Napoleon Bonaparte was a successful general and emperor, but apparently, his romantic relationships were not so glorious.
Napoleon Bonaparte knew what he was talking about when he stated that “battles against women are the only ones that are won by running away.” Love appeared at his door, but not in the successful way it had on the battlefields when Europe surrendered at his feet. In 1795, Josephine de Beauharnais, the apple of his eye, appeared in his life when he was barely a soldier making his way.
With no money and a declining state of mind, Josephine set about looking for a man who could ensure her a future and financial stability, so it was the future emperor who presented himself as the best candidate due to his promising career and multiple contacts in politics.
The historian, journalist, writer, and author of Napoleon and Josephine, Ángeles Caso, assures that before he set his eyes on Josephine, Napoleon was in love with a Spanish woman named Teresa Cabarrús. However, Josephine, did everything to entice Napoleon. Napoleon and Josephine were married in a ceremony attended by great figures of French politics. Soon after, Bonaparte was sent on a mission to Italy, which forced him to separate from his beloved. It is at this moment when an intense exchange of passionate letters began, which have gone down in history and have been the object of study by specialists in the life of the general.
The missives show Napoleon clearly in love with and charmed by the presence of Josephine de Beauharnais. These are fragments of different letters that show this: “Since I have left you, I have always been sad. My happiness consists in living with you. I constantly recall in my memory your kisses, your tears, your kind jealousy.”
The exchange of correspondence during the time of their marriage (1796 to 1809) was quite unequal. Bonaparte wrote an astonishing 265 letters, all in the same mellow and romantic tone of the previous example, while his beloved corresponded with only... five (although other sources put five more). The reason for such a rickety correspondence from her is easy to guess: she was never in love with Napoleon. While Napoleon was far away from home, Josephine was busy squandering the fortune that her husband was beginning to earn with his missions.
The general, and also emperor, did not hesitate to reproach Josephine for this lack of interest: “I had hoped to have received a letter from you, and your silence plunges me into a horrifying uneasiness. I beg you, do not leave me any longer in such uneasiness. [...] You, to whom nature has given gentleness, pleasantness, and all the attractions, how can you forget the one who loves you so ardently? For three days, I am without a letter from you, and yet I have written to you many times. The absence is horrible, the nights are long, tiresome, and insipid.”
Amid Napoleon’s struggles in different parts of Europe, these letters traveled to France with all the illusion of a lover who is unaware of the conspiracy of disinterest that is hatched behind his back. Although the “Little Corsican” felt something that made him suspicious of the wayward life his wife was leading in Paris. A letter dated November 13, 1796, from Milan confirms it: “I no longer love you; on the contrary, I detest you. You are a wretched, clumsy, rude woman. You do not write to me [...], you do not love your husband. What do you do all day, Mademoiselle? What important business takes up your time to write to your good lover? What affection suffocates and makes you forget the love, the tender and constant love that you have promised him? Who can be this prodigious new lover who absorbs all your moments? [...]”
The more time they spent apart (Napoleon was sent to Egypt on a long mission), the more his beloved disregarded him. At this point, Napoleon’s love turned to coldness and indifference towards her due to the disappointment experienced. Josephine saw her status as empress in danger, since the hatred her husband began to profess in letters was combined with the absence of children. Her strategy changed: she was now self-sacrificing and submissive, although the general did not take the bait.
By way of retaliation, Josephine began to spread rumors in the courts that the Emperor was unable to conceive. This was evidently false since Napoleon began to have children with his various mistresses. It is more than likely that Josephine stated these details out of courage and the danger of seeing her marriage threatened, with which all her privileges would be damaged.
This “love” story culminated on the night of December 14, 1809. Napoleon would recall this failure as follows: “I really loved Josephine,” says the old lion to Les Cases, “although I did not esteem her. She was too much of a liar. But she had something I liked very much; she was a real woman.” The quote is taken from the aforementioned book Napoleon and Josephine.
The Corsican-born Napoleon was one of the greatest generals (not in stature as legend has it) in history, who, to his misfortune, was unable to earn the love of the woman of his dreams. Napoleon was undoubtedly an undisputed victor on the battlefield, but he lost the most tragic battle of all: that of love.
Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva