Biographies & Memoirs


“The Height of Good Manners to Be Ruined”

On August 6, 1794, with little more than the dress she stood up in, Marie-Josèphe emerged into a France that once again had changed forever. With Robespierre dead, people streamed into the streets, no longer afraid to speak to one another. They saw a city in ruins. Paris was derelict and neglected, rubbish piled high and weeds growing through the cracks in the roads. Animals ran wild and beggars huddled in corners. The grand houses had been entirely despoiled: The furniture and mirrors from the interiors, and even the lead from the roofs and glass from the windows, had been snatched and sold. Bands of robbers and pickpockets scoured the streets, and murder was par for the course.

Marie-Josèphe took an apartment on the rue de l’Université for herself and her children, sharing with another female friend, Madame de Krény (Madame Hosten was still in prison). She began borrowing to survive. All her possessions at the rue Saint-Dominique were sealed away and unavailable to her, seized as the property of the state. She needed gowns, jewelry, crockery, and supplies. The marquis and Edmée had survived the Terror but they had little to give her. She threw herself into the arms of General Hoche, who whiled away his time with her, giving her presents and money when he left.

Marie-Josèphe had tried hard to conserve her beauty in prison, but it had been a hopeless quest. She was slender and her skin was fine, but her hair had thinned, her teeth were ruined, and she was often racked with nervous illness. At thirty-one, she had to use every beauty aid she could find to ensure Hoche’s affections. Luckily, he was entranced by her sensual arts and her bedroom tricks. He wrote to his child-wife, Adelaide, telling her that he was unavoidably detained in Paris.

“We are free,” cried one newspaper, “our thoughts, our intentions, will no longer be poisoned.”1 Yet though Robespierre was dead, the people could not forget the atmosphere of denunciation and suspicion, and it was impossible to feel at ease in conversation with friends, even at home. Parisians were grateful to Tallien and his allies, but they did not trust them.

The British were still blockading Martinique, but Marie-Josèphe managed to find someone traveling to New England who would take a letter for her. “You have without doubt heard about all the awful things that have befallen me,” she wrote to her mother. “I’ve been widowed for four months! My only consolations are my children and you, dear mother, for my support. My most cherished wish is that we will be reunited one day.”2 In the wastes of Paris, poverty-stricken and desperate, she found it hard to feel grateful for her survival. “My children now only have my support and I cling to life only to make them happy,” she wrote. As a postscript, she added, “Greetings to all the slaves on the plantation,” and sent a kiss to her wet nurse.3

Marie-Josèphe pleaded with her mother to send letters of credit or supplies of sugar via Hamburg. French currency had been devalued by a third, and anyone who had sugar or coffee could sell it on the street for a high price. She wrote again and again to her family, begging for money while living on loans and the money Hoche had given her. In the ruins of post-Terror Paris, only the moneylenders were getting rich. One friend gave her food; another sent her petticoats and skirts.

Paris had turned into, as one Swiss traveler put it, a “giant flea market.”4 Street gangs sold their ransacked booty, families tried to earn money from their belongings, and neighbors combed through the homes of anyone who had not returned from prison for items to wear or trade. Everywhere on the streets were carts selling furniture, curtains, tapestries, floor coverings, saucepans, and plates. There were piles of children’s toys for sale on street corners and stacks of clothes balanced on makeshift tables near the river. Agents acting for the Russian elite were hunting for priceless antiques to be had cheaply, and men sent by the prince of Wales had snapped up paintings, bronzes, and furniture from Versailles. Marie-Josèphe, unable to retrieve her belongings, spent her borrowed money excessively on new tables, chairs, and drapes for her home.

Around her, all the Parisians who had survived were throwing themselves into amusement, unsure how long the peace would last. “It is impossible to die of hunger with more gaiety,” sighed Baron de Frénilly.5 Thirteen theaters reopened, gambling dens welcomed revelers throughout the night, and over a thousand new dance halls were set up, as well as dining and drinking halls. The rich feasted on the new dish of lobster thermidor, while the poor still fought over bread. The courtesans who had disappeared during the Terror came out in full force. The city was peppered with women in bright dresses, sauntering arm in arm and taking clients back to the deserted parks stalked by hungry cats.

