Biographies & Memoirs



Alexandre de Beauharnais was slender, strong-jawed, and handsome. As languidly aggressive as a character in the forthcoming novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, he was already an arch-seducer by the age of seventeen. He felt the world was his for the taking. In August 1779, just before Yeyette departed from Martinique, he wrote to his stepmother that he was “going into the country” with a “wife of a sub-lieutenant in the navy, a charming woman.” He was not planning on conversation. “I count on spending two days there, and in that short space of time I shall do everything possible to succeed.”

He won his prize. His new mistress, Marie Françoise-Laure de Girardin de Montgérald, Madame de Longpré, was from a Martinique family, twenty-nine, and the mother of a child. Stylish and temperamental, she had captivated her youthful lover. “Yes indeed, the chevalier has tasted happiness. He is loved by a charming woman who is the object of all the aspirations of the garrison of Brest and the district.”1 He expected Edmée to congratulate him. Entranced by Laure’s conversation, enthralled by her sexual experience, he barely gave a thought to the girl who was traveling thousands of miles to marry him. To Alexandre, love meant sex and conquest, and life was about enjoying himself.

A spoiled, much beloved child, Alexandre had been raised to believe he was destined for greatness. Until the age of five, he had lived on Martinique, then was sent to his indulgent father and his mistress in France. In 1775, his tutor, Patricol, was offered a position in the household of the two nephews of the Duc de La Rochefoucauld. A leading figure of the Enlightenment, the duc was friends with Voltaire and Lafayette and a fervent abolitionist. Patricol took Alexandre (and his elder brother, François) with him—it was not uncommon for aristocratic children to be sent off to live in grander households—and the boys grew up in the duc’s Parisian palace and his country château, listening to debates about freedom. He also grew up excessively reserved, cloaking his feelings in elegant diffidence. “What astonishes me most in him, and greatly displeases me, is the extreme care that he takes to hide, and the ease with which he disguises, the feelings of his heart,” rued Patricol.2 A modern teacher might say Alexandre was deceptive and shallow.

At sixteen, Alexandre achieved a commission in the Sarre Infantry Regiment, which was commanded by the duc. There, his passion for women hit new heights. They were to him “trophies of war.”3 He wrote lists of all the women he had ensnared, comparing their various features and titles. Stationed with the unit, he seduced ladies of the town and regimental wives, always eagerly acquainting his stepmother, Edmée, with his every success. By the age of seventeen, having long lost his innocence, he preferred older, married women, since they were more nonchalant and skilled at verbal sparring. Laure—bored, sensual, teasing, and glamorous—was perfect.

MEANWHILE, YEYETTE WAS en route to France. She had expected her journey to be terrifying; only a year before, her cousin Aimée had disappeared while traveling on a ship, and her family in Martinique believed she had been kidnapped by pirates. Yeyette and Joseph had taken places on a naval store ship, Île de France, headed to the mainland in a convoy led by the Pomone. The weather was rough, and the storms were so bad that the passengers believed they would die. Joseph and his daughter were hopelessly seasick and terrified of battle at sea, for they were repeatedly followed by British ships.

In spite of their troubles, the family made it to the large naval port of Brest, on the west coast of France, on October 12, 1779. Overwhelmed by the bustle, the cold and the dreary autumnal skies, the family retrieved what remained of their baggage and took lodgings in town. But the French sophistication Yeyette had dreamed of was nowhere to be found. Brest was one of the two major naval bases, a practical town of bars, brothels, and supply shops. Worse still, her father was ill and exhausted, and he had forgotten to write to his sister before departing to say they were coming. He didn’t even manage to send the letter to tell her that they had arrived until October 20.

Edmée had expected much more warning and had to rush to depart, seizing Alexandre and hurrying him to Brest. The young soldier was furious about the lack of notice. From the start, he was ill disposed and ready to find fault with the Creole girl he thought too old to be properly biddable. Moreover, he was deeply in love with Laure. She had recently told him she was pregnant with his child, and he wished to be constantly by her side.

Though she was sick and suffering from the journey, Yeyette readied herself to meet her fiancé. Euphémie dressed her mistress’s hair and pinched her cheeks for color. Yeyette thought she looked enchanting, and remembered how men had admired her at the governor’s balls. As soon as she saw Alexandre, she was delighted. Nineteen and very handsome, he was superb in his uniform of white with silver buttons and facings. Unlike her shabby father, he was precise in his appearance, with hair perfectly powdered and drawn back at the nape of his neck. She admired his piercing blue eyes and prominent nose. Everything about him corresponded with the strictures of male beauty at the time—except for the fact that he was of rather less than average height.

