Josephine, the Mistress who Became Empress

Based in part on a Shady Ladies lecture by Edith de Belleville.

Josephine de Beauharnais (Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie) 1763-1814 was born to a wealthy family growing sugarcane on the island of Martinique. At 15, a fortune teller predicted she would “become more than a queen.”  

When hurricanes destroyed the family plantation, it was arranged that her sister, Catherine-Désirée, be advantageously married to Alexandre Francois Marie, Viscount of Beauharmais. Unfortunately, the girl died. Grasping the opportunity, Josephine would replace her. At 16, she made the dangerous journey to Paris by boat. Alexandre did not find the uneducated, uncultured girl acceptable and was serially unfaithful, once abandoning her and the (two) children for an entire year. (They were married for eight years.)

Josephine Beauharmais greeting ambassadors- Author unknown (Public Domain)

Josephine went to court, became legally separated – and, surprisingly – eventually divorced. At the Viscount’s expense, she and her daughter moved to Pentement Abbey, a refuge for upper class women. (Her son was sent to boarding school.) Apparently innately sweet, she endeared herself to nobles who taught her to be a lady, or as de Belleville says, “the art of life.” After that, the young woman moved to the home of her father-in-law at Fontainebleau, in sight of an estate she would eventually get to know well.

During the 1794 Reign of Terror, the Viscount was guillotined and Josephine incarcerated for some months due to association. Every morning, a soldier would read a list of those to be executed that day.  One story has it that she and her ex were imprisoned together (unlikely) and that he stepped forward when only the name Beauharmais was read – without specificity.

Josephine secured her ex-husband’s possessions when freed and, with the help of Madame Tallien with whom she’d been confined, was made welcome in a vibrant social circle. De Belleville equates this period with the flapper era in America – sexually liberated and partying. She was slim and elegant, but had bad teeth, so smiled rarely. Several strategic affairs with political figures followed. It was at one of these gatherings that 33 year-old Josephine met 27 year-old Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon and Josephine Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

She had little money, he had the wages of a soldier. She thought he’d provide security, he assumed she was rich. Now it was Josephine who knew how to navigate society. She turned full focus on the younger man, apparently teaching her swain manners and how to eat oysters. (Correspondence exists.) In a letter to her that December, he wrote, “I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night’s intoxicating pleasures has left no rest to my senses.”

They married without fuss at a local registry in 1796. (Josephine lied about her age.) His family objected to the union. There was no honeymoon. Rising in the ranks, Napoleon was sent to war in Italy. Our host points out that many of the streets in Paris are named for locations of the general’s battles. He wrote copious love letters that were rarely answered by his less besotted wife who continued to have affairs. Napoleon returned with gold, glory, and stolen art.

Napoléon Ier reçoit à Saint-Cloud le Senatus-Consulte qui le proclame empereur des Français– Georges Rourt (Public Domain)

A subsequent campaign in Egypt brought him more success. There, Napoleon had the first of several more public affairs that soured his relationship with Josephine. Returning to Paris, he was approached by powerful men to stage a coup d’état overthrowing the government. This lead to his being crowned Emperor at the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Nobility was suspicious of their freshly anointed leader. Many had left Paris. It was Josephine, the former Beauharmais, who convinced them to return, not the gruff military man. Napoleon established The Bank of France and the new franc (which lasted until 1920). Josephine promoted all things French, sometimes changing her dress four times a day to show off to visitors. She raised extraordinary roses and was a patroness of the arts, even commissioning pieces. Many of her furnishings were created especially for her. When in town, the couple were popular because of her generosity and social grace.

Robert 1805 Lefevre portrait of Madame Bonaparte (Public Domain)

When it became clear Josephine could no longer bear children, Napoleon reluctantly divorced her. The Civil Code allowed this between the ages of 21-45. Josephine was 46. Still, her husband was emperor. It’s said they both cried – she out of shock and fear, he because she did. “It’s funny to think this man was on battlefields seeing people die, but couldn’t bear to see Josephine crying,” the host notes.

Napoleon wed Marie-Louise of Austria. “It is a womb that I’m marrying,” he commented. (James R. Arnold Napoleon Conquers Austria.) Even after the separation, he insisted Josephine retain the title of empress. When that didn’t sit well, he created her Duchess of Navarre. She was given substantial money and a castle in Normandy.

Napoléon Bonaparte présentant le code civil à l’impératrice Joséphine- FRancois-Anne David (Public Domain)

The two remained on such good terms, Napoleon said, “the only thing that comes between is her debts.” (She evidently had a shopping addiction.) An heir was born to the emperor in 1811. Josephine died May 1814 at Malmaison. Exiled in Elba when he heard of her death, Napoleon locked himself in his rooms for two days. The Emperor carried her portrait until he died. Last words on his death bed at St. Helena were: “France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Joséphine.”(“France, l’armée, tête d’armée, Joséphine“).

I look forward to see what subject will next be pursued.

Opening Left: Josephine Beauharmais- Author unknown (Public Domain) Right: Josephine, Empress of the French by Guillaume Guillon-Lethiere (Public Domain)

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About Alix Cohen (1312 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.