Following up on my post about Malmaison of last week (click here), here is more about Josephine and her gardens.
The Path to Malmaison, near Paris
Josephine Bonaparte was famous for her roses, a reputation she carefully cultivated along with her precious blooms. It is widely reported that, even at the height of hostilities, shipments of English roses to the French Empress had special dispensation to pass through both British and French blockades to reach her.
It is also said that Napoleon sometimes had French ships stop and search commercial vessels to find plants for his wife. Although I am certainly not a fan of Napoleon’s military career, and I have only a grudging admiration for his administrative achievements (the Civil Code, metric system, etc.), I am endlessly fascinated by the life of Josephine.
Born Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie in 1763 on the Caribbean Island of Martinique, she went to Paris in 1779 at age 16 for an arranged marriage to Viscount Alexandre de Beauharnais. Though they had two children, Eugene (1781-1824) and Hortense (1783-1837), it was not a happy marriage. During the Reign of Terror, Alexandre was guillotined in 1794 but, though imprisoned, Josephine was released.
Josephine is reputed to have had an active social and love life in Paris after the Reign of Terror. Napoleon, several years younger than Josephine, fell in love with her and they married in 1796. In 1806 her husband crowned her as Empress and himself as Emperor of the French.
Although she was already a mother twice over, Josephine failed to provide an heir for the Emperor. The marriage to Napoleon was annulled and Josephine, reluctantly agreeing to the inevitable, came to live at Malmaison for the rest of her life. She died in 1814, after a stroll in these gardens with the Tsar of Russia.
Napoleon, though he had been as unfaithful to her as she had been to him, loved her until he died. After Josephine’s death and after he was defeated the second time and was about to be sent to the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, Napoleon returned to Malmaison for a bittersweet parting from his late former wife. It is reported that her name was on his dying lips.
my photo of Josephine statue in Martinique, c.1991
In a bizarre footnote to Josephine’s story, her statue in Fort-de-France, capital of her birthplace, Martinique, was beheaded in the early 1990’s. The act apparently was to revenge the reports that she had once encouraged Napoleon to restore slavery to the island after it had been revoked for many years. Red paint was splashed on her severed neck and on her gown. As far as I know, the statue stands beheaded today.
So we don’t leave Josephine so forlornly, I will add that the Malmaison garden was also full of late-August dahlias. Whether or not she had these blooms in her time, the gardeners of today have given some of them pride of place, perhaps in case the roses are dwindling by the end of summer.