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Behind Every Great Man is a Great Woman: Josephine Bonaparte

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at McGill chapter.

The Politically Perspicacious Nature of Josephine Bonaparte

            I really love Napoleon Bonparte, and though he is by far more widely known than his wife, Josephine Bonaparte is not to be neglected. This woman, who knew “[she] would be Queen of France” before she had even met Napoleon, was extremely impressive on a political level. Her politically perspicacious nature allowed her to advance her position with regards to society, her husband and France.

Firstly, Josephine’s politically perspicacious nature can be seen through her ability to rise in power after her imprisonment during the French Revolution. During the Terror, aristocrats and other suspicioned enemies of the Republic were being arrested and executed at alarming rates. Josephine, after having defended her husband who was facing allegations of undermining the state, was arrested too (Williams 340). She spent three and a half months in prison; luckily, Robespierre, leader of the radical Jacobins, was overthrown before she could be executed. She emerged from prison, widowed, to face a new Paris; though the suspicious tendencies remained, the people were eager to live life to the fullest. Those who had been imprisoned were set at the top of the social hierarchy; to have been ruined was to be the victim in need of attention and saving (Williams 394).

Josephine was eager to gain power and popularity, but she lacked the money and protection (Williams 399). Despite her 31 years of age and the decline of her health during her imprisonment, Josephine managed to charm herself into the circles of powerful people, including the woman who incited Robespierre’s overthrowing of the government, Thérésa Cabarrus. As Thérésa’s confidant, she was able to gain more credit, borrowing more money. Josephine, Thérésa and two other girls soon became known as the Merveilleuses, becoming widely known and discussed. Josephine knew that being seen with girls ten years her junior would make her seem younger and more desirable (Williams 426). Men and women alike sought after Josephine; “Thanks to the horror of Les Carmes and her ability to flatter her way into the affections of celebrated young women, she had become one of the most expensive mistresses in the land” (Williams 427). Josephine was thus able to capture the attention (and money) of Barras, one of the three men who overthrew Robespierre. It was at his house that she met Napoleon, future Emperor of France and her future husband. Ultimately, Josephine was able to overcome her absolute poverty and gain significant social power through her political perspicaciousness and charm.


Secondly, Josephine’s political prowess can be seen through her ability to appease and manipulate her husband, despite her rebelliousness. When they first met, she was a widow, relying on her charm and good looks to survive. He fell for her completely; she was more calculating. Despite her friend’s disapproval, she entered the marriage, drawn to his ambition and intelligence (Williams 500). Barras had also promised her that if she married Napoleon, he would ensure the young Corsican’s appointment to the Italian army, thus elevating her rank (Hamilton 442).  Napoleon, initially, absolutely idolized her. When he went off to war however, writing her an abundance of letters, she began an affair with the extremely handsome Hyppolite Charles. She “was craving adventure and rebellion” (Williams 715).

When her husband inevitably found out about the affair, she, as she often did, appealed to his appetite for drama and wept theatrically at his feet, at which point he forgave her. “Both she and Napoleon thoroughly enjoy a good scene and she could always get her own way by dissolving into floods of beautiful tears” (Coats 44). Her ridiculous spending habits were also a sore point in her marriage. Despite her annual allowance of 600,000 francs, as well as 120,000 for charity, Josephine was constantly in debt. Her spending was her way of finding “control and security” as well as an “identity separate from Napoleon’s demands” (Williams 980). Napoleon would often fume at her mad extravagance but was ultimately powerless against her charm. As he put it, “ I get angry—she weeps. I forgive her, I pay her bills—she makes fair promises; but the same thing occurs over and over again.” (Williams 1463).

Furthermore, Josephine was ingenious at securing and maintaining an important position in his life. She persuaded him, thanks to the fact that she was a “light sleeper,” that occupying the same room would ensure his safety (Williams 939). This way, she would have constant knowledge of his actions and schemes, giving herself more power and influence over him (Williams 939). When, before the coronation, it was first being suggested that he should marry a new wife to increase his political power, Josephine made sure that she would become Empress alongside Napoleon by convincing Pope Pius to marry them in a properly religious ceremony. Such a ceremony would make it much harder for Napoleon to divorce her (Williams 1374). Later on, when Napoleon had decided he must divorce her regardless, she told her husband that she would not take the initiative to divorce him and that he must give her a direct order to descend the throne. She knew that he could not bear to ask her and so the divorce was delayed (Williams 1345). In short, Josephine Bonaparte’s political perspicaciousness allowed her to be independent, as she knew she could always appease and manipulate her husband into submission afterwards.

