Biographies & Memoirs



While Marie-Josèphe danced at Fort Royal balls, Versailles had been struck with gloom. “Death of my son at one in the morning,” Louis XVI wrote in his diary on June 4, 1789. The seven-year-old dauphin died of a form of tuberculosis, emaciated and covered in sores. His younger sister, the king’s fourth and youngest child, had died at eleven months in 1787. By the end of the year, the king was a man besieged. The winter of 1789 had been the most severe in living memory. Marie-Josèphe’s friends skated on frozen ponds and enjoyed hot drinks in front of their fires while the poor suffered, scrabbling for firewood and eating scraps of stale bread in desperation. Over twenty thousand beggars wandered in search of food in the area around Versailles. The government gave twelve thousand of them work laboring on the hill at Montmartre, for the tiny sum of twenty sous a day.

On May 4, 1789, the first meeting of the Estates-General had been held: It was composed of the Church, the nobility, and the third estate—lawyers, merchants, and professional men. Alexandre de Beauharnais became the representative for Blois, his ancestral town. When the Estates-General was reconstituted into the National Assembly on June 17, he became a key player, allying himself with the group of liberal nobles petitioning for reform. Aggrieved at his previous exclusion from court, he threw himself into his role. Finally, he felt, somebody was listening to him.

On July 11, the king dismissed Jacques Necker, court financial adviser and father of the great saloniste and intellectual Germaine de Staël. When the news reached the streets, the theaters closed and armed men marched through the city, chanting Necker’s name in protest against his discharge. The anger did not calm, and crowds began to fill the streets. Fights broke out, buildings were attacked, and the king’s name was insulted and mocked across Paris. On July 14, the king wrote “rien” in his hunting journal, meaning he had failed to catch any prey that day. In Paris, an armed crowd of more than a hundred thousand attacked the Bastille, freeing the prisoners and killing the governor. The Duc de Liancourt came to Versailles to report the news to the king while he was in bed. “Is it a revolt?” asked the king. “No, Sire,” replied the duc. “It is a revolution.” Alexandre and his fellow deputies were delighted by the fall of the Bastille, for it meant that revolution was truly coming. The next day, some of the most hated courtiers—such as the queen’s confidante, the Duchesse de Polignac—agreed to flee for the country, but the king and queen refused to leave. Against a summer of bread riots and bloody demonstrations, the king and his courtiers continued to hunt and feast on champagne breakfasts.

On Monday, October 5, the king was hunting in the woods near Versailles. He had shot more than eighty animals when he was told that a large group of workingwomen had left Paris that morning to demand grain and flour from their sovereign—as well as concessions to democracy. The king ordered his granaries to be opened, but the crowd would not be pacified. As night fell, they were demanding the bodies of the sovereigns. At four o’clock in the morning, the palace apartments were invaded. By midday the king and queen were being taken to the capital, surrounded by the chanting mob, the heads of their guards planted on sticks and waved around them. At the palace, the only sound to be heard was the closing of doors and shutters. Locked up and deserted, the ghost court at Versailles stood in its ornamental gardens and wooded parks, a hated relic of a monarchy that was breathing its last.

“Kings who become prisoners are not far from death,” the queen told Madame Campan.1 At the dilapidated Tuileries Palace in Paris, the king paced the rooms, and the queen tried to give her children the impression of normality. They decorated their apartments with furniture and ornaments from Versailles, and drapes were strewn over the damp patches on the walls and the rotting wood of the door frames. In Versailles, the royals had been as distant from the populace as ornaments in a museum. At the Tuileries, dirty, toothless faces pressed up against the windows, and their carriage was pelted with mud whenever they drove out.

Alexandre and his fellow deputies proposed that the king cede military command to the National Assembly, and drafted other changes that attempted to install equality into French life, including the abolition of a hereditary monarchy. The National Assembly confiscated the Church lands, which constituted nearly ten percent of France. Plum positions in the Church, government, and military were opened up to the population rather than being reserved for the aristocracy. Alexandre was made one of the secretaries of the assembly. The venal, womanizing soldier and minor aristocrat considered too insignificant to follow the hunt was now a man of leadership, one of the rulers of revolutionary France.

On October 29, 1790, Marie-Josèphe, Euphémie, and Hortense disembarked from La Sensible at Toulon after a difficult crossing and found that France had changed entirely. Every village and town was festooned with banners and garlands, and the trees in the squares wore red caps of liberty. Even the language was different: People were increasingly calling each other tu instead of vous, though by 1792 the accepted form of address was citoyen and citoyenne.

