Biographies & Memoirs


“What Strange Power You Have over My Heart”

It was the early autumn of 1795. The chandeliers glowed above a table heavy with food, perfumed flowers adorned the vases, and wine flowed into crystal goblets. Barras seated Napoleon next to Marie-Josèphe, who appeared at her best in the soft candlelight, her gown clinging to her bosom. The two fell deep into conversation. Unlike every woman the young soldier had met, she neither mocked nor ignored him. Instead, she listened to him talk of his military victories and praised his successes. Napoleon was dazzled by her sophistication. “I was not immune to the charms of women,” he said, “but I had not had good fortune with them; and my character rendered me shy before them. Madame de Beauharnais is the first to have reassured me. She said flattering things about my military talents one day when I found myself seated next to her. Her praise intoxicated me; I addressed myself only to her.” Impulsive and decisive, he had fallen in love, and after that evening, “I followed her everywhere; I was passionately in love with her.”1 Ill at ease in society and without an object of devotion, Napoleon had found an ambition and a goal: to seize his patron’s mistress.

That night was his first meeting with Marie-Josèphe, but he had seen her from afar and, like everybody in society, knew of her reputation. Marie-Josèphe, the exotic Creole, the survivor of Les Carmes, was discussed in the salons and feted in the newspapers. From a distance, she was a glittering prize; close up, she was gentle, seductive, and elegant. Her days as a gauche bride long behind her, she was the epitome of delicacy and mystery, her smile suggesting sensual delights. Napoleon was immediately her slave. “It was chez Barras that I saw my wife for the first time,” Bonaparte later recalled.2

In his attempt to keep the little Corsican on his side and thus have someone under his thumb in the army, Barras had enlisted his secret weapon: Madame de Beauharnais.

Anyone could understand Napoleon’s attraction to her. Marie-Josèphe was a real Parisienne (if not by birth), an aristocrat who had everything he wanted: position, social cachet, sophistication, and a true revolutionary past. As his friend from the military academy at Brienne, Louis-Antoine de Bourrienne, put it, she would “aid him in achieving his ambition,” since through her, he would have access to the most influential people in society.3 And, simply, he was captivated. “She was a real woman,” Napoleon said, enthusiastically praising her rear end.4

BORN ON AUGUST 15, 1769, six years Marie-Josèphe’s junior, Napoleon was a fighter from the cradle. Named for an uncle who had died in the battle for Corsica against the French, he was the second child of his parents’ marriage to survive. In 1764, handsome eighteen-year-old Carlo Buonaparte had married Maria Letizia Ramolino, aged thirteen and intelligent, though entirely uneducated and very strong-willed. Initially Corsican nationalists, the Buonapartes changed sides when the French took over the island a year before Napoleon’s birth. Carlo changed his name to Charles de Bonaparte and, as overdressed as a peacock, befriended the Comte de Marbeuf, the commander in chief of the French forces on Corsica. He later traveled to France to wait around at Versailles for favors and money. Letizia, virtually alone on Corsica, raised her eight children with a strict hand. “To the manner in which she formed me at an early age,” Napoleon said, “I principally owe my subsequent elevation.”5 Severe on laziness and venality, she had no compunction about whipping her offspring. Napoleon prided himself on never crying out.

In later years, he talked up his poverty. “We never bought anything except what was absolutely necessary, such as clothes and furniture,” he said.6 He was not entirely truthful: His mother’s dowry was thirty-one acres of land, a mill, and a bake house, and his father was successful at gaining favors from the elite for the family. By the rough and ready standards of Corsica, they were wealthy, with a shuttered stone house on the route to the port, shared with other Bonaparte family members, and a small country home, as well as the mill and the bake house. They spent a lot on appearances: As Napoleon’s mother said, “Better to have fine clothes and a grand salon and to eat dry bread in secret.”7

Napoleon did not learn French until he was nine, as Corsica was linguistically, culturally, and historically Italian. Letizia resented speaking French, and her son would always pronounce certain words in the Italian fashion. “I have a presentiment that one day this small island will astonish Europe,” declared Jean-Jacques Rousseau.8 He meant that its compact size and isolation made it the ideal laboratory to try out his social theories of the primitive man. Corsica was mocked, looked down on as a humble farming island with meager culture.

Napoleon was a tough, assertive, aggressive child, intelligent and with a temper that always threatened to boil over at any provocation. At the age of seven, he was sent to a Jesuit school where he learned to read, write, and add, as well as a little Latin and ancient history. He spent his time there destroying his surroundings, pulling out the stuffing from chairs, scratching tables, and tearing leaves off plants. Marbeuf encouraged Charles to put his children forward for a scheme in which the offspring of impecunious members of the elite could apply for scholarships at French schools. In 1778 Napoleon won a place at the Military School of Brienne, the lowest-ranked of the ten military academies where noble sons were trained for the army. Charles took his son to Brienne while on his way to pay his respects—alongside other Corsican nobles—to the new king, Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette. Napoleon’s elder brother, Joseph, bound for the priesthood, wept copiously at their parting, but Napoleon let slip only a single tear.

At Brienne, the little king of the Bonaparte family was brought down to earth with a bump. Graceless, foreign, with a heavy Italian accent, small and ugly, an island boy on a scholarship, Napoleon was a prime target for the bullies. His fellow schoolboys shouted that the Corsicans were cowards, called him “paille au nez,” or straw nose, and laughed at his height and his waddling little body. “I’ll make you French pay for this,” he cried. He became preoccupied with joining the army, so much so that when an inspector suggested he was not yet ready, he considered applying to the British navy.

Life at Brienne was harsh. There were no visits home unless a parent was gravely ill, and no holidays other than a fortnight’s break at the end of the summer, when the boys were taken on walks in the barren countryside around the school. Among the other boys was Bourrienne—who later would become his secretary—but Napoleon claimed that he had few friends while there, because friendship took up time. The teachers were poorly trained, and the inspection reports noted laziness in the 20 staff and 150 students, as well as widespread insubordination. The vice principal prided himself on dashing through Mass in nine minutes. Napoleon was bad at singing, deportment, and music and awful at dancing, but he tried hard in ancient history and geography and had a real aptitude for mathematics. “That child will never be good for anything but geometry,” he later recalled people saying.9 In 1782 he told an inspector that he wished to devote his life to science and produce a theory of electricity or a new model of the cosmos.

In 1784 he had his chance to escape. Just as he was due to graduate, the Ministry of War sent out a call for students with a talent for mathematics. Fourteen-year-old Napoleon was selected to attend the École Royale Militaire in Paris. Unlike ramshackle Brienne, the École Militaire was luxurious, with meals served by waiters and thirty professors and staff, from grooms to wig makers and shoemakers. Unfortunately for Napoleon, he still had to take the dreaded dancing lessons. He did, however, learn plenty of math and took useful classes in fortification. The boys at the École Militaire were the crème de la crème, too occupied with their studies to mock Napoleon for his accent, but they were not friendly to him, and he felt excluded and looked down on. He emerged with a lifelong chip on his shoulder regarding the aristocracy, to whom he felt everything came easily. His graduation report noted he was hardworking and “capricious, proud, and extremely egotistical.”10

In 1785 Charles died of stomach cancer. Napoleon barely mourned his father. He promptly informed his mother that he was now the head of the family, as his elder brother was wedded to the Church. Thirty-five-year-old Letizia and the four younger children—all born after his departure—were now essentially dependent on his wages; fortunately, the middle two, Lucien and Maria Anna, known as Elisa, were on scholarships. Letizia was excused from attending church, as she had so much domestic work. As the breadwinner, Napoleon worked harder to qualify as an artillery officer, cramming into a few months’ preparation what would normally take two years. At sixteen, he graduated forty-second out of fifty-eight in his class. He was then sent as a second lieutenant to the La Frère Regiment in southern France. Already shy of women, he was the only new recruit who did not visit a brothel in Lyon on the way.

Life in the garrison town was undemanding. Napoleon spent his copious free time reading rapaciously. As he put it, “I conquered rather than studied history.”11 He ate one meal a day to save money and sent every spare penny to Letizia. In September 1786, he took an extended leave and finally returned home for the first time in eight years, meeting the four younger siblings he had been supporting: Louis, Pauline, Caroline, and Jérôme, still only a baby. He asked for further leave on the grounds of illness but returned in late 1787 to Paris.

There, he encountered a pretty girl working the red-light district of the Palais Royal. The expensive women took rooms overlooking the arcades, while the cheaper girls like her were forced out in all weather to find clients. Napoleon asked her how she had become a streetwalker and stood with her, feeling so vigorous, he declared, that he did not feel the cold. He took her to a nearby hotel and lost his virginity. After wasting a further six months on Corsica at the beginning of 1788, he returned to his regiment.

In 1789 the Revolution broke out and Napoleon, bored of quelling bread riots, went back to Corsica hoping to win political influence on the island. He had little success and returned to France in 1791. He hedged his bets: He joined the Jacobin Society on July 3 and publicly celebrated Louis XVI’s birthday in August. As the Terror spread, Napoleon left Paris and took his sister, Elisa, out of her school at Versailles. On the journey south to Corsica, their coach was frequently halted by revolutionaries demanding their passports and instructing them to shout “Vive la Nation!” The people clapped Napoleon on the back, shabby in his army uniform. In Marseille, Napoleon felt safe: He and his sister spent a month there and then traveled in leisurely fashion to Corsica. For Napoleon, his early twenties were a time of dodging responsibility. He had little interest in romance, as he wrote in his Dialogue on Love: “I do more than dispute the existence of Love. I consider it to be actually as injurious to society as to the personal happiness of mankind.”12

In 1793 the political situation on Corsica exploded. The Corsican Assembly deemed the Bonapartes traitors and exiled them for good. Napoleon and his banished family fled to Toulon, where he wrote a republican pamphlet and found his spirit at last. Toulon had been attacked by the British, and Napoleon, the budding politician, used his contacts with the president of the revolutionary committee and was given the post of commander of artillery, after the previous holder had been wounded. It was the first of his impressive promotions. He took a key role in the rescue of Toulon, impressing Paul de Barras, who at the time was in Nice with the army. Barras spotted Napoleon’s talent and, after the French won Toulon, encouraged his promotion to brigadier general.

By 1794 Napoleon’s brother Joseph had long since given up the priesthood and was on the verge of marriage to a Marseilles girl, Julie Clary. He introduced Napoleon to her plump, cheerful sixteen-year-old sister, Désirée. Napoleon called Désirée by her middle name, “Eugénie,” and was more practical than romantic with her, telling her what books she should read and how she could improve her manners. He considered marrying her, since she brought a large dowry, but was not affected by particular feelings for her. He held fast to his belief that love weakened man.

He received orders to join the Army of the West, suppressing the protests of royalists in the Vendée. He would have been under the command of Marie-Josèphe’s lover, Lazare Hoche, a man strict with those who took unpaid leave. There was no glory in the Vendée, and Napoleon traveled to Paris to argue his position. Following a furious unresolved argument, after his leave period expired, he was living in a cheap hotel, existing on a tiny allowance sent by Joseph. He tried to meet anyone of influence, knocking on doors and demanding introductions, but was often turned away.

