She was a Creole—i.e., a person of French or Spanish descent born and raised in tropical colonies. The island of Martinique, in the Caribbean, had been French for 128 years when Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie was born there in 1763 of an old Orléans family. Her uncle, Baron de Tascher, was then governor of the port; her father had been a page in the household of the Dauphine Marie-Josèphe, mother of Louis XVI. She was educated at the Convent of the Ladies of Providence in Fort-Royal (now Fort-de-France), seat of the colonial government. The curriculum then consisted of catechism, deportment, penmanship, drawing, embroidery, dancing, and music; the nuns believed that these would get a woman much further than Latin, Greek, history, and philosophy; and Josephine proved them right. She became, as had been said of Mme. de Pompadour, “a morsel for a king.”
At sixteen she was taken to France and was married to Vicomte Alexandre de Beauharnais, then only nineteen, but already experienced in the philandering ways of the French aristocracy. Soon his long and frequent absences betrayed his adulteries, and left in the impressionable Josephine the conviction that the Sixth Commandment was not intended for the upper classes. She gave herself devotedly to her two children—Eugène (1781–1824) and Hortense (1783–1837), who rewarded her with their lifelong loyalty.
When the Revolution came, the Vicomte adjusted his politics to the new regime, and for five years he kept his head. But as the Terror proceeded, any title to nobility could be a warrant for arrest. In 1794 both Alexandre and Josephine were apprehended, and separately imprisoned; and on July 24 he was guillotined. While awaiting a similar fate Josephine accepted the amorous advances of General Lazare Hoche.32 She was among the many nobles released after the fall of Robespierre.
Made almost destitute by the confiscation of her husband’s wealth, and anxious to provide care and education for her children, Josephine used the lure of her dark-blue eyes and languorous beauty to make a friend of Tallien and a lover of the rising Barras.33Much of Beauharnais’ confiscated wealth was restored to her, including an elegant carriage and a team of black horses;34 presently she was next only to Mme. Tallien as a leader of Directory society. Napoleon described her salon as “the most distinguished in Paris.”35
He attended some of her soirees, and was fascinated by her mature charms, her easy grace, and what her indulgent father called her “exceedingly sweet disposition.”36 She was not impressed by Bonaparte, who appeared to her as a sallow youth with a “lean and hungry look,” and a corresponding income. She sent her son, now fourteen, to solicit his aid in recovering the confiscated sword of her husband. Eugène was so comely and modest that Napoleon at once agreed to attend to the matter. It was done; Josephine called on him to thank him; and invited him to lunch for October 29. He came, and was conquered. As early as December, 1795, she admitted him to her bed,37 but they were reluctant to marry. He reminisced at St. Helena: “Barras did me a service by advising me to marry Josephine. He assured me that she belonged to both the old and the new society, and that this fact would bring me more support; that her house was the best in Paris, and would rid me of my Corsican name; finally that through this marriage I should become quite French.”38 Barras gave her similar advice, for reasons still debated;39 here, he told her, is a man who gives every sign of forging a high place for himself in the world. Napoleon was not deterred by her former amours; “Everything about you pleased me,” he would soon write to her, “even to the memory of the error of your ways … Virtue, for me, consisted of what you made it.”40
They were married on March 9, 1796, by a purely civil ceremony; Tallien and Barras served as witnesses; no relatives were invited. To mitigate the disparity of their ages—he twenty-seven, she thirty-three—Napoleon registered himself as twenty-eight, Josephine wrote her age as twenty-nine.41 They spent their wedding night at her home. He encountered virile opposition from her pet dog, Fortuné. “That gentleman,” he tells us, “was in possession of Madame’s bed…. I wanted to have him leave, but to no avail; I was told to share the bed with him or sleep elsewhere; I had to take it or leave it. The favorite was less accommodating than I was”; at the worst possible moment the dog bit his leg, so severely that he long kept the scar.42
On March 11, torn between his new delight and his ruling passion for power and glory, Napoleon left to lead the Army of Italy, in one of the most brilliant campaigns in history.