, from Italy to Poland, Denmark to Switzerland. Fat, sickly, and pale, his huge torso balanced on tiny legs, suffering from a hacking cough and bladder problems, he dressed up in ermine and medals, styled himself as a leader, and demanded their allegiance.

Before departing for Russia, Napoleon visited Josephine for over two hours. She begged Constant to look after him, surprising the valet with her “care for the man who had abandoned her.”52 The emperor left for Dresden, accompanied by Eugène, three hundred carriages, and Marie Louise, his symbol of power and riches, his means of impressing his vassals. “I leave St.-Cloud and I go to Moscow, not out of inclination or to gratify myself, but out of dry calculation,” he said.53 He lied: He yearned for glory.

In his usual vain fashion, Napoleon announced that he would conquer Russia in twenty days. But he and his men battled with the rough terrain. “My health is fine,” he wrote to Marie Louise, and “it is very hot.”54 The heat of the plains was exhausting, and the troops quickly ran low on supplies. The Russian serfs had expected that Napoleon would liberate them, and when he did not, they actively tried to thwart him. As for the outnumbered Russian troops, they simply retreated and let the punishing landscape do their work for them. After two months, no battle had been fought, and 150,000 of the men had deserted, died of illness or heat exhaustion, or were too weakened to fight.

Napoleon pushed on. In September, the Russians and the French clashed at the village of Borodino. At the end, 44,000 Russians lay dead or wounded on the battlefield, and Napoleon lost around 30,000 of his troops, including many generals. He declared himself the victor, and on September 15, he entered Moscow. The inhabitants had fled, aside from those too infirm to leave and the criminals and foreigners forbidden to do so. As Napoleon entered, the governor of Moscow put torches to his house and distributed explosives to gangs of citizens to set the rest of the city alight, sending several to destroy the firefighting equipment. Napoleon occupied the Kremlin and gazed at “the mountains of red, rolling flames, like immense waves of the sea. Oh, it was the most grand, the most sublime, the most terrifying sight the world had ever seen!”55 The fires eventually burned out. Certain the tsar would sue for peace, Napoleon wrote to Alexander demanding a treaty.

Alexander, squirreled away in St. Petersburg, did not reply. Napoleon sat in the Kremlin, dawdling over his meals, playing vingt-et-un with Eugène or trying to read novels to pass the dreary hours. For the first time in years, he was kept waiting. “I shall fight to the last man in my Empire,” pronounced Alexander. “Now it is Napoleon or me; we can no longer reign together.”56 Really, there was no need to fight at all. As the tsar knew, Napoleon could not remain in Russia forever, for he had a restive population in France who required attention, and it was now too cold to march to St. Petersburg. Under a month after they arrived, as the heavy snows began to fall, the French slunk out of the city.

“We seemed to be marching in a world of ice,” recalled one soldier. Temperatures fell to well below minus twenty degrees. Thousands of horses slithered on the snow and perished and the soldiers fell and died where they lay. “The ravages of cold were equalled by those of hunger,” wrote one Württemberg soldier. No food was too rotten or disgusting to be eaten, and no dead horse, cat, or dog was left untouched. Soldiers would watch a comrade grow weak, counting the hours until he fell to the ground and died. Then they would steal his belongings and eat his flesh. Men even gnawed on their own bodies. “All human compassion vanished,” one soldier recalled. The men’s minds were addled by the cold; “dull despair and raving madness had taken possession of many and they died muttering, with their last breath, the most horrible imprecations against God and man.”57 It was so cold that four hundred men might gather around a fire at night and three hundred would be dead in the morning. Those who did not die of hunger and despair werepicked off by the Russian troops, who followed them through the countryside. French soldiers were impaled on stakes and thrown alive into cauldrons of boiling water. The peasants, brutalized and angry, tortured them by beating them with hammers and pushing stakes down their throats. Napoleon was unruffled. “Small change,” he said, poking with his foot at the corpses on the ground.

Bonaparte left his army on December 5 and hurried on ahead. He arrived at the Tuileries just after midnight on December 19, slipping through a back door. He immediately ordered a round of balls and receptions to celebrate his return, paying no attention to the devastating dispatch sent by General Berthier, “Sir, your army exists no more.” Out of the 600,000 men who had traveled to war, only 93,000 would stagger home. Many were not in a fit state to fight ever again and barely able to return to normal life. Two hundred thousand horses had died. Napoleon’s insane plan to invade Russia was, as Talleyrand put it, “the beginning of the end.”

General Caulaincourt, who accompanied Napoleon to France, said—only half in jest—that the Prussians should take Napoleon prisoner and give him to the British to display in London like an animal in a cage. “A man such as I does not concern himself about the lives of a million men,” Napoleon said.58 The populace, by his estimation, needed to be forced to love him—just as he had always tried to force ladies to do the same.

He did not write to Josephine from Russia, and she spent the campaign in an agony of panic over her former husband and her son. Eugène, she knew, had been wounded, but there was little news of him. Marie Louise took pity on her rival and gave Hortense some of her letters from Napoleon to read so she could pass on details to her mother. To Josephine’s great joy, Eugène survived—and unlike nearly every other man who had been on the campaign, he remained loyal to the emperor.

The emperor went to visit Josephine on his return, but he did not invite her to the celebrations. Even if it had been appropriate, she was a reminder of the military success of better days, which he could not bear. The first campaign he had undertaken since his marriage to Marie Louise had been a terrible, scandalous failure.

Josephine sat alone in Malmaison. Everyone else of fashion in Paris, it seemed, had been forced to attend what were nicknamed “the wooden leg balls,” because so many of those present were missing a limb. Those who went to the Tuileries found it a bitter diversion. “In the midst of the general consternation, people were shocked to see the Emperor entertaining at the Tuileries,” wrote Major Raymond de Montesquiou, Duc de Fezensac. “I shall always remember one of those dismal balls, at which I felt I was dancing on graves.”59

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