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Anne Thériault | Longreads | March 2019 | 22 minutes (5,569 words)
From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on badass world-historical women of centuries past.
* * *
In 1768, a 15-year-old girl traveled to the hills near her family home in Martinique to visit a local wise woman. Desperately curious to know what her future held, the girl handed a few coins to the Afro-Caribbean obeah, Euphémie David, in exchange for a palm reading. Euphémie obligingly delivered an impressive-sounding prediction: the girl would marry twice — first, unhappily, to a family connection in France, and later to a “dark man of little fortune.” This second husband would achieve undreamed of glory and triumph, rendering her “greater than a queen.” But before the girl had time to gloat over her thrilling fate, Euphémie delivered a parting blow: in spite of her incredible success, the girl would die miserable, filled with regret, pining for the “easy, pleasant life” of her childhood. This prophecy would stay with the girl for the rest of her life, and she would think of it often — sometimes with fervent hope, sometimes with despair, always with unwavering belief that it would come true.
That girl was the future Empress Josephine Bonaparte. Everything Euphémie predicted would come to pass, but young Josephine could not have imagined the events that would propel her to her zenith: the rise through Paris society, the cataclysm of the French Revolution, the brutal imprisonment during the Reign of Terror, the transformation into an infamous Merveilleuse, the pivotal dinner at her lover’s house where she would meet her second husband.
She wouldn’t even have recognized the name Josephine — that sobriquet would be bestowed by Napoleon some 18 years hence. The wide-eyed teenager who asked Euphémie to tell her fortune still went by her childhood nickname, Yeyette.
* * *
Josephine was christened Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie, and was known formally as Rose, though to family and close friends she was Yeyette. Born on June 23, 1763, even Josephine’s earliest years seemed touched by fate; just four months before her birth, Martinique had been restored to France from Britain. Had the timing been a tiny bit different, Josephine would have been born a British citizen.
Josephine’s mother, Rose-Claire des Vergers de Sannois, was a member of one of Martinique’s wealthiest families; her father was Joseph-Gaspard de Tascher de La Pagerie, an incompetent pretty-boy who had once been a page in the French court and spent the rest of his life telling anyone who would listen about his glory days at Versailles. The La Pagerie family owned a sugarcane plantation, where acres and acres of crops flourished thanks to the labor her family stole from hundreds of enslaved African men and women.
You might think that Josephine’s father must have been turning a tidy profit, since he had three hundred people tilling his fields and zero wages to pay, but apparently serving bonbons to royalty isn’t great preparation for a career in plantation management. Oh, he excelled at some parts of it, like degradation and casual cruelty, but the whole finance part eluded him and any money that he made in spite of himself was squandered on mistresses and gambling. Under his hand, the plantation’s finances declined — slowly, at first, and then, after a deadly hurricane in 1766, much more quickly. Many of the enslaved people were killed, and the shacks where they lived completely razed. The main house was also destroyed, and Josephine’s family moved into the upper floor of the plantation’s sugarhouse, where the cane juice was boiled into syrup. Despite swearing that the sugarhouse would be a temporary residence, Joseph eventually added a veranda and called it a day.
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Hurricanes aside, Josephine described her childhood as happy. Martinique was not just geographically but also culturally distant from France; instead of the restrictive clothing and rigid rules to which French children were subjected, Josephine’s life was loose cotton dresses, county rambles, and raw sugarcane snacks. Most children in Josephine’s position were sent to France at a young age to receive a formal education, and her Aunt Edmée offered to host her in Paris, but her father claimed not to have enough money to send her so most of Josephine’s days were dedicated to unrestricted play with her sister, Catherine, 18 months her junior, and the enslaved children on the plantation. (Did the gulf between Josephine’s position and that of the children she played with ever cause her cognitive dissonance, especially since she would have been witness to the violence they endured? Probably not. That’s not to say that she never felt affection for her enslaved playmates, but the generational propagation of chattel slavery depended on children like Josephine accepting that this was the way of the world. Like the children of most plantation owners, Josephine had been raised to believe that she could get whatever she wanted from the enslaved people on the plantation, whether that was food, or care, or even entertainment.)