Depressed and miserable, Napoleon looked sickly. He rarely bothered to comb his hair and his uniform was shabby. At the age of twenty-six, his career seemed over. He wrote despondent letters to Joseph and Désirée and seriously contemplated suicide. “I will end up not stepping aside when a carriage passes,” he wrote dolefully to Joseph.13 “Life is a mere dream that fades.”14

Paris in the summer of 1795 was food for cynicism. The only winners after the Terror were the get-rich-quick speculators and black marketers, profiteers, military contractors, and bankers. Thermidor was a regime that protected property, enshrined the supremacy of those with money, and allowed them to get richer by buying public monopolies for a song, snapping up handsome estates previously owned by aristocrats and the extensive lands once owned by the Church. “There is one thing alone to do in this world and that is to keep acquiring money and more money, power and more power,” Napoleon said.15

He wandered the streets and started work on a romantic novel, Clisson et Eugénie—a doomed love story that reflected a young man’s eager desire to experience passion—having repeatedly read Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. Clisson, “born for war,” meets two sisters and falls in love with the younger, Eugénie. He gives up the army for her but is then called back. When wounded, he sends his aide to tell Eugénie, but she falls in love with the aide. Clisson decides to die in battle, writing to her, “At twenty-six I have exhausted the fleeting pleasures of fame.”16

Napoleon had taken up his pen as a romantic novelist, but the fates were aligned differently. Paul de Barras saw in him a man who would do anything to be on the winning side. Barras’s friends were baffled by the great man’s fascination with the swarthy Corsican: “Who is this Bonaparte? Where has he served? Nobody has ever heard of him.” The vitiated society men laughed at “Barras’s little protégé.” “At that stage in his life,” wrote Laure Permond, “Bonaparte was ugly.”17

At just over five feet three, he was not excessively small (the average Frenchman was about five feet six), but he gave the impression of short stature because of his slumped posture and skinny chest.18 Underfed, with a yellowing complexion, gray eyes, and a protruding nose and chin, he was almost unpleasant to look at. In an age when the ideal of male beauty was dark curls and lustrous eyes, Napoleon’s lank, greasy hair and small eyes made him a joke and revealed him—to snobbish Parisians—as lowly stock. He refused to waste money on gloves, so his fingernails were as dirty as his boots. Even worse, his French was heavily accented and hesitant. Dress and behavior meant everything, even after the Revolution, and Napoleon was scruffy, sloppy, and rude. He had little idea of social niceties and tended to smile at the wrong moment or burst into laughter for no reason. Most of the time he was too awkward to say anything, but when he did speak, it was usually to offer a crude joke. Profoundly frustrated that he could not impress people as he wished, he retreated into bouts of temper and sulking. And yet under all the grime and poor manners, he was profoundly intelligent—and had a force of will that was irresistible, if one made the effort to speak to him.

Barras took Napoleon to the salons of Madame Tallien and Madame de Staël and to various parties. “He was just a little general who was unhesitatingly dubbed a fool by all those who knew him,” said Madame de Chastenay. Bonaparte mused to his brother that “a mad desire to get married will take possession of me.”19 He was so frantic to be accepted that he proposed marriage to Laure Permond’s mother, fourteen years his senior. He even considered the gold-digging courtesan Grace Elliott, whom Marie-Josèphe had met in prison.20

Napoleon was young, lustful for power, and fascinated by the women who spurned him. Parisian ladies, he wrote to Désirée Clary, were as “beautiful as old romances and as learned as scholars … all these frivolous women have one thing in common, an astonishing love of bravery and glory.” He observed them like a scientist, evaluating their characteristics. “Their toilette, the fine arts and their pleasures take up all their time. They are philosophers, lovers, courtesans, and artists.”21 Admiring but excluded, he was more than ready to fall in love with the first of these fabulous creatures who deigned to show him any attention. At the fateful dinner in 1795, he was captured wholesale by Madame de Beauharnais.

At first it seemed impossible that he could act on his passion for his patron’s mistress, but Barras quickly allowed him leave to court her. Barras had been growing disillusioned with Marie-Josephe, for she was both expensive and increasingly dependent on him. He also reasoned that if Napoleon “took” his lover, the young general would feel even more loyalty to Barras.

