Saturday, June 20, 2009

Heroine of the Weekend

This weekend we'll take a break from the Tudors to celebrate the birthday next Tuesday of Empress Josephine Bonaparte (June 23, 1763--May 29, 1814). On that date I'll be doing a more in-depth look at Josephine as Style Icon over at Risky Regencies, but today we'll look at her bio in general.

Josephine was born Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie on Martinique, the daughter of well-to-do Creole sugar planters. Her family struggled after a hurricane mostly destroyed their estate in 1766, but her aunt Edmee came to the rescue with a suggestion. She had been living in France, the mistress of Francois, vicomte de Beauharnais. Wher her lover's health began to fail, she arranged the marriage of Josephine's younger sister Catherine-Desiree to Francois's son Alexandre (which would thus keep the Beauharnais money in Tascher hands), but poor Catherine died in 1777 before even leaving for France. Josephine went in her place in October 1779.

The marriage was not a happy one, and her adjustment to sophisticated French society started out a rocky one, but they did have 2 children, a son Eugene and a daughter Hortense (who later became the mother of Emperor Napoleon III). Even though Alexandre was one of the liberal aristocrats who initially supported the revolution, he was brought down by it and arrested on March 2, 1794. Josephine followed on April 21, though she escaped her husband's death at the guillotine thanks to the subsequent fall and execution of Robespierre. She left prison on July 27, five days after her husband died.

Now a widow, she became a central figure of hedonistic Directoire society, mistress to several leading political figures, including Paul Barras. In 1795, she met the rising General Napoleon Bonaparte. He fell for her right away, writing to her soon after their meeting, "I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night's intoxicating pleasures has left no rest to my senses." Josephine's feelings for the strange man were not so strong, but he seemes a good enough bet for a woman with few options. They married on March 9, 1796, and 2 days after he left to lead the French armies in Italy, where he wrote her copious love letters.

Josephine, left behind in Paris, started an affair with the dashing young Hussar officer Hippolyte Charles. Napoleon was not at all amused when he heard about it. Through their subsequent marriage, as Napoleon rose from general to First Consul to (in 1804) Emperor, their relationship seemed one long power struggle/love affair. Their lack of an heir only made matters worse (speculations for reasons for her childless state included injuries from a fall in 1798 or early menopause triggered by the stress of her prison experience). Napoleon and Josephine were divorced on January 10, 1810.

After her divorce, Josephine lived at her home at Malmaison near Paris, receiving guests, having parties, working on her famous garden, and continuing to spend lots of money. She died of pneumonia on May 29, 1814 after catching a cold walking in the gardens with Tsar Alexander. She was buried at the church of St. Pierre-St. Paul in Rueil.

Some good sources on the life of Josephine are:
Andrea Stuart, Rose of Martinique: A Life of Napoleon's Josephine
Evangeline Bruce, Napoleon and Josephine: An Improbable Marriage
Frances Mossiker, Napoleon and Josephine: The Biography of a Marriage
Carrolly Erickson, Josephine: A Life of the Empress

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