Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon— Complete

Author: Louis Constant Wairy

Chapter XXIV.

The Empress Josephine was of medium height, with an exquisite figure; and in all her movements there was an airiness and grace which gave to her walk something ethereal, without detracting from the majesty of the sovereign. Her expressive countenance portrayed all the emotions of her soul, while retaining the charming sweetness which was its ruling expression. In pleasure, as in grief, she was beautiful, and even against your will you would smile when she smiled; if she was sad, you would be also. Never did a woman justify better than she the expression that the eyes are the mirror of the soul. Hers were of a deep blue, and nearly always half closed by her long lids, which were slightly arched, and fringed with the most beautiful lashes in the world; in regarding her you felt yourself drawn to her by an irresistible power. It must have been difficult for the Empress to give severity to that seductive look; but she could do this, and well knew how to render it imposing when necessary. Her hair was very beautiful, long and silken, its nut-brown tint contrasting exquisitely with the dazzling whiteness of her fine fresh complexion. At the commencement of her supreme power, the Empress still liked to adorn her head in the morning with a red madras handkerchief, which gave her a most piquant Creole air, and rendered her still more charming.

But what more than all else constituted the inexpressible charm of the Empress’s presence were the ravishing tones of her voice. How many times have I, like many others, stopped suddenly on hearing that voice; simply to enjoy the pleasure of listening to it. It cannot perhaps be said that the Empress was a strictly beautiful woman; but her lovely countenance, expressing sweetness and good nature, and the angelic grace diffused around her person, made her the most attractive of women.

During her stay at Saint-Cloud, the Empress rose habitually at nine o’clock, and made her first toilet, which lasted till ten; then she passed into a saloon, where she found assembled those persons who had solicited and obtained the favor of an audience; and sometimes also at this hour, and in the same saloon, her Majesty received her tradespeople; and at eleven o’clock, when the Emperor was absent, she breakfasted with her first lady of honor and a few others. Madame de la Rochefoucauld, first lady of honor to the Empress, was a hunchback, and so small that it was necessary, when she was to have a place at the table, to heighten the seat of her chair by another very thick cushion made of violet satin. Madame de la Rochefoucauld knew well how to efface, by means of her bright and sparkling, though somewhat caustic wit, her striking elegance, and her exquisite court manners, any unpleasant impression which might be made by her physical deformity.

Before breakfast the Empress had a game of billiards; or, when the weather was good, she walked in the gardens or in the inclosed park, which recreation lasted only a short while, and her Majesty soon returned to her apartments, and occupied herself with embroidery, while talking with her ladies, like herself, occupied with some kind of needlework. When it happened that they were not interrupted by visits, between two and three o’clock in the afternoon the Empress took a drive in an open barouche; and on her return from this the grand toilet took place, at which the Emperor was sometimes present.

Now and then, also, his Majesty surprised the Empress in her saloon; and we were sure to find him, on those occasions, amusing, amiable, and in fine spirits.

At six o’clock dinner was served; this the Emperor frequently forgot, and delayed it indefinitely, in consequence of which dinner was more than once eaten at nine or ten o’clock in the evening. Their Majesties dined together alone, or in the company of a few invited guests, princes of the imperial family, or ministers, after which there was a concert, reception, or the theater; and at midnight every one retired except the Empress, who greatly enjoyed sitting up late, and then played backgammon with one of the chamberlains. The Count de Beaumont was thus honored most frequently.

On the days of the chase the Empress and her ladies followed in the coach. They had a special costume for this occasion, consisting of a kind of green riding-habit, and a hat ornamented with white plumes. All the ladies who followed the chase dined with their Majesties.

When the Empress spent the night in the Emperor’s apartment, I entered in the morning, as usual, between seven and eight o’clock, and nearly always found the august spouses awake. The Emperor usually ordered tea, or an infusion of orange flowers, and rose immediately, the Empress saying to him, with a laugh, "What, rising already? Rest a little longer."—"Well, you are not asleep, then?" replied his Majesty, rolling her over in the covering, giving her little slaps on her cheeks and shoulders, laughing, and kissing her.

At the end of a few moments the Empress rose also, put on a wrapper, and read the journals, or descended by the little communicating stairway to her own apartment, never leaving the Emperor without a few words expressing the most touching affection and good-will.

Elegant and simple in her dress, the Empress submitted with regret to the necessity of toilets of state. Jewels, however, were much to her taste; and, as she had always been fond of them; the Emperor presented her with them often and in great quantities; and she greatly enjoyed adorning herself with them, and still more exhibiting them to the admiration of others.

One morning, when my wife was present at her toilet, her Majesty related that, being newly married to M. de Beauharnais, and much delighted with the ornaments he had given her, she was in the habit of carrying them around in her reticule (reticules were then an essential part of a woman’s dress), and showing them to her young friends.

As the Empress spoke of her reticule, she ordered one of her ladies to hunt for one to show my wife. The lady whom the Empress addressed could scarcely repress a laugh at this singular request, and assured her Majesty that there was nothing similar to that now in her wardrobe; to which the Empress replied, with an air of regret, that she would have really liked to see again one of her old reticules, and that the years hall brought great changes. The jewels of the Empress Josephine could hardly have been contained in the reticule of Madame de Beauharnais, however long or deep it might have been; for the jewel case which had belonged to Queen Marie Antoinette, and which had never been quite full, was too small for the Empress. One day, when she wished to exhibit all her ornaments to several ladies who expressed a desire to see them, it was necessary to prepare a large table on which to place the caskets; and, as this table was not sufficient, several other pieces of furniture were also covered with them.

Good to excess, as everyone knows, sympathetic beyond all expression, generous even to prodigality, the Empress made the happiness of all who surrounded her; loving her husband with a devotion which nothing ever changed, and which was as deep in her last moments as at the period when Madame Beauharnais and General Bonaparte made to each other a mutual avowal of their love. Josephine was long the only woman loved by the Emperor, as she well deserved to have ever been; and for several years the harmony of this imperial household was most touching. Attentive, loving, and entirely devoted to Josephine, the Emperor took pleasure in embracing her neck, her figure, giving her taps, and calling her ’ma grosse bete’; all of which did not prevent, it is true, his being guilty of some infidelities, but without failing otherwise in his conjugal duties. On her side the Empress adored him, sought by every means to please him, to divine his wishes, and to forestall his least desires.

At first she gave her husband cause for jealousy. Having been strongly prejudiced against her by indiscreet reports, during the campaign of Egypt, the Emperor on his return had explanations with her, which did not always end without lamentations and violent scenes; but peace was soon restored, and was thereafter very rarely broken, for the Emperor could not fail to feel the influence of so many attractions and such loveliness.

The Empress had a remarkable memory, of which the Emperor often availed himself; she was also an excellent musician, played well on the harp, and sang with taste. She had perfect tact, an exquisite perception of what was suitable, the soundest, most infallible judgment imaginable, and, with a disposition always lovely, always the same, indulgent to her enemies as to her friends, she restored peace wherever there was quarrel or discord. When the Emperor was vexed with his brothers or other persons, which often happened, the Empress spoke a few words, and everything was settled. If she demanded a pardon, it was very rare that the Emperor did not grant it, however grave the crime committed; and I could cite a thousand examples of pardons thus solicited and obtained. One occurrence which is almost personal to me will sufficiently prove how all-powerful was the intercession of this good Empress.

Her Majesty’s head valet being one day a little affected by the wine he had taken at a breakfast with some friends, was obliged, from the nature of his duties, to be present at the time of their Majesties’ dinner, and to stand behind the Empress in order to take and hand her the plates. Excited by the fumes of the champagne, he had the misfortune to utter some improper words, which, though pronounced in a low tone, the Emperor unfortunately overheard. His Majesty cast lightning glances at M. Frere, who thus perceived the gravity of his fault; and, when dinner was over, gave orders to discharge the impudent valet, in a tone which left no hope and permitted no reply.

