Biographies & Memoirs


If Josephine had lived longer, she would have seen Napoleon return home, perhaps restored to her arms. “She had her failings of course,” he said, “but she at least would never have abandoned me.”1 Marie Louise, once so devoted, quickly forgot her husband. In the summer of 1814, she went to take the waters at Aix-les-Bains, and Metternich ensured that she was escorted by Albrecht von Neipperg, a seducer extraordinaire. She fell in love with him and eventually bore him three children. She sent Napoleon a formal greeting for the New Year of 1815 and never wrote to him again.

By the winter of 1814, Napoleon was planning to attack the allies. Disappointed that the restoration of Louis XVIII had made little impact on their day-to-day lives (they felt poorer, not richer), people were beginning to remember the emperor with fondness, and they resented the allied troops. Divisions among the allies only encouraged Napoleon to launch an attack. “You were not made to die on this island,” said Letizia. On February 26, 1815, Napoleon set off with 650 men of the guard, 100 Polish soldiers, and further volunteers. The European ministers had been in Vienna, discussing how to carve up the Napoleonic empire when they heard the unbelievable news: The former emperor had landed in France. On the night of March 19, Louis XVIII fled the Tuileries. Napoleon settled into his old home and even called Fouché back as minister of police (a mistake, as he was in the pay of the allies). The ever loyal Marie Walewska returned, too. But outside Paris, his enemies were coming together. Napoleon decided on a preemptive strike and hurried to Belgium.

On June 15, the Duchess of Richmond threw a lavish ball for the allies in Brussels. As the people danced, the news came through that Napoleon was advancing. The men left to fight, still in evening dress. Three days later, Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo and fled toward Paris. On June 22, he abdicated in favor of his son and moved to Malmaison, where Hortense performed the honors of the table. “I will go to Malmaison: I can live there in retirement with some friends, who most certainly will come to see me only for my own sake,” he said.2 Marie Walewska and her son came to visit him, along with other mistresses, including Madame Duchâtel, and his nine-year-old son by Eléonore Denuelle, Charles, Comte Léon. Napoleon wandered Malmaison in a state of depression, remembering his Josephine.

King Louis XVIII, restored once more by the allies, cheerfully said that Napoleon had been a good tenant and kept the Tuileries looking well. They all thought that would be the emperor’s only legacy. As he would not be allowed to stay in France, Napoleon asked for exile in Britain, believing that the British principle of fair play would mean humane treatment. When he arrived at Torbay, crowds of sightseers came to catch a glimpse of him. The prince regent, the prime minister, and the secretary of state for war claimed him as a prisoner of war and informed him that he would be sent to St. Helena, an island in the Atlantic Ocean, between Africa and South America, a very long way from anywhere. He was told he could take three officers and twelve soldiers and would be treated as a general on half pay. “I am not a prisoner but the guest of England,” he complained, to no avail. To be placed for life on an island within the tropics, cut off from all communication with the world was, he thought, quite “horrible.” He declared he would have preferred the Tower of London.3

Napoleon was put under virtual house arrest on St. Helena and amused himself with math puzzles, gardening, and dictating his memoirs. The hero for whom, as Bourrienne said, “all Europe was too small,” and who had exhausted himself with his victories, now had years of rest.4 He could not bear it. By March 1821, he was severely unwell, and in April his condition deteriorated. In delirium, he cried that he saw the empress:

I have just seen my good Josephine but she would not embrace me. She disappeared at the moment when I was about to take her in my arms. She was seated there. It seemed to me that I had seen her yesterday evening. She is not changed. She is still the same, full of devotion to me. She told me that we were about to see each other again, never more to part. Do you see her?5

Ten days later, on May 5, he died, uttering his last words: “France, armée, tête d’armée, Josephine.” At the very end, he thought of his empress.

AFTER THE DEATH of their mother, Hortense and Eugène were orphans. “My courage is gone!” Hortense said. “Alexander will soon forget the promised protection, and then I shall have to struggle alone with my two children against the hostilities people will heap on me for the sake of the name I bear.”6 But Tsar Alexander did remember his pledge and pressed Louis XVIII to make her Duchess of Saint-Leu. When Napoleon returned in 1815, she supported him and thus was banished from France when he was finally defeated. She traveled in Germany and Italy before purchasing a château in Switzerland. Her relationship with the Comte de Flahaut continued until after Napoleon’s brief restoration, but then the comte moved to Britain and in 1817 married Margaret Elphinstone, daughter of Napoleon’s mortal enemy Admiral Lord Keith and a friend of Princess Charlotte, then heir to the British throne. Hortense and Flahaut’s son, Charles Auguste, was sent to live with his paternal grandmother. The little boy grew up to be a prosperous Paris businessman, earning a huge fortune from sugar-beet factories. Hortense lived in her Swiss château with her third son, Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. Her second son died in his brother’s arms in 1831 at the age of twenty-seven, of what seems to have been measles. Hortense died in 1837 at fifty-four, worn out by grief. She was buried next to Josephine in the Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul Church in Rueil.

Still, Hortense won in the end. Her third son, Charles Louis, became Napoleon III in April 1852. In 1853 he married Eugénie de Montijo, a pretty Spanish-born aristocrat, after seeing her at a ball. When he was overthrown after the failure of the Franco-Prussian War, they took refuge in Chislehurst in Kent. She died almost forty years after her husband, in 1920, after witnessing the world change in ways that Josephine never could have imagined.

EUGÈNE CONTINUED AS sensible and stoic as ever. After the fall of Napoleon, he retired to Munich and obeyed the strictures of his father-in-law, Maximilian of Bavaria, to keep out of French politics—although all his surviving children, except his second daughter, bore the middle name of Napoleon (with a second “E” for the females). Astonishingly, he succeeded in gaining seven hundred thousand francs from the Bourbons as compensation for his mother’s seized property. His six children (he lost one daughter, Caroline, in infancy) made auspicious marriages. His eldest daughter, Josephine, became queen consort to Oscar I of Sweden, the son of Désirée Clary and General Bernadotte. Josephine, like her grandmother, loved gardening, was a patroness of art, and always worked hard to promote her husband’s politics. Out of all the marriages, the most magnificent was that of his third daughter, Amelia, who became empress of Brazil. Her husband was so struck by her appearance that he apparently collapsed with emotion when he first saw her as her boat docked in Rio. Like her grandmother, she was renowned for her elegance, her gentle behavior at court, and her skill at hosting social events, a reputation that remained until her husband’s abdication in 1831. Eugène’s youngest son, Maximilian, married the eldest daughter of Tsar Nicholas I, Grand Duchess Maria (in the end, someone managed to seize a grand duchess). Eugène died in 1824 at the age of forty-two. Many royal households in Europe count themselves as his descendants.

Thérésa (Tallien) retired to Prince de Chimay’s estates in the Netherlands, where she lived until 1835, leaving behind ten children fathered by four men—her first husband, Tallien, the banker Ouvrard, and Chimay. Jean Lambert Tallien fell into poverty and finally had to accept a pension of a hundred sous a month from Louis XVIII. He died of leprosy in 1820.

The free-spirited La Grassini became mistress to the Duke of Wellington in Paris, much to the shock of the newspapers. Pauline Fourès lived contentedly, surrounded by exotic birds in the home Napoleon bought for her in Paris. She wrote novels, of which the most successful was perhaps Lord Wentworth, and died in 1869. Marie Walewska remarried in 1816 but died the following year, shortly after the birth of a son. Alexandre, her son with Napoleon, became Napoleon III’s ambassador to Britain. At a London reception, a lady guest enthused about his striking resemblance to his “distinguished father.” “I had no idea, Madame,” he replied, “that you were acquainted with the late Count Walewski.”

Napoleon’s family took up occupation in Italy, welcomed by the Grand Duke of Florence and Pope Pius in Rome, still alive and willing to forgive the Bonapartes their slights. Italy had been thoroughly and cruelly conquered by the Bonapartes, its artworks and palaces looted, but their people provided refuge for the family. Letizia had returned with Napoleon to France from Elba, but he had forbidden her to accompany him to St. Helena. She died in Rome in 1836. Pauline died of consumption in Florence in 1825 at the age of forty-five. Elisa died in Trieste in 1820 at the age of forty-three. Her death particularly affected Napoleon on St. Helena; he cried that she had “shown me the way.”7 Louis died alone in 1846 in Livorno. Caroline was arrested by the Austrians after a failed attempt to regain the Neapolitan throne. Freed, she lived with Elisa in Trieste, married a British general, and died in Italy of cancer in 1839. She was the only Bonaparte family member to attend the funeral of Hortense at Rueil, a token of respect to a school friend she had done so much to undermine and destroy.

Lucien and Joseph changed their loyalties and became preoccupied with installing Hortense’s second son on the throne as Napoleon II. His death in 1831 put an end to their hopes. Lucien turned to writing bad novels and died in Viterbo, Italy, in 1840, and Joseph died in 1844 at the grand age of seventy-six after a spell in New York and New Jersey, living off the proceeds of the stolen Spanish crown jewels. The luckiest of all was Jérôme, Napoleon’s least favorite sibling. He fought at Waterloo and lived long enough to see the ascent of Napoleon III, and thus received the rank of a French prince. He died in 1860 in a château in Villegenis and was buried in Les Invalides—the only Bonaparte to die in France.

Cardinal Fesch, who had fallen out with Napoleon for taking the side of the pope, retired to Rome after Waterloo and remained there until he died in 1839. He kept intact his incredible collection of around sixteen thousand pictures, much of it looted from the Italian campaign.8 He left more than a thousand pieces to the Bonaparte hometown of Ajaccio on Corsica, including works by Botticelli, Bellini, and Titian. Some he left in Lyon, and the rest were sold in Rome after his death. They now hang in museums and private homes all over the world. Five paintings are in the Wallace Collection in London, including two Greuzes; and several works, including Michelangelo’s The Entombment and Raphael’s Mond Crucifixion, are in London’s National Gallery.

