Joséphine de Beauharnais, the woman who conquered Napoleon’s heart

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Imposing, gorgeous and careless-this is the way in which we might envisage Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s first wife and only love. However, this august depiction only illustrates a short part of her rather controversial life.

Born on the exotic island Martinique, she struck as a rather scandalous young woman. She indulged herself in a disgraceful behavior, which led to her being considered vulgar and ill-mannered by her contemporaries. Her loud laugh repelled people from the high society, as well as attracted men ardent for love affairs. Driven in despair by his daughter’s innumerable love adventures, her father resolved to send Josephine to Paris for a closer care provided by her aunt.

Without second thoughts, her aunt decided to marry 15 years old Joséphine to Alexander de Beauharnais, marriage which did not last too long. Alexander was mercilessly beheaded amid the French Revolution, leaving his still young wife a widow with two children.

Deciding to ‘get back on the market’, coquette Joséphine tried to change her discourteous habits. Subsequently, she spent endless hours in front of a mirror practicing her poses, turns of head and moves of hands. Her teeth being rather unpleasant (the same disadvantage Empress Sisi had), she learned how to smile with closed lips.

When she returned to the ‘spotlight’ she was no longer the unrefined and flashy girl everybody had gotten used to; she was a distinguished, fashionable woman at last. Numerous men lost their heads gazing at her and esteemed women envied her spotless appearances.

After a short glance at her, Napoleon was helplessly in love. Still she could not understand why people were so attentive with that short and unattractive general. Soon she acknowledged his prospective bright future, so when the marriage offer presented itself she hastily accepted.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), the honeymoon only lasted for 2 days, for Napoleon had to leave on his Italian Campaign. While he was writing long and passionate love letters she was indulging herself with several romances and eccentric banquets. Whenever her husband started to question her faithfulness she wittily employed plenty of well-thought lies and invoked everlasting illnesses and so on to excuse herself for not answering him. Withal, Bonaparte grew more and more wearied of his wife’s love adventures, and ultimately decided he should get a divorce.

Thus when he got home he shut himself in his office and refused to allow anybody to enter. Even so after crying ceaselessly at his door and losing her conscience for a while the wife got to Napoleon’s heart, making him realize he cannot part from her. Nevertheless he commenced to have various love affairs quite often as well.

Humorously now he and  Joséphine exchanged roles. She became the jealous wife, always crying after her unfaithful husband’s love affairs while Bonaparte started having sexual relationships with women all around the world. As her beauty was fading away, she was more keen on keeping him close to her, and she succeeded for a while: in 1804 Napoleon crowned Joséphine as Empress of the French.

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5 years later, Napoleon decided to have a divorce in order to marry Marie Louise of Austria, for he was in desperate need of a heir Joséphine was not able to provide him with.  Joséphine understood the political impasse in which her husband was at the time, so she accepted the divorce without complaint. Her exact words when she left Napoleon’s palace were “I’m doing this for the sake of France”. They remained on close terms, and Napoleon’s last words were: “France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Joséphine.” ,demonstrating how even on his death bed she was still on his mind.

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2 responses to “Joséphine de Beauharnais, the woman who conquered Napoleon’s heart

  1. Joséphine is a fascinating character of French history, and I have read several novels with her as a main character. My favorites are a trilogy written by Sandra Gulland. Always enjoyable to read about periods of history that seem to be so filled with intrigue not even modern day soap operas can compete. 🙂

    • Indeed, it feels like you never know enough about a certain period. Reading some of the letters Napoleon wrote to her I was determined to explore more about her life and evolution as a human being. She has always fascinated me with her subtle female intelligence, and with the way she suffered without showing. On the whole her life is fascinating and worth discovering, even if we might never thoroughly understand her. Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

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