Biographies & Memoirs


“Beneath All the Sluts in the World”

On a fine August day in 1783, twenty-year-old Marie-Josèphe was sitting with her son and daughter in the drawing room of the summerhouse at Noisy-le-Grand. She was told that a visitor had arrived to see her. Into the room swept Laure de Longpré, returned from Martinique; thirteen years Marie-Josèphe’s senior, she was sophisticated and glamorous—and sleek with pleasure over her triumph. She handed Marie-Josèphe a letter from Alexandre. Nothing could have prepared the young wife for its contents.

Marie-Josèphe read and learned that her husband had been gathering evidence against her, and he was quite sure of her depravity. “In spite of the despair in my soul and the fury which overwhelms me, I will contain myself,” Alexandre wrote. “I will tell you coldly, that you are in my eyes the vilest of creatures and my period in this country has revealed to me your abominable behavior.” The Creole heritage that had been such an attraction was now evidence of a propensity to vice that she had enthusiastically indulged. He told her he knew all about her affairs with other men. “As to repentance, I do not even ask it of you, you are incapable of it,” he wrote. “A woman, on the eve of her departure, who can take a lover into her arms when she knew that she is affianced to another, has no conscience; she is beneath all the sluts in the world.” And he believed that she had continued her dreadful licentiousness in France. What, he wondered, “shall I think of this last child, arriving eight months and a few days after my return from Italy?” He was, he puffed, “forced to accept her, but I swear to all the heavens that she belongs to another; it is a stranger’s blood that courses through her veins!” Alexandre was merciless. “Never, never shall I put myself in danger of being so abused again. Remove yourself to a convent as soon as you receive this letter.” His letter left her no choice. “I will see you once and once only on my return to Paris, to discuss practicalities … but, I repeat, no scenes and no protestations.”1

Madame de Longpré glided away, smiling in victory. Marie-Josèphe was sick with shock. Her husband hated her. She was about to lose everything: her marriage, her home, and since men typically took the custody of children, Hortense and Eugène as well. Edmée and the marquis were horrified by the letter. Entirely dependent on Alexandre, since his inheritance paid for the house where they lived, they promised her they would try to intervene. But the letters from his father and stepmother only angered him. When he arrived in France in September, he was incensed to hear that Marie-Josèphe had not yet left their house. Writing from a property owned by Laure, he said that it would be quite impossible for them to live together because he would be forever “tortured by the perpetual images of the wrongs of which you know I am aware.” She had two alternatives: go to a convent or return to the Caribbean. And he was not going to listen to his family: “[T]ell my father and your aunt that their efforts will be useless.”2 He could not divorce her, but he would exile her and then proceed to live as he pleased. At twenty, Marie-Josèphe’s future looked bleak.

“Come back to your little country,” begged her mother, “our arms are always open to welcome you … and console you for the injustice you have suffered.”3 But Marie-Josèphe knew that if she left for La Pagerie, she would have to leave her children with Edmée. And she would be nothing on Martinique but a burdensome daughter on a struggling plantation, unable to marry again even if any man were to take an interest in her. At the end of November 1783, she took up residence in the Panthémont Convent in the rue de Grenelle in Saint-Germain. Eugène and Euphémie went with her. Hortense was left behind, as she was too young to be separated from her wet nurse. In nearly four years of marriage, Alexandre had spent a mere ten months with his wife.

Marie-Josèphe, with the assistance of her aunt Edmée, chose a particularly fashionable convent, dedicated to housing women of aristocratic background. Thomas Jefferson sent his two daughters to attend the attached convent school, after assurances that the girls would be exempt from religious instruction. Ladies of great hauteur lived side by side with the nuns, some staying temporarily within the walls because their fathers or husbands were away; others, like Marie-Josèphe, had been abandoned. These lady boarders paid to rent anything from a small chamber to a grand six-room apartment with its own kitchen. And they were able to leave the convent, receive visitors, and generally behave as they pleased.

