A prosperous fool is a grievous burden. — Aeschylus

Josephine - John S. C. Abbott




The Marriage of Josephine


1775-1785


Josephine was about fourteen years of age when she was separated from William. A year passed away, during which she received not a line from her absent friend. About this time a gentleman from France visited her uncle upon business of great importance. Viscount Alexander de Beauharnais was a fashionable and gallant young man, about thirty years of age, possessing much conversational ease and grace of manner, and accustomed to the most polished society of the French metropolis. He held a commission in the army, and had already signalized himself by several acts of bravery. His sympathies had been strongly aroused by the struggle of the American colonists with the mother country, and he had already aided the colonists both with his sword and his purse.

Several large and valuable estates in Martinique, adjoining the plantation of M. Renaudin, had fallen by inheritance to this young officer and his brother, the Marquis of Beauharnais. He visited Martinique to secure the proof of his title to these estates. M. Renaudin held some of these plantations on lease. In the transaction of this business, Beauharnais spent much time at the mansion of M. Renaudin. He, of course, saw much of the beautiful Josephine, and was fascinated with her grace, and her mental and physical loveliness.

The uncle and aunt of Josephine were delighted to perceive the interest which their niece had awakened in the bosom of the interesting stranger. His graceful figure, his accomplished person, his military celebrity, his social rank, and his large fortune, all conspired to dazzle their eyes, and to lead them to do every thing in their power to promote a match apparently so eligible. The ambition of M. Renaudin was moved at the thought of conferring upon his niece, the prospective heiress of his own fortune, an estate so magnificent as the united inheritance. Josephine, however, had not yet forgotten William, and, though interested in her uncle's guest, for some time allowed no emotion of love to flow out toward him.

One morning Josephine was sitting in the library in pensive musings, when her uncle came into the room to open to her the subject of her contemplated marriage with M. Beauharnais. Josephine was thunderstruck at the communication, for, according to the invariable custom of the times, she knew that she could have but little voice in the choice of a partner for life. For a short time she listened in silence to his proposals, and then said, with tears in her eyes,

"Dear uncle, I implore you to remember that my affections are fixed upon William. I have been solemnly promised to him."

"That is utterly impossible, my child," her uncle replied. "Circumstances are changed. All our hopes are centered in you. You must obey our wishes."

"And why," said she, "have you changed your intentions in reference to William?"

Her uncle replied: "You will receive by inheritance all my estate. M. Beauharnais possesses the rich estates adjoining. Your union unites the property. M. Beauharnais is every thing which can be desired in a husband. Besides, William appears to have forgotten you."

To this last remark Josephine could make no reply. She looked sadly upon the floor and was silent. It is said that her uncle had then in his possession several letters which William had written her, replete with the most earnest spirit of constancy and affection.

Josephine, but fifteen years of age, could not, under these circumstances, resist the influences now brought to bear upon her. M. Beauharnais was a gentleman of fascinating accomplishments. The reluctance of Josephine to become his bride but stimulated his zeal to obtain her. In the seclusion of the plantation, and far removed from other society, she was necessarily with him nearly at all hours. They read together, rode on horseback side by side, rambled in the groves in pleasant companionship. They floated by moonlight upon the water, breathing the balmy air of that delicious clime, and uniting their voices in song, the measure being timed with the dipping of the oars by the negroes. The friends of Josephine were importunate for the match. At last, reluctantly she gave her consent. Having done this, she allowed her affections, unrestrained, to repose upon her betrothed. Though her heart still clung to William, she thought that he had found other friends in England, in whose pleasant companionship he had lost all remembrance of the island maiden who had won his early love.

Alexander Beauharnais, soon after his engagement to Josephine, embarked for France. Arrangements had been made for Josephine, in the course of a few months, to follow him, upon a visit to a relative in Paris, and there the nuptials were to be consummated. Josephine was now fifteen years of age. She was attached to Beauharnais, but not with that fervor of feeling which had previously agitated her heart. She often thought of William and spoke of him, and at times had misgivings lest there might be some explanation of his silence. But months had passed on, and she had received no letter or message from him.