Yeyette held out her hand, her face bright with excitement. Alexandre looked at her in shock. He was obsessed by appearances and already a little jaded by too much experience with women, and Mademoiselle de La Pagerie was not what he had expected at all. He had anticipated a dusky beauty, all languorous grace, with a sensual smile and an air of French sophistication. He got a plump girl with a thick Creole accent and a clumsy manner. Yeyette barely understood fashion, and she was ill at ease with the heavy brocade gowns and elaborate coiffeurs she was expected to wear. She looked like a child in her mother’s clothes.

Alexandre could hardly smile. It was even worse when Yeyette spoke. Lightly educated, lacking in elegance, and without style, it was clear the girl who had run wild in the baking sun belonged in the schoolroom, not at a soirée. She was a poor comparison to his glamorous mistress, Laure—Yeyette had neither beauty nor accomplishments, and her deportment was terrible.

The young soldier was used to women practically swooning at his smile, so Yeyette’s fascination with him had no novelty. It was obvious that the girl was eager to please and that she was a virgin. But he had little desire to take her to his bed. Still, he respected his stepmother, Edmée, so there was no turning back. Over their following days together, he tried hard to love Yeyette. Certainly, she was so in love with him that it seemed she would be docile. Perhaps, he thought, some schooling in manners from Edmée, and time spent with a dressmaker, might shroud her rougher edges. “Mademoiselle de La Pagerie may perhaps appear to you less pretty than you had expected,” he wrote to his father, “but I think I may assure you that her amiability and the sweetness of her nature will surpass even what you have been told.”4 Alexandre also thought Yeyette was a ridiculous name. He declared she must henceforth be known only as Marie-Josèphe-Rose.

Marie-Josèphe was too blinded by infatuation to understand that her fiancé was immune to her charms. Seeing this, Edmée took whirlwind charge. She told her niece that all was proceeding marvelously, then whisked her brother to visit a notary in Brest. She encouraged him to sign a document agreeing to the marriage and ceding all control to her. Ill and lazy, he agreed, even though his sister now had the right to decide the dowry and could mortgage all the La Pagerie property in order to fulfill it.

On November 2, the party set off for the three-hundred-mile journey to Paris. Marie-Josèphe was in love. She had, Edmée wrote to the marquis, “all the feelings that you could wish her to have toward your son, and I have observed with the greatest satisfaction that she suits him.”5 The young bride-to-be gazed from the carriage window at countryside that was so unlike Martinique, and imagined her life with her new husband.

As they traveled, the route began to fill up. Carriages of fine ladies, soldiers on horseback, farmers driving their livestock, and laborers looking for work all crammed onto the bumpy road toward the great gated city. An unthinkably huge, bustling place of six hundred thousand souls, a place of incredible luxury and awful poverty in one, Paris was an eye-opener for anyone, let alone a plantation girl from far-off Martinique.

Finally, Marie-Josèphe arrived at the city she had dreamed of with such fervor. Elegant houses bordered the streets, servants trotted along with messages, ladies descended from carriages to enter the shops or the homes of their friends. The smell of the streets was so intense that visitors often fainted on their first visit. Marie-Josèphe, hardened against fetid conditions by her awful sea journey, stared through the window, gathering in every sight until they arrived at their destination, the family house in the rue Thévenot.

Her new home was a thin two-story building near modern-day Les Halles. Once fashionable, the area was now rather down at the heels. Formerly the home of the marquis’s grandmother, the house had fallen into disrepair, and it had not been renovated for the young couple because no one realized they were coming. Still, it was grand and imposing, with reception rooms hung with heavy chandeliers and tapestries. It all seemed a long way from the rooms in the sugarhouse at La Pagerie.

The marquis and Edmée had quit their stylish apartment in the rue Garancière to live with the newlyweds, all of them crowding into the narrow, gloomy house. Despite the grandeur of Paris, Marie-Josèphe missed the beautiful scenery of Martinique—when she opened the window, she could smell the pungent stench of the tanneries. On nearby streets, butchers set up open stalls and threw their waste meat into the middle of the road.