In December, Marie-Josèphe met the court adjudicator to discuss her marriage. She showed him Alexandre’s enraged letters from Martinique and talked of his unfaithfulness. As she explained, even her father-in-law believed her the wronged party. “It is not possible for the complainant to submit to such indignities,” the adjudicator ruled.4 The provost of Paris ordered that she remain in the convent while the legal process of separation began and that Alexandre should pay maintenance for his children and various costs. Alexandre did not. Instead, he demanded that the lease on the house in Neuve Saint-Charles be sold, refused to pay her bills, and asked for money from her—including the sum she’d received after selling her jewelry to pay for Hortense’s baptism.

The Panthémont ladies were fashionable aristocrats, more used to the dressmaker and the salon than Bible reading. They amused themselves as they had done in the outside world, with dancing, couture, and debate. Marie-Josèphe, hitherto such a poor student, was finally willing to learn. Understanding that she had nothing but her charms to rely on, she watched the women around her and soon grasped the art of graceful movement and conversational allure. She lost her accent, practiced the art of whispered suggestion, and softened her voice to a husky, slow tone that would become one of her chief attractions. She learned to cover her mouth with her handkerchief when she laughed, to hide teeth ruined by too much sugar as a child. She lost weight and discovered how to enhance her rather clumsy figure with clinging dresses, shawls, and perfect carriage.

Changes in fashion helped. Bored with stiff, heavily embroidered gowns that stuck out so widely from the hips that the wearer had to turn sideways to pass through the door, Marie Antoinette’s dressmaker, Madame Bertin, had encouraged her royal mistress to eschew the hoops and brocade on more formal occasions and assume a simpler look. And as the queen had begun losing her hair after the birth of her eldest son in 1781, a plainer coiffure—popularized by the painter Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun—also became à la mode. The new draped gowns and softly curling natural hairstyles perfectly suited Marie-Josèphe’s face and figure.

The Panthémont women were eager to pass on their secrets. Marie-Josèphe learned to make the best of herself with creams, lotions, whitening potions for the face and hands, and oils for the hair. She probably added dye to brighten the color of her hair and smoothed the fashionable lead-based white paint on her cheeks—which had the lucky effect of disguising how the sun had darkened her skin. Other women traced their veins with blue pencil to suggest the opacity of the skin, but Marie-Josèphe’s skin was a little too dusky for such pretenses. She added shading to her eyes with kohl and elderberries and even applied soot to her eyebrows and long lashes. And she learned the art of rouge.

In Britain and other parts of Europe, red face paint was frowned upon as the tool of courtesans, but no French lady of style saw herself as dressed without her rouge. By 1781, French women were using two million pots of rouge a year. Court ladies wore heavy swathes of it, leading down from the sides of their eyes to their lips, while gentry wives placed small spots of rouge in the middle of the cheek. Unknowingly, Marie-Josèphe was covering herself with toxins, for the best rouge was made from vermilion, ground from cinnabar (mercury sulfide) or from ceruse, which was produced by dousing lead plates in vinegar. Some women actually died from smearing their faces with lead-based potions—the famous London beauty and socialite Maria Gunning passed away at the age of twenty-seven from excessive use of such makeup.

To a twenty-first-century observer, French eighteenth-century women would look strange, for there was comparatively little color on the eyes (apart from maybe a spot of rouge, which cannot have been flattering), while the cheeks flamed with false-looking red. But at the time, rouge was battle paint—it recalled sexual flush and made women look more doll-like. Marie-Josèphe’s annual expenditure on rouge alone would soon amount to well over three thousand francs.5

At twenty-one, she was not a great beauty or even “precisely pretty.”6 She was about five feet—a respectable height for a woman—and slender, with slim hips but a slightly broad back. She had small, attractive feet, thanks to a childhood without shoes (eighteenth-century shoes were stiff and pointed and bad for little feet). The foot was an intensely erotic part of a woman’s body, since it was so infrequently seen after a girl turned fifteen or so and her skirt lengths dropped, thus indicating she was a woman. A dainty ankle was often more likely to drive men wild than a generous bosom. The new style of flowing gown more easily revealed the feet, and Marie-Josèphe made sure to expose hers at every opportunity.

