Josephine: a short biography
Published by Napoleon magazine.
Not many women in history are known to the world by their first name. Say “Josephine” and most people know who you are talking about. Yet she was not known by that name until quite late in her life. She was born Rose, in 1763, on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Poorly educated, of impoverished nobility, it was likely seen as a joke when a fortuneteller predicted she would be unhappily married, become widowed, and then become “more than a queen” all of which in fact came to pass.
At sixteen, Rose sailed to France to wed young, wealthy Alexandre de Beauharnais, by whom she had two children. It was an unhappy marriage. Alexandre was a lady’s man, and together with his mistress accused Rose of infidelity and banished her to a convent. Thus was born the first of a number of slurs on Rose’s reputation slurs which do not hold up well to inquiry but nevertheless persist.
Rose’s life as a single mother had modern tones: she constantly tried to collect alimony; she moved in with relatives to make ends meet; fought for the return of her son after Alexandre kidnapped him. It was a time of great turmoil and great idealism. Alexandre became a passionate leader of the Revolution. Nevertheless, as an aristocrat, he was, in time, arrested, and, shortly after, Rose was arrested as well. After Alexandre was beheaded, Rose’s fate was sealed … but the day she was to be taken away, Robespierre was beheaded and the Terror abruptly ended. She would live to meet and marry a penniless Corsican general with an unpronounceable name: Napoleone Buonaparte. He named her Josephine. He crowned himself Emperor, crowned her Empress. He loved her with a passion, and she, in time, came to return his love with an almost obsessive devotion. Together they had one of the great marriages in history, but it was not without raging battles, squabbles over money, infidelities (his, not hers), heart-breaking tragedies and the stress of incessant assassination attempts and constant battle (political, military, as well as familial, hers were the in-laws from hell). But in spite of all that, there was always a partnership, always a bond. Josephine, in her quiet way, was essential to Napoleon. Their divorce, forced by her infertility (the stress of prison brought on an early menopause), marked the beginning of the end of the great Napoleonic Empire. She died heartbroken in the spring of 1814, shortly after Napoleon’s defeat and exile. Her dying words were of Napoleon, and his, years later, were of her.