Biographies & Memoirs


“More Full of Charm”

By the beginning of 1813, the corpulent empire and its even fatter emperor were in severe trouble. Prussia had joined with Russia against France, and a campaign in Spain had been a failure. “The Emperor was invincible no longer,” the Duc de Fezensac rued. The emperor was weary. “The late hours, the hardships of war, are not for me at my age,” he said. “I love my bed, my repose, more than anything, but I must finish my work.”1

Napoleon’s enemies were not only external. Joachim and Caroline Murat, eager to keep their throne at all costs, had signed a pact with Vienna. Joseph had failed to impose order on Spain. Unlike his turncoat siblings, Louis was still faithful to the man who had given him power and position. He wrote to Napoleon offering to return to France and stand by his side. “My husband is a good Frenchman, he has proved it by returning to France at the point when all of Europe has turned against it,” said Hortense.2 She, too, despite everything that Napoleon had done to her, was still loyal to the emperor.

The allies could see chinks in Napoleon’s armor. On November 22, 1813, Eugène, who had survived the Russian campaign, was visited by an aide of the king of Bavaria, his father-in-law. He offered Eugène protection if he deserted Napoleon. Eugène refused. “It is not to be denied that the Emperor’s star is beginning to wane, but that is only another reason why those who have received so much from him should remain faithful.” He wrote to Napoleon to say he had told Bavaria that he would not “commit such a despicable act; that I would, until my final breath, remain true to the oath that I made to you.”3

The enemy troops were drawing near Paris. Josephine’s guards at Malmaison had fled, and she had only sixteen wounded soldiers to protect her. She refused to quit the city. On March 28, 1814, Hortense sent her a message that Marie Louise was about to flee. With Napoleon outside Paris attempting to repel the invaders, Marie Louise had been left as regent, and she had been refusing to leave. The young empress was told that she and the court must leave for Blois and that the emperor would not wish her or their son to be captured by the enemy. “I would prefer my son to be killed rather than see him brought up in Vienna as an Austrian prince,” she said.4 She reluctantly agreed to depart, “very angry … especially when the Parisians are showing such eagerness to defend themselves.”5

The following day, Josephine traveled to Navarre, her diamonds sewn into her petticoat. “I don’t know if it is possible to express how unhappy I am,” she wrote. “I have had courage in the many sad situations in which I have found myself; I can bear these reversals of fortune; but I do not know if I have enough strength to bear the absence of my children and the uncertainty of their fate.”6 She did not have long to wait. Hortense and her children fled to her two days later with the news that Paris had surrendered. The emperor had been captured and was under house arrest at Fontainebleau.

In Paris, the Champs-Élysées was filled with bearded Cossacks dressed in blue trousers and tunics, squatting by the road as they mended their clothes or polished their weapons. They slept outside, their horses tethered to trees. Aside from a little looting, they behaved perfectly, and the citizens of Paris lined up to inspect their new visitors. Marie Louise begged her husband to let her join him in Fontainebleau, but, sunk into a depression, he wrote to her only to pay out a million francs each to his mother, Joseph, Jérôme, Pauline, Louis, and Elisa. Once they received the money, they hurried off. “No one loves you as much as your faithful Louise,” Marie tried again. When he would not direct her, she took matters into her own hands and set off to interview her father. She was soon seized and kept by the Austrians.

Josephine was heartbroken to hear the news that the emperor had signed an agreement of abdication on April 6. The long-exiled Louis XVIII would be king in his place. Her spies told her of Napoleon’s low spirits and inability to take action. “How I have suffered in the way in which they have treated the Emperor,” she wrote to her son. “What attacks in the newspapers, what ingratitude on the part of those upon whom he showered his favours! But there is nothing more to hope for. It is finished, he is abdicating.”7

IN MID-APRIL JOSEPHINE returned to Malmaison, and the tsar paid a visit the following day. Hortense arrived and was shocked to see the courtyard full of Cossack soldiers and attendants. They told her that Josephine was out walking with the tsar of Russia. Hortense met them and was introduced, but she was cold with the tsar until Josephine reminded her of their precarious position. After the visit, the tsar wrote a warm letter and asked to come again. Josephine was unwilling, but Napoleon advised her to receive Alexander, for “the future of your children depends upon it.” Josephine ordered new gowns and set her household to polishing the furniture and arranging flowers.

She did everything she could to try and please the tsar. On taking tea with her, he pointed to a cup bearing her portrait and asked if he could have it. She told him that he could buy a similar cup anywhere and instead gave him a large antique cameo—showing Alexander the Great and Philip of Macedonia—that had been a gift from Pius VII on her coronation. “I wish to give you something which is not to be found anywhere else and which sometimes will make you think of me.”8

The tsar set the trend; soon all the allied leaders desired to come to Malmaison, taste the ice cream, see the orangutan, and gaze at the stupendous art collection. Josephine had become a trophy, just as Cleopatra had been for the Romans. She smiled graciously as she was treated like a spoil of war, but her heart was breaking. “I cannot be reconciled to Bonaparte’s fate,” she wrote to Hortense. He had been a brutal killer, a ruthless dispatcher of soldiers and civilians alike, but to her he was her husband, her man of bravery and skill. Her future as a captive prize of the allies was hardly appealing. “At times I have fits of melancholy enough to kill me,” she said.9

On April 16, 1814, Napoleon wrote the last existing letter to Josephine while he waited to be sent abroad. “In my retirement, I shall substitute the pen for the sword,” he told her, saying he would tell the truth about his reign. “I have showered benefits on thousands of wretches! What did they do in the end for me? They have betrayed me. Yes all of them except our dear Eugène, so worthy of you and me,” he lamented. “Adieu, my dear Josephine. Resign yourself as I am doing and never forget one who has never forgotten and will never forget you. P.S. I expect to hear from you when I reach Elba. I am far from being in good health.”10 On April 20, he left Fontainebleau, accompanied by fourteen carriages and an escort of Polish soldiers. Josephine could hardly bear the news that her husband had been bundled off to the obscure island of Elba, twelve miles off the Tuscan coast. He had lied about his supporters: Marie Walewska had rushed to Elba, along with his mother and Pauline, and Marie Louise had tried desperately to attend him. But he thought only of Josephine.