The walls and houses of Paris were covered in the same red caps, ribbons, and slogans. At Fontainebleau, the hunting shelters and fine horses stood untouched. The workshops of the perfumiers were quiet, the Sèvres factory made porcelain that nobody bought, and embroiderers, saddle makers, and hairdressers sat glumly unemployed, while lemonade makers and pâtissiers scrabbled for the few aristocratic customers who still dared spend.

Marie-Josèphe took up lodgings at 953 rue Saint-Dominique, just off the fashionable Boulevard Saint-Germain. She lived with Désirée Hosten, a fellow Creole with a thirteen-year-old daughter who loved to play with Hortense. Euphémie was also with them, as well as Hortense’s faithful governess Marie de Lannoy, and Marie-Josèphe’s new dog, Fortuné, an ill-tempered, cross-faced, but loyal pug.

Madame Hosten was truly a woman of revolutionary sympathies. Marie-Josèphe learned from her the new way to survive: how to dress, behave, and speak like a person from the working classes (or an aristocratic notion of such a person). Marie-Josèphe—who hated strict regimes of dress and etiquette and had never been able to speak in a properly affected manner—was in her element. In a reaction against Versailles, the women of the 1790s were no longer beribboned ornaments wearing corsets so pointed that they could not sit down in a carriage. They stuffed their jewelry under their beds and gave the hoops from their dresses to their children as toys. The decorative woman hiding behind a lacy fan was a hated symbol of the parasitic aristocratic hierarchy. Finally, Marie-Josèphe could cut up the flouncy, boned gowns she loathed.

The young citoyenne Beauharnais now wore simple gowns striped in red and blue, plain bonnets, and jewelry made of iron and steel. Her hair curled unpowdered around her face—the new orthodoxy was that flour should be feeding the poor, not adorning the coiffures of the upper classes.2 She still kept a little rouge on her cheeks, but the simple style was much more suited to her careless elegance. She was in fashion and—in certain lights—beautiful. She was the ideal revolutionary woman: plainly dressed, practical, and very informal. Except she lacked the zeal for the dismantling of royal and aristocratic privilege. She thought the treatment of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was more horrifying than gratifying. But she kept her views quiet, and everyone believed her a friend of the Revolution. All she had to do was appear hopeful for the future.

Not long after she arrived home, Marie-Josèphe received the news that her father had died at fifty-five. She had been to visit her home just in time. He died with terrible debts, so there would be no money for her, although her family was able to stay on the plantation.

A new Parisian salon society sprang up to replace the court. The city was alive with cabals, discussions, and meetings, and as the wife of Alexandre, she had a new cachet and could enter any salon she desired. It was a time when anything seemed possible and the people imagined a new country, free of aristocratic privilege and royal oppression, emerging phoenix-like from the ashes of the Revolution. “The nation was seized with hopes for boundless happiness,” wrote Madame de Staël, and “one has never seen both so much life and so much intellect.”3 Her salon was vital in directing government policy; there Marie-Josèphe encountered men who were shaping her country and who would also transform her life, including the ruthless former priest Abbé Sieyès and the limping bishop-turned-republican Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, who had tried to seduce Madame de Staël to further his ambitions. The thirty-six-year-old aristocrat was the most skilled and devious politician Marie-Josèphe would ever meet.

Newly dressed in her plain striped gowns, Marie-Josèphe was all the more popular for never having been presented at court. She was congratulated, admired, invited to balls, operas, country picnics, and receptions; in short, she was in demand, and to keep up her new status, she spent money as if there were no tomorrow.

But underneath all the sparkling conversation, the cheering, and the caps of liberty, the truth was that France was bankrupt. Unrest continued to surge; the crowds were prowling and angry, unwilling to wait much longer for the bread they had been promised.

AT TEN-THIRTY P.M. on Monday, June 20, the two surviving children of the king and queen were carried out of the Tuileries, half asleep and disguised in heavy woolen dresses, and bundled into a coach with their governess. The young princess asked her brother what he thought they were doing. “I suppose to act a play,” he replied, “since we have got these odd costumes.”4 The king and queen, the king’s sister Elisabeth, and their escorts joined them, all disguised as servants in shawls and pulled-down hats. Louis’s crown and robes were stuffed into the baggage under the seats. The king had finally agreed to flee Paris and head to the border, where royalist troops and foreign armies would protect him and allow him to demand concessions.

