For years I was captivated by Napoleon, (1769-1821) and read many books about him. On my bookshelf still sits a set of four volumes ‘The Private Life of Napoleon’ by Constant, his valet. Constant thought Napoleon brilliant and tells us, as an example, that when Marie Louise of
Austria didn’t become pregnant immediately, she did so only after Napoleon instructed her not to bathe. I love old books. (The English translation was copyrighted by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1895.)
My own impression is that Josephine (1763-1814) has been badly treated by historians — mostly male. As Napoleon’s first love, she opened doors for the young officer. She already had important contacts, and probably was the brains behind much of his success. Napoleon didn’t realize how much he owed to her.
You can’t deny things went rapidly downhill when he, as self-proclaimed emperor, became too big for his britches and wanting an heir to the throne, he divorced Josephine and banished her from the palace. Big mistake…..
Of course Napoleon had lovers along the way. Power and money are sexy. There are always women willing to give themselves to men like him. Yet, in all the reading I did, nowhere did I find a word about Marie Walewska, (1786-1817) a Polish noblewoman who became his long-time mistress. I read, sometimes wearily, of battle after battle and his prowess in the battlefield, but never much about his prowess in the bedroom with this beauty.
The young Marie, married off to an elderly Count by her family, (because of an inconvenient prior pregnancy) was not smitten by Napoleon when he marched into Poland. The Poles, however, adored him — they desperately needed his help. No sacrifice was too big to win his favor. Marie, a mere child of 18, was pushed into the affair by Polish nobles and, yes, even her elderly husband. After all, what was one woman’s honor compared to the freedom of your country? Marie obeyed. Well, she WAS patriotic. Wouldn’t you? If you were patriotic?
She already had one son, and was to be the only woman to give Napoleon a son of his own who lived to adulthood, Count Alexandre Florian de Walewski (1810-1868). Her husband, the patriot, continued to be cooperative and willingly gave the child his name. After all, the man loved his country and Napoleon had promised to make Poland a strong, free kingdom. (He never kept this promise.)
Obviously a generous guy as well, when Marie, who grew to love Napoleon, (the guy could be magnetic) divorced him in 1812, Walewski gave her and her oldest son half his estates, which made her wealthy in her own right. She had also moved to Paris in 1810, where Napoleon set her up in splendor. Not bad….
For awhile, the lovers did discontinue their affair for political reasons because Napoleon wanted to divorce Josephine and thought, under the circumstances, it wouldn’t look good. But their feelings for each other persisted.
His marriage to Marie Louise of Austria (1791-1847) produced a son too, who died in
childhood, but Marie Louise fled when things got rough and later became the mistress of a Count. Marie Walewska, on the other hand, remained true to her famous lover although she did marry again. She visited Napoleon while he was in exile and disgrace at Elba to (ahem) console him. This surely was a woman who cared. She later died in Paris while Napoleon was a prisoner at St. Helena. They say the very last word she ever uttered was: ‘Napoleon’.
If you like this kind of thing, you may enjoy ‘Famous Affinities of History’ by Lyndon Orr, published in 1909, which can be found on: