Ah, Josephine, petite perle fine!
NAPOLEON AND JOSEPHINE: AN IMPROBABLE MARRIAGE by Evangeline Bruce Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25, pp. 555 It must have been an inherited as well as an acquired respect for diplomatic protocol that dictated to Evangeline Bruce the title of this admirably written and compellingly readable volume, the product of decades of enthusiastic research and study by the most enchanting, intelligent, as well as the most beautiful ambassadress ever to grace a US embassy, be it in London, Paris, Bonn or Peking.
For, despite this masterly account, schol- arly and often original, of her husband's career, it is the Creole charmer, christened Marie-Joseph-Rose, renamed by Napoleon Josephine after the very first night spent in her arms, who struck me as the central fig- ure of this beautifully written book, and her few character faults pale almost to insignif- icance beside those of that force of nature, the extraordinary second husband whom she alone was to come near to understand- ing.
I myself was still at pre-prep-school age when, escorting Nanny and a few siblings, some still be-prammed, I first went the short distance from our rented château to neighbouring Malmaison, where I recall learning chiefly of Josephine's passion for roses (specimens continued to be brought across the Channel by a diplomatic- passported English gardener even as Napoleon was preparing his indefinitely postponed invasion), not to mention the carnations that still give the house's name to perfumes and bath essences. Alas there was no hi-fi system to relay that 'slight Creole accent filletted of r's ' of what her second husband called 'a voice like a caress', for the pleasure of hearing which the servants there and at the Tuileries or Fontainebleau would linger at doors.
A male De Segur contemporary wrote of her 'discretion, her grace, her gentle man- ner, her cool composure, her ready ingenu- ity and wit [which] were of great service. She justified Bonaparte's confidence in her.' At a time when he was already being urged to think of replacing her by some royally-born possessor of a fertile womb, he very truly and with acumen commented: 'I win battles, but Josephine wins hearts.' As the author rightly observes of her, 'she her- self had never been able to feel hate', and adds that 'she was intelligent enough to know when to keep silent'. Not so the Emperor's Corsican family, apparently oblivious of omerta, and never able to hold their mafiosi tongues.
Josephine, like most of her fellow Martiniquaises, had never resisted the pleasure of sucking sugar cane and conse- quently had still quite young begun to lose her blackened teeth. Her wholly beguiling smile concealed this tragedy which would today have been pleasingly reparable (not for her, anyway, those ghastly wooden snappers made for George Washington). It is also pathetic to read of her stays at Plombieres in the hopes of reacquiring fertility, after what was surely a botched abortion back home in Martinique, and when it seems likely that she had anyway ceased to menstruate, Creole ladies start- ing and finishing earlier than their sisters in either metropolitan France or Corsica.
Bourrienne said that Napoleon's attach- ment to Josephine 'bordered on idolatry'. Well, as I know to my cost or regret myself, women are usually rather allergic to that. 'I am fond of him, in spite of his little faults', she had once said, and she had continued so even after it became clear that there was nothing 'little' about the cynical cruelties that Napoleon inflicted on his enemies, as well as sometimes on his own soldiers, especially from the Egyptian and Near Eastern campaigns onwards.
Though she came to accept Napoleon's incurable Corsican caddishness without ever allowing it to become contagious, she must often have cherished the memory of her passionate affair with the handsome, cheerful and charming young Hippolyte Charles, one of nature's perfect gentlemen who, on his death bed, ordered that all her often passionate letters to him be burnt. More than a century later, two of them, from a forgotten business file, were to turn up, revealing Josephine's 'Adieu, I send you a thousand tender kisses — and I am yours, all yours.'
And yet, and yet. 'From these pyramids, 40 centuries of history look down upon you', Napoleon had orated at troops whose sufferings had been appalling before only a diminished number of them managed to get back across a Mediterranean first swept clean and now policed by Nelson's ships.
But at least he had brought along Cham- pollion who broke the Rosetta Stone's enigma; that and the frenzy of glossy Retour d'Egypte furniture are best remem- bered now, though when the Empress Eugenie came to hear Aida at the Suez Canal's opening she may have been reminded that the first Emperor Napoleon had predicted that waterway long before.
'For me, the Emperor's heart is all that matters', Josephine had once opined, but after Egypt it seemed very doubtful he pos- sessed one at all. Yet his gratitude was real for 'all the charm she has brought to my life — she adjusts her habits to mine and understands me perfectly'. Truly her conju- gal devotion was extraordinary. Just as, crowned and in full regalia ('My son-in-law is a great snob,' the Austrian Emperor, who disliked pomp and ceremony despite Habsburg conventions, was later percep- tively to observe) she was about to enter the ballroom, she was summoned to the Emperor, writhing with stomach pains and concomitant headache, both of which she had to treat with reassuringly caressing hands, leading to 'a night of love in his bed, interspersed with restless sleep'.
But of course he had at last to pursue his 'destiny', and that meant a more dynastic and fruitful alliance. Soon he would be writing to Josephine at Malmaison that he hears she is 'always crying. That is a pity. I will come and see you when you tell me that you are being sensible, and that your courage is winning the day'.
Of course it did win the day and persons, high and low, continued to fall under her spell, including the great actress, inevitably also a mistress of Napoleon's, Mlle George. The Emperor would not grant Josephine's wish to meet his Austrian second wife. 'No', he said,
she thinks you are very old. If she sees you and your charms, she would be worried: she would ask me to send you away from Mal- maison and I would have to do it,
'a bittersweet compliment', the author aptly comments.
And yet, after the departure for Elba, that tactless, over-educated fool, Mme de Stael,
had the effrontery to ask whether I still loved the Emperor? I, who never ceased to love him during his good fortune, how could I love him less ardently now?
(It is fair to say that Mrs Bruce equally exculpates poor Marie-Louise from having any part in her own separation or in the Viennese exile of her son which was so wonderfully romanticised by Rostand in verse in L'Aiglon.) The victorious sovereigns came to Mal- maison, of course, and Josephine, after opening the ball with the dazzlingly beauti- ful Tsar, took him for a long walk in the gardens 'to smell the scent, she said, of the lilac and the lily of the valley'. But, like the Duchess of Malfi, she had 'caught an ever- lasting cold'. A few days later she died in her son Eugene's arms, 'going,' he said, 'as gently and sweetly to meet death as she had met life'.
Her descendants have many a throne between them. I hope some of them who are, unlike our own royals, readers, will be able to enjoy this extraordinary and extraordinarily well told tale that does its author as well as Josephine much honour, as well as doing often revelatory justice to Napoleon's own life and career. Despite his birth and youth in Vienna, our Zigeunerbaron Weidenfeld once again mis- spells Habsburg Hapsburg.