When Josephine was 10, her mother finally decided to do something about her education and sent her off to a boarding school in Fort Royal. Life at the Maison de la Providence involved rising at 5 a.m., wearing an ugly uniform, and spending all day indoors practicing things like embroidery, penmanship, and religious studies; the school’s aim was to turn its students into modest, gracious plantation ladies, so the curriculum didn’t involve any pesky subjects like literature, history, or science. Josephine was less than enthused and made a poor student, returned home four years later with her knowledge of the world nearly as scanty as when she’d left.
JOSEPHINE: really, what does a girl need an education for?
JOSEPHINE: I have plenty of life skills
JOSEPHINE: I can dance, I can toss my hair, I can coquettishly wave a fan in front of my face
JOSEPHINE: I can reel a man in with my eyes from across a crowded ballroom
JOSEPHINE: they don’t teach you that shit in school
It’s true that Josephine did have a distinct talent for flirtation — one that would serve her well in years to come — but the high-society men in Martinique didn’t exactly see her as marriage material. After all, her family couldn’t even afford a real house, let alone a dowry. Josephine wasn’t too concerned, though: she had bigger ambitions. After years of listening to her father wax poetical about Versailles, what Josephine wanted more than anything was to go to France. Her family didn’t even have enough money to marry her off to one of her island peers, let alone send her on a chaperoned trip across the Atlantic, but when she was 16, life dropped a dream husband in Josephine’s path.
Alexandre de Beauharnais was a beautiful, cultured 19-year-old with an army commission who also happened to be the son of a marquis, and he was the family connection in France that Euphémie had foreseen. Josephine’s Aunt Edmée had been the marquis’ mistress for nearly two decades, and by the time Alexandre was of marriageable age, her position was a bit precarious; the marquis was getting on in years, and Edmée knew she’d be left with nothing when he died and his estate passed to Alexandre.
EDMÉE: so, I hatched a brilliant scheme
EDMÉE: a way to keep it all in the family, as it were
EDMÉE: I mean, here I have this young man who’s going to be very rich someday
EDMÉE: and I also have a niece who, if I arrange a good marriage for her, will be grateful enough to support me when I’m a doddering widow
EDMÉE: it’s just basic math!
EDMÉE: which, unlike Josephine, is something I bothered to learn
The marquis, who didn’t want to leave his beloved destitute after his death, agreed to the plan. Alexandre also went along with it, mostly because he couldn’t come into his inheritance until he married. Josephine’s father was eventually convinced, and, in the fall of 1779, he and his daughter boarded a ship bound for France.
* * *
Everything was working out just as Edmée had imagined! The only hitch was that the groom was in love with someone else and Josephine was gauche enough to care.
There was no danger that Alexandre would marry this other woman, since she was already married. Marie Françoise-Laure de Girardin de Mongérald, Madame de Longpré, was a decade older than Alexandre and well-skilled in all the high-class French arts: seducing, dropping bon mots, lounging languorously. Little Yeyette — chubby, physically awkward, and artless enough to have fallen in deep smit with Alexandre as soon as she stepped off the boat — didn’t stand a chance. What had passed for romantic skills in the colonies were considered coarse and unsophisticated in the motherland. Even her name was unsuitable; the first thing Alexandre did was re-christen his new wife. Yeyette, he said, was juvenile and silly. From now on she would be known as Marie-Josèphe, which Alexandre thought had more of an aristocratic gloss.
Speaking of aristocrats, Josephine’s dreams of joining the court at Versailles were dashed almost as soon as she arrived in France. Alexandre had recently given himself the title of vicomte, and when the king found out, he was furious. Instead of inviting the Beauharnaises to court, Louis XVI fined them for illegally creating a new title. Alexandre, a grudge-master extraordinaire, began nursing a secret resentment for the royal family.
