Born in 1763 on an unsuccessful plantation in colonial Martinique, Marie-Josephe-Rose Tacher arrived in France to marry Alexandre de Beauharnais, a wealthy nobleman originally intended for her recently deceased sister, Catherine. Although the substitution shocked Alexandre, the marriage took place nonetheless. Rose bore him two children, Hortense and Eugène, but Alexandre was ashamed of her provincial manners and lack of sophistication and declined to present her at the court in Versailles. His indifference grew so great that she obtained a separation. Their association culminated in his death by guillotine as the Revolution swept through France in 1789. Although Rose was also sentenced to death, the end of the revolution arrived before her day of reckoning.
Now learned in the ways of the fashionable Paris society, Rose became mistress to wealthy men. In this capacity she met Napoleon Bonaparte, an upstart major general in the French army. The two became lovers in 1795, and he proposed to her the following January. Rose, whom Napoleon renamed Joséphine, was initially hesitant to marry him because he was "silent and awkward with women ... passionate and lively, though altogether strange in all his person." They wed on March 9, 1796.
Days after their marriage, Napoleon left to command the French army near Italy. Throughout the following months, he begged Joséphine to join him in Milan for their honeymoon, penning passionate letters to his wife that often remained unanswered. When Napoleon began to hear rumors that Joséphine was being unfaithful, his letters became all the more passionate.
When the future emperor finally confronted Joséphine with the rumors in 1798, she denied everything, angrily suggesting that if he believed such lies he should divorce her. When she subsequently realized that divorce was a possibility, Joséphine became more loving toward Napoleon, even willing to accompany him to the front. She was careful to cause no further scandals and in fact used her social position to advance her husband's political fortunes. Though still in love with his wife, he took a mistress in retaliation. He professed his confusion in a letter to his brother Joseph, which the British intercepted and gleefully published in the London papers. All of France heard of Napoleon's private feelings for Joséphine.
In February 1800 Napoleon became First Consul, and the couple moved into the Tuileries Palace. The couple was crowned emperor and empress in 1804, and lived peacefully for two years. But Joséphine's extravagance -- and, more importantly, her failure to give Napoleon a son -- put a strain on their marriage.
In 1807, Joséphine's grandson, the emperor's designated heir, died of croup. Soon after the death, Napoleon informed Joséphine that, in the interest of France, he must find a wife who could produce an heir. Their divorce ceremony was a grand but solemn occasion, during which each read a statement of devotion. Joséphine retreated to her private residence at Malmaison outside Paris, where she continued to entertain lavishly at the emperor's expense.
On March 11, 1810, Napoleon married 19-year-old Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria by proxy in a civil ceremony. A year later, Marie Louise delivered his long-awaited heir, to whom Napoleon gave the title King of Rome. In 1814 the Allies invaded France, and Napoleon was soon defeated. He abdicated his throne and was forced into exile on the island of Elba. That same spring, Joséphine caught a cold and died in the arms of her son Eugène. Two days after his return from exile, Napoleon visited Malmaison and collected violets from Joséphine's garden, which he wore in a locket until his death as a reminder of his true love.
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