The vicomtesse had become a charming woman, with her beautiful, low voice and the easy, sensual grace she had learned so carefully at the convent. Her chestnut hair fell in beautiful curls, while white paste concealed her tanned complexion and highlighted her delicate features. But her most appealing attributes were her luminous eyes, surrounded by luxuriant lashes. They glowed green or amber in different lights and stopped men in their tracks. Women pondered the nature of Marie-Josèphe’s attraction, but men saw it immediately. She made them think of the boudoir.

IN EARLY 1785, Alexandre seized Eugène from the convent. Marie-Josèphe wrote to the provost of Paris to complain, and the vicomte and vicomtesse were called to appear at the Châtelet. In March, the affair was settled. Marie-Josèphe won. Under the terms of the separation, she would be allowed to live anywhere she chose and use any monies of her dowry. Alexandre was to give her 5,000 livres a year and 1,000 a year for Hortense until the age of seven and 1,500 thereafter. Hortense was to live with her mother until marriage. Eugène would be taken by his father after the age of five, but he would spend summers with Marie-Josèphe. Hotheaded Alexandre also had to eat humble pie. The authorities found no evidence for his accusations of immorality and forced him to sign a document withdrawing his accusations, and to admit that “he was wrong to write the said lady the letters of 12 July and 20 October of which she complains and which he admits were inspired by the passions and anger of youth.”7 Marie-Josèphe had been declared innocent. Yet it was a straw victory. She was in an impossible position, a woman without real male support, unable to marry again.

She soon joined the marquis and Aunt Edmée at their new home in Fontainebleau. At the time, Fontainebleau was a rather countrified village, around thirty-five miles southeast of Paris. Surrounded by lush forest, it was entirely dominated by the king’s hunting seat of the same name, a huge and ornate palace built by Francis I in the sixteenth century on a site that had hosted the royal hunt since before the twelfth century. The village was transformed during the hunting season as the court arrived and the aristocracy took houses. Marie-Josèphe, her face whitened, her cheeks rouged, resplendent in a flowing gown and soft coiffure, could finally play the part of the Creole who was as sensual as Martinique itself. In just over a year, she had metamorphosed from a gauche schoolgirl into a sophisticated seductress—all she needed now was a man to seduce.

In Fontainebleau, Marie-Josèphe had a small but pleasing social circle of minor aristocrats, and she spent her time at card parties, promenades, and the occasional ball. Eugène turned five and was sent to live with Alexandre; Marie-Josèphe had expected to lose her son and was stoic about it, but Euphémie mourned him. His tutor sent a letter to Euphémie, purported to be from Eugène (although it was hardly childlike language), saying “there was no need for six pages to express to you my eternal gratitude for the care and kindness you have shown toward me.”8

Marie-Josèphe’s debt collectors had left her alone for a time after the news of her marriage settlement, but in Fontainebleau they began to return. Alexandre did not pay her allowance. She begged her father for money, but he was barely able to pay any of the six thousand livres a year he had promised her on marriage. “You know me well enough, my dear Papa,” she wrote to him, “to be quite sure that if it were not for an urgent need for money, I would speak of nothing but my fondest sentiments for you.”9 The marquis de Beauharnais had installed Joseph as overseer of his properties in Martinique, and Joseph was failing miserably at turning them to profit or even keeping them running as they were. The marquis sent letters instructing him and offering suggestions, but the revenue kept falling. And the marquis himself was no longer as rich as he once was, since his pension from the government had been reduced. There was little left for Marie-Josèphe and her daughter.

The king liked to hunt three or four times a week, and nobles from all over the country arrived in Fontainebleau to follow his procession. There were weeks of spectacles, games, and dancing. Marie-Josèphe badly wanted to find her way into the court. She immediately made sure to befriend François Hüe, chief clerk of the royal hunt, and was soon given the rare privilege of following the hunt, one that had not been permitted to her husband. She was not allowed to approach the king, but she could attend his sumptuous feasts and enjoy the games. The vicomtesse was on her way to social success.