Those who had suffered imprisonment were immediately at the top of the social tree. “It was the height of good manners to be ruined,” declared Baron de Frénilly, “to have been suspected, persecuted, and, above all, imprisoned.” Those who had not been imprisoned were suspected of having bribed their way out of it—or of maneuvering to put others in jail in their place. As Frénilly put it, “People greatly regretted that they had not been guillotined”; it was an eighteenth-century version of survivors’ guilt.6 Marie-Josèphe attended “victims’ salons” and “victims’ luncheons,” gatherings of those who had been in prison like her. She was now à la mode. Everyone in Paris wanted to meet a victim, especially a pretty one without a husband.

The most exclusive invitation of all was to the Bals des victimes. Only those who had been imprisoned or had relations who’d died in the Terror were permitted to attend. Women wore chemise-style gowns and cropped their hair, as the prisoners had done at Les Carmes. The fashionable short hairstyle was called the “coiffure à la victime.” They also wore thin red ribbons around their necks to recall the cut of the blade; when guests entered the ballroom, they had to bow their heads in imitation of the head dropping from the guillotine.

A young Corsican soldier, newly arrived from the provinces, was struck by the bacchanalian frenzy. “Everyone is determined to make up for their sufferings,” twenty-two-year-old Napoleon Buonaparte wrote to his brother Joseph. Napoleone had thought himself destined for a stellar career but had fallen out with his paymasters. On half pay without a commission and virtually friendless, he felt lost. He spent his time trying to write a romantic novel and goggling at Parisians trying, because they were afraid of the future, “not to miss a single pleasure of the present.” He was most struck by the glamorous females. “Women are everywhere, in the theatres, the promenades, the bookshops,” he told Joseph. “Here alone they deserve to rule; all men are mad for them, think of nothing but them, live only for them. A woman needs to live in Paris for six months to know her due, to know what her empire is.”7 He gazed at women like Marie-Josèphe from afar, knowing they would never take notice of a nobody like him.

Marie-Josèphe took full advantage of her popularity, desperate to start again. She looked much younger than her thirty-one years (after she lied to the issuing officers, her passport also helpfully said she was twenty-eight). But to start over, she needed money and protection. She begged Hoche to divorce Adelaide, but he dithered between his teenage wife and his mistress. On August 21, he was appointed commander in chief of the army on the coast of Cherbourg, and he offered to take thirteen-year-old Eugène with him on campaign. From this act of kindness, Marie-Josèphe drew confidence that he would return and choose her.

Hoche traveled to Cherbourg and began his command on September 1. Marie-Josèphe sent him passionate letters, pouring out her heart and trying to persuade him to marry her. He replied diligently, but he was growing tired of her demands for money and her inability to save a penny.

Always a strong believer in spending more to gain more, she was throwing her purse around more carelessly than ever. Carriages were now incredibly rare, but Marie-Josèphe hired one and paraded around the city in style. She was hugely in debt to moneylenders and the banker Jean Emmery. She wrote to her family, “I hope that you have received the tender expressions of your poor Yeyette and that of her children; she really needs support from you, her heart is battered and she has been deprived for a long time. We have no hope of existence but your generosity.”8 It was an impossible demand, however, and Marie-Josèphe soon realized that she would have to find the money herself.

In December, the Seine iced over. Wolves howled on the outskirts of the city. With roads submerged in snow, Paris was stranded and its citizens suffered greatly. What little food there was to buy was expensive, since maximum-price laws had been abolished and inflation was soaring. Every tree in the Bois de Boulogne and the parks of the Tuileries was chopped down for firewood. Women threw themselves in the Seine over the shame of being unable to provide for their children. The ranks of streetwalkers swelled to thirty thousand as desperate girls did anything they could to buy food. The government instituted rationing—one quarter of a pound of black bread made from a bitter mix of peas and chestnut flour. At one in the morning, starving men, women, and children began queuing outside the bakeries. At seven o’clock, they started tearing at each other as they tried to snatch the tiny loaves. In the wealthier classes, guests took their own bread and candles with them to dinner parties. Marie-Josèphe was one of the few exempt from this custom on account of her extreme poverty.*

The streets were stalked by the Muscadins, young aggressive men who attacked anyone they thought of as republican and threw their caps of liberty to the ground. Savage purges of the Jacobins and anyone accused of being a sans-culotte began. Barras, Tallien, and the rest could barely see past ensuring their own political and physical survival. In the lawless, poverty-stricken city, missing thousands of its men to conscription, the corrupt and the venal flourished as they made money from profiteering and speculating on state assets that had been quickly sold off. Thousands of émigrés had left behind estates, houses, and businesses. Those who remained skimmed off the best for themselves. Dishonest men willing to enforce their desires with violence could make a fortune in a month.

