Napoleon and Josephine: Was their great love affair a myth?

By Katherine AstburyFeatures correspondent
Apple TV+ Vanessa Kirby and Joaquin Phoenix in NapoleonApple TV+
Vanessa Kirby and Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon (Credit: Apple TV+)

Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby star in Ridley Scott's Napoleon, which opens this week. What do we know about the real relationship between Napoleon and Josephine, writes Katherine Astbury.

The relationship between Napoleon and the woman he called "Josephine" is central to the plot of Ridley Scott's new film about the French Emperor, which is released this week. It portrays Napoleon as someone who, according to Scott: "conquered the world to try to win her [Josephine's] love, and when he couldn't, conquered it to destroy her, and destroyed himself in the process".

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The news that Vanessa Kirby would play Josephine in the film generated a ripple of surprise among historians. Kirby is considerably younger than the actor in the title role, Joaquin Phoenix (14 years her senior), but in fact, Josephine was six years older than Napoleon. Speaking to The New Yorker, Scott told historians who had 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.

Widowed during the French Revolution, and with two young children, Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Beauharnais 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 by this time, 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.

Marriage to Napoleon

She was persuaded to marry the 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.

[Napoleon's letters] are so full of emotional blackmail that the repeated declarations of love seem menacing rather than maudlin

From Italy, he wrote her dozens of impassioned letters. They are so full of 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?"

Apple TV+ Vanessa Kirby plays Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Beauharnais, whom Napoleon called 'Josephine' in Ridley Scott's new film (Credit: Apple TV+)Apple TV+
Vanessa Kirby plays Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Beauharnais, whom Napoleon called 'Josephine' in Ridley Scott's new film (Credit: Apple TV+)

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".

Power couple

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.

She relished the pre-eminence that the role of helping create a new France gave her

Napoleon was on a 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.

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He needed her soft diplomacy and her aristocratic lineage to help smooth over the factionalism that had characterised the Revolutionary decade. She relished the pre-eminence 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.

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 Avrillionwrote 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.

A lasting bond

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.

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.

Ultimately, perhaps both Josephine and Napoleon loved power more than each other

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 though, perhaps both Josephine and Napoleon loved power more than each other. They recognised the benefits of working together and navigated a speedy 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.

Katherine Astbury is Associate Professor and Reader of French at the University of Warwick.

This is an edited article that originally appeared in The Conversation, and is republished under a Creative Commons licence.

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