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A series of brief entries describing some marriages arranged by Napoleon, not to be taken too seriously.
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I - Émilie and Lavalette

Posted August 18th, 2017 at 11:24 PM by Josefa
Updated September 2nd, 2017 at 02:17 AM by Josefa

Okay, so Napoleon was a general, a politician, a lawmaker, a member of the Académie Française even - but how about his activities as a marriage broker? Napoleon has been known to have arranged several marriages during his lifetime, and I really feel this interesting aspect of his career does not quite get the attention it deserves.

Which of course might be due to the fact that Napoleon was by far more successful in war than in matchmaking. Spanish ulcer and Russian campaign not withstanding.

Let's have a look at the (as far as I know) very first marriage Napoleon arranged: that of his aide-de-camp Antoine Marie Chamans, better known as the comte de Lavalette, and Emilie de Beauharnais.


The bride:
Click the image to open in full size.

Émilie was a relation of Josephine's, Napoleon's wife. Her father, the Marquis François de Beauharnais, was the older brother of Joséphine's first husband Alexandre. A royalist (unlike Alexandre and in opposition to his brother), François had fled France during the revolution and at the time lived outside the country as an émigré. Émilie had remained behind in her mother's care, lived in Madame Campan's pension and in 1798, at the age of 17, would finish school. She had received a good education, was remarkably pretty, yet in all likelyhood still would have a hard time finding a husband due to her family relations.


The bridegroom: Click the image to open in full size.

Lavalette at the time still went by his name of Antoine Marie Chamans but let's already refer to him by his future title as he is better known by it. According to the memoirs of the duchesse d'Abrantes (Laure Permon-Junot – maybe not the most trustworthy, but surely a very amusing source) he was »not a bad representation of Bacchus«: round face, small eyes and nose, and balding at an early age. Clearly not the romantic hero a young girl might dream about.
At the beginning of 1798 he was 28 years old, still unmarried, and at the time one of general Napoleon Bonaparte's most trusted aide-de-camps, often used for observing negotiations. (Napoleon also bade him to accompany 16 year-old Eugène Beauharnais to the Ionian Isles when the latter was sent there on a diplomatic mission – maybe Lavalette was already considered something like family back then). Lavalette, too, had been a royalist at the beginning of the revolution, and in Bonaparte's service he again had managed to get on the bad side of the revolutionary government. As a result of it, in early 1798, shortly before the Egyptian campaign, Napoleon Bonaparte managed to receive promotions for each and every of his aide-de-camps – except for Lavalette. And so he tried to find another way to reward him.


According to Lavalette's own memoirs, the negotiations took place in a carriage when Bonaparte offered Lavalette a ride home after work. We can imagine it happened a bit like this:


Napoleon: Listen, Lavalette, I cannot give you a promotion. But I do have a wife for you.

Lavalette: Uhm, thanks, general, but that's not really quite the same thi-

Napoleon: Oh, no need to thank me, old pal. I've talked it over with Josephine already. Haven't you met her niece, Émilie? Pretty girl, uh?

Lavalette (impressed): Very pretty. But … I'm a soldier. We'll go on campaign soon. I might even not come back.

Napoleon: Sure. But if you die, as an officer's widow she'll receive a pension from the state.

Lavalette: I see your point.

Napoleon: It's a deal then. Meet my wife tonight, she'll give you all the details. Tomorrow we'll go to Madame Campan's so you can propose. - Erm … you alright?

Lavalette (laughing like a maniac in his corner of the carriage as he considers it all a joke)


Well, he would soon learn differently. Apparently Lavalette took what Madame Josephine Bonaparte told him during the evening soirée a bit more serious; at the very least, when the party (Bonaparte, Josephine, her son Eugène and Lavalette himself) reached Madame Campan's school he had understood that he was indeed expected to propose to Émilie. His situation surely was not made less awkward by the dozends of giggling girls gawking from every window at the famous general Bonaprte and his entourage.


Now accompanied by Émilie and Josephine`s daughter Hortense the group enjoyed a picnic in the garden after which it was cousin Eugène's job to take Émilie and Lavalette on a walk in the woods and to promptly remember he had forgotten a really important thing he was to do elsewhere, leaving the soon-to-be couple to themselves. According to his memoirs Lavalette was quite self-conscious about his looks and basically proposed by stating that he indeed would gladly marry Émilie, but if she didn't want him she really wouldn't have to! Émilie didn't utter a word but took a small bouquet she hard worn at her bosom and gave it to him. Lavalette took that to mean 'yes', kissed her and, as she didn't struggle, assumed he had guessed correctly.


The marriage took place April 22nd, 1798, and a month later, Lavalette followed Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypt. It was only after the marriage that Émilie confessed to Hortense that she had been in love with Napoleon's brother Louis Bonaparte. Hortense rightfully thought this confession came a little late in the day. No wonder that people seem to have considered Émilie »a bit of a sheep« at the time.


In october 1799, Lavalette returned from Egypt safe and sound (the only one among Napoleon's aide-de-camps to be neither killed nor seriously wounded), so Émilie had no need to claim her widow's pension. During his absence, Émilie for her part had contracted smallpox, and her pretty face was disfigured by pockmarks which apparently drove her to dispair and utterly shattered her self-confidence.


The marriage itself was as good or bad as arranged marriages tended to be – there was one daughter, much politeness, and they seem to have lived next to each other in a rather friendly manner. In his memoirs, Lavalette speaks very highly of his wife, but then again, he has every reason to.


Lavalette, as directeur géneral des Postes, became master of the infamous »Cabinet Noir«, his wife dame d'atours of her aunt empress Josephine. Doubtful which of the two had the better job: the husband spying on Napoleon's family, allies, friends and enemies or the wife desperately trying to keep Josephine from purchasing yet another dozend of shoes, dresses or shawls every day. After Josephine's and Napoleon's marriage had been dissolved, Émilie seems to have left the court for good. Lavalette remained at his job until Napoleon's abdication in 1814.


Of course the story of this marriage would be incomplete without its heroic ending. When in 1815 Napoleon returned from Elba for the Hundred Days, Lavalette welcomed him and regained his former position as directeur général des Postes. After Napoleon's second abdication and the second return of the Bourbons, during the first days of Restoration, he was arrested and sentenced to death. On the evening of December 20th 1815, the day before his execution was scheduled. Émilie, accompanied by their daughter, visited Lavalette in his cell, changed clothes with him and had their daughter lead him out of prison while she remained behind in his place. Lavalette for some days found shelter with friends and was finally smuggled out of France by – British officers, among them general Sir Robert Wilson. He finally reached Bavaria, where Émilie's cousin Eugène resided, and where he could hide under the name of »Monsieur Cossar« until, in 1822, he was pardonned and allowed to return to France.


Émilie remained imprisonned for four weeks after she had freed her husband. According to Lavalette, the experience had traumatised her, and she would fall in deep melancholy (according to Mme Junot, she had been somewhat depressive ever since the smallpox). »Melancholy« is a term often used to indicate madness, which in a woman's case could mean any kind of non-accepted behaviour. Maybe Émilie's heroic deed (that the whole of Europe lauded) had been a bit of an emancipatory act for her; she had done her duty as a wife. Apparently she had a fling with her doctor during Lavalette's absence; in any case, she refused to follow her husband into exile (but then again, most French ladies of those days felt like leaving Paris was a death sentence, so maybe one should not read too much into that).


Lavalette died in 1830. Émilie survived him by another 25 years.
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