Women of style – Josephine Bonaparte

First Empress of the French and the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, Josephine was born Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie in 1763 on Martinique, although there is much evidence she was actually born on of St. Lucia, an island which switched hands between England and France 14 times which could be the reason why Josephine’s real birthplace was left out of her birth record and replaced by Martinique.


Be that as it may, Josephine – formally known as Rose or Yeyette to family and close friends – was born to a French Creole family that owned a sugarcane plantation in Les Trois-Iletes. Just months before her birth, Britain restored Martinique to France, making Rose a French citizen instead of British.


Josephine’s mother Rose-Claire des Vergers de Sannois was a member of one of Martinique’s wealthiest families. Her father Joseph-Gaspard de Tascher de La Pagerie had once been a page in the French court and filled his daughter’s head with tales about Versailles’ glory and splendor.


Despite having acres of land and hundreds of slaves, La Pagerie managed to squander all the money the plantation made on mistresses and gambling. The plantation’s finances declined – slowly at first and then, after a hurricane in 1766, quickly.


Still, Josephine’s childhood was a happy one. Martinique was geographically and culturally distant from France. The restrictive clothing and rigid rules of France did not apply here. Josephine’s life was full of loose cotton dresses, country rambles and sugarcane snacks that would later take its toll on her teeth.


Most children of her position were sent to France at a young age to receive a formal education but her father claimed he did not have enough money to send her, so she went to a boarding school instead where she learned embroidery, penmanship, and religious studies, while subjects like literature, history or science were not in the school’s curriculum. The school aimed to turn its students into modest, gracious plantation ladies, not Paris socialites. Josephine was a poor student and returned home four years later none the wiser.


When she was 15, she visited a local “obeah” (wise woman) who read her palm and told her that she would marry twice – first, unhappily to a family connection in France and then to a “dark man of little fortune” who would achieve glory and triumph and make her “greater than a queen”. The prophecy stayed with Josephine for the rest of her life giving her hope in times of despair.


What she lacked in education, Josephine made in flirtation, but since she was impoverished the high-society men in Martinique did not see her as marriage material. Her aunt Edmee, who was a long-term mistress of French aristocrat Marquis de Beauharnais, realizing she and her lover were growing old and that she will be left with nothing when he dies, managed to arrange the advantageous marriage for one of her nieces to marquis’ son Alexandre de Beauharnais.


Alexandre was involved in a passionate love affair with an older, married woman – Madame de Longpre, but agreed to the marriage in order to come to his inheritance. Josephine’s younger sister Catherine-Desiree was chosen as his bride but she died before leaving for France and was replaced by Josephine who traveled to France with her father to meet her future husband.


From the start, Josephine was smitten by her handsome, cultured 19-year old husband with an army commission. Compared to his classy, witty, experienced Parisien mistress who knew her way around the fashionable salons, the chubby, awkward and uneducated Josephine didn’t stand a chance.


What passed as flirtatious skills in the colonies, in France it was unsophisticated and unsuitable. Even her name – Yeyette – was considered unsuitable and juvenile. The first thing Alexandre did was to re-christen her to Marie-Josephe which sounded more aristocratic to him.


The marriage was not a happy one. Josephine, a teenager, was struggling with the expectations of womanhood. She was too childish, to crude, to provincial with her loose cotton dresses from Martinique while Parisian women still wore high, powdered hair and huge dresses in Marie Antoinette style, so wide they had to turn sideways to get through doors.


Also, salons were in fashion then. Alexandre’s aunt hosted one of the most popular gatherings in the city but Josephine had no charm or education to participate in the witty conversations about arts and politics.  Alexandre was embarrassed by his wife and left her at home when he went out.


Shortly after the wedding, he rejoined his regiment and resumed his relationship with his mistress. He managed to insult the King by illegally creating and giving himself the title of Vicomte, which resulted in Louis XVI fining the Beauharnaises and banning them from the court, crushing Josephine’s dreams of seeing Versailles.


Despite disliking his wife, Alexandre fathered two children with Josephine –  a son Eugene Rose de Beauharnais and a daughter Hortense de Beauharnais. Alexandre’s womanizing and the abandonment of his family finally forced Josephine to move into the convent with her children and apply for spousal support.


Josephine chose to retreat into the convent which was popular among aristocratic women and she used her time there to learn all the high-class skills needed for Parisien salons. Under the patronage of other ladies, the once ungraceful, uneducated girl turned into an elegant young woman who could move gracefully across rooms, participate in conversations, flirt gracefully.


At the time, Josephine was described as being of average height, shapely with silky, long, chestnut-brown hair, hazel eyes, small and straight nose, and well-formed mouth. Luckily for her, the fashion was also changing, favoring more simpler dresses and natural hairstyles which suited her well, so she gained confidence and was often praised for her elegance, style, and “silvery” low voice.



Images taken from Wikimedia Commons


After many complications and accusations, the couple finally separated and Josephine was given custody of her children. Alexandre, however, refused to pay alimony. At the time, Josephine was haunted by debt collectors. Years of unhappy marriage left a void she tried to fill with pretty things she bought on credit.


Singe but without a possibility to remarry and without income, Josephine was in dire straits. She, however, managed to befriend the chief clerk of the king’s hunt Francois Hue and gain access to the royal hunting parties. There she learned that certain older, wealthy, married men were happy to give money and gifts to their mistresses. Soon her debts were paid off and Rose, as she was now called, gained an aura of notoriety.


In 1788, she left France for Martinique to visit and when she returned to Paris in 1790, the Bastille had been stormed, the royal family removed from Versailles, and the country was in a turmoil. The revolution began.


At first, the French Revolution treated the Beauharnais family well. Since Alexandre was a noted king-hater, he was appointed President of the National Assembly and his position opened all kinds of doors for Josephine who was still his wife. She seized this opportunity to advance and quickly adopted working-class clothes and manners. Soon enough, she was being invited to all sorts of salons and balls, becoming well known in social circles.


However, the lower-class citizens were not impressed with the way aristocrats treated the revolution as a new trend and demanded more radical changes. All this led to the Reign of Terror when thousands of men and women disappeared in political purges.


Alexandre was accused of treason, arrested and tent to Le Carmes prison. Josephine, despite pretending to be a member of a working-class, telling everyone she was an American in order to hide her origins as a plantation owner’s daughter and sending her children to apprentice as a carpenter and a dressmaker, was also arrested and sent to Le Carmes where she befriended Grace Elliott, a Scottish courtesan and spy, and Teresa Cabarrus, the young mistress of revolutionary leader Jean-Lambert Tallien.


In 1793, Josephine’s husband was tried, sentenced as a traitor and guillotined. Josephine survived thanks to Cabarrus. Teresa, tired of being imprisoned while her lover was roaming free, sent Tallien an angry letter, accusing him of being a coward. Tallien responded to it by attacked Robespierre in the National Convention, which resulted in his fall and death. The Reign of Terror was over and Josephine was set free.


The status of a survivor of the Reign of Terror and widow of a Revolutionary martyr boosted Josephine’s social status.  Rose was now at the top of the Parisian hierarchy and a regular in elite salons and luncheons for survivors.


The French even organized balls attended only by the people who had been imprisoned and family members of those who died in the Regin of Terror. Women wore thin white cotton chemises that resembled prison uniforms, cropped hair short “à la guillotine”, and had red ribbons around their necks to make it look like their heads had been severed.


Josephine was a star of these gatherings but her health deteriorated. She was physically and emotionally scarred by her time in prison. Her teeth, prone to cavity due to her childhood habit of sucking on sugarcane, were now in an advanced state of decay and she learned to hide them with a handkerchief when speaking and got into the habit of smiling with her lips pressed tightly together.


She was 31 years old, broke, with two kids, but determined more than ever to use her new fortune and make a fresh start. Her friendship with Teresa de Carrabus flourished. The two of them set up a trend of the neo-Greek style gowns, with low necklines, made of sheer fabrics, usually white muslin that exposed the female body and left little to the imagination.


It was at one of Theresa’s parties that Josephine met the men who would set off the course of events that led to her becoming Empress of France.  His name was Paul Francois Jean Nicolas Barras, he was a hero of the Revolution, a powerful military commander and the main executive leader of the Directory regime.


She became his mistress and in 1795 was introduced to his protege, young Napoleon Bonaparte. Despite having a successful career in the army, Napoleon was a lonely outcast. The high society ignored him and high society ladies rejected him. Josephine was the first woman he met in Paris who hadn’t ignored him or treated him rudely. He was smitten. She – not so much, but that will soon change.


As one of five men in charge of Directory, Barras appointed Napoleon as commander-in-chief of the Army of the Interior. As Napoleon began to gain power and raise in society, Josephine began to find him more attractive. Soon, they became lovers.


Napoleon proposed to her in 1796 and they were married on March 9. Around that time Napoleon began calling her Josephine, the name she would adopt and which would soon be notorious throughout his empire and beyond.


Napoleon’s family was shocked and appalled by the marriage. Josephine was a gold digger, an older widow with two children and indifferent to Napoleon who left Paris two days after their wedding to lead a French army into Italy and who sent her many romantic, seamy and sexy love letters during their separation.


Josephine rarely wrote back and when she did, her letters lacked the passion and emotion of her husband’s. She was also known not to be able to read much of what he had written and when people would ask her about him, she would simply reply that Napoleon was “fine”.


Not long after marrying Napoleon, Josephine began an affair with a handsome military lieutenant of the Hussar regiment, Hippolyte Charles. The affair would last four years and although Josephine was at first able to convince Napoleon that the rumors of her affair were untrue, they grew too frequent for him to ignore.


Napoleon was infuriated and his love for her changed. His letters became less loving. While on a military campaign in Egypt he started an affair with Pauline Foures, the wife of a junior officer who became known as “Napoleon’s Cleopatra.”


Napoleon threatened to divorce Josephine but her children managed to dissuade him to the point he forgave her and even paid for the enormous debts she once again accumulated.


During the Consulate, Josephine was careful to cause no more scandals. In 1800, she survived an assassination attempt of Napoleon, the so-called Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise.


