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Napoleon and Josephine’s real relationship was intense – but they loved power more than each other


When Vanessa Kirby was announced to play Josephine in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, it caused a ripple of surprise among historians. Kirby is considerably younger than the actor in title role, Joaquin Phoenix (14 years her senior), but in fact, Josephine was six years older than Napoleon.

Scott explained that he cast a younger woman so he would be able to alternate between battle scenes and what he describes as a “really interesting, prolonged love story”. The film portrays Napoleon as someone who, according to Scott: “conquered the world to try to win her [Josephine’s] love, and when he couldn’t, he conquered it to destroy her, and destroyed himself in the process”.

Vanessa Kirby discussing her role as Josephine.

The director has since told historians who have been correcting inaccuracies in the film to “get a life”, but the age difference between Napoleon and Josephine was a significant factor in the way in which their lives – and their love – played out.

Napoleon’s infatuation

Widowed during the French Revolution, and with two young children, Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Beauharnais (the woman Napoleon called Josephine) faced an uncertain future. She was unable to access her family’s wealth from sugar plantations in Martinique, or from her guillotined husband’s estate.

As she was in her thirties, she was no longer considered young, but she did what she could to become part of fashionable Parisian society, calling in favours and cultivating the friendship of leading politician Paul Barras.

Empress Josephine in Coronation Costume by François Gérard (1808-18080).
Musée national du Château de Fontainebleau‎

She was persuaded to marry an up-and-coming young Corsican general, Napoleon Buonaparte, who was intoxicated by her. Just a few months after meeting Josephine – and almost immediately after their marriage in March 1796 – the general was sent to lead the Revolutionary Army in Italy.

From Italy, he wrote her dozens of impassioned letters. They are so full of controlling, emotional blackmail that the repeated declarations of love seem menacing rather than maudlin.

“You never write to me; you don’t care for your husband”, he exclaims in one. “I get no news from you, and I feel sure that you no longer love me”, bemoans another. And: “Every day I count up your misdeeds. I lash myself to fury in order to love you no more. Bah, don’t I love you the more?”

When Josephine joined him in Italy, she had to put up with him tracking her every move and opening her letters. By the time they were reunited, however, he was less infatuated – although still controlling. Napoleon recognised the usefulness of his wife’s connections and seemed to accept a mismatch in their feelings. His earlier novelistic outpourings were replaced by a very different tone as early as 1797, and by 1800 he turns rather cold. These letters are practical, with formulaic sign offs such as “a thousand tender things”.

Portraits of Napoleon and Josephine
Portraits of Napoleon and Josephine, probably made in 1797 after their return to France.
Gallica/Bibliothèque nationale de France, CC BY-NC

As the wife of a feted war hero, Josephine exploited her political connections for her own gain, perhaps as a way of resisting the control Napoleon was exerting over the rest of her life.

Aware of how effective they could be as a team, detractors including Napoleon’s own family took delight in spreading rumours to tarnish Josephine’s reputation. Josephine’s letters to her lover Hippolyte Charles give an idea of how precarious the situation was for her.

Napoleon was on campaign in Egypt when he was given proof that she had been having an affair. A letter to his brother where he talks about it was intercepted and published by the British and quickly became known in France. Furious at first, he forgave her when he returned to Paris and she supported the political manoeuvring which led to him taking power after a coup d’état in 1799.

He needed her soft diplomacy and her aristocratic lineage to help smooth over the factionalism that had characterised the Revolutionary decade. She relished the preeminence that the role of helping create a new France gave her. Having been reluctant to join her husband in Italy in 1796, she took to accompanying him everywhere. It was very much in her interests that he was not distracted by a younger woman.

In 1807, he wouldn’t let her accompany him to Poland where he conducted a lengthy affair with the noblewoman Maria Walewska, although his letters show that he was still on intimate terms with Josephine as well. Nevertheless, the risk of divorce was growing.

The divorce

Once Napoleon instigated a hereditary empire in 1804, his family increasingly badgered him about the need for an heir. Josephine was unable to give him one. One of her maids, Mademoiselle Avrillion, wrote an account of how, in the period leading up to their divorce, the couple had become less close. But Josephine was still devastated when her fate was confirmed in 1809.

The divorce was framed as a sacrifice to the needs of the nation. Napoleon continued to visit Josephine and write to her before his marriage to the Hapsburg Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria. Josephine congratulated Napoleon on the birth of his son in 1811, telling him that she would always share his happiness as their destinies were inseparable.

Painting showing Josephine's divorce from Napoleon.
The Divorce of the Empress Josephine in 1809 by Henri Frédéric Schopin (1843).
The Wallace Collection

Napoleon visited her at Malmaison, her preferred retreat just outside Paris, before he began his Russian campaign in 1812. He would never see her again as she died in 1814. After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon spent time at Malmaison before being banished definitively to St Helena.

Establishing their real relationship is difficult because so few of Josephine’s letters survive to offer her side of the story. Did she love Napoleon at the beginning? Probably not. Did she come to love him? Probably yes.

Napoleon enabled her to defy her age and critics, and he took good care of her children, Hortense and Eugène. Ultimately, both Josephine and Napoleon loved power more than each other.

They recognised the benefits of working together and achieved a vertiginous rise to the top. In the end, Napoleon’s need for a son destabilised both the regime and their marriage, but his visit to Malmaison on his way into exile shows how much Josephine meant to him.

She had remained loyal, if not always faithful, and had been a lucky talisman. Shortly before he died in 1821, Napoleon dreamt about her. His faithful grand marshal noted: “He said that he had seen Josephine and spoken to her”. He’d hoped they’d be together again soon.

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