In Bulletin 50, a reader asked whether or not it was true that a fall from a balcony was the cause of Josephine’s infertility. It is true that Josephine was standing on a first-floor balcony which collapsed, and that the accident caused her serious injury. (She was unable to walk or even to feed herself for six days.) This happened at the spa village of Plombières-les-bains on June 20, 1798. She was at Plombières to undergo a treatment for infertility, so the problem existed before the fall.
Another reader suggested, in Bulletin 51, that the origin of Josephine’s infertility might lie in an illegitimate pregnancy, as mentioned by Evangeline Bruce in her book, Napoleon and Josephine. I am a great admirer of this work, but with respect to Bruce’s statement regarding Josephine’s “flight” to Martinique, I have to take exception. Bruce makes reference to Josephine’s “unmistakable air of panic,” stating that she sailed suddenly without baggage, clothes or money. “Could she have found that a refuge in those islands was the most secure way in which to terminate an inconvenient pregnancy, one that might also account for her later disastrous sterility?”1 The supposed suddenness of the trip together with Josephine’s apparent “silence” regarding it has led more than one biographer to suggest that Josephine might have been pregnant. (It is important to remember that little of what Josephine said or wrote on any subject has been recorded. I’m not sure that it’s fair to interpret an absence of documentation on this particular episode as suspicious.)
The reader goes on to say that Josephine had “just ended an affair with the Chevalier de Coigny.” Although Bruce hints at this, what she in fact states is simply that the Chevalier de Coigny had been mentioned as one of Josephine’s admirers. On the subject of the men rumored to have enjoyed Josephine’s “intimate favors,” historian Knapton has written: “Here scholarship falters and documentation fails.”2
Regarding a “panicked” trip without baggage or money, what little evidence exists points to the contrary. In L’impératrice Josephine by Bernard Chevallier (director of the museum of Malmaison and Bois-Préau), and Christophe Pincemaille, the authors state that Josephine borrowed 6000 francs from banker Denis de Rougemont for the trip.3 In La Reine Hortense,Françoise Wagener states that Josephine and Hortense lived in a rented house for one month at Le Havre while waiting to embark.4 Mme Dubuc, the landlady, is said to have made reference to the child and “her excellent mother.”
Was Josephine pregnant? Although it is certainly not impossible (at the age of twenty-five, she’d been in a conjugal relationship for not more than ten months5), I think it unlikely. For one thing, would she have returned home to such a small island in such a condition? And if she had, would there not have been evidence, stories, rumors? But there is nothing.
Well, almost nothing. What there is, yes, is a baby: a girl by the name of Bénaquette born in Martinique. In 1807 Napoleon granted a dowry of sixty thousand francs to a girl, a mulatto foundling who had been informally adopted by Josephine’s mother.6 Furthermore, in 1870, after Napoleon III’s abdication, the following letter (addressed to Mocquard, Napoleon III’s personal secretary) was found in the Emperor’s effects at the Tuileries Palace.7
On March 17, 1786, at Rivière Salée (Martinique), Josephine de Beauharnais gave birth to a baby girl who was baptized under the sponsorship of Sieur Charles Tascher de la Pagerie and Dame Rose-Claire Sanoye Tascher de la Pagerie, father and mother of Josephine, and adopted by Madame Rose-Claire Sanoye Tascher de la Pagerie.
By a decree dated March 8, 1808, Emperor Napoléon I gave a dowry to this child, who married on March 12 of that same year Sieur J. -B. Blanchet, a Fort-Royal merchant.
To this marriage two children were born: my brother and I.
Today we are overwhelmed by misfortune. I, father of a family, am firmly convinced that if Your Majesty Emperor Napoleon III had known the facts which I have the honor to reveal to you, our misfortune would have been immediately relieved.
To whom could I better address myself, Monsieur, than to you, his personal secretary, in order to make known to Your Majesty my position and the entitlements which could give me the right to his lofty benevolence.