Thirdly, Josephine Bonaparte’s political genius was contingent to Napoleon’s rise to power. Napoleon depended on his wife politically as well as on a personal level. She was charming, graceful and had a talent for diplomacy. Napoleon required her “quiet powers of influence, her ability to please and flatter, her talents as a hostess and her continued hold over [important political figures]” (Williams 876). Barras was one of the men whom Josephine was employed to convince of Napoleon’s loyalty. She planned dinners, receptions and intimate meetings, flattering them with flirtatious words, “lull[ing] them all into a false sense of security about Bonaparte and his goals” (Williams 883). Napoleon was better on the battlefield. Napoleon was “deficient in education and in matters”; he did not know how to make a bow, or stand up properly (Williams 943).

Josephine, on the other hand, was kind and her charm attracted many influential people. She soon began to receive letters from people begging for her help, making it impossible for Napoleon to exclude her (Williams 947); she and her gowns, jewels and art would no longer solely be a human display of Napoleon’s power (Williams 946). She attempted to help the émigrés to restore their assets and clear their names from the list of enemies of the Republic. This was vital in gaining powerful and financial support for Napoleon but was also difficult because their return would undermine the principles of the Revolution. Josephine could, in this situation, act in Napoleon’s place; if he were to be questioned about his alliances, he could simply say that his wife had too kind a heart (Williams 949).

Josephine delighted in the opportunity to be so active (Williams 950). Not only was Josephine’s skill with people useful to him, but she also brought Napoleon legitimacy. That is, due to her imprisonment during the Revolution, she linked him to the ideals of the Republic. Her aristocratic title also linked him to the royalists who, as stated, believed he would support their reestablishment (Williams 876). Furthermore, Josephine aided Napoleon’s rise to power through her patronage of the arts. She felt it was her duty, as “patroness of an empire,” to create a collection of art that showcased her husband’s power (Williams 1079). She befriended and recommended many artists, including Jean-Baptiste Isabey and Antoine-Jean Gros, advancing their careers significantly (Williams 940). The garden she had built at Malmaison was equally as propagandistic. The garden was a reflection of her husband’s exploits; three of the plants she grew were in honour of Napoleon’s military conquests (Williams 1039). Succinctly, Josephine was instrumental in Napoleon’s rise to power because of her political wit.

In conclusion, Josephine Bonaparte’s politically perspicacious nature firstly allowed her to rise in the social hierarchy after her imprisonment during the French Revolution. She did so by aligning herself with important and younger people using her charm. Secondly, she was able to gain some independence in her marriage, including starting an affair and spending ridiculous amounts of money, because of her politically intelligent manipulation of Napoleon. Finally, Josephine greatly aided in her husband’s rise to power with her impressive ability to charm and attract important guests, as well as propagandize Napoleon’s campaign.


Works Cited

Coats, Alice M. “The Empress Joséphine”. Garden History, vol. 5, no. 3. The Garden History Society, Winter 1977. pp. 40-46. DOI: 10.2307/1586572. Accessed 16 May 2018.

Hamilton, Gail. “In Josephine’s Garden”. The North American Review, vol. 148, no. 389. University of Northern Iowa, April 1889. pp. 435-446. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25101759. Accessed 16 May 2018.

Williams, Kate. Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte. Ballantine Books, 4 November 2014. http://1.droppdf.com/files/H7cDZ/ambition-and-desire-kate-williams.pdf. Accessed 15 May 2018.



HerCampus McGill's Campus Correspondent! Montreal girl studying History with a minor in Art History (diverse right?). I'm planning on going to law school next though, because I want to learn how to help women navigate this silly patriarchal system! #TheFutureIsFemale