Monsieur Frere was an excellent servant, a gentle, good, and honest man; it was the first fault of this kind of which he could be accused, and consequently he deserved indulgence. Application was made to the grand marshal, who refused to intercede, well knowing the inflexibility of the Emperor; and many other persons whom the poor man begged to intercede for him having replied as the grand marshal had done, M. Frere came in despair to bid us adieu. I dared to take his cause in hand, with the hope that by seizing a favorable moment I might succeed in appeasing his Majesty. The order of discharge required M. Frere to leave the palace in twenty-four hours; but I advised him not to obey it, but to keep himself, however, constantly concealed in his room, which he did. That evening on retiring, his Majesty spoke to me of what had passed, showing much anger, so I judged that silence was the best course to take; and therefore waited; but the next day the Empress had the kindness to tell me that she would be present at her husband’s toilet, and that, if I thought proper to open the matter, she would sustain me with all her influence. Consequently, finding the Emperor in a good humor, I spoke of M. Frere; and depicting to his Majesty the despair of this poor man, I pointed out to him the reasons which might excuse the impropriety of his conduct. "Sire," said I, "he is a good man, who has no fortune, and supports a numerous family; and if he has to quit the service of her Majesty the Empress, it will not be believed that it was on account of a fault for which the wine was more to be blamed than he, and he will be utterly ruined." To these words, as well as to many other suggestions, the Emperor only replied by interruptions, made with every appearance of a decided opposition to the pardon which I had requested. Fortunately the Empress was good enough to come to my assistance, and said to her husband in her own gentle tones, always so touching and full of expression, "Mon ami, if you are willing to pardon him, you will be doing me a favor." Emboldened by this powerful patronage, I renewed my solicitations; to which the Emperor at last replied abruptly, addressing himself to both the Empress and myself, "In short, you wish it; well, let him stay then."

Monsieur Frere thanked me with his whole heart, and could hardly believe the good news which I brought him; and as for the Empress, she was made happy by the joy of this faithful servant, who gave her during the remainder of his life every proof of his entire devotion. I have been assured that, in 1814, on the departure of the Emperor for the Island of Elba, Monsieur Frere was by no means the last to blame my conduct, the motive of which he could not possibly know; but I am not willing to believe this, for it seems to me that in his place, if I thought I could not defend an absent friend, I should at least have kept silence.

As I have said, the Empress was extremely generous, and bestowed much in alms, and was most ingenious in finding occasions for their bestowal. Many emigres lived solely on her benefactions; she also kept up a very active correspondence with the Sisters of Charity who nursed the sick, and sent them a multitude of things. Her valets were ordered to go in every direction, carrying to the needy the assistance of her inexhaustible benevolence, while numerous other persons also received each day similar commissions; and all these alms, all these multiplied gifts which were so widely diffused, received an inestimable value from the grace with which they were offered, and the good judgment with which they were distributed. I could cite a thousand instances of this delicate generosity.

Monsieur de Beauharnais had at the time of his marriage to Josephine a natural daughter named Adele. The Empress reared her as if she had been her own daughter, had her carefully educated, gave her a generous dowry, and married her to a prefect of the Empire.

If the Empress showed so much tenderness for a daughter who was not her own, it is impossible to give an idea of her love and devotion to Queen Hortense and Prince Eugene, which devotion her children fully returned; and there was never a better or happier mother. She was very proud of her children, and spoke of them always with an enthusiasm which seemed very natural to all who knew the Queen of Holland and the Vice-King of Italy. I have related how, having been left an orphan at a very early age by the Revolutionary scaffold, young Beauharnais had gained the heart of General Bonaparte by an interview in which he requested of him his father’s sword, and that this action inspired in the General a wish to become acquainted with Josephine, and the result of that interview, all of which events are matters of history. When Madame de Beauharnais had become the wife of General Bonaparte, Eugene entered on a military career, and attached himself immediately to the fortunes of his stepfather, whom he accompanied to Italy in the capacity of aide-de-camp. He was chief of squadron in the chasseurs of the Consular Guard, and at the immortal battle of Marengo shared all the dangers of the one who took so much pleasure in calling him his son. A few years later the chief of squadron had become Vice-King of Italy, the presumptive heir of the imperial crown (a title which, in truth, he did not long preserve), and husband of the daughter of a king.

The vice-queen (Augusta Amelia of Bavaria) was handsome and good as an angel. I happened to be at Malmaison on the day the Empress received the portrait of her daughter-in-law, surrounded by three or four children, one upon her shoulder, another at her feet, and a third in her arms, all of whom had most lovely faces. The Empress, seeing me, deigned to call me to admire with her this collection of charming heads; and I perceived that, while speaking, her eyes were full of tears. The portraits were well painted, and I had occasion later to find that they were perfect likenesses. From this time the only question was playthings and rare articles of all sorts to be bought for these dear children, the Empress going in person to select the presents she desired for them, and having them packed under her own eyes.

The prince’s valet has assured me that, at the time of the divorce, Prince Eugene wrote his wife a very desponding letter, and perhaps expressed in it some regret at not being an adopted son of the Emperor, to which the Princess replied most tenderly, saying, among other things, "It is not the heir of the Emperor whom I married and whom I love, but it is Eugene de Beauharnais." The Prince read this sentence and some others in the presence of the person from whom I have these facts, and who was touched even to tears. Such a woman deserved more than a throne.

After that event, so grievous to the heart of the Empress, and for which she never found consolation, she left Malmaison no more, except to make a few visits to Navarre.

Each time that I returned to Paris with the Emperor, I had no sooner arrived than my first duty was to go to Malmaison, though I was rarely the bearer of a letter from the Emperor, as he wrote to Josephine only on extraordinary occasions. "Tell the Empress I am well, and that I wish her to be happy," were almost invariably the parting words of the Emperor as I set out. The moment I arrived the Empress quitted everything to speak to me; and I frequently remained an hour and often two hours with her; during which time there was no question of anything save the Emperor. I must tell her all that he had suffered on the journey, if he had been sad or gay, sick or well; while she wept over the details as I repeated them, and gave me a thousand directions regarding his health, and the cares with which she desired I should surround him. After this she deigned to question me about myself, my prospects, the health of my wife, her former protegee; and at last dismissed me, with a letter for his Majesty, begging me to say to the Emperor how happy she would be if he would come to see her.

Before his departure for Russia, the Empress, distressed at this war, of which she entirely disapproved, again redoubled her recommendations concerning the Emperor, and made me a present of her portrait, saying to me, "My good Constant, I rely on you; if the Emperor were sick, you would inform me of it, would you not? Conceal nothing from me, I love him so much."

Certainly the Empress had innumerable means of hearing news of his Majesty; but I am persuaded that, had she received each day one hundred letters from those near the Emperor, she would have read and reread them with the same avidity.

When I had returned from Saint-Cloud to the Tuileries, the Emperor asked me how Josephine was, and if I found her in good spirits; he received with pleasure the letters I brought, and hastened to open them. All the time I was traveling, or on the campaign in the suite of his Majesty, in writing to my wife, I spoke of the Emperor, and the good princess was delighted that she showed my letters to her. In fact, everything having the least connection with her husband interested the Empress to a degree which proved well the singular devotion that she still felt for him after, as before, their separation. Too generous, and unable to keep her expenses within her income, it often happened that the Empress was obliged to send away her furnishers unpaid the very day she had herself fixed for the settlement of their bills; and as this reached the ears of the Emperor on one occasion, there ensued a very unpleasant scene between the Empress and himself, ending in a decision, that in future no merchant or furnisher should come to the chateau without a letter from the lady of attire or secretary of orders; and this plan, once decided upon, was followed very closely until the divorce. During this explanation the Empress wept freely, and promised to be more economical, upon which the Emperor pardoned and embraced her, and peace was made, this being, I think, the last quarrel of this nature which disturbed the imperial household.