The plan was that the royals would pretend to be the servants of a noblewoman, the Baroness de Korff, played by the children’s governess. The king would act the part of a valet. At the city walls, the party transferred to a large custom-made coach guarded by three men in bright yellow livery.

At eleven on the following night, the ill-disguised set of servants arrived at the small town of Varennes-en-Argonne, where they searched desperately for fresh horses. The huge coach and the yellow-clad guards made them conspicuous. They were recognized and captured only twenty-five miles from the fortified royalist town of Montmédy, where they had hoped to be safe.

When the news came through of the royal flight, Alexandre was on his second day as president of the assembly. He dispatched riders to retrieve the royal party and announced that the assembly should sit continuously until the runaways were caught.

ON JUNE 25, the royal family were dragged back through Paris in front of crowds of spectators. Madame Campan attended the queen on her return to the Tuileries and found that her hair had turned entirely white.

Alexandre de Beauharnais was the hero of the hour. The flight of the king was a turning point. The moderates who had espoused the idea of a constitutional monarchy—or a king with limited powers rather than an elected form of governance—felt terribly betrayed. Those on the left were confirmed in their notion that the king and queen were dangerous traitors who had intended to reach Austria and then wage war on France. The members of the powerful pro-Revolution Jacobin club—who hoped for equality, along with their working-class supporters, the sans-culottes—were infuriated. Marie Antoinette was cast as a corrupt plotter, a woman who would betray the country without compunction.

In September 1791 the constitution, so long in formation, was signed by the king. Louis had only the right of veto, and the country would be governed by a legislative assembly, elected by those deemed proper citizens—which meant about three quarters of the adult male population of France. “There is nothing to be done with this assembly, it is a gathering of scoundrels, madmen, and fools,” wrote Marie Antoinette.5 But she had to give the impression of contentment with the new order. “The Revolution is ended!” the people cried. Fireworks and bonfires lit up the sky. A hot-air balloon floated over the Champ de Mars, billowing ribbons of red, white, and blue. The Champs-Élysées was strewn with illuminations from the Tuileries, and everybody was encouraged to celebrate.

The crowds might have cheered the fireworks, but they were still angry. The salon aristocrats of Marie-Josèphe’s circle lived in a gilded bubble. The twenty theaters of Paris were full every night and the balls and receptions continued. They all genuinely believed that once the king’s power and spending were reduced, the people’s fury would be assuaged and life would return to normal. They expected to retain their privileges and see a large chunk of the money and luxury that once were the preserve of Versailles.

On June 20, 1792, the anniversary of the flight to Varennes, the guards let a mob into the Tuileries gardens. They stormed into the king’s apartments with pikes and hatchets and threw a red cap on his head. For two hours, they danced and sang and forced him to drink the health of the country, while the queen clutched her children in terror. By the evening, order was restored, though all the doors had been broken, the furniture smashed, and the drapes torn down. The king and queen were like animals in a zoo, on display with no means of escape.

Later in the summer of 1792, the jubilation had dispelled, and the borrowed money had run out. With the king and queen imprisoned, the people needed someone to blame for their poverty. They turned their attention to the aristocrats. The parading crowds shouted, “We will hang all the aristocrats.” Members of the Versailles court were arrested and imprisoned. Alexandre left Paris to serve in the army at Blois. Marie-Josèphe and her friends became very afraid and redoubled their efforts to appear ordinary and citizen-like.

The government hoped that the imprisonment of the royal family might pacify the people. On August 9, the National Guard was sent to the Tuileries to take the king and his family to prison. They butchered the courtiers and five hundred Swiss Guards, along with hundreds from their own side who were mistaken for their enemies in the confusion. The gravel was left stained with blood and strewn with limbs. “What a lot of leaves!” was the king’s only comment as he left. The royal family was taken to the Tower of the Temple near the Bastille. “We shall never return,” said the Princesse de Lamballe, the fluffy blonde so hated by the populace.

Still the people were not mollified. Within a month, angry Jacobin and sans-culottes mobs had set upon the prisons and killed many of the remaining courtiers, as well as hundreds of ordinary farmers, maids, shopkeepers, and children in what became known as the “September Massacres.” Marie-Josèphe hid with her children in their house, thankful that she had never attended court. She was near enough to the prisons to hear the screams as sixteen hundred men, women, and children were tried by ad hoc tribunals and either released or hacked to death. Crowds came to stare at the shiny new piece of killing equipment set up in front of the city hall. An afternoon with “Madame la Guillotine” became a popular entertainment as people gathered to watch, clutching “programmes” of those to be killed.