The court Marie-Josèphe encountered during her first hunting season of 1786 was troubled. Marie Antoinette was thirty and had recently given birth to her fourth child, Princess Sophie Hélène Béatrice. The baby was fragile and Louis Joseph, the dauphin, was often ill. The queen was openly criticized for spending millions of livres on fripperies, as well as on a palace for her children at Saint-Cloud and on constructing a fantasy version of farm life at Petit Trianon at Versailles, complete with a model village of twelve houses, windmills and dovecotes, and a dairy made of marble with silver pails for the milk. There, she and her ladies could play at being country girls, flouncing in the fresh air, admiring perfectly groomed sheep.

Scabrous cartoons suggested that the Swedish nobleman Count Axel von Fersen—a frequent guest at Versailles—was Sophie’s father.10 Parisians snapped up cartoons depicting Louis XVI as a fat, stupid cuckold, while his immoral queen manipulated France for Austrian gain. Marie Antoinette was shown surrounded by her sexual favorites, dallying with her lesbian lover, the Princesse de Lamballe, in a vitiated, spendthrift court.

The previous summer, Marie Antoinette had received a letter from a jeweler, Charles Auguste Boehmer, in which he proffered his gratitude and explained that the finest set of diamonds would soon be in her possession. Marie Antoinette asked Madame Campan, her lady of the bedchamber, to interpret the meaning of this letter, but she could not. The queen decided it was irrelevant and discarded it.

Boehmer was referring to an impossibly ornate necklace of nearly 650 diamonds, which he had long been trying to sell for the astronomical sum of a million and a half livres. Cardinal de Rohan, who hoped to win the favor of Marie Antoinette, had advanced some of the money to Boehmer after Marie Antoinette had met him secretly outside the palace one night and told him he would indeed gain her favor if he secured the diamonds for her. And so the necklace was sent. But when Boehmer requested the rest of the money from Marie Antoinette, she said she did not have the necklace and had never asked for it.

The king requested an explanation from Cardinal de Rohan, and he produced a note signed by Marie Antoinette accepting the jewels. It was found that the note had been forged by a con woman who had paid a woman of dubious virtue to imitate the queen at the nighttime rendezvous, and had then intercepted the necklace and kept it for herself. The cardinal was arrested and tried by the Parlements of Paris, which acquitted him on the grounds that he had been duped by the con woman. Marie Antoinette declared her innocence, yet even those who believed her were deeply troubled by the fact that a man could think the queen would stoop so low as to buy a necklace in secret—and meet to discuss it after dark, like a prostitute loitering in the shadows. The presses worked overtime, producing caricatures attacking the woman who was ruining the country with her demand for luxury above all else. She and her vast, bloated palace of Versailles became the scapegoat for France’s economic hardship and the excessive power of Austria and the German states. When Marie-Josèphe encountered the hunt, the Affair of the Diamond Necklace was still a divisive issue among the courtiers.

The French court was hated in Paris, but at Fontainebleau, the courtiers and their hangers-on forgot everything and abandoned themselves to celebration. There was much splendor, carefully observed ritual, and a tradition of courtship and gallantry to ladies. The huge caravan of the court was always eager for young, beautiful women, and the vicomtesse de Beauharnais fit the bill perfectly.

Marie-Josèphe was invited to soirées, balls, concerts, and parties thrown by members of the court. She delighted in the glamorous company, the lavish breakfasts laid out under the trees, and the thundering rush of the horses. Exhilarated from following the hunt and excited by the proximity to royalty, she often came home drenched with rain, glowing with the exercise, and eager to return. It was her first chance for true pleasure since she had arrived in France, but such liberty came at a cost. She needed funds for dresses, jewels, and entertaining, as well as visits to Paris with her new friends. Without a husband or family, there was really only one way for a pretty woman to find money. As one friend wrote, since she was desperate to have the “luxurious enjoyments of her era,” she found that her “attractiveness gave her certain advantages.” She did not care about polite society and indeed “defied public opinion rather overtly.”11 The vicomtesse was playing a dangerous game.

