Joséphine had to rely on a man she met while in prison, General Hoche, to rebuild her life. All her property had been taken from her. She wrote to her mother in Martinique, currently being blockaded by the British, “You have without a doubt heard about all the awful things that have befallen me. I’ve been widowed for four months! My only consolations are my children and you, dear mother, for my support. My most cherished wish is that we will be reunited one day! My children now only have my support, and I cling to life only to make them happy. PS Greetings to all the slaves on the plantation.” Meanwhile, she begged General Hoche to divorce his wife and marry her.
Her money worries were over when she met Paul François, Vicomte de Barras and she was firmly established as his mistress by the spring of 1795. She was free to lavish all her attention on him as Eugène was on tour with General Hoche and Hortense was staying with her great-aunt. With her lover’s support, she managed to enrol Hortense in an exclusive girls’ school. When Eugène returned home, he too was enrolled in an elite academy. Joséphine moved into a new house, rented with Paul François’ money. Later that summer, he was put in charge of the troops where he was joined by a young Corsican general named Napoleon Bonaparte. That autumn, Joséphine and Napoleon were introduced at a dinner party. For Napoleon, it was love at first. He wrote, “I followed her everywhere; I was passionately in love with her.”
They were lovers by December. After their first night together, he wrote, “I wake up filled with thoughts of you. Your image and the intoxicating pleasures of last night allow my senses no rest. Sweet and thrilling Joséphine, what strange power do you have over my heart?” He wanted to marry her, but Joséphine refused him at first. When General Hoche still made no attempt to divorce his wife, Joséphine made up her mind – she would marry Napoleon. He showed up late for their sober marriage ceremony in the town hall on 9 March 1796. Joséphine’s children were not all taken with their new stepfather though he promised to love them like his own. Shortly after their wedding, Napoleon set off for Italy. During his time away, he wrote several passionate letters to Joséphine. She was soon over his begging and neglected to write him back. Joséphine had found a new lover in the form of 23-year-old soldier Hippolyte Charles. By June the following year, Napoleon was sick of her non-responsiveness, and an alarmed Joséphine headed to him under protest. Hippolyte Charles went along as he was an aide-de-camp to General Leclerc.
She arrived in Milan two weeks later, and he was so delighted to see her that he did not complain. They were together for only four days before Napoleon left her in Milan. Joséphine wrote to her aunt, “My husband doesn’t love me, he worships me. I think he will go mad.” Napoleon returned to France as a hero at the end of the year. Joséphine was unhappy with her husband’s newfound military found and missed Hippolyte Charles. The following year, he set off towards Egypt and Joséphine was alone once more. She was badly injured in a balcony collapse in June 1798 and suffered a suspected broken pelvis and a bruised spine. The doctors subjected her to hot baths, douches, enemas, leeches and compresses of brandy. She recovered slowly despite these “cures.” The following year, she purchased Malmaison, where she hoped to recreate the gardens of Martinique. Hippolyte Charles even had his own bedroom there. Napoleon had found himself the 20-year-old wife of a lieutenant. When he returned to France at the end of the year, the couple tearfully reconciled to the horror of Napoleon’s family, who did not like Joséphine.
Meanwhile, Napoleon’s star was on the rise. On 10 November 1799, he became the First Consul, and Joséphine suddenly found herself the first lady of the land. At the Tuileries Palace, Joséphine took up residence in Marie-Antoinette’s rooms. Joséphine was unhappy there and told Hortense, “I was never made for so much grandeur. I will never be happy here. I can feel the Queen’s ghost asking what I am doing in her bed.” Napoleon demanded that she play the part of the perfect, but her extravagant spending enraged him. Despite this, he said, “I win battles, but Joséphine wins hearts.”
Joséphine had not given Napoleon an heir, but she had an excellent idea that might satisfy him. Her daughter Hortense should marry Napoleon’s younger brother Louis, and their child would share their blood. Napoleon loved the idea, but Hortense was shocked. On 4 January 1802, Hortense married Louis and later that night told her that if she gave birth between now and nine months that he would banish her. He apparently believed that Hortense was pregnant with his brother’s child. Hortense was miserable and wrote, “My stepfather is a comet of which we are but the tail. We must follow him everywhere without knowing where he carries us – for our happiness or for our grief.” Hortense had indeed fallen pregnant quickly and her first son, Napoléon Charles, was born on 10 October 1802, barely nine months after the wedding.
In August 1802, Napoleon was elected Consul for Life, and he was just one step away from becoming Emperor. On 18 May 1804, the Empire of Napoleon was announced with a 21-gun-salute. Joséphine was now suddenly an Empress. At the following coronation, he crowned first himself and then Joséphine. She was now certainly a long way from her father’s plantation.1