They were hungry for blood. The queen’s darling, the Princesse de Lamballe, was put in front of a hastily assembled trial. When she refused to proclaim her hatred of the royal family, she was thrown to the crowds, raped, and killed. Her breasts were sliced off and the jubilant mob propped her head on a pike, her innards on another, and paraded her through Paris. They even took her head to a hairdresser to have her trademark golden locks arranged. They then ushered it to the Tower so the queen could give her lips one last kiss. However, the horrific sight of the princesse’s head on a pike popping up at the windows was too much for even the hardened guards, and they hurried to close the shutters so the queen would not see. The mob paraded the head around throughout the afternoon and later abandoned it, after which it was retrieved by a kindly citizen who asked to give the last remains of the princesse a proper burial.

No one was safe. The prince of Salm, a friend of both Marie-Josèphe and Alexandre, offered to take Eugène and Hortense to his country estate and then away from France. The children were told they were taking a brief summer holiday. Eugène, who was used to separation, was excited by travel, but nine-year-old Hortense missed her mother intensely. “I am touched by your regrets at being away from your mother; but my dear it is not for long,” Marie-Josèphe wrote. “I hope that the Princess [of Salm] will return in spring, or I will come and collect you.”6

The rest of Europe gazed on France in horror. Catherine II of Russia was encouraging active intervention, and Austria, Spain, Prussia, Saxony, and Sweden were in favor. On April 20, France had declared war on Austria. Alexandre, serving with the army in Strasbourg, was furious when he heard that his children had been sent away, for he felt it was their duty to remain in Paris. He demanded the prince of Salm return them. Alexandre then sent Eugène to school in Strasbourg and told Marie-Josèphe she could keep Hortense at home.

On December 26, 1792, the trial of Louis XVI began. On January 15, 1793, he was found guilty of collaboration with counterrevolutionary forces. At two P.M. on Sunday, January 20, thirty-eight-year-old Louis was told that he would die the next day. He begged for three days in order to prepare his soul, but was refused. Marie Antoinette asked that she and the children spend the night with him, but Louis told them he needed peace to ready himself. The children were so hysterical that he could persuade them to leave him only by saying he would see them in the morning. On the morning itself, he crept away silently because he could not bear to say goodbye.

At around the same time Louis was informed of his fate, a guillotine was set up in the Place de la Révolution (formerly Place Louis XV and now the Place de la Concorde). During the night, flakes of snow fell on the blade. By the morning, there was a great crowd around it, rubbing their ice-cold fingers and buying hot rolls from the sellers who wove through the throng. At ten-fifteen, the king arrived wearing gray breeches, a pink waistcoat, and a brown silk coat, elaborately neat, his hair as perfectly coiffed as if he were in Versailles. Refusing to allow the executioner to tie his hands, he climbed onto the platform, took off his coat and waistcoat, and began to speak: “My people, I die an innocent man,” he said, but his voice was swamped by the noise of the drums. He was compelled to kneel, the blade was brought down, and his head tumbled into the basket. Spectators dipped their handkerchiefs in the blood to keep as souvenirs.

Marie Antoinette waited in her cell, hoping she might see him one last time, until she heard the crowds below shout out that he was dead. One of the guards brought her a gift from him—his wedding ring engraved with “M.A.A.A., 19 Aprilis 1770,” from the days when she had been Marie Antoinette, Archduchess of Austria.

“A GREAT NATION had that day soiled its history with a crime for which the future would hold it guilty,” said Madame de Staël.7

Starving dogs stalked the city. Left to their own devices after the death or flight of their masters, they drank the blood in the gutters and threatened anyone who dared venture out. Soldiers were sent to kill them, and the people of Paris covered their ears at the sound of scattered shots. Three thousand canine carcasses lay around the streets until the authorities came to collect them—using the confiscated carriages of the aristocracy and piling them high with dead dogs.

At the beginning of March, the first pro-monarchy uprising took place in the Vendée area. The Committee of Public Safety was instituted as the government, and in July, Maximilien de Robespierre was elected to its ranks. With his installation, France careered toward disaster.

