Book Review: Josephine: Wife of Napoleon

Josephine, Wife Of Napoleon by E.A. Rheinhardt (English version by Caroline Fredrick) is, as you can imagine, a biography on the life Josephine, the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emperor. I received my copy from my grandmother, and it’s dated to 1934, published by Garden City Publishing Co., Inc of New York, USA. Copyrighted by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

The book introduces us to Josephine, a Creole (a white born on the islands). A girl with brothers and sisters who enjoyed the beach and entertaining her imagination and the black servants who inhabited the islands. She was born a Tascher de la Pagerie, of old petty nobility, and dreamed in a fantasy world.

An aunt, hoping to secure her position in a noble family, Beauharnais, by marrying a neice off to her lover’s son, Alexandre de Beauharnais. Josephine was the only suitable neice, so she was then packed up, and shipped off to Paris where she was to become Madame de Beauharnais, at the ripe age of 16.

However, Alexandre had other plans on his mind. He had agreed to the marriage as if in a foggy fantasy, dreaming of the experienced and charming Parisians he knew, and getting a simple quiet and shy Creole girl. He was immediately put off by her dress, but married at any rate.

As is knowledge about this time in history, mistresses or Maîtresse-en-titre (the official name given to the King of France’s mistresses) was indeed, a very high, noble position to be in, of much influence to the goings on of the country, and all the king did. I mention this because Alexandre, a victim of a young mans vanity, who was not generally pleased with Josephine, began to take mistresses of influence, of experience, whom he had hoped would introduce him to a more influential position. See, at this time, the French who sought to be of influence thought very little of ethics, and were entirely convinced that two timing, blackmailing, and similar such trickery was all that was needed to become a very successful person. This did work for Alexandre indeed, and he gained much influence at a time in France when they were holding a revolution.

Alexandre, however, accused Josephine of herself taking another lover, which was only the beginning of the end for the two.

Enter Robespierre; his “reign of terror” where he took all people of influence, nobility, imprisoned them and, well, at a time when the number of beheadings a day was in the double digits I’m sure you can guess how those stories finished.

Both Alexandre and Josephine were imprisoned, the fate of Alexandre much less fortunate for Josephine, who gained valuable friends and was eventually released where she really began to bloom into herself as a woman of society, where she studied and learned from all the other women at the convent she was released into as a widower, keeping her very enviable last name. For many years afterwards, she still called herself Madame de Beauharnais, for he had become a Vicomte (even after her hushed marriage to the soldier of gaining influence of name Bonaparte) and changed it only after Bonaparte began to become a very influential and noble name to hold, offering her much attention, and reception at all the important events.

We learn that even as a youngster, Josephine was a delicate woman of society. She never troubled herself with things like money, or working, she interested herself primarily in socializing, in receptions, in spending money. It is related that in her future years, after Napoleon became Emperor, and she had a salary of a very enviable sum, people would come to her house, sometimes 20 carts in a line, to sell her something of some sort, and it is said that she would usually buy it all. Perhaps one of the reasons why the French admired her so much! She is also known for her gardens. She spend a lot of time redecorating gardens, as well, bringing in rare species of plants to instill throughout her own properties, and throughout France.

Josephine came into contact through her much socializing with a certain Napoleon Bonaparte, who at the time, was petitioning for a new outfit to appear presentable and gain a noble position within the ranks of the army. Because of this, Napoleon became commander of the Italian fleet, who won a precious victory thus catapulting Napoleon into history. Napoleon, a simple man of family values, was enthralled with Josephine, who was the only one of all the Parisian women he asked for hand in marriage who agreed to it.

For a long time, Josephine wasn’t content with Napoleon. Even after he was Emperor and gave her all things she could ever ask for, she was still what seemed like a spoiled girl living her life without a care in the world. At the start, Napoleon was captivated and obsessed with her, tirelessly writing letters and lamenting over the lack of respons, but Josephine wasn’t as entranced. She was used to the years she had spent as a mistress to whoever she felt would provide her with the money and influence she needed/wanted to continue being an important member of the Parisian society. She had lovers as Napoleon was going crazy.

However, Napoleon and his family values had had enough of this situation, and was on his way home to divorce Josephine, inspite his aide-de-camp Eugene, the adopted son of Josephine and Alexandre, who petitioned endlessly for him to believe in his mother. Upon knowing this Josephine finally went to meet Napoleon as he came back into the country. But, in an unfortunate incident to this history, Josephine had taken a different route than Napoleon and missed him. Uponreturning to her home it was locked and she was told to go away. However, Josephine wouldn’t leave without a fight, and stayed for many hours knocking at the door, bringing her son and daughter to help pull at Napoleon’s heart strings, and finally it was the help of a servant who let her in and she was then able to to convince Napoleon how much she loved him.

It was this turning point where Napoleon seemed to have lost that boy’ish love for Josephine, and Josephine in turn loved Napoleon like no other and remained devoted to him till her end.

This is about the sum of the book. Napoleon continues on his triumphs, Josephine spends more money, Napoleon finds lovers, and isn’t happy that Josephine cannot give birth to a son for him. In the later years, after 15 years of marriage, Napoleon divorces Josephine, justifying it that the country demands a successor to Napoleon and Josephine cannot give this. He gets his son, as the history of Napoleon will tell, and Josephine, against all her fear, still manages to have influence over society after she is no longer the wife of Napoleon, and after Napoleon’s unsuccessful Russian campaigns, where Napoleon is exiled and cast away, she gains influence on the Russian Tsar’s who court her and her popularity is again amplified.

If you are interested in learning more about this time in history, when Paris was the epicenters of the world in fashion, influence, extravagance, and revolution, you should read Josephine, Wife Of Napoleon. It tries to keep an account only of Josephine, without letting Napoleon invade her story (as tempting as that may be), and only giving history and accounts of Napoleons tirades as they relate to Josephine’s life. She was a socialite, she spent hoards of moneys, she suffered and indulged, she threw tantrums. She was, above most else, revered by the French and the wife of Napoleon.

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