Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Original French Romance: Napoleon and Josephine

My title is not quite accurate because really the original French Romance could be said to have been between the medieval Heloise and Abelard, which hopefully I will get around to writing about in the future.
The present first couple of France Nick Sarkozy and Carla B. seem to have inflated egos too along with all their other unappealing qualities, so I would not be surprised if they start advertising themselves as the new Napoleon and Josephine. Well, these two do not have an ounce of class compared to Napoleon I and his first empress.

Napoleon and Josephine are my favorite of all the Romantic couples of history. Their's was a passionate, but extremely rocky Romance. In the beginning Josephine was the one who supposedly cheated. Disillusioned and angered by her unfaithfulness, Napoleon took on a string of lovers, but his attachment to them was never as passionate or enduring as his feelings for Josephine. In the 1987 Emmy nominated mini-series, Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story, Napoleon played by Armand Assante tells Josephine played by Jacqueline Bisset, "You are my obsession; my addiction." To me, Assante and Bisset will always be Napoleon and Josephine. They brought the two historical lovers completely to life.
Both Napoleon and Josephine were born on islands. Napoleon was born on the island of Corsica in 1769. His family was of the minor Italian nobility. Josephine was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique in 1763. Her family was also well to do, but had fallen on hard times after a hurricane wiped out their sugar plantation. Napoleon's family had also fallen on difficult times when his father, and attorney, died. However he was rescued some from hardship at home when he was sent as a child to study at a military academy in France. Napoleon's first language was Italian. He was never able to relinquish his Italian accent even though he ruled the French people, and actually became more French than the French. Josephine was rescued from her family's circumstances by marriage to a cousin, Alexandre de Beauharnais, who was a part of the French nobility. Josephine had two children, but had to endure the unhappiness of having a husband who was a habitual womanizer. Once the French Revolution brewed, she, her husband, and their children were imprisoned. Her husband was condemned to death and was executed on the guillotine. Josephine and her children just narrowly escaped the knife.
After the Revolution and she was freed, Josephine become a celebrated socialite and the reputed mistress of several men in the French government. While being kept by the top man in the government at the time, Paul Barras, Josephine met Napoleon. For the younger, extremely serious and ambitious Napoleon, it was love at first sight. He was already a general in his 20s when he met the older more sophisticated Josephine. For Josephine, it was just another seduction. She had been hurt so much in her marriage and had gone through so much doing the Revolution, that she had developed a carefree cynicism about life and men. But undeterred by her slight indifference, Napoleon wrote to her not long afterwards:

"I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night’s intoxicating pleasures has left no rest to my senses."

The painfully passionate love letters would keep pouring in. In this, Paul Barras saw his chance. He really wanted Josephine off his hands because she was proving too expensive to keep, so he encouraged the affair between Napoleon and Josephine, keeping his fingers crossed that the end result would be marriage. They did marry, and the rest is history.

Napoleon eventually divorced Josephine, not because of the turbulence in their relationship, but because she could not produce the heir he needed to carry on the Napoleonic line. Napoleon had wrestled with the issue of Josephine's or his possible infertility for years. He had even designated Josephine's daughter Hortense's son as his heir. Hortense was married to Napoleon's younger brother Louis. Steadfast in his hope for an heir, Napoleon coaxed Josephine into seeing his logic, and so she agreed to a divorce.

When Napoleon divorced Josephine, it seemed that his star began to wan. Before he had been unstoppable in his conquests and moves to unite Europe. After the divorce came the disasterous Russian campaign, which destroyed his Grand Army. Of the 690,000 men who marched in this army only 93,000 survived the retreat from the Russian steppes.

Josephine did not live to see Napoleon go into his final defeat and second exile. She caught a chill and died in 1814 at age 50. Napoleon died in exile on the island of St. Helena off the coast of Africa in 1821 of stomach cancer. There have been occasional disputes that he was not ill with the disease but was actually poisoned. On his deathbed Napoleon's final words were:
"France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Josephine."

In 2003 another mini-series was shown in the US. It was called Napoleon and starred Isabella Rossellini as Josephine and the French actor Christian Clavier as Napoleon. These two were not as softly cute and youthful as Assante and Bisset had been in the 1987 mini-series; plus I did not get to watch this version of the lives of my favorite Romantic couple. I still have the series with Assante and Bisset on a cassette which I recorded from the original program. I plan to eventually buy or rent the Napoleon DVD. I hope also that Amazon will eventually offer the 1987 series before my cassette disintegrates.
This video with scenes from Napoleon is wonderful to watch if you are a fan of N & J and a Romantic. The song Anytime, Anywhere is sung by Sarah Brightman.

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