Joséphine de Beauharnais was born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie on 23 June 1763 as the daughter of Joseph de Tascher de la Pagerie and Rose-Claire des Vergers de Sannois in Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique. Her mother wrote, “It has pleased God to give us a daughter. My own joy has been no less great. Why should we not take a more favourable view of our own sex?” To her family, she was known as Yeyette. Her parents owned the Habitation de La Pagerie plantation with its 1230 acres of fertile land and over 300 slaves. Joséphine was soon joined by two sisters – Catherine in 1764 and Marie-Françoise in 1766. Her mother was heavily pregnant with Marie-Françoise when their estate was destroyed by storms. The family lost their home, their slaves and their crops.
Joséphine’s family was in a dire situation, and she could not be sent to France to continue her education as was usual. When she was ten years old, her mother sent her to boarding school in Fort Royal, and she was accompanied by her nurse Marion. However, she left four years later, not having learned much but having found a dream – to go to France. Joséphine’s paternal aunt Desirée had been the mistress of François, Marquis de Beauharnais, a French aristocrat and Desirée saw her niece as the perfect bride for his son Alexandre. However, the Marquis preferred Catherine who was a little bit younger, but tragically Catherine would die of yellow fever in 1777. The family offered him Marie-Françoise who was only 11 years old. Marie-Françoise became hysterical at the thought, and so it was eventually settled that Joséphine would travel to France with her father. They embarked for France in September 1779, but her future groom already disliked her. As she sailed towards her new life, 17-year-old Alexandre impregnated his 29-year-old mistress.
Alexandre was disappointed upon meeting the unsophisticated young Joséphine, but Joséphine was in love. In November, Joséphine finally arrived in the city of her dreams – Paris. They were married on 13 December 1779, and later that night Alexandre forced himself to consummate the marriage. Joséphine soon became lonely, knowing almost no one in Paris. Encouraged by her husband, she picked up her education and even hired a dancing master to teach her poise and grace. In the spring, her husband’s mistress gave birth to a son, but Joséphine was also soon pregnant. On 3 September 1781, she gave birth to a son named Eugène. Alexandre was thrilled but soon left Joséphine alone again. He did not return to her until the summer of 1782, and soon Joséphine was pregnant again. Joséphine did not appreciate Alexandre’s continuing affairs, and she stopped writing to him when he was away. On 10 April 1783, Joséphine gave birth to a daughter named Hortense. Alexandre was convinced by his mistress that Hortense was not his child because she had arrived a little early. He went on a rampage looking for evidence and had his mistress deliver a letter of accusations to her. Joséphine was in shock.
After four years of marriage, Joséphine took Eugène and took up residence in a convent. Hortense was too young to be separated from her wetnurse. As negotiations for a separation were underway, Joséphine found herself at the convent. She learned how to make the best of herself from the other aristocratic ladies at the convent. In early 1785, Alexandre seized Eugène from her, and when the terms of separation were finally agreed upon, Hortense was to stay with her mother while Eugène would stay with his father. Joséphine was vindicated, but without an official divorce, she could not marry again. Even her father-in-law believed her to be innocent and she went to live with him and her aunt at Fontainebleau. Joséphine now wanted to find a way to the French court.
Soon the King made his way to Fontainebleau to hunt, and Joséphine befriended the chief clerk of the hunt who allowed her to watch it. She was soon invited to balls and parties thrown by members of the court and began to depend on wealthy older gentlemen for money. In 1788, Joséphine decided to travel to Martinique, and she would stay there until a slave rebellion two years later. She found France much changed as well and it had slowly descended into revolution. The King and Queen were imprisoned, and Alexandre left Paris to serve in the army. The following terror left no one safe. The Prince of Salm, a friend of Joséphine, offered to take Eugène and Hortense to the country and then out of France. Alexandre was furious, and he sent Eugène to boarding school and Hortense back to her mother. On 21 January 1793, the King was guillotined. The Queen followed him in October. By March 1794, Alexandre too had been arrested, and despite their separation, Joséphine wrote to various people to secure his release. But then her own home was searched, and she was arrested and taken to Les Carmes prison.
In prison, she saw her husband who was devastated to see her there. Joséphine prepared for the guillotine by cutting her hair short. On 21 July 1794, Alexandre was called for his trial, and he wrote Joséphine a goodbye letter.
I have no hope of seeing you again, my friend, nor of embracing my dear children. I shall not tell you of my regrets: my tender affection for them and the brotherly attachment that binds me to you can leave you in no doubt as to the feelings with which I take leave of life… Farewell, my friend, comfort yourself with my children, console them by enlightening them, above all teaching them that it is on account of virtue and civic duty that they must efface the memory of my execution and recall my services to the nation and my claims to its gratitude. Farewell, you know those whom I love, be their comforter and by your care make me live longer in their breasts. Farewell, for the last time in my life, I press you and my dear children to my breast.
Three days later, he was taken to the guillotine, along with the Prince of Salm. Joséphine collapsed when she heard the news and was now certain that she would be next. She wrote, “My children, your father died on the scaffold, and your mother will die there too.” Then, the terror was suddenly over. A few days later, Joséphine was told she was to walk free. On 6 August 1794, Joséphine emerged from Les Carmes.1