On May 3, Louis XVIII entered Paris and was declared king—after years of living in exile, he was fat, fifty-nine, and delighted to be back in the capital. Louis-Philippe Crépin produced a painting of the king “lifting France from its ruins.” Josephine’s world had nearly disappeared. She still entertained the tsar, always dressed in her finery as she accompanied him past the shrubs from St. Lucia and the flowers from Syria and into the greenhouse that pleased him so well. On May 14, 1814, she caught a cold while out walking with Alexander. On May 23, she received the king of Prussia and the grand duke Constantine, even though she felt weak. “She seemed to me to have a mere cold and her health was usually so good that I was not at all concerned,” Hortense remembered.11Josephine’s doctor was equally sanguine, and she herself refused to be cowed and hosted dinner and a small ball on the twenty-fifth for the Russian grand dukes, opening the dancing with the tsar. She then insisted on walking around the grounds with him, wandering past the beautiful plants in the moonlight. By the end of the evening, her fever was high, she had a rash, and she felt very unwell.

Hortense fussed around her with mustard plasters, but nothing worked. On the twenty-seventh, the tsar sent his own doctor to attend her. Josephine greeted him politely and with dignity. “I hope his interest will bring me luck,” she said. The tsar—who seemed to have little else to do in Paris other than visit Malmaison—was due again on the twenty-eighth for dinner. Josephine oversaw the preparations from her bed, to the despair of her doctor, who wished her to rest. He came out of Josephine’s chamber to tell Hortense that her mother was very ill.

On the twenty-eighth, the tsar came to see her, but she was too frail to receive guests and unable to speak. She was struggling to breathe, dropping in and out of consciousness, and in great pain. The doctors agreed that there was little hope. Josephine sent away all those who came to console her. Worried that she might infect her family, she even begged Hortense to leave. Her daughter remained outside and heard from the lady-in-waiting that Josephine occasionally uttered words in her delirium: “Bonaparte … island of Elba … King of Rome.”12 Next morning, the former empress, always aware of the need to appear grand, asked her attendants to dress her in a pink satin morning gown with matching ribbons, and put on her jewels in case the tsar came to visit. At eight o’clock, Hortense and Eugène went to wish her goodbye.

“When she saw us, she held out her arms with great emotion and uttered something we could not understand.” Splendid in her pink gown and her rubies, she received the last rites at eleven A.M. At noon, the empress, Napoleon’s “little Creole,” died one month short of her fifty-first birthday.

The cause of death was probably pneumonia. But in simple terms, she no longer wished to live. Without Napoleon, reduced to the trophy of the allies, she could see little estimable in her future. Her maid Mademoiselle Avrillion said “she died of grief.” She had not the spirit to live under occupation. “What fine tact, what kindness and moderation, she possessed,” said Madame du Cayla, the youthful favorite of Louis XVIII. “Her very dying, just now, is a proof of her good taste.”13

Napoleon received the news of Josephine’s death from a newspaper. In shock, he hid himself away in a dark room and refused all food. “No woman was ever loved with more devotion, ardour and tenderness,” he wrote, “only death could break a union formed by sympathy, love and true feeling.”14

JOSEPHINE LAY IN state in the foyer of Malmaison for three days in her coffin of lead and mahogany. Twenty thousand members of the public attended to see the great empress. Her beautiful, seductive eyes were closed and her mouth was touched by a smile. The bells of the nearby parishes tolled throughout the day. The capital had rejoiced to be liberated from Napoleon, but they mourned his empress. Some said she had been poisoned, and the puppet king, Louis XVIII, put out an announcement praising her to quell unrest.

The news of the death of Mme. de Beauharnais has provoked general sadness. This woman was born with sweetness and something genuinely good in her manner and in her spirit. Sadly, during the terrible times of the rule of her husband she was forced to take refuge against his brutalities in her love of horticulture … She alone amongst the milieu of this Corsican upstart spoke the language of the French and understood their hearts.

On Thursday, June 2, Josephine’s coffin was taken to the church at Rueil, followed by local representatives and Imperial Guards. Behind them walked a lone footman carrying a silver casket on a cushion. Inside was the empress’s heart. The pallbearers were Alexandre de Beauharnais’s brother, François, and his uncle Claude, the Grand Duke of Baden, and Comte de Tascher, Josephine’s cousin. Eugène, Hortense, and their children walked behind the coffin. Behind them followed a long procession of courtiers and dignitaries of the imperial regime, diplomats, and friends. Thousands of people watched and cried as the empress passed by. The church, entirely draped in black, was so full that only those with invitations could attend. The rest remained outside, weeping for their old empire, their revolutionary past, and the woman herself.

In 1815, when Napoleon returned to France in an attempt to recapture his lost empire, he hurried to Malmaison and pressed those who were with her in her final hours to tell him of her words. “I still seem to see her walking along the paths and collecting the flowers that she loved so much,” he said, wandering the gardens. “Poor Josephine! She was truly more full of charm than any other person I have ever known. She was a woman in the fullest meaning of the word: capricious and alive, and with the best of hearts.”

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