She began to depend on the kindness of her older gentlemen friends, such as the banker Denis de Rougement, who invited her to stay with him in Paris. She befriended the Chevalier de Coigny, who was twenty years her senior, and the married Comte de Crenay. Men of her own age, she had found, were difficult and demanding. Older gentlemen petted her, appreciated her charms, gave her handsome presents of jewels, and paid her for her time.

IN 1786, MARIE-JOSÈPHE was spending rich men’s money freely, but her newly adopted country was verging on bankruptcy. The government could not borrow any more. The controller general asked the king to call an assembly of notables—144 members of the aristocracy, Church, and government—and inform them that taxes must be raised. The assembly demanded that there be a supervisory commission of finance, and that it must be distinct from the royal government. The king responded by dismissing the assembly. The provincial governments and that of Paris declared that only the Estates-General, not called since 1614, could pass such demands.

In the midst of it all, the aristocracy continued gaily on their thoughtless, spendthrift, even debauched road. Marie-Josèphe was squarely on this path—until, in 1788, she made a snap decision to travel to Martinique. Denis de Rougemont lent her 6,000 livres, she borrowed more money from her aunt and sold some of her possessions, and with the funds she bought passage on the Sultan for herself, Hortense, and Euphémie.

It was not a good time to leave France. Eugène was due to arrive for his summer visit, Edmée was unwell, and they would be traveling to Martinique during hurricane season, through seas thick with hostile British ships. Hortense later declared that her mother was thinking of her own “aging mother, who she hoped to see one last time.”12 Marie-Josèphe also wanted to secure funds from her estates. But there was more driving her voyage than money and familial feelings. She had been the mistress of various men and was most likely fleeing because the scandal had become heated and she thought it best to absent herself for a while. If Alexandre heard any unfortunate intimations, he might spread gossip against her or even try to take Hortense away. After a year of living on the periphery of the ruinously expensive French court, Marie-Josèphe was in debt and in trouble, and she needed to escape.

The Sultan arrived in Martinique on August 11, 1788. Marie-Josèphe was delighted to see her family and the slaves waiting for her at La Pagerie, and initially she remained quietly at the plantation. Little Hortense took easily to the role of grande dame. One day she found some copper coins to distribute among the slaves, and was chastised by her grandmother for playing at being superior when she was only a child. After a few months, Marie-Josèphe began to spend more time at the balls and receptions of Fort Royal, riding high on the cachet gained from Fontainebleau. She wrote to Aunt Edmée, asking her to send a dozen fans and a muslin ball gown.

But on Martinique, as in Paris, social unrest was growing. The slaves saw newspapers, listened to the talk of the freed slaves, and overheard the huddled conversations of their masters; they learned that America was in the process of abolishing slavery, and that across Europe there were fierce debates about emancipation. Soon anti-slavery literature was circulating throughout the Caribbean. The freed Martinique blacks were forming committees and demanding parity with the whites.

On August 31, 1790, a slave rebellion began in Saint-Pierre and turned into a full-fledged revolt when underprivileged whites and dispossessed soldiers joined the ranks of the protest. The turbulence spread and soon Fort Royal was in an uproar. Marie-Josèphe’s family was very afraid. Her uncle was seized, and the slaves took over the fort. She decided that she and Hortense should leave at once. Along with Euphémie, they hurried to the port and embarked on La Sensible. As they ran, a cannonball landed a few feet from them.

Marie-Josèphe set off on her long journey back across the Atlantic, forced to wear makeshift clothes sewn from material in the ship’s store. The slaves were defeated not long after she left. The ringleaders were beaten to death in public, and their heads were propped on posts around the island. Nevertheless, the seeds of change had been sown. Martinique would never be the same.

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