At length the hour for her departure from the island arrived. With tearful eyes and a saddened heart she left the land of her birth, and the scenes endeared to her by all the recollections of childhood. Groups of negroes, from the tottering infant to the aged man of gray hairs, surrounded her with weeping and loud lamentation. Josephine hastened on board, the ship got under way, and soon the island of Martinique disappeared beneath the watery horizon. Josephine sat upon the deck in perfect silence, watching the dim outline of her beloved home till it was lost to sight. Her young heart was full of anxiety, of tenderness, and of regrets. Little, however, could she imagine the career of strange vicissitudes upon which she was about to enter.

The voyage was long and tempestuous. Storms pursued them all the way. At one time the ship was dismasted and came near foundering. At length the welcome cry of "Land" was heard, and Josephine, an unknown orphan child of fifteen, placed her feet upon the shores of France, that country over which she was soon to reign the most renowned empress. She hastened to Fontainebleau, and was there met by Alexander Beauharnais. He received her with great fondness, and was assiduous in bestowing upon her the most flattering attentions. But Josephine had hardly arrived at Fontainebleau before she heard that William and his father were also residing at that place. Her whole frame trembled like an aspen leaf, and her heart sunk within her as she received the intelligence. All her long-cherished affection for the companion of her childhood was revived, and still she knew not but that William was faithless. He, however, immediately called, with his father, to see her. The interview was most embarrassing, for each loved the other intensely, and each had reason to believe that the other had proved untrue. The next day William called alone; Josephine, the betrothed bride of Beauharnais, prudently declined seeing him. He then wrote her a letter, which he bribed a servant to place in her hands, full of protestations of love, stating how he had written to her, and passionately inquiring why she turned so coldly from him.

Josephine read the letter with a bursting heart. She now saw how she had been deceived. She now was convinced that William had proved faithful to her, notwithstanding he had so much reason to believe that she had been untrue to him. But what could she do? She was but fifteen years of age. She was surrounded only by those who were determined that she should marry Alexander Beauharnais. She was told that the friends of William had decided unalterably that he should marry an English heiress, and that the fortunes of his father's family were dependent upon that alliance. The servant who had been the bearer of William's epistle was dismissed, and the other servants were commanded not to allow him to enter the house.

The agitation of Josephine's heart was such that for some time she was unable to leave her bed. She entreated her friends to allow her for a few months to retire to a convent, that she might, in solitary thought and prayer, regain composure. Her friends consented to this arrangement, and she took refuge in the convent at Panthemont. Here she spent a few months in inexpressible gloom. William made many unavailing efforts to obtain an interview, and at last, in despair, reluctantly received the wealthy bride, through whom he secured an immense inheritance, and with whom he passed an unloving life.

The Viscount Beauharnais often called to see her, and was permitted to converse with her at the gate of her window. In the simplicity of her heart, she told her friends at the convent of her attachment for William; how they had been reared together, and how they had loved from childhood. She felt that it was a cruel fate which separated them, but a fate before which each must inevitably bow. At last she calmly made up her mind to comply with the wishes of her friends, and to surrender herself to the Viscount Beauharnais. There was much in the person and character of Beauharnais to render him very attractive, and she soon became sincerely, though never passionately, attached to him.

Josephine was sixteen years of age when she was married. Her social position was in the midst of the most expensive and fashionable society of Paris. She was immediately involved in all the excitements of parties, and balls, and gorgeous entertainments. Her beauty, her grace, her amiability, and her peculiarly musical voice, which fell like a charm upon every ear, excited great admiration and not a little envy. It was a dangerous scene into which to introduce the artless and inexperienced Creole girl, and she was not a little dazzled by the splendor with which she was surrounded. Every thing that could minister to convenience, or that could gratify taste, was lavished profusely around her. For a time she was bewildered by the novelty of her situation. But soon she became weary of the heartless pageantry of fashionable life, and sighed for the tranquil enjoyments of her island home.

