Don't See Napoleon Without Reading This Book

You’ll understand why one of Napoleon’s last words ever uttered was “Josephine.”

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  • Photo Credit: Featured photo: Nikita Tikhomirov / Unsplash

Born Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie and raised on her family’s sugar plantation in Martinique, Josephine Bonaparte was a captivating, charming and intelligent young woman who, upon first meeting Napoleon Bonaparte—the awkward, younger man who would eventually become the controversial military leader and French emperor—quickly captured his affection. 

In The Rose of Martinique: A Life of Napoleon's Josephine, author Andrea Stuart recounts Josephine’s fascinating life, starting from her birth to her death, and describes in incredibly well-researched detail how this influential woman acted as both a political adviser and a passionate partner to her husband. 

Though they had a less-than-perfect marriage, reflected through their countless affairs, Andrea Stuart shows diary entries and letters that help us comprehend why, even after their divorce, upon his death, one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s last words was “Josephine.”

The 2023 epic historical drama film Napoleon chronicles six out of the 81 battles Napoleon fought and capture the rise and fall of his reign while exploring the relationship between him and his beloved Josephine. Before you watch the film, you should read The Rose of Martinique: A Life of Napoleon's Josephine to get an even more in-depth understanding of this intriguing couple. 

Continue reading for an excerpt from the novel, which will give you a taste of Stuart’s engaging writing and spotlight Napoleon and Josephine’s undeniable connection. 




The Rose of Martinique

By Andrea Stuart

In retrospect, many have questioned the young hero’s desire for this decadent, older femme fatale. At the time, however, the mystery was why she would have been interested in him. When Napoleone met her, Rose was the star, her every movement discussed, her every outfit dissected. For during these post-revolutionary years Rose truly came into her own. Her phenomenal adaptability, which allowed her to adjust to new mores and cope with constant change, served her well. She seemed to epitomize what this period was all about, with its passion for spontaneity, its love of the exotic and its relentless pursuit of pleasure. Rose was both a product and an emblem of the prevailing zeitgeist.

One simply has to imagine Napoleone’s first sighting of her to understand how she would have affected him. The setting: one of those ‘luminous nights’ of Barras’s. An impeccably decorated room in the Palais de Légalité (the politically correct revolutionary alternative name for the Luxembourg) or his glorious country house: gilded and opulent, a bastion of haute luxe, where crystal chandeliers twinkled in the lamplight and white flowers spilled from vases in breathtaking profusion; tables laden with exquisite food and drink – the sort of luxuries the rest of the city only dreamed of; the room suffused with the sounds of privilege – the delicate clink of silver cutlery against fine porcelain, the tinkling of a piano or the rippling of a harp, the murmur of refined voices muted by damask and brocade; candles or torches flickering, beautiful, musk-scented women floating by in their Grecian robes. Napoleone a bit player only, watching from the sidelines, awkward, tolerated but largely ignored. Rose luminescent, at the very epicentre of the action; courted by everyone, popular, charming, at ease. She would have represented everything he wanted to be and everything he wanted to have.

When they actually met it was, unsurprisingly, an unequal contest. Buonaparte may have been the genius on the battlefield but in the drawing room it was Rose who was the prodigy. She was an accomplished seductress who had mastered all of the skills necessary to ensnare and persuade. The ‘perfection of her gestures’, the ‘Creole elegance’ of her movements, the soft depth of her voice entranced others. Rose seemed to know exactly when to bestow her enigmatic, close-mouthed smile or gently touch her companion’s arm; she had the ability to listen so that the recipient felt they were the centre of her world. In her hands a fan was a deadly weapon. So when Napoleone eventually had a conversation with Rose, it is no surprise that he was instantly lost. ‘I was not insensitive to the charms of women,’ he would later explain, ‘but until then I had not had good fortune with them; and my character rendered me timid before them. Madame de Beauharnais is the first to have reassured me. She said flattering things about my military talents, one day when I found myself placed next to her. Her praise intoxicated me; I addressed myself only to her …’ After that evening he admitted, ‘I followed her everywhere; I was passionately in love with her.’