Full of hope in your intervention, etc.,
Blanchet, 27 rue Saint-Marc, Havre
Napoleon III is said to have ignored the letter, no doubt because it is riddled with errors – the most significant being that Josephine was in France in 1789, the year the child was born in Martinique. Yet in spite of the discrepency regarding the year of birth, historian Frédéric Masson credited the theory of an illicit pregnancy in Josephine de Beauharnais, published early in this century. However, in 1909, Martinique historian Pichevin published a detailed refutation and backed up his assertions with specific documentation (including the Bénaquette-Blanchet marriage certificate which confirmed Bénaquette’s year of birth).8 In subsequent editions of Josephine de Beauharnais, Masson retracted his statement due to lack of evidence.9
(Regarding the parentage of the girl, Josephine’s sister Manette – who had scurry – has been suggested, as has Josephine’s first husband Alexandre, who although in the habit of fathering illegitimate children was also in France at the time. If there is a family connection – and it’s entirely possible that there is none whatsoever – I think Josephine’s father could be considered a candidate. All possibilities are conjecture, however.)
But to return to the subject: Josephine’s infertility.
Dr. Maurice Catinat, an expert on the subject of Josephine,10 suggests that an early, stess-induced menopause (possibly triggered by her prison experience) is the most plausible hypothesis, and that this, together with gynecological infections – which were untreatable at the time – made her infertile. This thesis would help explain Josephine’s claim to being pregnant in the spring of 1796, her emotionality at that time, the onslaught of migraine headaches in Italy later in that year, and, if one credits some accounts, her premature ageing. (It also, however, puts into question the theory that she was having a wildly passionate love affair with Captain Charles at this time. Indeed, the view of Josephine as a menopausal and often ill woman throws a rather different light on this period of her life in general.)
The account of Josephine’s “panicked” journey to Martinique and the suggestion that she was pregnant at the time is only one of many stories about her that continue to be repeated without (in my view) a critical reevaluation of the original sources. Indeed, the more I learn about Josephine the more I am of the opinion that much of her “history” is made up of stories found in gossipy, sometimes hostile memoirs together with subjective and occasionally rather creative interpretations of mere scraps of information – interpretations that with time have come to be regarded as fact. In general, the historical interpretation of Josephine has suffered from a poverty of concrete evidence, not to mention the apparent reluctance of some writers to scrap a colourful story even when evidence to the contrary exists. The recent publication of over five hundred of Josephine’s letters (Impératrice Josephine; Correspondance, 1782-1814),11 most of them previously unpublished, all of them complete, could change our understanding of her considerably.
1. Bruce, Evangeline, Napoleon and Josephine; The Improbable Marriage (New York: Scribner, 1995), p. 30.
2. Knapton, Ernest John, Empress Josephine (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1963), p. 75.
3. Chevallier, Bernard and Christophe Pincemaille, L’impératrice Josephine (Paris: Presses de la Renaissance, 1988), p. 59.
4. Wagener, Fran&çoise, La Reine Hortense, (1783-1837) (Éditions Jean-Claude Lattès, 1992), p. 52.
5. Although Josephine had been married to Alexandre for four years before they separated, he’d often been absent.
6. Pichevin, R, L’Impératrice Josephine (Paris: Blondel la Rougery, 1909), p. 207. Pichevin notes (p. 215) that Josephine often gave girls a dowry: Mlle de Castellane was offered 100,000 francs, for example, plus a trousseau of 20,000 and gems. Mlle de Mackau was treated as generously. Pichevin lists other recipients: daughters of Caribbean Creoles and Blacks, daughters of impoverished aristocracy, daughters of Napoleon’s officers – even the illegitimate daughter of Josephine’s first husband.
7. Ibid., p. 206. The translation, such as it is, is my own.
8. Ibid., pgs. 205-215.
9. Masson, Frédéric, Josephine de Beauharnais: 1763-1796, quinzième édition (Paris: Albin Michel, 1909).
10. Dr. Maurice Catinat is a collector of Josephine’s letters and co-editor of Impératrice Josephine; Correspondance, 1782-1814. He is a member of the board of the Société des Amis de Malmaison, an official representative of the museum of Malmaison and Bois-Préau and a frequent contributor to the journal published by the Société des Amis de Malmaison as well as Revue du Souvenir Napoléon. [Note: Dr. Catinat is also currently on the Board of Trustees of the Fondation Napoleon.]
11. Impératrice Josephine; Correspondance, 1782-1814, collected and annotated by Bernard Chevallier, Maurice Catinat and Christophe Pincemaille (Paris: Histoire Payot, 1996).