Her husband, proud of her beauty and accomplishments, introduced her at court. Maria Antoinette, who had then just ascended the throne, and was in the brilliance of her youth, and beauty, and early popularity, was charmed with the West Indian bride, and received her without the formality of a public presentation. When these two young brides met in the regal palace of Versailles—the one a daughter of Maria Theresa and a descendant of the Caesars, who had come from the court of Austria to be not only the queen, but the brightest ornament of the court of France—the other the child of a planter, born upon an obscure island, reared in the midst of negresses, as almost her only companions—little did they imagine that Maria Antoinette was to go down, down, down to the lowest state of ignominy and woe, while Josephine was to ascend to more and more exalted stations, until she should sit upon a throne more glorious than the Caesars ever knew.

French philosophy had at this time undermined the religion of Jesus Christ. All that is sacred in the domestic relations was withering beneath the blight of infidelity. Beauharnais, a man of fashion and of the world, had imbibed, to the full, the sentiments which disgraced the age. Marriage was deemed a partnership, to be formed or dissolved at pleasure. Fidelity to the nuptial tie was the jest of philosophers and witlings. Josephine had soon the mortification of seeing a proud, beautiful, and artful woman taking her place, and openly and triumphantly claiming the attentions and the affections of her husband. This woman, high in rank, loved to torture her poor victim. "Your dear Alexander," she said to Josephine, "daily lavishes upon others the tribute of attachment which you think he reserves solely for you." She could not bear to see the beautiful and virtuous Josephine happy, as the honored wife of her guilty lover, and she resolved, if possible, to sow the seeds of jealousy so effectually between them as to secure a separation.

In the year 1780 Josephine gave birth to her daughter Hortense. This event seemed for a time to draw back the wandering affections of Beauharnais. He was really proud of his wife. He admired her beauty and her grace. He doted upon his infant daughter. But he was an infidel. He recognized no law of God, commanding purity of heart and life, and he contended that Josephine had no right to complain, as long as he treated her kindly, if he did indulge in the waywardness of passion.

The path of Josephine was now, indeed, shrouded in gloom, and each day seemed to grow darker and darker. Hortense became her idol and her only comfort. Her husband lavished upon her those luxuries which his wealth enabled him to grant. He was kind to her in words and in all the ordinary courtesies of intercourse. But Josephine's heart was well-nigh broken. A few years of conflict passed slowly away, when she gave birth, in the year 1783, to her son Eugene. In the society of her children the unhappy mother found now her only solace.

While the Viscount Beauharnais was ready to defend his own conduct, he was by no means willing that his wife should govern herself by the same principles of fashionable philosophy. The code infidel is got up for the especial benefit of dissolute men; their wives must be governed by another code. The artful woman, who was the prime agent in these difficulties, affected great sympathy with Josephine in her sorrows, protested her own entire innocence, but assured her that M. Beauharnais was an ingrate, entirely unworthy of her affections. She deceived Josephine, hoarded up the confidence of her stricken heart, and conversed with her about William, the memory of whose faithful love now came with new freshness to the disconsolate wife.

Josephine, lured by her, wrote a letter to her friends in Martinique, in which she imprudently said, "Were it not for my children, I should without a pang, renounce France forever. My duty requires me to forget William; and yet if we had been united together, I should not to-day have been troubling you with my griefs."