Not surprisingly, Désirée’s letters to Napoleone became more anxious. ‘How could you think for a moment that I am no longer in love with my Eugénie, and continue to think of her …’, he consoled her. But the truth was that Napoleone was dazzled by the new milieu in which he found himself, and by the ‘unequalled’ pleasures of Paris, with its spectacles and balls, that he heedlessly raved about in the same letter. Désirée’s intuition that he was growing apart from her was all too accurate. She tried a new tactic. She stopped writing for a time, until he eventually responded to her silence. Though he was in love with Rose, he was not sure of a positive outcome; he had to maintain the relationship with Désirée until he was sure what would happen. But she was no longer the object of his affections. In a letter to his brother dated 9 November he adds a postscript instructing him to embrace Désirée. She was no longer his ‘good Eugénie’.

Around this time, Rose wrote her first letter to Napoleone. As with so many of the letters of their courtship, some of it was later censored by her zealous children. In this case the date has been obscured so as to avoid the accusation that Rose was chasing the hero of Vendémiarie. It reads, ‘You no longer come to see a friend who is fond of you. You have quite forsaken her. This is a mistake, as she is tenderly attracted to you. Come to lunch with me tomorrow, septidi. I want to see you and to talk to you about matters of interest to you. Good night, mon ami, je vous embrasse’. It was signed, ‘the widow Beauharnais’.

The tone was perfect: playful, light, teasing; it succeeded in reassuring the general of her interest in him, as well as dangling a tempting titbit of self-interest before him with the phrase ‘matters of interest to you’. Napoleone couldn’t reply fast enough. In a letter dispatched the same evening he wrote, ‘I cannot imagine the reason for the tone of your letter. I beg you to believe that no one desires your friendship as much as I do, no one could be more eager to prove it. Had my duties permitted it, I would have come in person to deliver it. Buonaparte.’

Their dance had begun. Napoleone was so awed by Rose, and his sense of her unattainability, that he assumed it would be a long courtship. But as he explained in the memoirs from St Helena that he customarily dictated in the third person, ‘When Mme de Beauharnais invited him to visit her he was struck by her extraordinary grace and her irresistibly sweet manner. The acquaintance was shortly to ripen into intimacy’ That ‘intimacy’ was to inspire some of the most beautiful love letters of the eighteenth century. The first of these, dated December 1795, commemorated their first night together:

I awake filled with thoughts of you. Your image, and the intoxicating pleasures of last night, allow my senses no rest. Sweet and incomparable Josephine, how strangely you work upon my heart! Are you angry with me? Are you unhappy? Are you upset? … my soul is broken with grief, and my love for you forbids repose. But how can I rest any more, when I yield to the feeling that masters my inmost self, when I quaff from your lips and from your heart a scorching flame? Yes! One night has taught me how far your portrait falls short of yourself! You start at midday: in three hours I shall see you again. Till then, a thousand kisses, mio dolce amore: but give me none back, for they set my blood on fire.

This letter, its date altered by Hortense and Eugène so that it appeared to be written after their marriage, was, one suspects, the night of Napoleone’s real erotic awakening. If losing his virginity had proved somewhat disappointing, Napoleone was now plunged into the tumult of sensuality that had engulfed Rose so long ago on her marriage to Alexandre. Rose was a seasoned voluptuary, and the inexperienced young general was beguiled and bewitched. All of his preconceived ideas about love (merely ‘a social feeling’) and dismissive remarks about the French (‘entirely absorbed by eroticism’) were shattered. It was his turn to be bouleversé, thrown over by the power of erotic love. She was his very own tropical Scheherazade, who had awakened his senses and overwhelmed him with physical passion.

She appealed to him in many ways and represented so much of what he longed for. She seemed to him une vraie Parisienne, a legitimate member of the aristocracy: an insider, comfortable in the world that intimidated him. Unlike the unsophisticated Désirée, who adored and looked up to him, Rose represented a challenge. This drew a man like Napoleone, who loved difficulty and risk and for whom pleasure and danger were never far apart. Older, elusive, capricious, luxury-loving, she was the sort of female rouée that he couldn’t resist trying to conquer. ‘The artificial woman, the coquette whose only preoccupation is to subjugate the stronger sex,’ wrote one of his biographers, ‘appeared to him like an enemy whom he wished to make capitulate.’

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Featured photo: Nikita Tikhomirov / Unsplash