I have heard that after the divorce, the allowance of the Empress having been exceeded, the Emperor reproached the superintendent of Malmaison with this fact, who in turn informed Josephine. His kind-hearted mistress, much distressed at the annoyance which her steward had experienced, and not knowing how to establish a better order of things, assembled a council of her household, over which she presided in a linen dress without ornament; this dress had been made in great haste, and was used only this once. The Empress, whom the necessity for a refusal always reduced to despair, was continually besieged by merchants, who assured her that they had made such or such a thing expressly for her own use, begging her not to return it because they would not be able to dispose of it; in consequence of which the Empress kept everything they brought, though they afterwards had to be paid for.

The Empress was always extremely polite in her intercourse with the ladies of her household; and a reproach never came from those lips which seemed formed to say only pleasant things; and if any of her ladies gave her cause of dissatisfaction, the only punishment she inflicted was an absolute silence on her part, which lasted one, two, three, or even eight days, the time being longer or shorter according to the gravity of the fault. And indeed this penalty, apparently so mild, was really very cruel to many, so well did the Empress know how to make herself adored by those around her.

In the time of the Consulate, Madame Bonaparte often received from cities which had been conquered by her husband, or from those persons who desired to obtain her intercession with the First Consul, quantities of valuable furniture, curiosities of all kinds, pictures, stuffs, etc. At first these presents delighted Madame Bonaparte greatly; and she took a childish pleasure in having the cases opened to find what was inside, personally assisting in unpacking them, and rummaging through all these pretty things. But soon these consignments became so considerable, and were so often repeated, that it was found necessary to place them in an apartment, of which my father-in-law kept the key, and where the boxes remained untouched until it pleased Madame Bonaparte to have them opened.

When the First. Consul decided that he would take up his residence at Saint-Cloud, my father-in-law was obliged to leave Malmaison, and install himself in the new palace, as the master wished him to take charge there.

Before leaving Malmaison, my father-in-law rendered an account to Madame Bonaparte of everything committed to his care, and all the cases which were piled up from floor to ceiling in two rooms were opened in her presence. Madame Bonaparte was astonished at such marvelous riches, comprising marbles, bronzes, and magnificent pictures, of which Eugene, Hortense, and the sisters of the First Consul received a large part, and the remainder was used in decorating the apartments of Malmaison.

The Empress’s love of ornaments included for a while antique curiosities, cut stones, and medals. M. Denon flattered this whim, and ended by persuading the good Josephine that she was a perfect connoisseur in antiques, and that she should have at Malmaison a cabinet, a keeper for it, etc. This proposition, which flattered the self-love of the Empress, was favorably received; the room was selected, M. de M---- made keeper, and the new cabinet enriched by diminishing in the same proportion the rich furniture of the apartments of the chateau. M. Denon, who had originated this idea, took upon himself to make a collection of medals; but this idea, which came so suddenly, vanished as suddenly; the cabinet was changed into a saloon for guests, and the antiques relegated to the antechamber of the bathing hall, while M. de M----, having no longer anything to keep, remained constantly in Paris.