The woman who instigated her to write this letter was infamous enough to obtain it by stealth and show it to Beauharnais. His jealousy and indignation were immediately aroused to the highest pitch. He was led by this malicious deceiver to believe that Josephine had obtained secret interviews with William, and the notoriously unfaithful husband was exasperated to the highest degree at the very suspicion of the want of fidelity in his wife. He reproached her in language of the utmost severity, took Eugene from her, and resolved to endeavor, by legal process, to obtain an entire divorce. She implored him, for the sake of her children, not to proclaim their difficulties to the world. He, however, reckless of consequences, made application to the courts for the annulment of the matrimonial bond. Josephine was now compelled to defend her own character. She again retired with Hortense to the convent, and there, through dreary months of solitude, and silence, and dejection, awaited the result of the trial upon which her reputation as a virtuous woman was staked. The decree of the court was triumphantly in her favor, and Josephine returned to her friends to receive their congratulations, but impressed with the conviction that earth had no longer a joy in store for her. Her friends did all in their power to cheer her desponding spirit; but the wound she had received was too deep to be speedily healed. One day her friends, to divert her mind from brooding over irreparable sorrows, took her, almost by violence, to Versailles. They passed over the enchanting grounds, and through the gorgeously-furnished apartments of the Great and Little Trianon, the favorite haunts of Maria Antoinette. Here the beautiful Queen of France was accustomed to lay aside the pageantry of royalty, and to enjoy, without restraint, the society of those who were dear to her. Days of darkness and trouble had already begun to darken around her path. As Josephine was looking at some of the works of art, she was greatly surprised at the entrance of the queen, surrounded by several ladies of her court. Maria Antoinette immediately recognized Josephine, and with that air of affability and kindness which ever characterized her conduct, she approached her, and, with one of her winning smiles, said, "Madame Beauharnais, I am very happy to see you at the two Trianons. You well know how to appreciate their beauties. I should be much pleased to learn what objects you consider most interesting. I shall always receive you with pleasure."

These words from the queen were an unspeakable solace to Josephine. Her afflicted heart needed the consolation. The queen was acquainted with her trials, and thus nobly assured her of her sympathy and her confidence. In a few days Maria Antoinette invited Josephine to a private interview. She addressed her in words of the utmost kindness, promised to watch over the interests of her son, and at the same time, as a mark of her especial regard, she took from her neck an antique ornament of precious stones, and passed it over the neck of Josephine. The king also himself came in at the interview, for his heart had been softened by sorrow, and addressed words of consolation to the injured and discarded wife.

Josephine now received letters from Martinique earnestly entreating her to return, with her children, to the home of her childhood. World-weary, she immediately resolved to accept the invitation. But the thought of crossing the wide ocean, and leaving her son Eugene behind, was a severe pang to a mother's heart. Eugene had been taken from her and sent to a boarding-school. Josephine felt so deeply the pang of separation from her beloved child, that she obtained an interview with M. Beauharnais, and implored him to allow her to take Eugene with her. He gave a cold and positive refusal.

A few days after this, Josephine, cruelly separated from her husband and bereaved of her son, embarked with Hortense for Martinique. She strove to maintain that aspect of cheerfulness and of dignity which an injured but innocent woman is entitled to exhibit. When dark hours of despondency overshadowed her, she tried to console herself with the beautiful thought of Plautus: "If we support adversity with courage, we shall have a keener relish for returning prosperity." It does not appear that she had any refuge in the consolations of religion. She had a vague and general idea of the goodness of a superintending Providence, but she was apparently a stranger to those warm and glowing revelations of Christianity which introduce us to a sympathizing Savior, a guiding and consoling Spirit, a loving and forgiving Father. Could she then, by faith, have reposed her aching head upon the bosom of her heavenly Father, she might have found a solace such as nothing else could confer. But at this time nearly every mind in France was more or less darkened by the glooms of infidelity.

The winds soon drove her frail bark across the Atlantic, and Josephine, pale and sorrow-stricken, was clasped in the arms and folded to the hearts of those who truly loved her. The affectionate negroes gathered around her, with loud demonstrations of their sympathy and their joy in again meeting their mistress. Here, amid the quiet scenes endeared to her by the recollections of childhood, she found a temporary respite from those storms by which she had been so severely tossed upon life's wild and tempestuous ocean.