Alexandre wasn’t alone in feeling this way. In 1779, it was (unsurprisingly) quite fashionable for French aristocrats to talk shit about the monarchy. For Josephine, who had grown up with a father who was starry-eyed about all things royal, this was one more of the many ways that the reality of France was at disorienting with odds her expectations. Part of the problem was that Josephine was 16, with all the gawkiness of a typical teenager. But she was also struggling with the expectations of womanhood, vastly different in France than in the Caribbean. She was too childish, too exuberant, and still wearing her loose cotton dresses from Martinique. Parisian women were expected to be sexily aloof, and women’s clothing was still very Marie Antoinette, with high, powdered hair and panniers so wide that women had to turn sideways to get through doors. And it was the age of the Paris salon; Alexandre’s Aunt Fanny hosted one of the most popular gatherings in the city. In order to succeed socially, Josephine needed not just beauty and charm, but witty opinions on art and literature. It was a tall order for a girl whose entire education was four years at a school meant to churn out plantation wives.
Alexandre was deeply embarrassed by his new wife, and often left her at home when he went out for social engagements. Not long after their wedding, he rejoined his regiment and resumed his relationship with Laure, who was by this point pregnant with his child. Josephine, who was bored, lonely, and in love, wrote to him often. His replies were far less frequent, though, he found plenty of time to write letters to friends and family complaining about his bride, who he described as an “object who has nothing to say to me” and “a creature with whom I can find nothing in common.” His letters to Josephine alternated between scolding and outlining lesson plans to improve her vulgar mind and habits.
Alexandre did manage to manfully set his feelings aside and do his husbandly duty, and on September 3, 1781, Josephine gave birth to a son, Eugène Rose de Beauharnais. Unfortunately, this didn’t do much to improve their conjugal situation (having a shitty dude’s baby rarely does). Alexandre was happy enough to have a legitimate heir but still thought his wife was unspeakably beneath him; Josephine was still lonely and miserable. Aunt Edmée decided that the solution was to send her nephew-in-law to Italy, where she hoped he would miss his family and forget about Laure.
As with Aunt Edmée’s last great scheme, this one didn’t shake out quite the way she’d hoped. Alexandre returned to Paris long enough to impregnate Josephine again, then bolted in the middle of the night to join his mistress. Laure’s father had recently died on Martinique, and Alexandre decided to join her in traveling there. Perhaps sensing that this act would finally cross a line with his pliable young wife, Alexandre wrote an uncharacteristically tender letter to Josephine saying that he loved her and hoped she would forgive him for leaving without saying goodbye. When she didn’t reply, he accused her of neglecting him and said that she would only have herself to blame if their marriage failed.
JOSEPHINE: can you believe the absolute nerve of this man?
JOSEPHINE: abandoning his family to go on his little fuck-vacation with his little fuck-friend
JOSEPHINE: and then calling me neglectful!
JOSEPHINE: don’t worry, it gets worse
JOSEPHINE: when I gave birth a few weeks early, he decided the baby wasn’t his
JOSEPHINE: he started interrogating people on Martinique to find “evidence” against me
JOSEPHINE: and then he sent Laure back to Paris with a letter telling me to get out of his house
JOSEPHINE: saying that I was the vilest of creatures and beneath all the sluts in the world
JOSEPHINE: I might not have a lot of education, but I know irony when I see it
ALEXANDRE: well, actually, the definition of irony is …
JOSEPHINE: oh my god fuck off
Shortly after Alexandre’s return to Paris — and after receiving a few more abusive letters from him — Josephine and Eugène moved into a convent (the new baby, Hortense, remained at Alexandre’s house because she could not be separated from her wet nurse). Josephine applied for spousal support and the court adjudicator, after reading the Martinique letters and presumably muttering “yikes!” under his breath, ordered Alexandre to pay up. Naturally, he refused. Still, things weren’t entirely bleak for Josephine. The convent she’d chosen (with Aunt Edmée’s help) was very popular among aristocratic women, and she made her first Parisian friends and began to learn the secrets of being a Society Lady. Thanks to Alexandre’s abandonment, she finally acquired the patina he’d so desperately wanted her to have.
By the time Josephine left the convent to join the marquis and Aunt Edmée at their new house in the village of Fontainebleu, she was a changed woman. She swished gracefully across rooms, peppered conversations with droll remarks, and rouged her cheeks. Women’s fashions were changing; panniers and huge coiffures were out, simpler dresses and natural hairstyles were in. These looks both suited Josephine immensely — they were, after all, much closer to the comfortable style that she’d grown up with — and she began to regain her confidence.
Meanwhile, Alexandre was still being a shit. La plus ça change! In 1785, when Josephine was in the convent, he had seized custody of Eugène. Refusing to be cowed, she went to the provost of Paris to lodge a complaint and wound up being awarded not only full custody of her son until he was 5, but also custody of Hortense, a generous yearly sum for living expenses, and the right to live wherever she wanted. Alexandre also had to formally withdraw his accusations of infidelity. They had to remain married because divorce was forbidden in the Catholic Church, but Josephine could start to build a separate life for herself and her children.
* * *
Alexandre was determined to achieve Great Deadbeat Dad From History status and continued to refuse to give Josephine any money. Which might not have been a problem — she was living with her aunt, so she didn’t have room and board expenses — except that Josephine had spent years trying to fill the void Alexandre had left in her soul by buying pretty things. On credit. That she absolutely couldn’t pay. Now, single, unable to remarry, and with no ability to generate an income, she found herself hounded by debt collectors.
It wasn’t long before Josephine encountered one of the wild reversals of fortune that would come to characterize her life. Fontainebleu was where the king hunted, and she managed to befriend François Hué, the chief clerk of the hunt. This was how she managed to secure a spot in the small group permitted to follow the hunt, in spite of the fact that her knave of a husband wasn’t welcome at court. It didn’t take Josephine long to figure out that certain men — older, wealthy, married men — were only too happy to shower a beautiful young woman with money and gifts. These men were far kinder to her than her husband had ever been, and she found it easy to gain their affection. Before long, her debts were paid off and then some.
Josephine probably could have continued milking rich courtiers for their money for the rest of her life if France and its colonies hadn’t been thrown into social upheaval. In 1788, she left for Martinique to visit her parents; in the summer of 1790, she watched as a slave rebellion shook the island. By the time she returned to France in October, 1790, the Bastille had been stormed, the royal family had been removed from Versailles by an angry mob, and everyone was wearing funny red hats.
FRANCE: yeah, so, we’re doing the whole revolution thing too
AMERICA: oh, cool! It worked out pretty OK for us
FRANCE: we were hoping you could give us a little inspo actually
FRANCE: like, for example, what’s the best way to kill a king?
AMERICA: we didn’t kill any kings
FRANCE: but you murdered so many aristocrats that the streets teemed with masterless dogs, right?
FRANCE: outlawed Christianity, invented your own calendar, all that jazz?
AMERICA: uhhh … no, not exactly
AMERICA: but we did make a constitution!
FRANCE: honestly that sounds more like an amateur-hour rebellion than a revolution
FRANCE: but you know what? That’s so nice for you and if you’re happy, we’re happy
At first, the French Revolution treated the Beauharnais family pretty well. While Josephine was in Martinique, noted king-hater Alexandre found his calling as an anti-monarchist. Spite mixed with idealism: an unbeatable combination! On her return to Paris, Josephine realized that her husband’s new position opened all kinds of doors for her, even though they’d been separated for nearly a decade. Josephine began to adopt the working class clothing, manners, and speech of a true revolutionary citoyenne. Madame de Beauharnais found herself inundated with invitations to salons and balls. Her social clout grew even stronger when, during Alexandre’s first term as President of the National Assembly, his decisive actions stopped the royal family’s attempt to flee the country. The Vicomte de Beauharnais was a hero, and his estranged wife was eager to exploit his new status.
If you think it’s weird that many aristocrats were low-key treating the revolution as a fun new trend they could conspicuously consume rather than, I don’t know, a way to help the masses achieve socioeconomic equality, you’re not wrong. The lower-class sans-culottes (literally, “without fancy pants”) were less than impressed that the same members of the upper classes who had promised them freedom seemed pretty happy to propagate the system they paid lip service to dismantling, and while Josephine and her friends played dress-up and fêted the Revolution, the country was locked in turmoil. The sans-culottes were demanding more radical change, several international powers were threatening invasion, and there was a violent counter-revolutionary movement within France itself; on top of all this, there were questions of loyalty and morality within the ranks of the supporters of the Revolution. This critical mass of unrest helped usher in the Reign of Terror, a time of political purges that would lead to the executions of 17,000 men and women and the deaths of 10,000 more in prison. (Not-so-fun fact: the beginning of the Reign of Terror was announced in the National Convention by Bertrand Barère, who said, literally, “Let us make terror the order of the day.” You would think they might want to, I don’t know, use some kind of euphemism, but no, they straight up announced they were going to terrorize people like that was a good thing, which is a hell of a PR spin.)