Napoleon’s much desired son, the “king of Rome,” lived a miserable existence as the captive of his grandfather in Vienna. On April 21, just before he died on St. Helena, Napoleon wrote him a lengthy letter. “My son should not think of avenging my death. He should profit from it,” he announced. “Let my son bring into blossom all I have sown.” He was quite sure that the Bourbons would fall after his death, and he saw the little king building an empire. “He ought to establish institutions which shall efface all traces of the feudal law, secure the dignity of men,” he wrote. “He should propagate, in all those countries now uncivilised and barbarous, the benefits of Christianity and civilisation.”9 It was not to be. The king of Rome died of tuberculosis in Vienna at the age of twenty-one.

WHEN JOSEPHINE DIED, Eugène inherited Malmaison and sold the Hesse-Kassel paintings to the tsar in 1815. In 1819 he ordered a huge house sale. Interested parties could buy antique busts and statues, Etruscan vases, granite columns, boxes, dresses, shawls, lace, collars and feathers, objets d’art, tables, and even two mummies, one male and one female. The buyers spilled in to purchase a little of the empress’s greatness. Josephine’s treasures were dispersed across the world, her flower paintings lost, her fine furnishings broken and burned. Occasionally, her belongings come up at auction and sell for huge sums. The tsar snapped up many of her paintings and sculptures, with most now in the Hermitage, although some of the paintings have disappeared.10

Josephine died before she could see the sculpture of the Three Graces she had commissioned from Canova. The Duke of Bedford, who had desired it on display in the studio, immediately demanded it. The tsar also wished to own it. Luckily, Eugène claimed it for France. The Three Graces remained in Eugène’s possession until his son Maximilian, by then married to the grand duchess Maria, took it to the Hermitage. The Duke of Bedford had Canova make a copy—something that Josephine never would have allowed—and it was installed at Woburn Abbey in 1819. It is this version that is alternately displayed in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Galleries of Scotland.

OVER THE YEARS, Malmaison and its fine gardens fell into decline. All the furniture was stripped from the house and sold at auction. The roses were trampled, the remaining animals killed or sold off to homes that did not love them so well. In 1828, after Eugène’s death, his widow sold Malmaison to a Swedish banker, Jonas Hagerman. In 1842 Queen Christina of Sweden took over the house and used it as a country residence. In 1861 Napoleon III, who had such fond memories of nibbling sugarcane in the gardens, demanded that she sell the house to him. He opened it as a museum to coincide with the 1867 World’s Fair. The house and gardens were damaged in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and the state sold it in 1877 to an estate agent who parceled off the land.

In 1896 a philanthropist, Daniel Iffla, bought the château and some of the land and donated it to France in 1904. A new museum was opened there in 1906.

Malmaison is a story of grandeur and neglect in one, a reminder of power and how quickly it fades. The rolling estates have been eaten into by the expansion of Paris. For long years Josephine’s picture gallery echoed emptily; once more, it is visited and enjoyed. If you walk into the gallery and look out onto the rose gardens, you might imagine yourself a guest at one of Josephine’s parties, watching as she walks toward you over the grass in her long white gown.

JOSEPHINE LIVED AN incredible life, rising from a humble childhood in Martinique to great power and glory. She experienced the highs and lows of rule and the pains of exile. Her tastes set the trends for art, fashion, gardening, and decoration, and her manner as a consort became seen as the ideal, with Empress Eugénie imitating her, much to the delight of the people.

Most of all, Napoleon and Josephine’s romance is celebratated as one for the ages, a coup de foudre both mysterious and passionate. Although they were married only fourteen years, they shaped each other’s legacies, and theirs is one of the great love stories of history. Napoleon needed Josephine to spin him from general to politician, to smooth his way, to charm his opposition. She threw in her lot with him, gambling that he would lift himself beyond mere military glory. She won her bet, and yet it came at a price. Marriage to him was exhausting, and she had to pretend she was someone she was not for much of her life.

This year, 2014, marks the two hundredth anniversary of Josephine’s death. Her life in many ways reveals the miseries that come with having power; yet we are still entranced by the story of the woman who captured the emperor’s heart. Napoleon never stopped thinking of her, surrounding himself with pictures of her at St. Helena (and eating off plates bearing her face). She has exercised a similar power over future generations, the empress whom France never forgot.

In 1811 Josephine wrote to Hortense saying that she had been entertaining her grandsons and had asked Louis Napoleon, the future Napoleon III, “who I resembled.” He replied that she “looked like the loveliest woman in Paris.” As she told Hortense, it was an “answer that shows he sees me more with his heart than with his eyes.”11 This, to me, is the key to her appeal: flawed, vulnerable, engaging, powerful—a woman to be seen with the heart rather than the eyes.

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