She and Napoleon went to see a performance of Joseph Haydn’s Creation at the Opera accompanied by several friends and family. The party traveled in two carriages. Josephine was in the second. She delayed the departure in order to get her new silk shawl draped correctly and the bomb exploded as her carriage was passing. None of the royal family was killed but several bystanders were, which did not stop the party to proceed to the Opera.


At the time, the risque aspects of Josephine’s fashion style had to be transformed. She began dressing more elegantly. The white or light-colored neo Greek dresses with sheer overskirts and outlined in gold, what hugged the breasts and clung to the body suited her admirably.


When Napoleon became emperor of the French in May 1804, she persuaded him to marry her anew with religious rites this time. The ceremony took place on December 1, 1804, and the following day she attended Napoleon’s coronation as empress.



The coronation ceremony was almost ruined, however, as Josephine caught Napoleon in bed with her lady-in-waiting Elisabeth de Vaudey. This led to a serious spat with Napoleon threatening to divorce her as she had not produced an heir. It was their daughter Hortense who managed once again to smooth things over and reconcile the couple.


Josephine’s coronation costume set the fashion trends for years to come and embodied everything Napoleon wanted to achieve with his empire. The dress Josephine wore to coronation was designed by Jean-Baptiste Isabey but scholars credit Josephine with influencing its design.


It was a modern dress for the time, comfortable, with the high-waisted silhouette of the neo-Greek dress, high collar and rich embroidery reminiscent of French queens of old.


The white taffeta slippers designed for the coronation imitated an antique style. The slippers were flat, which was a feature of contemporary fashion that abandoned the high heels of the past regime. Josephine’s hairstyle was also up-to-date in its natural color and close-fitting style, perpetuating a reaction against wigs and powdering that the Revolution had initiated.


The dress was white as Josephine was partial to that color (and Napoleon loved her dressed in white) and made of silk which was politically symbolic as it was a sign of support to the Lyon silk manufacturers.


That and all her other dresses were designed to promote the idea that luxury was once again acceptable after the Revolution and the “empire style” of the dresses where the bust is enhanced, arms are often showing and movement is free and flowing below the waist was perfectly in line with Napoleon’s desire for a new French republic – free, regal, pure and rich.


For a while, Josephine’s place in the world seemed secure. Her daughter was married to Napoleon’s brother Louis (although they reportedly hated each other) and Josephine’s son was married to the daughter of the King of Bavaria. Through her children and their children, Josephine’s imperial lineage would stretch throughout the world – currently, the heads of the royal houses of Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Luxembourg, Norway, and Sweden are all directly related to Josephine.


However, her extravagance, debts, and inability to give Napoleon a son put a strain on their marriage and Napoleon began to think about divorce. The final push came in 1807 when Josephine’s grandson (son of Hortense and Louis) Napoleon Charles Bonaparte who had been declared Napoleon’s heir, died of croup.


Napoleon began creating a list of potential wives and in 1809 he let Josephine know that he must find a wife who could produce an heir – all in the interest of France, of course.


Napoleon managed to make a politically convenient marriage with Marie-Louise, daughter of Emperor Francis I of Austria. Josephine agreed to the divorce and in 1810, Napoleon arranged for the nullification of the marriage because a parish priest had not been present at the ceremony. This way, he managed to dispose of Josephine without having to resort to a divorce, which would have displeased both the church and the Austrian emperor.


Napoleon and Josephine separated on January 10, 1810, during a grand and solemn divorce ceremony where each read a statement of devotion to the other. Soon after, Napoleon married Marie-Louise by proxy. He was still very much in love with Josephine and would later remark “it is a womb that I am marrying.”


As a sign of his devotion to Josephine, Napoleon insisted that she should retain the title of empress. “It is my will that she retain the rank and title of empress, and especially that she never doubt my sentiments, and that she ever hold me as her best and dearest friend,” he said.


After the divorce, Josephine resided at the Chateau de Malmaison near Paris where she continued to live lavishly with the emperor paying the bills. Josephine was naturally full of kindness, generosity, and charm and was praised as an engaging hostess. Despite the bills and the separation, she remained on good terms with Napoleon and even met his son and heir.


All her life Josephine was interested in roses and she grew a beautiful rose garden in Malmaison where she brought in horticulturists from Britain to help her with her roses, despite the two countries being at war.  Among her hired horticulturalists was Andre Dupont, who was the first person to begin the modern hybridization process of roses with controlled pollination.


Napoleon even ordered all of his warship commanders to search any seized vessels for plants that could be sent to Josephine’s estate. Not only did Josephine host the first rose exhibition, 1810, but that same year she also produced the first written history on the cultivation of roses.


After Napoleon’s abdication, she managed to gain the protection of the Russian emperor Alexander I but died soon after walking with him in the gardens of her home in 1814. She was buried in the nearby church of Saint Pierre-Saint Paul in Rueil.


Napoleon learned of her death while in exile on Elba and stayed locked in his room for two days, refusing to see anyone. His last words on his death bed at St. Helena were: “France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Josephine.”

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