The National Convention had proposed that slaves be freed in the French dominions. A settler representative at the assembly declared that he and his fellow white islanders would “rather die than assent to this infamy!” He was uncompromising in his threats. “If France sends troops for the execution of this decree, it is likely that we will decide to abandon France.”8 In 1793, the plantation owners of Martinique made a preemptive strike. Rather than submit to a France abolishing slavery, they gave up their island to Britain. Marie-Josèphe’s birthplace was now British. The change hit her finances hard. With the British fleet blocking the island traffic, there was no chance of receiving money from her family or the estates belonging to Alexandre. The kindness of men sufficed again; she borrowed from friends and admirers and engaged in black-market trading with a network selling Parisian goods to Belgium.

Matters went little better for Alexandre. In 1793, he was appointed commander in chief of the army, but his election coincided with terrible failures. On July 23, the Austrians recaptured Mainz, and the French general was forced to retreat, leaving behind twenty thousand troops to be killed. Alexandre offered his resignation, and it was promptly accepted on the basis that he had “neither the strength nor the moral energy necessary in a General of the Republican army.”9 The previous day, the convention had decreed that no one of aristocratic birth could hold office.

The failures of the Austrian campaign reminded everyone of their former queen, still locked up in the Temple. On August 1, wearing a plain black gown, her belongings reduced to little more than a handkerchief and some smelling salts, Marie Antoinette was taken to a cell in the public prison of the Conciergerie. There the jailers showed off Prisoner 280 to the eager public for money. She held her head high, accepted favors from still-loyal shopkeepers, and hoped that her relations would come to rescue her. But the Committee of Public Safety believed the only way to bind the working classes to the Republic was to execute the queen.

On Monday, October 14, 1793, she was brought in front of the revolutionary tribunal. Gaunt, white-haired, and dressed in her threadbare black gown, thirty-eight-year-old Marie Antoinette was put on trial for treason—accused of giving money to her brother, the emperor of Austria, of engaging in orgies and other terrible acts. She denied everything. “If I have not replied, it is because Nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother,” she said when accused of incest with her son. Composed and dignified, she felt sure she would be exiled as a punishment. At nearly four in the morning, she was handed her verdict and forced to read it aloud. She was found guilty on every charge.

At seven A.M. on the sixteenth, her faithful maid came to her cell and tried to give the doomed queen some food. Marie Antoinette donned a plain white gown while the warders watched. Her hair was hacked off and her hands were bound, despite her protests that her husband had not suffered a similar humiliation. As she passed the Tuileries, her eyes filled with tears. At twelve-fifteen, the crowd jeered as her head fell into the basket. When her body arrived at the mass graveyard where her husband was buried, it received no special treatment. The gravediggers were having their lunch break, so the head and body of the queen were left lying on the damp grass.

The city had become a terrible, ghoulish place, as ravaged and sick as if it had been hit by the Black Death. People denounced employees, neighbors, friends, and lovers and were constantly afraid of being accused of treason, plotting, or antirepublican feeling. Almost the entire company of the Comédie Française was imprisoned for suspicious behavior. Mothers were dragged to the guillotine from childbed, while men and women were so eager to save their skins that they cheered the deaths of their loved ones.

The days of gay salons were over. Women dressed drably, all the better not to be noticed. Notre-Dame was renamed the Temple of Reason, the churches were destroyed, their statues of saints smashed into pieces, bronzes stolen and melted down. A new republican calendar was instituted at the end of 1792, which had a rest day every ten rather than every seven days. Robespierre declared there would be a new religion: the cult of the Supreme Being. Streets called after saints would be renamed—after vegetables, agricultural implements, or patriots of the past. The convention voted in the “Law of Suspects,” ordering the arrest of all those who had by remarks—or even connections—shown themselves “the partisans of tyranny.” Anyone who had traveled in aristocratic circles was at risk of arrest. Marie-Josèphe quickly left the rue Saint-Dominique for Croissy, a quiet town near Paris, where she hoped to keep a low profile. She and Madame Hosten took the Maison Rossignol, an elegant house decorated in Louis XIV style, formerly the home of Madame Campan, who still lived nearby. Marie-Josèphe declared herself a citoyenne of the Republic and arranged for Eugène to train as an apprentice with a local carpenter and for Hortense to practice dressmaking.