Marie-Josèphe needed to join the circles of those with money in the post-Terror world—the moneylenders, the arms profiteers, the bankers, and the men of the political elite. She was still alluring, despite her travails in prison. A travel document of the time listed her as “height five feet, nose and mouth well made, eyes orange, hair and eyebrows dark brown, face long, chin somewhat prominent.”9 She began to cement her friendship with Thérésa Cabarrus, heroine of all Paris. Tall and very beautiful with deep brown eyes and dark hair, Thérésa had a charming personality, more charisma than the entire Comédie-Française, and a love of fame that made her the new idol of the age.

For many, lovely Thérésa was entirely responsible for the downfall of Robespierre. She was invited everywhere, applauded at the theater, followed in the street, and called “Our Lady of Thermidor” for her bravery. She was followed around by a group of Thermidor loyalists, dressed up in brightly colored jackets with long hair curling around their shoulders and speaking in an affected drawl. Marie-Josèphe and Thérésa were soon fast friends. Marie-Josèphe called her “little one” and acted as a witness at her wedding to Tallien on December 26, 1794.

Marie-Josèphe spent much of her time at Thérésa’s cottage-like home, La Chaumière, near the rural area of the Champs-Élysées. At Thérésa’s parties champagne flowed, and politicians, bankers, generals, actresses, and courtesans danced together. As the founder of Thermidor, Tallien was the hero, and presiding over it all was his lover, in outfits that were barely decent. By the winter, Marie-Josèphe was standing next to her, often in a similarly diaphanous gown to add to the effect. When she became a confidante of Thérésa, her credit increased and she was able to borrow more money. But most of all, she was in a position to meet Thérésa’s friends and dance with them, drink with them—and then invite them to visit her at the rue de l’Université.

The newspapers were preoccupied with Thérésa. Also adorning their pages was Juliette Récamier, a delicate seventeen-year-old beauty who was limpid and shy where Thérésa was brash. She was the wife of a wealthy, elderly banker, although some gossiped that she was really his illegitimate daughter, whom he had married when she was fifteen to ensure she took his estates if he were killed. It was unlikely, even though the marriage was not physical and he treated her like a daughter. “I am not in love with her,” he wrote, “but I feel for her a genuine and tender attachment … she possesses germs of virtue and principle such as are seldom seen so highly developed at so early an age.” Whatever the truth, he encouraged her to host salons and delighted in her reputation as one of the most beautiful women in Paris. He poured money into her glittering entertainments as she held court among men of power—speaking so softly that they had to lean in close to hear her. Another newspaper favorite was Fortunée Hamelin, eighteen and newly married. Her Creole heritage, long hair, and tiny waist made her entrancingly attractive, even though she had, according to one contemporary, the face of a bulldog.

Seductive, a survivor of prison, stylish, and somewhat lacking in morals, Marie-Josèphe fit in to this circle perfectly. She, Thérésa, Fortunée, and Juliette became known as the Merveilleuses, the fashion plates, the stars. Some called them the “Graces.” Taking the fashion for prison chemises and short hair to the extreme, they flaunted their lovely figures in transparent gowns. If couture at Versailles had been stiff corsets and the post-Revolution period simplicity and restraint, the style that marked the Thermidor was decadent nakedness. The overthrown queen had been palely pretty and blond, and Thermidor wanted a different look. Marie-Josèphe, like Thérésa, Fortunée, and Juliette, was dark-haired and dusky-eyed.

The Merveilleuses curled their hair tight around their heads, put flowers behind their ears, donned sandals on bare legs, and wore filmy puff-sleeved dresses scooped low over the bosom. Unsuited to the muddy streets of Paris—or indeed, for venturing outside, other than in high summer—the gowns were best worn at evening parties. Every curve of the body was exposed, and any dancer could feel the warm flesh of his partner while proceeding around the floor. Unlike the torturous gowns of Versailles, the Thermidor frocks were easy to whip off. Despite the Paris chill, dresses had become so diaphanous that people said the “sans-culottes had given way to the sans chemises.” Fortunée Hamelin once walked down the Champs-Élysées with her breasts entirely on show.

