The impression of Napoleon Bonaparte to many, both today and in the past, is one of imperturbable confidence and resolve. His First French Empire lasted from 1804 to 1815, conquered most of Europe and governed over 44 million people at its peak in 1812. It is difficult to imagine, therefore, the sweet, romantic and desperate undertones of the exemplary military and political tactician who would be sworn in as the first Emperor of France. The discovery of numerous notes, memorandums and love letters has revealed the vulnerable and very human nature behind the notorious tyrant.
Napoleon, it seems, was incredibly infatuated with Joséphine de Beauharnais. Days after their marriage, Napoleon was compelled to journey to Italy with his armies, leaving his wife behind. During the ensuing months, Napoleon wrote frequently and impassionedly:
I have your letters of the 16th and 21st. There are many days when you don’t write. What do you do, then? No, my darling, I am not jealous, but sometimes worried. Come soon; I warn you, if you delay, you will find me ill. Fatigue and your absence are too much.
Your letters are the joy of my days, and my days of happiness are not many. Junot is bringing twenty-two flags to Paris.
You must come back with him, you understand? — hopeless sorrow, inconsolable misery, sadness without end, if I am so unhappy as to see him return alone. Adorable friend, he will see you, he will breathe in your temple; perhaps you will even grant him the unique and perfect favor [sic] of kissing your cheek, and I shall be alone and far, far away. But you are coming, aren’t you? You are going to be here beside me, in my arms, on my breast, on my mouth? Take wing and come, come!
A kiss on your heart, and one much lower down, much lower!
These letters betray the true feelings of the illustrious demagogue. He demonstrates his ultimate vulnerability, his insecurities and his lust. He appears smitten, irrational and dejected that she has not contacted him so often. His desire for her journeying to Milan is beseeched in obsessive language. Lest we forget that Napoleon was but a man also, we find that even the master of Europe can miss the intimate comfort of his partner. The last line making it perfectly clear, that he desires an immediate physical reunion – a sex text as it were.
The following letters were written on the same day, offering an exciting insight into the mind of the compulsive and apparently jilted lover. Writing one letter and then another in quick succession:
Marmirolo, July 17, 1796
I have received your letter, my adorable friend. It has filled my heart with joy. I am grateful to you for the trouble you have taken to send me the news. I hope that you are better today. I am sure that you have recovered. I earnestly desire that you should ride on horseback: it cannot fail to benefit you.
Since I left you, I have been constantly depressed. My happiness is to be near you. Incessantly I live over in my memory your caresses, your tears, your affectionate solicitude. The charms of the incomparable Josephine kindle continually a burning and a glowing flame in my heart. When, free from all solicitude, all harassing care, shall I be able to pass all my time with you, having only to love you, and to think only of the happiness of so saying, and of proving it to you? I will send you your horse, but I hope you will soon join me. I thought that I loved you months ago, but since my separation from you I feel that I love you a thousand fold more. Each day since I knew you, have I adored you yet more and more. This proved the maxim of Bruyere, that "love comes all of a sudden," to be false. Everything in nature has its own course, and different degrees of growth.
Ah! I entreat you to permit me to see some of your faults. Be less beautiful, less gracious, less affectionate, less good, especially be not over-anxious, and never weep. Your tears rob me of reason, and inflame my blood. Believe me it is not in my power to have a single thought which is not of thee, or a wish I could not reveal to thee.
Seek repose. Quickly re-establish your health. Come and join me, that at least, before death, we may be able to say, "We were many days happy." A thousand kisses, and one even to Fortuna, notwithstanding his spitefulness.
Verona, July 17, 1796
I write you, me beloved one, very often, and you write very little. You are wicked and naughty, very naughty, as much as you are fickle. It is unfaithful so to deceive a poor husband, a tender lover! Ought he to lose all his enjoyments because he is so far away, borne down with toil, fatigue, and hardship? Without his Josephine, without the assurance of her love, what is left him upon earth? What can he do?
We had yesterday a very bloody affair; the enemy has lost many men, and has been completely beaten. We have taken the whole country around Mantua.
Adieu, adorable Josephine; one of these nights your door will open with a great noise; as a jealous person, and you will find me on your arms.
A thousand loving kisses.
The second letter certainly appears to be written with much haste, inspired through impatience, frustration and jealousy. He is clearly distraught and unsettled about her apparent lack of communication, his suspicions of her at an all time high.
Months later, the fanatical tactician continued to correspond, albeit with increasing resentment and heightened jealousy and paranoia. As the First Italian Campaign began to make progress, Napoleon received rumours concerning Joséphine and her adulterous ways. Denying them utterly, he responded in his own, predictably impassioned way:
November 21, 1796
I am going to bed with my heart full of your adorable image… I cannot wait to give you proofs of my ardent love… How happy I would be if I could assist you at your undressing, the little firm white breast, the adorable face, the hair tied up in a scarf a la creole. You know that I will never forget the little visits, you know, the little black forest… I kiss it a thousand times and wait impatiently for the moment I will be in it. To live within Josephine is to live in the Elysian fields.
Kisses on your mouth, your eyes, your breast, everywhere, everywhere.
However, on his return to Milan six days later, Napoleon visited her apartment only to find it unoccupied. Joséphine had left for Genoa, apparently with army officer Hippolyte Charles, her suspected lover. After nine days of waiting for her return, he wrote the following spiteful and condemning passage:
I don’t love you anymore; on the contrary, I detest you. You are a vile, mean, beastly slut. You don’t write to me at all; you don’t love your husband; you know how happy your letters make him, and you don’t write him six lines of nonsense…
Soon, I hope, I will be holding you in my arms; then I will cover you with a million hot kisses, burning like the equator.
Following his confrontment with Joséphine, and her repeated cries of denial, Napoleon became dissatisfied and disconsolate. He took a lover for his own also, Pauline Bellisle Foures, the wife of a junior officer, known by many as “Napoleon’s Cleopatra.” Whilst on campaign in Egypt, he contacted his brother Joseph to arrange the divorce proceedings:
The veil is torn…It is sad when one and the same heart is torn by such conflicting feelings for one person… I need to be alone. I am tired of grandeur; all my feelings have dried up. I no longer care about my glory. At twenty-nine I have exhausted everything.
The letter was intercepted, however, by the British. Once published in the London papers, all of France was aware of the scandal that had ensued. Fearing her fall from grace and her loss of position, Joséphine rallied to Napoleon and begged him to reconsider. Despite the two becoming reacquainted once more, Napoleon continued to engage in adulterous dealings with other women. Indeed, by February 1800, the First Consul had made his feelings and his lustful nature perfectly clear:
I am not a man like others and moral laws or the laws that govern conventional behaviour do not apply to me. My mistresses do not in the least engage my feelings. Power is my mistress.
These letters have given historians, and the public alike, a thoroughly engaging account of Napoleon and his personal dealings outside of the war room and away from the battle field. His misgivings, anxieties and passion have given us an account of the infamous Napoleon Bonaparte quite outside of traditional histories. To see him as but a man, a loving, jealous and sexually viral man, provides quite a refreshing interpretation of the military leader that inspired so much fear in mainland Europe in the late 18th and early 19th century. His vulnerability, perhaps, is the most perturbing. It is difficult to comprehend, therefore, that he could lead thousands into war, conquer most of Europe, assume the head of an Empire and yet still be unsettled by his feelings towards one particular person:
“At twenty-nine I have exhausted everything.”
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