Louis XVI was already dead by then, and Marie Antoinette soon followed. After that it was just people denouncing each other left, right, and center, and the prisons began to fill. Josephine scrambled to shore up the lie that she was just another working class gal; she had her children apprenticed as a carpenter and a dressmaker, and declared herself a sans-culotte. She even began referring to herself as an American, probably hoping to hide her origins as a plantation owner’s daughter as slavery had been outlawed by France’s new government. It was a pretty brazen lie, and nobody was buying what she was selling: the Beauharnais’ social status was widely known and no aristocrats were safe, not even those who supported the Revolution. In March, Alexandre was accused of treason, arrested, and sent to Les Carmes, a prison housed in a former convent. In April, Josephine followed him.
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Les Carmes was a fetid cesspool and it was widely known that no one ever left alive, so obviously there was one thing all of its inmates were desperate to do: fuck each other. If there is one true aphrodisiac in this life, it is the feeling that the apocalypse is nigh and there are no earthly consequences for anything. Religion had been abolished, social mores had been obliterated, and the only good thing left was desperate, hot Armageddon sex. There were literally no downsides; every last stricture had been removed, including the fear of pregnancy, since anyone who managed to conceive a child in these dire circumstances received a stay of execution. The fucking situation was completely win/win.
In Les Carmes, Alexandre had fallen in love with a woman named Delphine de Custine; shortly after her arrival, Josephine began a relationship with General Lazare Hoche.
ALEXANDRE: you know, this might sound weird, given all those times I called you a slut
ALEXANDRE: but I’m actually happy for you and Lazare?
JOSEPHINE: no, I totally get it, I feel the same way about you and Delphine
ALEXANDRE: all that time we spent making each other miserable feels, like, I don’t know
ALEXANDRE: a luxury we can’t afford anymore
JOSEPHINE: is this your version of an apology?
ALEXANDRE: let’s just say that I have … regrets
JOSEPHINE: this is, like, the healthiest our marriage has ever been
Josephine slowly adapted to life in Les Carmes. Like many of the women there, she cropped her hair, a style that would come to be known as “coiffure à la guillotine.” She befriended the other inmates and became particularly close with Grace Elliott, a Scottish courtesan and spy, and Térésa Cabarrus, the young mistress of revolutionary leader Jean-Lambert Tallien (who was still free). The de Beauharnais children, meanwhile, had figured out a brilliant way to communicate with their parents: Josephine’s pug, Fortuné. They would tuck letters under the dog’s collar and send him off into the streets of Paris; he was small enough to wriggle under the prison gates and smart enough to always find his mistress in the crowded maze of cells. The letters brought a small measure of comfort to her miserable life.
Every morning, the Revolutionary Tribunal came to collect those who were about to be executed. Every evening, the remaining prisoners went to bed wondering if their number would be up next.
On July 21, 1793, Alexandre was brought to trial. The conclusion was foregone: by this point, legislation had been passed to waive the rights of the accused to defense or cross-examination. On July 23, the Revolutionary Tribunal declared that Alexandre de Beauharnais was a traitor. On July 24, he was taken to the guillotine.
Shortly before his death, Alexandre sent Josephine a lock of his hair and a tender letter. “I have no hope of seeing you again, my friend, nor of embracing my dear children.” Although Alexandre didn’t come out and say it, he and Josephine both knew that his execution spelled her doom. Less than a week later, a guard came into Josephine’s cell and removed her bed. When one of her cell mates asked if she was going to be given a better bed, the guard replied that Josephine would no longer need a bed; the Revolutionary Tribunal was coming for her that day.
Josephine just smiled serenely and comforted her friends. They didn’t have to worry, she said, because she wasn’t going to die. She was going to be the Queen of France. Thinking that grief had made her delusional, her friends pretended to go along with it, asking if she’d appointed her household yet.
Against all odds, Josephine was right, at least about surviving; the Tribunal never came for her, and it turned out that she had her friend Thérésa Cabarrus to thank for her life. Thérésa, tired of Tallien being a fuckboy who was letting her languish in prison while he was living it up with the people who put her there, had written him a scathing letter with such choice lines as, “I die in despair at having belonged to a coward like you.” Tallien apparently took her words to heart, because the next day he led an attack on Robespierre in the National Convention. Robespierre was guillotined on July 28.
That afternoon, Josephine looked out a window and saw a peasant woman who, when she caught sight of Josephine, began gesturing wildly. She placed a stone (pierre, in French) in her skirt of her dress (robe), and then drew a finger across her throat. Robespierre was dead. The Reign of Terror was over. Josephine was free.
* * *
In death, Alexandre boosted Josephine’s social status even higher. As a survivor of the Reign of Terror and widow of a Revolutionary martyr, she was at the top of the Parisian hierarchy. There were elite salons and luncheons for survivors. There was even a “victim’s ball,” where attendance was limited to people who had been imprisoned and family members of those who had died in the Reign of Terror. Women wore thin white cotton chemises that resembled prison uniforms, cropped hair à la guillotine, and red ribbons around their necks to make it look like their heads had been severed. French people truly cannot pass up one single opportunity to be extra as hell.
In spite of her popularity, Josephine was in dire straits. As her star had risen, she’d fallen back into old spending habits; being in-demand meant that she constantly needed more dresses, more rouge, more everything. Now at 31 years old, she was broke, had two kids to raise on her own, and was physically and emotionally scarred by her time in Les Carmes. She had suffered a series of illnesses in prison — probably due to malnourishment and the kinds of communicable diseases that flourish in filthy, overcrowded environments — and afterwards was subject to fits of nervous collapse for the rest of her life. On top of all that, her teeth, always cavity-prone thanks to her childhood habit of sucking on sugarcane, were now in an advanced state of decay; she learned to hide them with a handkerchief when speaking and got into the habit of smiling with her lips pressed tightly together. But still, she was determined to take advantage of the strange new hand fortune had dealt her and make a fresh start. What other choice did she have?
Josephine’s relationship with Thérésa de Carrabus flourished, and she served as a witness when the younger woman married Jean-Lambert Tallien. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Thérésa was now the most famous woman in all of France. The story of how she’d brought about Robespierre’s downfall had spread like wildfire, and she was fêted as “Our Lady of Thermidor” (Robespierre had been overthrown on July 27, which was the 9th of Thermidor in the French Republican calendar). Thérésa’s style of dress pushed the boundaries of propriety, and helped set the trend for an aristocratic subculture called the Merveilleuses that reacted to the horrors and privations of the Reign of Terror with an ironically decadent absurdity. She favored gowns cut in the Neoclassical style, made with low necklines and fabric so sheer that it left little to the imagination. Josephine soon adopted this look for her own, wrapping herself in diaphanous robes so tight that they couldn’t even hold pockets.
The morals of the Ancien Régime were passé, the Revolution was over, and there was an almost delirious sense of relief — so, obviously, everyone was still fucking everyone. The social order had been upended, and it seemed like both everything and nothing was possible. Thérésa’s liquor-soaked parties were the ultimate example of this, and they were attended by the crème de la crème of Paris society. It was at these parties that Josephine met the man who would set off the course of events that led to her becoming Empress of France. His name was Paul Barras.
JOSEPHINE: you thought it was going to be Napoleon, didn’t you?
JOSEPHINE: I mean, don’t worry, we’re getting there
JOSEPHINE: but the list of men I was with before him is, uhh, how do I put this?
Paul Barras was another hero of the Revolution, a powerful military commander who also happened to be filthy rich. Once she became his mistress, Josephine’s money worries were finally over. She sent her children to private schools, moved to a big house in a fancy neighborhood, and hired a huge serving staff. Having already experienced several dramatic changes in fortune, she knew that she should take advantage of being flush with cash while she could. Who knew when the flow of money would stop?