Marie-Josèphe’s interest in Napoleon, on the other hand, was utterly baffling to her friends. The ladies in the salons, the Merveilleuses, and the women who wished to be like Marie-Josèphe could not comprehend her willingness to humor the skinny little Corsican. But while she was drawn to his ambition and intelligence, she refused to be his lover. As she told Barras, “she believed she could do better than him.”22

In October 1795, pro-royalist sentiment flared in the streets of Paris. In what became known as the 13 Vendémiaire, royalist supporters rose up and declared allegiance to the émigré army of the Comte d’Artois, then marching toward the capital. Barras put Napoleon in charge, and he suppressed the riots with swift brutality. Hundreds of royalists were killed.

Barras and his allies used the violence to declare the need for a new political system, the Directory: five men in overall charge, presiding over the Council of Elders and the Council of Five Hundred. Barras quickly emerged as the leader. “The memory of the terror today serves the friends of despotism,” said Madame de Staël.23

Barras resigned as commander in chief of the Army of the Interior and put Bonaparte, the inexperienced soldier who had been practically expelled from the army, in his place. At only twenty-six, Napoleon, dubbed General Vendémiaire, was wealthy and celebrated. He moved to an expensive new house, took headquarters at the Place Vendôme, and used a private box at the Opéra. He immediately started enriching his family—and redoubling his appeals to Marie-Josèphe.

“WHEN GENERAL BONAPARTE fell in love with Mme. de Beauharnais, it was love in all the power and strength of the term,” said his friend Auguste de Marmont. “It was apparently his first passion and he felt it with all the vigor of his nature.”24 Although he continued writing to his putative fiancée, Désirée, he was a man devoted. As with his fiancée, Napoleon decided not to address his lover by her given name, instead feminizing her middle name. He called her the name by which she would always be known—Josephine.

Now that Napoleon was the military hero of Thermidor, the newly named Josephine became more enthusiastic about his advances. She wrote to him using the full force of her charm to seduce him.

You no longer come to see a friend who is fond of you. You have quite deserted her. This is a mistake, as she is tenderly attracted to you. Come to lunch with me tomorrow, septidi. I want to see you and talk to you about matters that will interest you. Good night,mon ami, je vous embrasse.25

Napoleon replied immediately. “I cannot imagine the reason for the tone of your letter. I beg you to believe that no one desires your friendship as much as I do, no one could be more eager to prove it.”26

Josephine held out against Napoleon’s pleadings for intimacy, but not for long. By December 1795, they were lovers. He scribbled his passion at seven o’clock in the morning, enraptured after their first night together.

I wake up filled with thoughts of you. Your image, and the intoxicating pleasures of last night allow my senses no rest. Sweet and thrilling Josephine, what strange power you have over my heart! Are you annoyed with me? Are you unhappy? Are you upset? My soul is broken with grief and my love for you denies me repose. But how can I rest any more, when I submit to the feeling that overwhelms my very self, when I drink from your lips and from your heart a soothing flame? Yes! One night has taught me how short your portrait falls short of the reality! You start at noon: in three hours I shall see you again. Till then, a thousand kisses, mio dolce amore, but give me none back for they set my soul on fire.27

Napoleon’s letter is a masterstroke of ardor—and somewhat different from the letters of his rival Horatio Nelson to his mistress Emma, Lady Hamilton, telling her he thought of her so much “I could not touch even pudding,” and that he had felt jealous and dreamed he had hit her with a “big stick.”28 In France, it was the age of the sentimental letter writer, of the outpouring of emotion, ruled by the fervent (although rather less explicit) letters in books such as Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse. Napoleon threw all his emotions into his letters, high on his sexual obsession. He scrawled hard, breaking holes through the paper with his pen, covering the words with blots because he was so impatient to write to her. Near-illegible and misspelled, his words burn with the fire in his soul for Josephine, her husky voice, clinging dresses, and boudoir promises.