Life at Croissy was calm and as safe as anywhere could be in the circumstances. When Marie-Josèphe gazed out her window, she could see a pretty château concealed by tall trees and parks. It was owned by local aristocrats, the Molays, and called Malmaison. She became close friends with Madame Campan, the former first lady of the bedchamber. She also met Jean-Lambert Tallien, the twenty-five-year-old radical deputy in the Committee of Public Safety, vulpine, clever, and always ready to change sides. Otherwise, Marie-Josèphe lived quietly.

But Marie-Josèphe was too confident. The committee’s attentions had turned to the Beauharnais family, and it ordered the arrest of Alexandre’s intensely royalist elder brother, François. Marie-Josèphe wrote begging for clemency for François’s estranged wife, Marie—and, by extension, for herself and Alexandre. As she knew, once one family member was taken, the rest would usually follow. She proposed her revolutionary credentials. “If he [Alexandre] was not a republican, he would have neither my esteem nor my affection. I am an American and I know only him of his family … my household is a republican household; before the Revolution, my children could not be distinguished from sans-culottes and I hope they will be worthy of the Republic.”10

Marie-Josèphe’s description of herself as an American rather than a slave-owning Creole was almost ludicrous. “I write to you frankly as a genuine sans culotte,” she wrote from her fine villa, her jewels stowed in boxes upstairs. Eugène and Hortense might have been plainly dressed, but they, like their mother, were a long way from sans-culottes—the often ragged people of the revolutionary mob. She received no reply to her letter. By March 1794, Alexandre had been arrested on suspicions of intending to undermine the state. He was taken to prison at the Luxembourg, then Les Carmes. Jacques-Louis David, painter and archrevolutionary, signed the warrant for his arrest. “Every day I was brought hundreds of them to sign and in the heat of the moment, I did not even read everything I signed,” he later said.

Marie-Josèphe busied herself writing to various people trying to free her husband. By doing so, she secured her own fate. The Committee of Public Safety received a letter denouncing Marie-Josèphe and Madame Hosten for running a “gathering place for suspected persons.” The writer told the committee: “Beware of the former Vicomtesse de Beauharnais, who has secret dealings and connections with government offices.”11 On Easter Sunday 1794, late at night, citoyens Lacombe and George arrived to search the home of Marie-Josèphe and Madame Hosten. The men conducted their mission with care. “After the most scrupulous search,” they reported, “we have found nothing contrary to the interests of the Republic; on the contrary, a multitude of patriotic letters which can only commend the citoyenne.”12 But their fair treatment was immaterial. The next day the women were arrested. Marie-Josèphe could not bring herself to wake her children. “I could not bear to see them cry,” she told their governess, Mademoiselle de Lannoy.13She and Madame Hosten were taken to Les Carmes, the most infamous prison in Paris. Alexandre was already there, desperate and ill. At thirty, Marie-Josèphe was doomed. No one expected to get out of Les Carmes alive.

Once an orderly convent, Les Carmes had quickly become dirty and infested with rats and lice. The walls were still spattered with blood from the September Massacres. Three hundred inmates waited there to die. Marie-Josèphe shared a cell on the first floor with several other women, including the Duchesse d’Aiguillon, and hundreds of mice. The windows overlooked the garden, but they were barred, and the prisoners saw little daylight. The fetid mess from the latrine buckets overflowed in the corridors, and the place reeked of human misery. Many prisoners had given up hope and sat barely dressed, hardly able to wash themselves or care about their surroundings. Outside, as they knew, the streets around the guillotine ran red with blood. Marie-Josèphe longed for her children. She wrote to Hortense, “I embrace you both from the bottom of my heart.”14

The prisoners were suffering, but at least there was food. At mealtimes in the refectory—first the men and then the women—each prisoner was given a half bottle of wine and as much stale bread as they could manage. In the afternoon husbands and wives, mothers and sons could snatch a few hours together as the prisoners were sent out into the courtyard for fresh air. Marie-Josèphe had many friends there, including the prince of Salm, who had been captured after he came to the city to return Hortense and Eugène.

In the afternoons, the prisoners would chat, walk, and play cards in the recreation area. The Revolutionary Tribunal usually came to collect those chosen to be guillotined in the morning, although the carts sometimes came back for others in the afternoon. The prisoners were brave: It was convention that they should simply wave goodbye to their companions with a sanguine air. After all, every man and woman who watched a victim being taken away knew that he or she might be taken tomorrow. The end of the recreation period was a momentary relief, since the tribunal tended not to come at night.