Meanwhile, Barras had met Napoleon and, impressed by the younger man’s military prowess, had taken him under his wing; the young Corsican’s star was quietly on the rise, and Barras wanted to get in on the ground floor. Napoleon had been born in 1769 to shabby-genteel parents, and his life so far had been a series of improbable advances. First, he won a scholarship to the Military School of Brienne, where he was bullied by the other boys for being poor, Corsican, and short. Then, thanks to a natural talent for mathematics, he gained a spot at the prestigious École Militaire in Paris. After graduation, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the army and by the time he was 24, he was a brigadier general. But in spite of his successful career, his personal life was a mess.
By the time Napoleon entered Josephine’s life, he was a lonely, disaffected outcast. He had returned to Paris after his military victories expecting high society to fall over itself to welcome him; it did not. Infuriated by this rejection, the 26-year-old began writing a romance novel. This was an especially staggering undertaking since he had absolutely no experience with love, although that wasn’t for lack of trying. Napoleon had been desperately pursuing relationships with various society women, but they found him to be unkempt, crude, and boorish. The more women rejected him, the more he wanted (and hated) them — and not just any women, either. Like a modern 4chan incel, Napoleon felt entitled to a high-status wife who matched his high-status ambitions. Unsurprisingly, there were no takers. At least, not until he met Josephine.
It was at a dinner that Barras was hosting that Napoleon met Josephine; the future Emperor later said that she was the first woman he’d met in Paris who hadn’t ignored him or treated him rudely. Instead, perhaps primed by Barras (who had purposely seated his protegé next to his mistress), she gave him the full force of her famous charm: she listened to him, sympathized with him, praised him. Napoleon was immediately obsessed. Josephine was polite and allowed her new devotee to spend time with her, but she wasn’t interested in having a sexual relationship with Napoleon.
Barras saw a fierce talent and ambition in Napoleon that he wanted to control and hoped that he might secure his protégé’s loyalty by passing along his mistress, which is a totally normal and respectful way to treat women. Not long after Barras introduced Napoleon and Josephine, he put the young brigadier general in charge of quashing a royalist uprising; Napoleon gleefully complied, using cannons to fire grapeshot into the crowd. By the time he was done, 300 royalists had been killed. Barras and his pals used this uprising as an excuse to abolish the current government and install the Directory, five men who would be in charge of everything. The Directory was led by — you guessed it —Paul Barras, who quickly appointed Napoleon as commander-in-chief of the Army of the Interior.
PAUL BARRAS: well, you know what they say
PAUL BARRAS: keep your friends close
PAUL BARRAS: and keep the men you want to manipulate closer
PAUL BARRAS: close enough to see you girlfriend’s …
PAUL BARRAS: never mind, that was going to be crass
As Napoleon began to gain power and social clout, Josephine began to find him more attractive. Maybe he wore her down with his low-key stalker behavior, maybe he began to seem more like a feasible partner/benefactor once he started making more money, or maybe she was thinking about Euphémie’s prediction from all those years ago. Whatever her reasons, Josephine wrote to him saying that she was “tenderly attracted” to him and that she wished to talk to him about “matters that will interest” him. By the end of the year, they were sleeping together; the morning after their first liaison, Napoleon wrote her a smitten letter saying that, “one night together has taught me how your portrait falls short of the reality!”
It was around this time that Napoleon began calling her by the name that would soon be notorious throughout his empire and beyond. The days of Yeyette, Rose, and Marie-Josèphe were over. The age of Josephine had begun.
Queens of Infamy: Zenobia
Queens of Infamy: The Rise of Catherine de’ Medici
Queens of Infamy: The Reign of Catherine de’ Medici
Queens of Infamy: Joanna of Naples
Queens of Infamy: Anne Boleyn
Queens of Infamy: Eleanor of Aquitaine
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For further reading on Josephine:
Kate Williams, Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte
Andrea Stuart, The Rose of Martinique: A Life of Napoleon’s Josephine
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Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based feminist killjoy. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. If she has a looming deadline, you can find her procrastinating on Twitter @anne_theriault.