Josephine Bonaparte, A ‘Rags To Riches’ Story
'Portrait of Josephine', 1801. Detail. Josephine de Beauharnais (1763-1814) married Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 and was crowned Empress of France in 1804. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)
Most widely known for her marriage to Napoleon, Josephine was more than just a trophy wife. Despite modest beginnings, she elevated herself from provincial life on a plantation to Empress of France, while also managing to escape the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. Perhaps she was just lucky, or perhaps she had the cunning and charisma to make all the right connections at the right time.
She was born Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de La Pagerie on June 23, 1763, to a noble but poor family on a plantation in Martinique. Her father, Joseph Tascher de La Pagerie, was an officer in the navy. In the hopes of securing an advantageous marriage, Josephine’s parents sent her to be educated at the Dames-de-la-providence convent in Fort-de-France at the age of ten. This seemed to pay off in 1779, when at the age of sixteen, Josephine married a wealthy army officer named Alexandre de Beauharnais, earning herself the title of Vicomtesse de Beauharnais., and moved with him to Paris.
Her first marriage was unhappy, likely due to the Vicomte's reluctance to present his common wife at the royal court. Nevertheless, the couple had two children, Hortense and Eugene, before separating, though not divorcing, in 1785. At that time, Josephine took custody of Hortense and moved back to Martinique in 1788 due to financial troubles. After the French Revolution broke out, Josephine returned to her husband, whose political career was benefiting from the unrest. However, when the power shifted, Alexandre was guillotined, and Josephine imprisoned. Fortunately for her, the Reign of Terror ended before she met the same fate as her husband.
In the wake of the war, specifically autumn of 1795, Josephine met Napoleon, who was at that time a general. He fell in love with her; she fell in love with his power, agreeing to marry him after he was appointed the commander of the Italian army. They were married in a civil ceremony on March 9, 1796. Their marriage faced several challenges. There were long periods of separation due to his military campaigns, which led to both of them seeking comfort elsewhere. Additionally, Josephine enjoyed spending money a bit too much, evident in the extravagant design of their marital home, Malmaison. To make matters worse, Napoleon’s mother disapproved of Josephine and pressured him to end the marriage.
Nevertheless, Napoleon clung to the relationship, even adopting Josephine’s son Eugene and arranging a marriage between his stepdaughter and his brother. In December 1804, he remarried Josephine, this time in a religious ceremony, to make it official with regards to the church. This was shortly after Napoleon became emperor of France, so the marriage made her the Empress. However, the final nail in the coffin of their marriage was Josephine’s inability to give him an heir. In 1809, Napoleon had their marriage annulled on a technicality and married Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria.
After the annulment, Josephine continued to live at Malmaison where Napoleon visited often until he was defeated and exiled to Elba in April 1814. She had by this time developed a friendship with Alexander I, Tsar of Russia. However, she died of pneumonia just over a month later, on May 29, 1814, at the age of fifty-one.