The day after she arrived, Marie-Josèphe saw her husband in the recreation area. He had become rapturously devoted to one of Marie-Josèphe’s cellmates, Delphine de Custine, the blond widow of a general, whom he called the “queen of roses.” But still he was devastated—if not surprised—to see his wife in prison, and concerned that his children had been left unprotected.

Like many of the women, Marie-Josèphe cut her hair short while in prison to avoid having the executioner cut her hair right before death. Short hair was also more practical in the lice-ridden cells where there was little chance to wash. Within a week of arriving at the prison, Marie-Josèphe’s health and spirits were low. She was deeply distressed every time she saw an acquaintance hauled off by the tribunal. Her only succor was the comfort of her friends. As the weeks wore on, some prisoners sat huddled alone, afraid of conversing in case they were accused and guillotined for conspiracy. Marie-Josèphe always tried to keep talking. It stopped at least some of the pain. The beautiful and daring Grace Elliott, former mistress of the Duc d’Orléans, decided Marie-Josèphe was “one of the most accomplished and one of the most amiable women I have ever met.”15 She thought Marie-Josèphe had been on the side of the revolutionaries and had now changed her mind—which was probably what most people believed of the estranged wife of Alexandre.

Marie-Josèphe also befriended the glamorous twenty-year-old Thérésa Cabarrus, the mistress of Jean-Lambert Tallien. Thérésa and Jean-Lambert had met when he was sent to extend the Terror into Bordeaux. She returned to Paris with him and was promptly imprisoned. Thérésa, in contrast to the other unhappy prisoners, was determined to free herself and see the honor of France restored.

In Les Carmes, the moral strictures of the outside world were forgotten. With no idea how much longer they would live, people seized love where they could. It was easy enough to bribe one’s way out of a cell, steal through the darkness, and creep onto the pallet of another. Everybody wanted to forget their suffering, but the women had another motive: If a female prisoner fell pregnant, her name was removed from the list of those to be guillotined, and she would be allowed out of prison briefly to give birth.

Marie-Josèphe fell in love with the handsome young General Lazare Hoche, somewhat her junior at twenty-seven, charismatic and commanding, with a curly mop of black hair. Imprisoned after his enemies in the army denounced him, he was a good catch. As a valued prisoner, he had his own cell, where he ate excellent food and drank fine wines. He had married a pretty sixteen-year-old, Adelaide Dechaux, just over a week before he was imprisoned. Though he was in love with her, he could not resist the febrile atmosphere of the prison. Marie-Josèphe soon seduced him into an intense affair. She was able to spend all her free time with Hoche and deploy her many weapons: her alluring way of speaking, her soft hands, her flirtatious conversation. Night after night, she crept to his cell. But after twenty-six days, he was transferred to the Conciergerie for interview and trial.

With Hoche seemingly on the way to the guillotine, Marie-Josèphe felt hopeless. Certain she would never escape, she constantly craved her children. They had hit upon the clever idea of sending messages via their mother’s cross but intelligent pug, Fortuné. He dashed under the prison gate, negotiated the rats, and found his mistress, who took the messages from under his collar. The letters, as Marie-Josèphe said, “did me much good.”16 The siblings had even sent a heartrending letter to the tribunal, begging for the release of their parents, but it was merely placed in a file and forgotten.

One day a woman bearing a note from Marie-Josèphe came to Mademoiselle de Lannoy, asking that the children be given to her for a few hours. She then hurried them to the prison and they stood in a courtyard. A window opened, and they saw their mother and father. Hortense cried out in happiness, which alerted a sentry, and the woman rushed the children away.

On June 22, a new law was passed, denying any of the accused either a defense or the right to cross-examination. There would be no need for solid evidence. With this, the worst stage of the Terror was unleashed. Men and women, rich and poor, were tried in groups of fifty and speedily dispatched.

On July 21, Alexandre was called to the Conciergerie for his trial. As he told his wife, a group of prisoners had been interrogated and had named him as a traitor. “I am the victim of several villainous calumnies brought against me by several aristocrats, so-called patriots.” He felt keenly the injustice of being judged a “bad citizen.” Before leaving the prison, he sent Marie-Josèphe a lock of his hair to keep for the children and wrote her a touching letter, aware as he scratched out every word that his own death made hers inevitable.