Usually, though, Thérésa wore the most eye-popping outfits. She preferred short see-through Grecian gowns, split at the thighs, the cloth dipped in scented oil to mold itself to her body. “It is not possible to expose oneself more sumptuously,” Talleyrand exclaimed of her.10 Thérésa’s arms jangled with gold bracelets, and she wore gold rings on her toes. During one party at La Chaumière, she wagered a man that her entire dress would not weigh more than two six-franc pieces. In front of her forty guests, she removed every scrap of clothing, including her bracelets and shoes. She won the bet.

Marie-Josèphe was sought after by men and women alike. As one newspaper reported, “An event talked of in the Paris Salons! Alteration in the style of hair-dressing affected by Mesdames Tallien and Beauharnais!”11 She cared very much about the matter, writing on one occasion to Thérésa:

I think it of importance that our head-dresses should in all respects be alike. I now state for your information that I propose wearing a red handkerchief in my hair, tied in the Creole fashion with three locks on each side of the head. That which is a presumption on my part is quite natural on yours, as you are younger, and, if not handsomer, still of a much fresher complexion … We are, however, attempting a bold thrust and must drive the trois Bichons and the Bretelles Anglaises [rival women in society] to despair. You fully understand the effects of this conspiracy, the necessity for secrecy, and the wonderful effects which must attend it.12

All of them were noticed at the theater, followed by crowds, and discussed in minute detail at society gatherings. For Marie-Josèphe, however, it was a risky game: The other Merveilleuses were married and over ten years younger, nearer Hortense’s age than her own. Baron de Frénilly declared Marie-Josèphe the sort of woman who could remain for fifteen years at the age of thirty, but even so, thirty was excessively old in the new world of the 1790s.13 She knew that if she spent her time with youthful girls of twenty-one, potential suitors would think her a similar age—and as long as she didn’t mention her children, no man would think her as old as she was. Prison had ruined her health, but it gave her a claim to fame and notoriety. Thanks to the horror of Les Carmes and her ability to flatter her way into the affections of celebrated young women, she had become one of the most expensive mistresses in the land.

At one of Thérésa’s parties, Marie-Josèphe was introduced to the man who would change her life. At forty, Paul François, Vicomte de Barras—former soldier and civil servant, and Tallien’s successor as president of the National Assembly—was Thermidor’s most powerful man and one of the wealthiest individuals in the country. Handsome, with dark hair and green eyes, he was clever and dishonest. After overthrowing Robespierre, he had the reputation of a hero, but his fellow politicians denounced him as untrustworthy, cruel, and a hypocrite for surrounding himself with “the most corrupt of aristocrats, lost women, ruined men, cheaters at cards, courtesans and speculators. He was like an exotic potentate: magnificent and dissolute.”14 In attaching herself to Barras, Marie-Josèphe was aiming high.

After meeting him in the winter, she wrote asking for his help to assist a young sans-culotte man. It was a typical act of kindness to someone who once would have been her enemy. The request was also an excuse: She said she hadn’t had the pleasure of seeing him in a long time, reproached him for forgetting an acquaintance, and asked him to visit her in her apartment. The widow Beauharnais was issuing a clear invitation.

By the following spring, she was Barras’s established mistress, and her money worries were over. “Along with all that is seductive and captivating,” declared an anonymous pamphlet about her, probably written by the Marquis de Sade, Marie-Josèphe had “a usurer’s avidity for money, which she squanders with the alacrity of a gambler and a love of luxury grand enough to swallow up the revenue of ten provinces.”15 Barras paid the rent on her home, discharged her debts, and gave her everything she desired, including a country residence in Croissy. In return, she lavished him with attention. Since Eugène was with General Hoche and Hortense was staying with her aunt Edmée, Marie-Josèphe was free to direct her every waking hour to him. Barras wanted her to be complaisant, sexually adventurous, and an exhibitionist. She was expected to arrange parties for him where nothing was forbidden.

