Opening Passage: The book actually opens with several letters from Napoleon to Josephine, after which it says:
These are the first of the Letters to Josephine, the Honeymoon Letters, the Letters of Delirium, the Letters from Italy, as they have variously been titled--the immortal love letters of the Italian campaign, that first crucial military exploit of the Napoleonic epic.
The letters, like the man himself, are extraordinary, startling, sometimes shocking; alternately savage and tender, suppliant and imperative, rapturous and tormented, philosophical and erotic; they are letters to transfix the heart. (p. 18)
Summary: They were both in a sense from the margins of French society. Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, better known as Josephine, was a Creole from Martinique; Napoleone di Buonaparte was from a minor noble family in Corsica, which had not too long before become a province of France. Rough provincials, both; and yet they proved to be a powerful combination. We tend to think of Napoleon as standing alone, but that is mostly Napoleon on the battlefield; Napoleon had a knack for mastery, but Josephine, a wisp of a woman who was occasionally disparaged behind her back as ignorant and stupid, was able, with her simple and engaging manner, to make social connections that mattered. And she was as good at her task as Napoleon was at his; it was her only instrument of survival before she met him. In a very real sense, it was their marriage that conquered Europe.
Napoleon was Josephine's second husband; her first husband, Alexandre de Beauharnais, was guillotined in the Terror; she survived thereafter by attaching herself to powerful men. She became first the mistress, then the wife, of the rising military force that was Napoleon; it is because of him that she is known as Josephine at all. Napoleon was extraordinarily taken with her, and he married her despite the fact that the rest of his family had nothing but contempt for this older widow who already had two children. She also didn't have a particularly good reputation and, in fact, when he was away on the Italian campaign writing her passionate love letters, she was having an affair with Hippolyte Charles, a cavalry officer. As Napoleon began to learn what was going on, it brought his tumultuous passion to an end. But not their marriage, nor, for that matter, the affection between them. Napoleon, after all, was no saint, and would have mistresses throughout the marriage. And Josephine, with her softly feminine ways and ready tears, had entirely entangled this younger man who could destroy an army without hesitation but who would become agitated and miserable if he made a woman cry.
In 1804, eight years after their marriage, Napoleon became Emperor; much of this, obviously was Napoleon's own success and charm, but much of it, too, was Josephine's doing, because it was in great measure she who kept him in the center of society. The Creole from Martinique, who had not been born to high society Paris but had had to learn it, bit by bit, and took none of it for granted and every detail as essential, was the most impeccably elegant of wives, throwing the best parties, finding the most connected people, charming her way here and there and being an intermediary channel to Napoleon. It also got her into plenty of trouble; for instance, she was never not in massive debt, even when the Empress of one of the wealthiest nations on earth. But while Napoleon may have always grumbled at how much he kept having to pay out, it was in a sense all turned to good use, because she gave to Napoleonic rule a genial diplomatic aspect that captured hearts as well as territory.
Napoleon, however, had ambitions that were more than merely imperial, and you cannot found a dynasty if you do not beget children. Try as they might, it kept not happening, and as time went on Josephine's place at Napoleon's side became more and more precarious -- and she became more and more desperate to keep him, in a complete reversal of their courting days when he had been all tumultuous earnestness and she had been affectionate but cool. The divorce was probably inevitable, but Napoleon acted very much like a man who feels guilty at what he is doing, delaying and dithering. It was not personal; it was only Empire. He did eventually go through with it in 1810, both of them attempting to make it as amicable as possible, and married Marie-Louise of Austria -- younger and more promising as a source of sons. He seems to have eventually come to have a sort of affectionate respect for Marie-Louise, but there is a real sense in which an heir is all that Marie-Louise contributed to Napoleon's rule. She did not have the charm, did not have the simple, engaging personability, was not at all sociable, and she was always being compared unfavorably with the one she replaced. Her reputation was more virtuous than Josephine's (although sometimes only her reputation), but to rule France doesn't require virtue; it requires charm. And it is probably not an accident that Napoleon's rule began to crumble after his divorce of Josephine; the invasion of Russia was the critical disaster, but it was the disaster it was because Napoleon had already begun losing his grip on things at home.
To the end of their days, however, they both affirmed their affection and devotion for each other, and, always cognizant of each other's faults, seem genuinely never to have lost their admiration for each other's strengths. It shows something of how strange a marriage can be, that it was probably doomed to fail, and yet still was powerful in its own right, with a force long postdating its end.
It was to General Bertrand, on March 14, 1821, less than two months before Napoleon's death, that he had his final say on Josephine: "I truly loved her, although I didn't respect her. She was a liar and an utter spendthrift, but she had a certain something that was irresistible. She was a woman to her very finger tips." (p. 404)
Mossiker's 'biography of a marriage' is very engagingly written, letting each of the major players speak for themselves while nonetheless providing the context required for fully understanding the implications of what they were saying. And she does very well at preventing the work from collapsing into a biography of Josephine or a biography of Napoleon; the marriage itself is at every point the center of the book, a single thing that in some ways worked on its own and in ways that neither of the spouses involved ever could have anticipated, and accomplished things that neither of the spouses could have ever accomplished alone.
It is a tribute to the generally superficial conventions of that ancien-régime society that Mrs. Elliott should have found "consolation for the horrors of the Carmes" at finding herself in "the good company of so many delightful, so many great ladies" there. The fact that equanimity and good humor were prime requisites of social intercourse among the French aristocracy accounted to a great extent for the display of high morale and valor in the Revolutionary prisons, a marvel to every contemporary reporter. It is less likely that these effete and pampered noblemen and noblewomen were uniformly valorous than that they were uniformly products of their social code: they demonstrated, in the last extremity, that good manners could reinforce--if not substitute for--character, and that a carefully cultivated insouciance could make an acceptable substitute for heroism. (p. 62)
Recommendation: Recommended; it's very much worth reading if it comes your way.
Frances Mossiker, Napoleon and Josephine: The Biography of a Marriage, Simon and Schuster (New York: 1964).