Edmée was determined not to lose any time. She put out orders for the wedding trousseau and arranged for the banns to be read in three different churches, and on December 10 the marriage contract was signed. In the house on the rue Thévenot, Joseph agreed to give his daughter the incredible dowry of 120,000 livres (money he didn’t have), a sum chosen by his sister. The bride offered presents and furniture given to her by friends and relations on Martinique—generously valued at 15,000 livres. Edmée donated a summerhouse at Noisy-le-Grand and all its furnishings, as well as a sum of money due to her from the will of a relative. Alexandre brought an annual sum of 40,000 livres from the family estates in France and Saint-Domingue.

With such money, the young couple would be so rich that no one could snub Marie-Josèphe for her countrified ways. But their wealth existed only on paper. There was no arrangement to bring the furniture from Martinique, and Edmée had a life interest in her gifts to Marie-Josèphe, so she would not be able to use them until her aunt died. Edmée had assessed Joseph’s contribution on the basis of the value of the properties in the Caribbean, but the sum was impossible. He could hardly afford his expenses in Paris, and he was supposed to give the couple six thousand a year as interest on their dowry. In reality, the newlyweds would be living off Alexandre’s money and whatever cash they could borrow.

On December 13, 1779, Marie-Josèphe was married. The chill, dark church at Noisy-le-Grand was filled with Alexandre’s friends and relations, and the ceremony was overseen by her new father-in-law, the marquis. She was virtually alone. Her father was too ill to attend, so she was given away by a distant cousin. Euphémie, her maid (and probably her half sister), was the only person she knew well. Her position of dependence and inferiority hardly could have been clearer. On the register, her wobbly and childlike “M.J.R. Tascher de La Pagerie” now appears poignant, the sole feminine signature among fourteen names.6 Alexandre had conferred on himself the title of vicomte, even though he was not yet entitled to it, so Marie-Josèphe was now the vicomtesse de Beauharnais. That night Alexandre took her to his bed; after their first night together, Marie-Josèphe only adored her husband more intensely.

“The union is your doing, their happiness must be your work also,” the bride’s mother wrote to Edmée.7 It was an optimistic view of Madame Renaudin’s powers. La Pagerie had been poor preparation for the cruelty of Marie-Josèphe’s new world. Parisian ladies discussed the philosophy of Montesquieu or the labyrinthine politics at court. Marie-Josèphe—who had never seen an opera, knew nothing of poetry, and could not comment on art—was out of her depth. At dances, she was shy and awkward, and people laughed at her behind their hands.

She refused to give in to sadness. Full of the joie de vivre of youth, she reminded herself that she was married to a handsome man her school friends would envy. She was eager to see fashionable society and be a good wife to her husband. Every day she waited excitedly for her invitation to court, since it was customary for aristocratic brides to be introduced to the queen. She longed to see the Versailles her father had extolled. But when word came from the court, it was not in their favor. As the Marquis de Beauharnais had created a newfangled title, and the family had been fined before for claiming false titles, the couple would have no place at Versailles. Alexandre was furious at the insult and harbored great resentment toward the king and queen.

He also despaired of his wife’s coarse manners, but on the other hand, her intense need for him and her fervent adoration suited his egotistic soul. It also made him complacent and convinced he could treat her as he chose. Mortified by her provincial behavior, he left her at home when he visited his friends and relations for dinners and soirées. He found her childish and too dependent, and her incessant questions annoyed him. He disliked her maid, Euphémie, deciding she was too rustic (perhaps he also thought the family resemblance too obvious). Marie-Josèphe’s lustrous chestnut hair, pretty eyes, and gentle heart had no effect on him. He called her an “object who has nothing to say to me,” and returned to his regiment soon after the wedding.8 “Instead of spending my time at home with a creature with whom I can find nothing in common,” Alexandre wrote to Patricol, his former tutor, “I have to a great extent resumed my bachelor life.” Laure de Longpré was by then heavily pregnant with his child, and he had fallen in love with her. “I have until now attached myself only to persons incapable of inspiring a violent passion,” he wrote of his conquests before Laure. “I have never experienced true love.”9

With her husband away, the young vicomtesse de Beauharnais was lonely, unoccupied, and perpetually cold. The chilly, airless rooms at rue Thévenot were impossible to heat. Her father remained unwell, and she was still a little afraid of her aunt. She sent letters to her husband rebuking him for not writing to her. He replied, accusing her of trying to “poison the pleasure which I take in reading what you write by reproaches which my heart does not deserve.”10 She begged him for attention, complained about being lonely, and upbraided him for leaving her alone. He responded with anger. “She has become jealous,” he fumed, “and wants to know what I am doing.”11

Fatigued by her begging and unhappiness, Alexandre decided to embark on a project of reforming his wife. In public, Marie-Josèphe was socially embarrassing, and her slight education had not given her the resources to amuse herself while alone. She needed to acquire the semblance of an accomplished and educated mind, as well as interests that might distract her from complaining. He had a plan to “recommence your education and repair by my zeal, the first fifteen years of your life which has been so tragically neglected.”12 Under the supervision of Aunt Edmée, the vicomtesse would be put to work studying history and geography, learning by rote the works of the great poets, and reading the theory of drama. Alexandre also wished to correct her poor posture and hired a dancing master in an attempt to instill in his wife the poise and grace required of a Parisienne.