Less than a year after she had been released from prison, the widow of nearly thirty-two was presiding over the most powerful table in Paris. Once a week, she traveled to her country estate in Croissy, and the stage would be set for an incredible celebration. Her neighbors watched, astounded, as carts of meat, game, exotic fruits, and flowers arrived at her door, despite the food shortages. Soldiers arrived later, escorting Barras himself.16 He and his fellow heroes were behaving like kings, and they desired a harem to entertain them.

With the drink flowing and the Merveilleuses wearing barely any clothes, Croissy evenings sometimes degenerated into orgies. On one occasion, Marie-Josèphe, Thérésa, and Fortunée undressed during the soup course, and Thérésa dipped her breast into Barras’s champagne glass. While the guests were eating salad, Fortunée used a small napkin to perform an erotic dance. The dessert was handed around, and then Thérésa dropped to her hands and knees and imitated “the undulations of an African panther.” By the cheese course, Marie-Josèphe was on Barras’s knee and fondling him in front of everybody. The other guests tripped off with each other to the bedrooms.17

In later life, consumed with bitterness against Marie-Josèphe and her husband, Barras declared her a “lewd Creole” and blustered that she “derived none of her attractions from nature, but everything from art, the most refined, the most provident” used by the courtesans of Greece and France. She was motivated only by money, he thought. She never loved “except from motives of interest,” even though she gave the impression to those who possessed her that “she was conquered by them and had freely given herself.” He wrote with a flourish that she would have “drunk gold from the skull of her lover.”18 The truth was that Marie-Josèphe was hungry for both love and money.

After years of privation, she had finally found security. She reaped the rewards of her new life. She enrolled twelve-year-old Hortense in an exclusive girls’ school, the Institut National de Saint-Germain, run by Madame Campan. An enclave of aristocratic civilities, the school was a haven for refugees from Versailles, such as Jean-Baptiste Isabey, Marie Antoinette’s miniaturist, who was now the tutor in drawing. Madame Campan trained girls to be accomplished young ladies with perfect etiquette. There was no notion of learning a trade useful to the state, as there had been during the Revolution. Life, once more, was all about exquisite manners and show.

Unlike her mother, a lax pupil with the nuns in Fort Royal, Hortense was diligent and quick-witted (rather to the envy of some of the other girls) and excelled in the curricula of languages, history, geography, drawing, music, and dancing. Latin was not included, and math, as in all girls’ schools, was an extra subject that parents had to request. Hortense had private harp lessons and was quite talented at drawing and painting, which she took with Isabey.

When Eugène returned from accompanying Hoche on tour, he was sent to an elite academy for young men (Hoche had largely returned to his wife, although Marie-Josèphe still held a flame for him). Marie-Josèphe then took a large house on 6 rue Chantereine, which she rented (with Barras’s money) from an actress friend, Julie Carreau. Developers had been buying up areas of the city and building brash new homes for the bankers, moneylenders, and speculators. Now the rue de la Victoire in the ninth arrondissement, the rue Chantereine had been converted recently from marshland into one of the most fashionable new districts. The house came with stables and a coach house, and Marie-Josèphe needed a staff of coachman, manservant, cook, chambermaid, and maid. Of course, Euphémie was with her, and she also retained Mademoiselle de Lannoy, governess to her children for their occasional visits. Only a few months after becoming Barras’s mistress, Marie-Josèphe was rich.

She dipped liberally into Barras’s pot of money for decorations. Sheer muslin curtains, typical of Martinique, adorned her dining room. She covered the chairs in pale blue nankeen and displayed classical ornaments, including an Etruscan silver urn, on her shelves. Excited by her decorating, she forgot to buy enough practical goods: There was a shortage of spoons, cups, and plates.

In the summer of 1795, the convention put Barras in charge of the troops engaged to defend it. He decided that he needed to win over the army and that he should pick out a pet to foster, in order to have someone to use to his advantage in the future. He especially liked to find people down on their luck and vault them into privilege, for he thought doing so gave him more control over them. This time he chose an obscure and poor young Corsican general by the name of Napoleon Buonaparte.

* In 1795, the livre was replaced by the franc, worth seven livres, three deniers. The new currency added to the financial chaos. Indeed, many people continued to refer to money as “livres,” especially when referring to large sums or property transactions.

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