No one ever managed so brilliantly without it

Sunday, April 7th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon’s (first) wife Josephine was born in Martinique on June 23, 1763, Andrew Roberts notes (in Napoleon: A Life), although in later life she claimed that it was 1767:

She arrived in Paris in 1780 aged seventeen, so poorly educated that her first husband — a cousin to whom she had been engaged at fifteen, the General Vicomte Alexandre de Beauharnais — couldn’t hide his contempt for her lack of education.

Josephine had blackened stubs for teeth, thought to be the result of chewing Martiniquais cane sugar as a child, but she learned to smile without showing them.58 ‘Had she only possessed teeth,’ wrote Laure d’Abrantès, who was to become Madame Mère’s lady-in-waiting, ‘she would certainly have outvied nearly all the ladies of the Consular Court.’ Although Beauharnais had been an abusive husband — once kidnapping their three-year-old son Eugène from the convent in which Josephine had taken refuge from his beatings — she nonetheless courageously tried to save him from the guillotine after his arrest in 1794.


Her husband was executed just four days before Robespierre’s fall, and had Robespierre survived any longer Josephine would probably have followed him.


On leaving prison she had an affair with General Lazare Hoche, who refused to leave his wife for her but whom she would have liked to marry, even up to the day she reluctantly married Napoleon. Another lover was Paul Barras, but that didn’t last much longer than the summer of 1795.


It is a well-known historical phenomenon for a sexually permissive period to follow one of prolonged bloodletting: the ‘Roaring Twenties’ after the Great War and the licentiousness of Ancient Roman society after the Civil Wars are but two examples. Josephine’s decision to take powerful lovers after the Terror was, like so much else in her life, à la mode (though she wasn’t as promiscuous as her friend Thérésa Tallien, who was nicknamed ‘Government Property’ because so many ministers had slept with her). Whatever ‘zigzags’ were, Josephine had performed them for others besides her first husband, Hoche and Barras; her éducation amoureuse was far more advanced than her near-virginal second husband’s.

Josephine took the opportunity of the post-Vendémiaire arms confiscations to send her fourteen-year-old son Eugène de Beauharnais to Napoleon’s headquarters to ask whether his father’s sword could be retained by the family for sentimental reasons. Napoleon took this for the social opening that it plainly was, and within weeks he had fallen genuinely and deeply in love with her; his infatuation only grew until their marriage five months later.

At first she wasn’t attracted to his slightly yellow complexion, lank hair and unkempt look, nor presumably to his scabies, and she certainly wasn’t in love with him, but then she herself was beginning to get wrinkles, her looks were fading and she was in debt.


Asked whether Josephine had intelligence, Talleyrand is said to have replied: ‘No one ever managed so brilliantly without it.’ For his part, Napoleon valued her political connections, her social status as a vicomtesse who was also acceptable to revolutionaries, and the way she compensated for his lack of savoir-faire and social graces.


  1. Phileas Frogg says:

    In conjunction with the Rob Henderson excerpt one can safely conclude that neither drug use, nor sexual immorality, can be meaningfully correlated with class.

    “But poverty causes crime!”

    Does it?

Leave a Reply