Josephine: A Life of the Empress
By Carolly Erickson
is a fascinating account of the Empress Josephine, born Rose Tascher
on the island of Martinique (she was also known as Yeyette but
was called by the name of Rose when she first married).
the main theme of this book is the biography of Josephine, the
story is set against that of the latter decades of the 18th Century.
Josephine's life as a child on the Caribbean island, the daughter
of an impoverished plantation owner, and then her journey to Europe
to marry, are all related alongside the story of Martinique at
that time, ravaged by hurricanes or blockaded by the British.
was a precarious life, with morals and social behaviour quite
different to that of today.
first marriage at age 16 to Alexandre de Beauharnais was one of
convenience for them both. Rose married into the petty nobility
to revive the family fortunes, while Alexandre married so that
he would receive his inheritance and thus have an income.
author relates that Rose was initially out of her depth in the
social climate of late 18th century France, not helped by the
fact that her marriage was doomed from the start, with the couple
being undoubtedly mismatched. Despite this they had two children,
Eugene and Hortense.
took a mistress to compensate for the loveless marriage. While
this would be intolerable today, it was a socially acceptable
thing to do at the time, as long as the married couple were civil
to each other and produced children.
Erickson puts all the incidents of Josephine's life into their
historical and social context so that the reader may judge them
by the standards of the time.
developed a hatred of Rose, and they both furthered their separate
lives although still married. He was a soldier and a social climber;
she discovered her independence and gained social experience in
the salons of France, although she was always short of money.
moved to Fontainebleau where she was on the fringes of court society
and here she took a number of lovers, which was a practical route
to take to get men to protect and support her.
comes through in this biography is that Rose did what was necessary
to survive in turbulent times, and having socially-placed and
wealthy lovers was her way of surviving.
lived through the Revolution, and the author relates the story
of this event and how it affected the people of France.
was initially a fervent supporter of the Revolution, but during
the Terror was arrested for his aristocratic connections and executed.
spent some months in prison, which had serious effect on her health,
and it is argued that this was quite possibly why she was unable
to bear children later in life.
During her sojourn in prison she had a love affair with Lazare
Hoche, and on her release entered into the revitalised social
life of France, in which women were dominant and in which Rose
Tascher was very prominent.
She obtained an income by joining with men who were able to buy
and exploit army contracts.
Rose was surviving and enjoying herself, Napoleon Bonaparte was
dispersing the rebellious Parisians with cannon-fire and saving
the Government, in the process becoming one of the most important
men in France.
felt that to cement his standing in social circles he needed a
well-connected wife by his side.
the book relates Napoleon's character and story alongside that
of Rose, as the two of them developed a genuine friendship and
became lovers (although Rose was still the mistress of Barras
at the time).
saw Napoleon as an influential protector, while he regarded Rose
as socially of benefit.
They married in 1796 and from then on Rose Tascher de Beauharnais
became known as Josephine Buonaparte, as Napoleon insisted on
calling her by this new Christian name.
Bonaparte family was not invited to the wedding, as Napoleon knew
that they would disapprove of his choice of bride.
intriguing fact that emerges from this study is the hostility
of the Bonaparte family towards Josephine, which caused her much
upset in the years to come but she had the strength of character
and kindly manner to rise above it.
marriage got off to a bad start. Josephine had lied to Napoleon
about exactly how wealthy she was, and he had her financial affairs
investigated behind her back. The wedding ceremony was timed for
7.00, and the groom did not arrive until 10.00pm.
the start Josephine realised that she would always be second to
Napoleon's career and ambition. It was a marriage of convenience
and both parties had lovers from the early days of their married
the first six months of marriage, they were together for only
three days while Napoleon was fighting in Italy.
A Life of the Empress describes how Josephine coped with the
social demands made upon her. As Napoleon's career expanded, so
she was expected to launch herself into the social activities
expected of a famous general's wife, which she found exhausting,
especially as she suffered greatly with migraines.
passion of the early months of marriage soon waned, and the one
interesting fact that emerges from this study is that Napoleon
told Josephine very early on that he would eventually divorce
her. This was socially acceptable and very easy to do in the France
of that time and reading this book one gets the impression that
divorce was very much a natural thing as was getting married in
the first place.
children prospered through her marriage to the future Emperor.
Eugene de Beauharnais became Napoleon's stepson and one of his
most loyal subordinates, while Hortense married Louis Bonaparte
and became Queen of Holland. Their mother was very much loved
by and loyal to her family and grandchildren.
While her marriage was a great strain for her (more so when she
became Empress) she dreaded divorce from Napoleon, as she was
fearful for her financial security and that of her family.
If you are an admirer of Napoleon and his family then this book
is not for you! The Bonapartes do not come across in a very good
light according to the author, with the Emperor treating Josephine
with disdain and impatience, and very often cruelty.
Bonaparte fuelled this antagonism by encouraging Napoleon in his
many amorous affairs.
this family hatred, she was popular as Empress, being kind, gracious,
gentle and generous. However, Napoleon soon grew frustrated that
she did not present him with an heir.
was inevitable, but it still came as a shock to her when Napoleon
wanted to end the marriage to pursue a dynastic link with Marie
Louise of Austria.
lived at Malmaison and interestingly, after the divorce Napoleon
often came to visit her as a friend.
died in 1814, but remained a loyal friend to Napoleon right to
the very end. She was even popular and respected by Tsar Alexander
and the supporters of Louis XVIII after the Emperor's first abdication.
A Life of the Empress is a very readable biography covering
not only Josephine's life but also that of the important people
around her, set against the social and moral climate of the time.
Erickson has explained her subject's life and actions against
this climate, to present a vivid and comprehensive study of the
book, which has 391 pages and 12 black-and-white illustrations,
is a very enjoyable and informative read and complements other
studies of Napoleon's family life.
- Paul Chamberlain
review first appeared in The Waterloo Journal)