LOVE RESEMBLES WAR

A GRACEFUL PRESENCE AND QUEENLY MANNER

There are indeed men who are attached more by resistance than by yielding and who unwittingly prefer a variable sky, now splendid, now black and vexed by lightnings, to love’s unclouded blue. Let us not forget that Josephine had to deal with a conqueror and that love resembles war. She did not surrender, she let herself be conquered. Had she been more tender, more attentive, more loving, perhaps Bonaparte would have loved her less.

—IMBERT DE SAINT-AMAND, QUOTED IN THE EMPRESS JOSEPHINE: NAPOLEON’S ENCHANTRESS, PHILIP W. SERGEANT

In the autumn of 1795, Paris was caught up in a strange giddiness. The Reign of Terror that had followed the French Revolution had ended; the sound of the guillotine was gone. The city breathed a collective sigh of relief, and gave way to wild parties and endless festivals. 

The young Napoleon Bonaparte, twenty-six at the time, had no interest in such revelries. He had made a name for himself as a bright, audacious general who had helped quell rebellion in the provinces, but his ambition was boundless and he burned with desire for new conquests. So when, in October of that year, the infamous thirty-three-year-old widow Josephine de Beauharnais visited his offices, he couldn’t help but be confused. Josephine was so exotic, and everything about her was languorous and sensual. (She capitalized on her foreignness—she came from the island of Martinique.) On the other hand she had a reputation as a loose woman, and the shy Napoleon believed in marriage. Even so, when Josephine invited him to one of her weekly soirees, he found himself accepting.

At the soiree he felt totally out of his element. All of the city’s great writers and wits were there, as well as the few of the nobility who had survived—Josephine herself was a vicomtesse, and had narrowly escaped the guillotine. The women were dazzling, some of them more beautiful than the hostess, but all the men congregated around Josephine, drawn by her graceful presence and queenly manner. Several times she left the men behind and went to Napoleon’s side; nothing could have flattered his insecure ego more than such attention.

He began to pay her visits. Sometimes she would ignore him, and he would leave in a fit of anger. Yet the next day a passionate letter would arrive from Josephine, and he would rush to see her. Soon he was spending most of his time with her. Her occasional shows of sadness, her bouts of anger or of tears, only deepened his attachment. In March of 1796, Napoleon married Josephine.

Two days after his wedding, Napoleon left to lead a campaign in northern Italy against the Austrians. “You are the constant object of my thoughts,” he wrote to his wife from abroad. “My imagination exhausts itself in guessing what you are doing.” His generals saw him distracted: he would leave meetings early, spend hours writing letters, or stare at the miniature of Josephine he wore around his neck. He had been driven to this state by the unbearable distance between them and by a slight coldness he now detected in her—she wrote infrequently, and her letters lacked passion; nor did she join him in Italy. He had to finish his war fast, so that he could return to her side. Engaging the enemy with unusual zeal, he began to make mistakes. “To live for Josephine!” he wrote to her. “I work to get near you; I kill myself to reach you.” His letters became more passionate and erotic; a friend of Josephine’s who saw them wrote, “The handwriting [was] almost indecipherable, the spelling shaky, the style bizarre and confused . . . . What a position for a woman to find herself in—being the motivating force behind the triumphal march of an entire army.”

Months went by in which Napoleon begged Josephine to come to Italy and she made endless excuses. But finally she agreed to come, and left Paris for Brescia, where he was headquartered. A near encounter with the enemy along the way, however, forced her to detour to Milan. Napoleon was away from Brescia, in battle; when he returned to find her still absent, he blamed his foe General Würmser and swore revenge. For the next few months he seemed to pursue two targets with equal energy: Würmser and Josephine. His wife was never where she was supposed to be: “I reach Milan, rush to your house, having thrown aside everything in order to clasp you in my arms. You are not there!” Napoleon would turn angry and jealous, but when he finally caught up with Josephine, the slightest of her favors melted his heart. He took long rides with her in a darkened carriage, while his generals fumed—meetings were missed, orders and strategies improvised. “Never,” he later wrote to her, “has a woman been in such complete mastery of another’s heart.” And yet their time together was so short. During a campaign that lasted almost a year, Napoleon spent a mere fifteen nights with his new bride.

Napoleon later heard rumors that Josephine had taken a lover while he was in Italy. His feelings toward her cooled, and he himself took an endless series of mistresses. Yet Josephine was never really concerned about this threat to her power over her husband; a few tears, some theatrics, a little coldness on her part, and he remained her slave. In 1804, he had her crowned empress, and had she born him a son, she would have remained empress to the end. When Napoleon lay on his deathbed, the last word he uttered was “Josephine.”

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