The Empress Josephine
Josephine : the Portrait of a Woman. By McNair Wilson. (Eyre and Spottiswoode. 15s )
Ma. MeNAnt. WILSON dislikes Josephine. From her childhood tip the little French creole of Martinique, who quarrelled with
her mother and enjoyed the adoration of her father's slaves, makes no appeal to him: In the eighteenth century childhood was short, even in France, and in tropical colonies shorter still. Josephine Tascher La Pagerie was only fifteen when the Marquis de Beauharnais wrote from Paris to suggest a marriage between his son and heryounger sister. He would not, he explained, have set aside the claims of the first-born, had it not been for her age. Fifteen was, he thought, too old to be the wife of his seventeen-year old son. 'His Offer was accepted, but difficulties arose. The child's mother would not part from Sher, and finally it was Josephine whO accompanied her father all the way to Paris and married Alexander de Beauharnais.
Except so far as language was concerned, the little girl found herself in an utterly strange milieu, though one of the inner circle of her new acquaintances was her aunt; The young couple took up their abode with Alexander's father. Madame Renaudin also lived in the same great mansion. She
was the sister of Josephine's father, the mistress of Josephine's father-in-laiv, and according to gossip the mother Of Josephine's husband. This irregularity cast a shadow upon the 'social P?Aition of the Beanharriaii. Marie Antoinette refused to receive the new bride and bridegroom, except privately:
Alexander was disappointed and saw with vexation that Josephine was picking her intimates front the ranks of the declassi aristocracy. An unexpected outcome of his up:. bringing, the young man was by nature didaetie;- pedantic
even. He wanted to form and furnish the mind of his young Wife, whose character was already irrevocably formed.
" The More he lectured the more his wife wept," and the less she gave in. She gained the sympathy of all her in-law relations. Alexander lost his temper: " He swore at her ; he struck her." She was entirely meek, ceased to address him, but answered him always sweetly and excused him to his relations. He rejoined his reginient, leaving her-mistress of the field. Thus begun the unhappy years of her married life, lived for the larger part outside Paris. -They had two children, the second of whom (Hortense) Alexander disowned;
instituting divorce proceedings. His' execution during the
terror gave his wife no distress. She never bore the least malice against his enemies. The rise of Napoleon saw Josephine back in the city a her adoption " The love which Josephine bore Paris gave her understanding. There were qualities in her nature which only the capital could discover—a gaiety hard and courageous like the mirth of soldiers or prostitutes and a tenderness practical as that of a bitch for her litter. This daughter of virgin jungles whose grace of movement recalled some strong subtle animal, was most completely at home in drawing rooms, where men unsated as yet with pleasure accorded her a frankly sensual admiration."
, Was she ever genuinely in love with Napoleon ? Mr, McNair Wilson thinks not. She was certainly untrue to him very shortly after their marriage—his honour was not safe in his absence—and received his impassioned but uninspiring
love letters very coldly. " Do you remember my dream," he writes, " in which I was your boots, your dress, and in which I made you come bodily into my heart ? Why has not Nature arranged matters in this way ? She has much to accomplish yet. it est drole, Buonaparte!' remarked Josephine."
In the summer of 1797 Napoleon took Josephine with him to Italy, perhaps to keep her out of mischief. " The lawful raptures of the eagle on his nest edified Lombardy:, and in due course France also. " It was Josephine's first taste of respectability, and even if the helping was large she
liked the flavour. Her rendering of an honest woman was judged to be convincing as well as gracious." This is a
little ill-natured. Mr. Wilson, we feel, should be less vitriolic, considering hovv very well he can -amuse us without recourse to corrosive acids.
In Italy at this time Napoleon asked his family to join him. " Travelling carriages arrived and disgorged bullet. headed men and swarthy women : Mama Letizia; -Napoleon's
brothers Giuseppe and Luigi and Isis sisters Elisa, Paolina and Carlotta. Josephine looked in vain for a friendly face.
Madame Buonaparte was then a woman of forty-six. She had borne ten children but retained her figure and-her health. A woman like an alpine peak, stripped of flesh by hard bodily work. Thrifty as a bone, and packed with the wisdom of diligent motherhood." Josephine had been warned to to pleasant, she " kissed her mother-in-law and was aware that Madame Buonaparte had noticed the rouge on her lips. What an 'odd company was the Buonaparte family ! - Rather ill. dressed, very ill-mannered, awkward, and yet- bursting with pride. Elisa had the grave brow of the General, but she was
plain. The looks of the family had gone to " Paulette " as they Called the second girl, who was a beauty. Buonaparte embraced them all and turned them over to his wife." The pretty Paulette " broke into giggles and then when Josephine turned her back put out her tongue." What would Marie Antoinette have said to such manners ! Yet in the supreme hour of trial the queen herself was not more dignified than the colonial woman on whom respectability sat not awkwardly, but not perhaps quite naturally:-
" I can never forget (says an eye witness) the evening on which the discarded- Empress did the honours of her Court for the last tinie. A great throng was . present and supper was served according to custom, in the gallery of Diana on a number of little tables. Insephine sat at the-centre one and the men went round her waiting for that particularly graceful nod which she had been in the habit of bestow. ing on those with whom she was acquainted. I stood, at a short distance from her for a few minutes and I could not help being struck with the perfectiOn of her attitude in the presence of all these' people who still did her homage, while knowing full well that it was for the last time ; that in an hour she would descend from the throne, and leave the palace never to, re-enter it. Only women can rise superior to the difficulties of such a situation, but I have my doubts as to whether a second one could have been found to do it with such perfect grace and composure. Napoleon did not show as bold a front as did his victim."
Josephine, comments her newest critic, had " resolved with admirable judgment to play the part of -the aristocrat in the tumbril." That may be so, but what a wonderful part it was that she and they played ! No doubt, like Josephine, many of them did not act " in character." In ordinary life the French aristocracy were very far from heroes. There are, however, two ways of judging-everybody, and both are just, though the verdicts are seldom identical. We may judge them by what they usually did, or by what they were capable of doing. Mr. McNair Wilson, while he seems to prefer the former method, gives his readers every opportunity to make use of the other.