Gone were all his notions that love was merely a “social passion.” With Josephine, he was overturned, consumed, and fascinated and could think of nothing but her. Poor Désirée wrote letters, but they languished unanswered on his desk.

Napoleon was immediately in thrall to Josephine’s small waist and high bosom, her fine skin and delicate movements. In bed, he was delighted by her, baffled and excited by her repertoire of techniques. Josephine recognized that Napoleon was a man who was excited by theater. She dressed up for him, doused herself in the scents he liked, and embodied the role of the temptress. She decorated her chamber with absolute care, covering the walls with gilt and mirrors. In the old days, she had learned the hard way how to be a perpetual mistress to a man: willing, inventive, compliant. Her early roués had been only too familiar with such tricks—mirrors and shadowy postures in candlelight, bedroom acrobatics (Napoleon praised her “zig-zags”), perfume in the hidden hollows of the body, and feigned pleasure. But Napoleon had never encountered these tricks and could not believe his luck. As he later wrote to her, he never “forgot those visits” to the “little black forest.”

Napoleon also had a fascination with makeup, partly because it was something his mother never would have used. Josephine, who bathed daily and whose dressing table groaned with pots of powder and skin whitener, was his ideal. She even made her own cosmetics—one she used in a “very secret” ritual in her daily toilette, perhaps a form of the “facial varnish” popular at the time to stretch out the skin and minimize wrinkles. Her small hands and feet were the most exquisite imaginable (he was obsessed with hands and feet and had become very vain about his own). To him, she was the ultimate in beauty.

Almost as soon as they became lovers, he was demanding that she marry him, throwing himself at her feet, and falling into rages when she refused. Shy and nervous around women, conscious of his failings as a lover, he was convinced that only she could understand him. Josephine’s softness, her lack of education, her pliability, indolence, and excessive femininity all made her his dream lover. Even her failure to live within her means was erotic, yet another indication of how she needed the firm hand of a man. Her readiness to forgive slights and wrongs made her a good match for him. No woman who bore grudges could have lived with Napoleon.

He was also wildly jealous. One evening he announced he would use the cards to read the futures of the guests attending a party. He told Madame Tallien that she would experience “a thousand follies.” When he came to General Hoche, he delivered what was, for a soldier, the ultimate insult: “General, you will die in your bed.” He hated any man who admired Josephine—except Barras.

Napoleon wished to be the all-powerful man in every aspect of his life. Josephine looked up to him and asked for his advice. When he whipped himself into a rage with her, she acted out the supplicant, weeping and pleading for mercy. She was a naturally lachrymose woman in a sentimental age, sometimes weeping three times a day, and Napoleon was swept away by the erotic tableau of her in tears. “I keep remembering your kisses, your tears, your lovely jealousy,” he said.29 Tears were proof of her emotion and her femininity, and Josephine’s ability to turn on the waterworks was vital to her power over him. “I was not born with a heart that could bear the sight and sound of weeping,” he said.30 He found the image of her sobbing on her knees unbearably arousing. “Ah! Tears!” he said cynically. “Woman’s only weapon.”31 Josephine’s tears were a weapon he craved. He had a deep-seated need to watch her acting out the role of humiliated maiden; nothing bolstered his sense of masculinity more. With his instinct for drama, he loved to stir up terrible rows and push her to hysterical tears, then forgive her, the lovers clinging to each other in passionate reconciliation.

“Bonaparte is all day in adoration before me as though I was a goddess,” Josephine wrote.32 His sexual obsession with her was entrancingly novel, after a series of jaded men like Barras. But she had been broken in to the ways of love by her failed marriage. As a teenager on the ship over from Martinique, she, too, had been alight with ideas about romantic destiny derived from books and the enthusiasm of youth. After the cruelties of Alexandre and her treatment at the hands of her often blasé lovers and keepers in the years after her separation, Josephine had become a woman who did not have the luxury of believing in love. To her, romance and sex were a path to status and security, the bargains that a woman had to make to survive. Over the years she had learned charm and sophistication, while forgoing her excitement, her joy in the new, and her desire to lose herself to another. She had not been looking to fall in love but for a man to support her and her children. Napoleon interested her and she loved him, in her way, but she no longer believed that passion could change her life.