Marie-Josèphe promised to work hard, and Alexandre rewarded her with rapturous praise. “I am delighted at the desire to improve yourself which you have demonstrated to me,” he puffed. “You will acquire knowledge that will raise you above others, and combining wisdom with modesty, will make you an accomplished woman.”13 He was too hopeful. Marie-Josèphe had taste and sensitivity, but her mind was too ill disciplined to absorb her studies without a great effort of will, and this she was too lazy to attempt. She had a kind heart and a generous manner, but these counted for little in a time when accomplishments and elegance were the definition of female excellence. In her husband’s eyes, she corresponded to the most unfortunate Parisian prejudices about ignorant Creoles.14 His wife was hopeless at everything and, worse still, without money.

Marie-Josèphe learned little poetry, and her dancing did not improve. Exasperated, Alexandre became even more intensely attached to Laure de Longpré. Any thought of separation from her induced in him “the deepest despair.”15 In the spring, she gave birth to their son, and her triumph over his heart was complete.

BUT MARIE-JOSÈPHE HAD a card up her sleeve. By early 1781, after a successful winter visit from her husband, she was quite sure she was pregnant. Alexandre was pleased by the news and made plans to leave his regiment for the birth. But, once home, he was soon disenchanted with her once more, frustrated by her disgraceful reluctance to improve herself. “If my wife really loved me, she would make the effort … to acquire the qualities which I admire and which would bind me to her,” he fumed to Patricol.16

Despite the pregnancy, after little more than a year of marriage, Alexandre and Marie-Josèphe were on the brink of separation. Patricol applied himself to reuniting them and wrote to Edmée, encouraging her to tell her niece to restrain her jealous demands: “[B]rusqueness and bossiness are two of the worst ways to attract to her a husband.” It was wise advice, but Marie-Josèphe could not control her emotions. Pregnant, lonely, and afraid, she became even more despondent and needy.

ON SEPTEMBER 3, 1781, eighteen-year-old Marie-Josèphe gave birth to a boy, baptized Eugène Rose. Alexandre was thrilled by his legitimate son. But within a month, he lost patience with his wife, affronted by the appointment of Euphémie as his child’s nurse. Edmée decided to send him away on an Italian tour in the hope that his travels might mature him, and that time away from Laure de Longpré might encourage him to appreciate his legitimate family. But this meant that Marie-Josèphe was alone once again. She was struggling to manage on the money her aunt and father-in-law chose to give her. She began to run up debts, using the goods and money in her marriage contract as security.

Alexandre returned in the summer of 1782 to find that his father-in-law, Joseph, stepmother, and aunt had traveled to Martinique. He and Marie-Josèphe were finally able to take a lease on their own house, on the rue Neuve Saint-Charles. Alexandre was delighted with their new home and pleased by Eugène, now a bonny toddler. He felt more kindly toward Marie-Josèphe, and she quickly fell pregnant again.

Alexandre decided his wife was at least a little improved from her first days as his fiancée. He began taking her to the salons of Paris, the idea factories of the pre-Revolution era, having developed a passion for liberal ideas and the notion of a different future France, one with a constitution and a political government. Choderlos de Laclos’s novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses had captivated the city, and everyone discussed its political implications. Even Marie Antoinette read it in secret. In the exciting furnace of new ideas, women played a prominent role, celebrated and powerful. Marie-Josèphe listened to and participated in the conversations around her, though she could not help feeling jealous as she watched her husband flirt with everyone but her.

After just a few weeks with his wife, Alexandre yearned to be with Laure again. He crept away from Paris in the middle of the night, writing to Marie-Josèphe on the journey to ask for her pardon for “having left you without farewell, for having gone away without warning, for having fled without having told you again, a last time, that I am all yours.”17 At Brest, he found no letter waiting for him. “Love for my wife and the love of glory both hold absolute sway in my heart,” he lied crossly. “If I yield to the latter it is for your future good and for that of your children.”18 He decided to return to Martinique to assist its fight against the British. He had an incentive—Laure de Longpré’s father had died on Martinique, and Laure wished to return to the island. He and Laure would take the same ship out.

