He left Vienna on October 15, 1809, and reached Fontainebleau on the 26th. He explained to intimate relatives and councilors his decision to seek a divorce. They were almost unanimous in approving, but not till November 30 did he summon up the courage to reveal his intention to Josephine. Despite his extramarital diversions, which seemed to him the legitimate privilege of a traveling warrior, he still loved her, and the break was to cause him months of emotional misery.
He knew her faults—her lazy, languid ways, her leisurely toilette, her extravagance in dress and jewelry, her inability to say no to milliners coming to display their wares. “She purchased all that was brought to her, at no matter what price.”45 Her debts repeatedly reached levels that brought storms from her husband; he drove the saleswomen from her rooms, scolded her, and paid the debts. He allowed her 600,000 francs per year for her personal expenses, and 120,000 more for her charities, for he knew that she was a compulsive giver.46 He indulged her love for diamonds, perhaps because they made her fascinating despite her forty-two years. She was all feeling and no intellect, except the wisdom that nature gives to women for handling men. “Josephine,” he told her, “you have an excellent heart and a weak head.”47 He seldom let her talk politics, and when she persisted he soon forgot her views. But he was grateful for the sensuous warmth of her embraces, for the “unfailing sweetness of her disposition,”48 and for the modesty and grace with which she fulfilled her many functions as an empress. She loved him beyond idolatry, and he loved her this side of power. When Mme. de Staël accused him of not liking women, he replied, simply, “I like my wife.”49 Antoine Arnault marveled at “the empire exercised by the gentlest and most indolent of Creoles over the most willful and despotic of men. His determination, before which all men quailed, could not resist the tears of a woman.”50 As Napoleon put it at St. Helena, “I generally had to give in.”51
She had long known his yearning for an heir of his blood as the legitimate and accepted inheritor of his rule; she knew his fear that without such a traditional transmission of power his capture, death, or serious illness would lead to a mad scramble of factions and generals for supremacy, and that in the resultant chaos the orderly, prosperous, and powerful France which he was building could disintegrate into another such terror—red or white—as that from which he had rescued it in 1799.
When, finally, he told her that they must part, she fainted, sincerely enough to be unconscious for many minutes. Napoleon carried her to her rooms, summoned his doctor, Jean-Nicolas Corvisart des Marets, and asked for Hortense’s help in appeasing her mother. For a week Josephine refused consent; then, on December 7, Eugène arrived from Italy, and persuaded her. Napoleon comforted her with every tenderness. “I shall always love you,” he told her, “but politics has no heart; it has only a head.”52 She was to have full title to the château and grounds of Malmaison, the title of empress, and a substantial annuity. He assured her children that he would be, to the end, their loving father.
On December 16 the Senate, after hearing the requests of both the Emperor and the Empress for the dissolution of their marriage, issued a decree of divorce, and on January 12 the Metropolitan Archbishop of Paris pronounced their marriage annulled. Many Catholics questioned the canonical validity of the annulment; in most of France the population disapproved of the separation; and many prophesied that from this time the good fortune that had so regularly followed Napoleon would seek other favorites.53
Politics having prevailed over love, Napoleon proceeded to seek a mate who not only would give promise of motherhood, but would bring with her some imperial connections helpful to the security of France and his rule. On November 22 (eight days before asking Josephine for a divorce) Napoleon instructed Caulaincourt, his ambassador in St. Petersburg, to present an official request to Alexander for the hand of his sixteen-year-old sister, Anna Pavlova. The Czar knew that his mother, who called Napoleon “that atheist,” would never approve such a union, but he delayed replying, hoping to secure from Napoleon, as a quid pro quo, some territorial concessions in Poland. Impatient with the negotiations, and fearing a refusal, Napoleon acted on Metternich’s hint that Austria would receive favorably a proposal for the Archduchess Marie Louise. Cambacérès opposed the plan, predicting that it would end the Russian alliance and lead to war.54
Marie Louise, then eighteen years old, was not beautiful, but her blue eyes, pink cheeks, and chestnut hair, her mild temper and simple tastes, were well adjusted to Napoleon’s needs; all the evidence vouched for her present virginity and future fertility. She had considerable education, knew several languages, was skilled in music, drawing, and painting. From her childhood she had been taught to hate her suitor as the most wicked man in Europe, but also she had learned that a princess was a political commodity, whose tastes in men must be subordinated to the good of the state. After all, this famous infamous monster must be an exciting change from the dull routine of a guarded girl longing for a wider world.
So, on March 11, 1810, at Vienna, she was formally married to the absent Napoleon, who was represented by Marshal Berthier. Repeating Marie Antoinette’s bridal procession of 1770, she moved with eighty-three coaches and carriages through fifteen days and ceremonial nights to reach Compiègne on March 27. Napoleon had arranged to meet her there, but—curious or courteous—he drove out to welcome her at nearby Courcelles. On seeing her—but let him tell the story:
I got out of the carriage quickly and kissed Marie Louise. The poor child had learned by heart a long speech, which she was to repeat to me kneeling. … I had asked Metternich and the Bishop of Nantes whether I could spend the night under the same roof with Marie Louise. They removed all my doubts, and assured me that she was now Empress and not Archduchess. … I was only separated from her bedroom by the library. I asked her what they had told her when she left Vienna. She answered me very naively that her father and Frau Lazansky had directed her as follows: “As soon as you are alone with the Emperor you must do absolutely everything that he tells you. You must agree to everything that he asks of you.” She was a delightful child.
Monsieur Ségur wanted me to keep away from her for form’s sake, but as I was already surely married, everything was all right, and I told him to go to the devil.55
The pair were united by a civil marriage at St.-Cloud on April 1, and, on the next day, by a religious marriage in the great hall of the Louvre. Nearly all the cardinals refused to attend this service, on the ground that the Pope had not annulled the marriage to Josephine; Napoleon exiled them to the provinces. Otherwise he was exuberantly happy. He found his bride sensually and socially pleasing—modest, obedient, generous and kind; she never learned to love him, but she was a cheerful companion. As empress she never achieved the popularity of Josephine, but she was accepted as symbolizing the triumph of France over the hostile royalties of Europe.
Napoleon did not forget Josephine. He visited her so often at Malmaison that Marie began to pout, whereupon he desisted; but then he sent Josephine comforting letters, nearly all addressed to “My love.”56 To one of these she replied from Navarre in Normandy on April 21, 1810:
A thousand, thousand thanks for not having forgotten me. My son has just brought me your letter. With what ardor have I read it! … There is not a word in it which has not made me weep; but those tears were very sweet. …
I wrote to you on leaving Malmaison, and how many times thereafter did I wish to write! But I felt the reasons for your silence, and I feared to be importunate. …
Be happy, be happy as you deserve; it is my whole heart that speaks. You have given me too my share of happiness, and a share very keenly felt. … Adieu, my friend. I thank you as tenderly as I shall love you always.57
She consoled herself with finery and hospitality. He allowed her three million francs a year; she spent four million; after her death in 1814 some bills for her unpaid purchases pursued him to Elba.58 At Malmaison she collected a gallery of art, and entertained without counting costs. Invitations to her receptions were valued next to Napoleon’s. Mme. Tallien—now the fat and forty Princesse de Chimay—came, and together they recalled the days when they were queens of the Directory. Countess Walewska came; she was well received, and joined with Josephine in mourning their lost lover.
He was granted two years of happiness and relative peace. The Treaty of Schönbrunn had enlarged his realm, enriched his Treasury, and stimulated his appetite. He had annexed the Papal States (May 17, 1809), and had restored Joseph to his royal seat in Madrid. In January, 1810, Sweden, long an enemy, signed peace with France, and joined the Continental Blockade; in June, with Napoleon’s solicited consent, she accepted Bernadotte as heir apparent to the Swedish throne. In December Napoleon absorbed Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, Berg, and Oldenburg into the French Empire. His anxiety to close all Continental ports to British trade made him, in the eyes of his foes, an insatiable conqueror accumulating debts to the jealous gods.
Domestically, matters were quiet and comforting; France was prosperous and proud; the only ripple on the stream was the final dismissal of Fouché for exceeding his powers. Savary succeeded him as minister of police, while Fouché retired to Aix-en-Provence to plan revenge. External affairs were not so smooth. Holland was cursing the embargo on British goods; Italy, proud of the Papacy, was losing patience with Napoleon; Wellington was building an army in Portugal for an invasion of Spain; and beyond the Rhine the German states under Bonapartist rule were complaining of impositions, and were only waiting for some imperial blunder to let them return to more congenial masters.
Nevertheless Marie Louise was with child, and the happy Emperor counted the days to her fulfillment. When the great event approached, he surrounded it with all the ceremony and solemnity that had traditionally greeted a Bourbon birth. Announcement was made that if the child was a daughter Paris would hear a salvo of twenty-one guns; if it was a son the salvos would continue to 101. The delivery was extremely painful; the fetus proposed to come into the world feet first. Dr. Corvisart told Napoleon that either the mother or the child might have to be sacrificed; he was told to save the mother at any cost.59 Another physician used instruments to invert the fetus; Marie for some minutes was near death. Finally the child agreed to emerge head first; both mother and child survived (March 20, 1811). The 101 cannon shots sent their message over Paris, echoing through France; and there were not many persons in Europe who could begrudge the Emperor his happiness. All the rulers of Continental Europe sent their congratulations to the fond father and to the already proclaimed “King of Rome.”60 Now, for the first time in his career, Napoleon could feel tolerably secure; he had founded a dynasty that, in his hopes, would be as splendid and beneficent as any in history, and might even make Europe one.