I have no hope of seeing you again, my friend, nor of embracing my dear children. I shall not tell you of my regrets: my tender affection for them and the brotherly attachment that binds me to you can leave you in no doubt as to the feelings with which I take leave of life … Farewell, my friend, comfort yourself with my children, console them by enlightening them, and above all teaching them that it is on account of virtue and civic duty that they must efface the memory of my execution and recall my services to the nation and my claims to its gratitude. Farewell, you know those whom I love, be their comforter and by your care make me live longer in their breasts. Farewell, for the last time in my life, I press you and my dear children to my breast.17

Alexandre appeared in front of the Revolutionary Tribunal on July 23, with forty-eight others. All but two were declared guilty. The next day, he was taken to the guillotine, along with the prince of Salm. Alexandre’s head rolled into the basket as the crowds around the Place de la Nation cheered. Marie-Josèphe was a widow.

She collapsed when she heard the news and retired to her cell. Marie-Josèphe knew she would be next. “My children, your father died on the scaffold and your mother will die there too,” she wrote. She recalled life on Martinique and then launched into praise of Alexandre, who, “having made me the happiest wife, was to make me the most glorious and unfortunate mother. Oh my dear Alexandre! How brief and beautiful those moments we were together and how the days which drag on since death destroyed them seem heavy and long.”18

Her time was running out.

SIX DAYS AFTER Alexandre’s execution, the guard came in for Marie-Josèphe’s trestle bed. One of her cell mates, the Duchesse d’Aiguillon, demanded to know if she would receive a better bed. “No, no, she will not need one,” he replied with a terrible smile, “because they are going to come to take her to the Conciergerie, and from there to the guillotine.”19

The women burst into tears. Marie-Josèphe calmly, as the duchesse recalled, “told them that their pain was entirely irrational, that not only would I not die, but that I would be Queen of France.” The duchesse thought she had gone mad but humored her by asking if she had appointed her household. “ ‘Ah! It is true, I was not thinking about that. Well my dear, I shall appoint you lady of honor, I promise you.’ ” The women wept even harder.

That afternoon, when Marie-Josèphe took the duchesse to the window to console her, they saw a peasant woman making gestures at them, clearly desperate for them to understand. Marie-Josèphe gazed at her without comprehension as the woman repeatedly picked up her skirts. “I called out to her: Robe! She made a sign to show that I was right; then she picked up a stone and put it in her skirts, which she showed us again, lifting up the stone with the other hand: Pierre! I called out to her again.” At this the woman made a movement as if cutting her throat and then began to dance.20 Marie-Josèphe stared: Robe? Pierre. Then she understood. Robespierre was dead. “You see,” she said to her cellmates, “I will be the Queen of France.” She was given back her bed and spent “the best night in the world.”21

ON JULY 26, Thérésa Cabarrus had sent Jean-Lambert Tallien a dagger and a letter condemning him for failing to rescue her. “I die in despair at having belonged to a coward like you,” she wrote. Whether due to the letter or to the fear that he would soon follow his mistress to prison, Tallien decided on action. The next day, Robespierre was in midflow, addressing the convention, when Tallien leaped up, waving the dagger and crying, “Down with the dictator!” It was a signal to his fellow plotters Paul de Barras and Louis Fréron to rise up behind him.

The deputies turned on Robespierre, and he fled to the Hôtel de Ville. Barras stormed the building and Robespierre was dragged away. He tried to shoot himself but succeeded only in shattering his jaw. He was left bleeding on a table in the Committee of Public Safety, then moved to the same cell that Marie Antoinette had occupied. Hundreds of Parisians followed his cart to the guillotine. Robespierre, always immaculately dressed, stood in front of a furious crowd, his jaw held together with bandages, his blue coat spattered in blood. The people cheered as he was executed.

The Jacobins were now the new enemies. Barras, Tallien, and Fréron were the heroes. Tallien became the president of the convention. The Terror was over. Through the incredible revolving door of eighteenth-century France, a new political system was in charge: Thermidor. Founded on the hope of equality, it has left little to history, conserved only as the name of a lobster recipe.

In Les Carmes a few days later, Marie-Josèphe was told that she would walk free. She was among the first to be chosen, thanks to the personal intercession of Tallien. When she received the news, she fainted. She had lost her husband and many of her friends. She had been in prison for three and a half months, and her health was ruined.

Fortunately, she was not entirely alone. General Hoche had also managed to escape the guillotine, and he wished to resume their affair.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!