“Kiss little Eugène with all your heart and guard his little brother,” Alexandre wrote as he waited to depart, certain that the child in her womb was a son.19 He was less pleased with Marie-Josèphe’s failure to write to him. “This neglect is inconceivable,” he seethed. “If, as I begin to fear, our marriage turns out decidedly badly, you will only have yourself to blame.”20 Used to nurturing older women, who cooed over his cares, he felt aggrieved and deserted. Friendless, worrying about money, pregnant, and the mother of a young child, Marie-Josèphe could not provide the support he needed. He scribbled melodramas onto the paper. “Amidst the risks of war and of the seas, where I go to seek death, I shall without sorrow and without regret see a life taken from me whose moments will have been reckoned only in misfortunes.”21 His was the classic strategy of attacking the spouse as a way of blotting out his own guilt.

At the end of December, Alexandre finally set sail and divided his time between upbraiding Marie-Josèphe and playing lotto with Laure. “I was often bored by the game but amply recompensed by the pleasure which I derived from the journey,” he wrote to his wife, enjoying rubbing salt in the wound.22

Alexandre arrived on Martinique in January 1783 and was appalled. He had not seen the island since he was five and had cherished dreams of orderly tropical beauty. Instead he found chaos and impropriety. “The morals, the multitude of people of color, in their indecent costumes, their manner of living, their dwellings, the appearance of libertinage, all this has amazed me.”23 He was deeply disappointed by La Pagerie. Rather than living in a fine house surrounded by a bustling plantation, his in-laws were huddled in the sugarhouse, struggling to control malcontent slaves. Manette, the girl he’d first desired, was now sixteen and very ill.

Peace negotiations had begun in London the week before his arrival, and Alexandre had missed all the military action. With Laure occupied by her family, he tried to be a good son-in-law, talking of a marriage between Manette and one of his fellow officers. “Your mother loves and always misses you,” he reported to his wife.24 But he soon lost interest, and after only two days at La Pagerie, he returned to Fort Royal and threw himself into the social life of the island, accompanied by Laure de Longpré. In the daytime, tired and a little sick from wine, he dwelled on his annoyances with his wife. Hurt and angry at his slights and his continuing affair with Laure, Marie-Josèphe had stopped writing entirely. Alexandre was predictably aggressive.

“Finally I have proof of your inconstancy! With my own eyes, I have seen the proof! Yes, with my own eyes, I have seen that you have written to your parents, and me, I alone have been forgotten,” he scrawled. “Should you want information about me, my father will always know my news and through him, if you are curious you can find out what country I am living in … I am abandoned!”25

On April 10, 1783, Marie-Josèphe gave birth to a little girl, Hortense-Eugénie. Struggling for money and already receiving demands for payment of her debts, she sold jewelry to pay for the baptism. She sent word of the birth to her parents but not to her husband.

Laure de Longpré heard the news and immediately began working her snakelike charms. She suggested that because the baby had arrived two weeks early, she was not Alexandre’s child. Alexandre drove himself into a frenzy of hatred. Cooling his heels on Martinique, dissatisfied and ill at ease, he decided his wife was as licentious as her father. It was suddenly clear to him: He was married to a whore.

Alexandre went on the hunt for evidence. He questioned Marie-Josèphe’s friends and family and tried to bribe and blackmail the slaves on the plantation to tell stories against her. “Such totally base conduct and vile methods, how can this be the behavior of a man of culture and good birth?” Rose-Claire wrote in despair to the marquis. “I would never have thought that he would have let himself be led around so, by Mme. de Longpré. She has turned his head completely.”26 He even threatened to kill Brigitte, one of the family’s most trusted house slaves, if she did not give him the information he wanted. “M. le Vicomte used all his means to extract something unfavorable about the conduct of my mistress,” Brigitte recorded.27 In Alexandre’s mind, his wife was shockingly wicked. Scratching his wound over and over, he demanded corroboration of his wild fantasies.

Marie-Josèphe, far away in France, heard nothing of Alexandre’s activities. She continued unaware, wrapped up in her new baby, hoping that her husband would eventually grow tired of Laure. And that after a few months in the lush lands of her beloved Martinique, he might return contented.

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