Though Napoleon was sensual in his letters, in person he could be rough and abrupt. He knew virtually nothing of polite conversation and expected Josephine to listen to him describing military plans. Although he adored her and was entirely in thrall to her sexuality, he had little interest in her thoughts or opinions and did not wish for much repartee. He was the type of man with whom a woman could feel terribly lonely even as he caressed her.

Paul Barras encouraged Napoleon to ask her to marry him. “You have the rank, the talent to become a hero,” Barras said, “but you are poorly connected; without fortune, without relations.” Barras explained that, as Napoleon put it, Josephine was valuable because she was part of “both the old regime and the new” and would “make people forget my Corsican name, would make me wholly French.”33 To be “wholly French” was Napoleon’s ambition, and if he thought that Josephine could give him such a prize, he would have offered marriage even if she had been plain and twice his age. He promptly proposed.

She consulted her friends on whether to marry Bonaparte. Some of the ladies thought him a joke; others worried that a military life was insecure and that a financier or a statesman would be a better bet. Josephine’s lawyer was dismayed when he heard that her groom would offer her only the tiny sum of fifteen hundred francs a year. She was aware that Napoleon’s family did not approve of her. On top of it all, Hortense was unenthusiastic. She’d met Napoleon at a dinner at the Luxembourg Palace—she was sitting between him and her mother and he was so desperate to talk to Josephine that Hortense had to give up, lean back, and listen to his trumpeted chatter flying over her head. Afraid of losing her mother, she begged her not to marry him.

Josephine wrote to a friend, probably Madame de Krény, in a state of indecision.

Do you like him? You will ask me.—But … No.—You feel cool about him then?—No; but I find myself in a lukewarm state which I do not like … Taking a side has always seemed tiring to my Creole nonchalance, I find it far easier to follow the will of others.

… I admire the general’s courage, the breadth of his knowledge of everything, of which he speaks equally well; the quickness of his mind, so he understands the thoughts of others almost before they have been expressed; but I am afraid, I admit, of the empire he seems to want over all those who surround him. His scrutinizing gaze has something strange about it which I cannot explain.

Finally, the thing that should please me, the force of passion, of which he speaks so much and which means one cannot doubt his sincerity, is exactly what stops me offering the consent that I am just as often on the point of giving.34

THE STRENGTH OF “this affection which almost seems to render him delirious” discouraged her. She worried that if he fell out of love with her, he would resent her. She had, after all, seen so many men chase her desperately, then grow cold.

But the “Widow Beauharnais,” as she signed herself, could not remain single forever. Barras would not marry her. General Hoche had been visiting her over the winter but showed no signs of divorcing his wife.

Josephine made up her mind. She said yes to Napoleon, to his passion, to his obsession with her, to the small financial settlement and the role of a military wife. Napoleon, overjoyed, saw himself as beginning a new life with his prize by his side. In a signed contract, both parties agreed that there would be no joint property or goods, and neither would be responsible for the debts of the other.

In his letters, Napoleon was the impassioned lover, but he had inquired into the status of Josephine’s accounts and decided the wedding was to be swift and practical. There could be no church service for the friend of the Directoire, but there would also be no dinner or reception, as Josephine would have had if she’d married a financier. A week previously, Napoleon had been made commander in chief of the French Army of Italy, and still he had no desire for a celebration. Josephine did not invite her children or the Marquis de Beauharnais and Aunt Edmée or her female friends. Napoleon’s family was also absent, disapproving from afar. Désirée heard the news and told him she was heartbroken. “You have made me unhappy for the rest of my life,” she wrote. “I shall never promise myself to another.”35

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