A short time after this, two ladies of the palace took a fancy to persuade the Empress that nothing could be handsomer or more worthy of her than a necklace of Greek and Roman antique stones perfectly matched. Several chamberlains approved the idea, which, of course, pleased the Empress, for she was very fond of anything unique; and consequently one morning, as I was dressing the Emperor, the Empress entered, and, after a little conversation, said, "Bonaparte, some ladies have advised me to have a necklace made of antique stones, and I came to ask you to urge M. Denon to select only very handsome ones." The Emperor burst out laughing, and refused flatly at first; but just then the grand marshal of the palace arrived, and the Emperor informed him of this request of the Empress, asking his opinion. M. le due de Frioul thought it very reasonable, and joined his entreaties to those of the Empress. "It is an egregious folly," said the Emperor; "but we are obliged to grant it, because the women wish it, so, Duroc, go to the cabinet of antiques, and choose whatever is necessary."

M. le due de Frioul soon returned with the finest stones in the collection, which the crown jeweler mounted magnificently; but this ornament was of such enormous weight that the Empress never wore it.

Though I may be accused of making tiresome repetitions, I must say that the Empress seized, with an eagerness which cannot be described, on all occasions of making benefactions. For instance, one morning when she was breakfasting alone with his Majesty, the cries of an infant were suddenly heard proceeding from a private staircase. The Emperor was annoyed at this, and with a frown, asked sharply what that meant. I went to investigate, and found a new-born child, carefully and neatly dressed, asleep in a kind of cradle, with a ribbon around its body from which hung a folded paper. I returned to tell what I had seen; and the Empress at once exclaimed, "O Constant! bring me the cradle." The Emperor would not permit this at first, and expressed his surprise and disapprobation that it should have been thus introduced into the interior of his apartments, whereupon her Majesty, having pointed out to him that it must have been done by some one of the household, he turned towards me, and gave me a searching look, as if to ask if it was I who had originated this idea. I shook my head in denial. At that moment the baby began to cry, and the Emperor could not keep from smiling, still growling, and saying, "Josephine, send away that monkey!"

The Empress, wishing to profit by this return of good humor, sent me for the cradle, which I brought to her. She caressed the little new-born babe, quieted it, and read the paper attached to which was a petition from its parents. Then she approached the Emperor, insisting on his caressing the infant himself, and pinching its fat little cheeks; which he did without much urging, for the Emperor himself loved to play with children. At last her Majesty the Empress, having placed a roll of napoleons in the cradle, had the little bundle in swaddling clothes carried to the concierge of the palace, in order that he might restore it to its parents.

I will now give another instance of the kindness of heart of her Majesty the Empress, of which I had the honor to be a witness, as well as of the preceding.

A few days before the coronation, a little girl four and a half years old had been rescued from the Seine; and a charitable lady, Madame Fabien Pillet, was much interested in providing a home for the poor orphan. At the time of the coronation, the Empress, who had been informed of this occurrence, asked to see this child, and having regarded it a few moments with much emotion, offered her protection most gracefully and sincerely to Madame Pillet and her husband, and announced to them that she would take upon herself the care of the little girl’s future; then, with her usual delicacy and in the affectionate tone which was so natural to her, the Empress added, "Your good action has given you too many claims over the poor little girl for me to deprive you of the pleasure of completing your work, I therefore beg your permission to furnish the expenses of her education. You have the privilege of putting her in boarding-school, and watching over her;,and I wish to take only a secondary position, as her benefactress." It was the most touching sight imaginable to see her Majesty, while uttering these delicate and generous words, pass her hands through the hair of the poor little girl, as she had just called her, and kiss her brow with the tenderness of a mother. M. and Madame Pillet withdrew, for they could no longer bear this touching scene.


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Chicago: Louis Constant Wairy, "Chapter XXIV.," Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon— Complete, ed. Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853 and trans. Clark, Walter, 1846-1924 in Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon—Complete (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed February 3, 2023,

MLA: Wairy, Louis Constant. "Chapter XXIV." Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon— Complete, edited by Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853, and translated by Clark, Walter, 1846-1924, in Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon—Complete, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 3 Feb. 2023.

Harvard: Wairy, LC, 'Chapter XXIV.' in Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon— Complete, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon—Complete, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 3 February 2023, from