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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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II - Hortense and Louis

Posted September 2nd, 2017 at 02:21 AM by Josefa
Updated September 2nd, 2017 at 02:39 AM by Josefa

While Napoleon's first attempt at arranging a political marriage in retrospect can be seen as somewhat successful (particularly by the husband who owed his life to it), the second should have made Napoleon turn away from that business forever. This will be a story about Hortense Beauharnais, daughter of Joséphine, and Napoleon's younger brother Louis.

We have already seen that Napoleon may have had ulterior motives when marrying his aide-de-camp Lavalette to Émilie Beauharnais: Émilie was in love with Louis Bonaparte. The feeling seems to have been mutual (and would later cause Louis to write an allegedly rather bad novel titled "Marie ou les peines de l'amour"). Napoleon apparently had higher aims for his little brother and did not want to waste him on the pennyless daughter of a royalist émigré. And Louis would soon have to learn that as a member of Napoleon's family, you'd better learn to forget about your personal wishes, feelings or plans for your life.

The bride:

Click the image to open in full size.

Hortense Beauharnais was the younger of Joséphine's two children from her first marriage to the viscount Alexandre Beauharnais. At the time of her marriage in 1802 she was 18 ears old. While few people saw her as particularly beautiful she was celebrated for her charms, her affability, her kindness and good manners. She was an admired dancer and had remarkable skills in music and painting.

The bridegroom:

Click the image to open in full size.

Louis Bonaparte was the fourth of the Bonaparte brothers. The duchess of Abrantes describes him as mild, good-natured and in his appearance resembling his sister Caroline. In January 1802 he was 23 years old, but he already suffered from the same illness that over the years would turn him into a morose, distrustful grouch.

Louis had for a while lived with his older brother Napoleon while the latter was still a sous-lieutenant in Auxonne. He later entered the military himself and during Napoleon's first Italian campaign he served as his brother's aide-de-camp. Apparently at some point during the time in Italy he for the first time starts to show symptoms of disease. People seem to disagree on the nature of this illness. It's often assumed to have been some kind of venereal disease (but I've also found mental issues or simply hypochondria). So far, I've never come across any mention of the typical treatments (like mercury for syphilis). From the description, the symptoms point to arthritis and/or muscular dystrophy; at times his legs would not carry his weight, and during his time as king of Holland he lost the use of his right hand fingers to a degree he allegedly had the feather tied to his hand in order to be able to write.

He seems to have had a strong sense of honour, morality and duty - a rather solemn, stern personality. Which was as opposed to that of his future wife as it could get.

Hortense had had a rather interesting childhood, to say the least: When she was born, their parents separated because her father accused her mother of adultery. A lawsuit that her mother won against her father was followed b a rather brief sojourn with Josephine in Martinique. It was ended by a slave revolt, mother and daughter returned to France; her father was beheaded during the revolution, her mother imprisonned, released, in a shady relationship with the new strong men of the revolutionary government, finally married - for what reason ever - to Napoleon Bonaparte.

Who after his Egyptian adventure made himself First Consul and did everything to use his charming and sociable wife and his charming and well-behaved step-children to his advantage. All of a sudden Hortense found herself in the role of France's cherished "First Daughter".

Now, Hortense tries to gloss over it a bit in her memoirs but make no mistake: she loved the limelight. She would always refer to her school days as to the happiest time in her life. She had been best student and teacher's pet at Madame Campan's, winning competitions, receiving awards and being both admired and envied by the other girls, some of which would remain her closest companions throughout her life. When her mother Josephine took her out of Madame Campan's school (against the whishes of the directrice who wanted Hortense to complete her education first) she loved to excel in society, to dance, gossip, play little pranks and let herself be admired.
Young Hortense comes across as fun-loving, even a bit silly, occasionally immature, shallow and - well, rather self-centred, probably without realizing it. In any case her personality seems diametrically opposed to that of Louis Bonaparte.

So why that marriage?

To be fair to Napoleon: this time it wasn't only his fault, even if Cambacérès is pretty clear on "the First Consul alone" wanting this marriage. A huge part of the blame goes to Madame Josephine Bonaparte who, approaching the age of fourty, rightfully assumed that she would not have any more children. So she tried to pass the task of giving an heir to Napoleon on to her daughter. By marrying Louis Hortense hopefully would be able to give birth to a boy of both Bonaparte and Beauharnais blood. Whom Napoleon then would adopt.
In short: Napoleon and Josephine intended to use Louis and Hortense as surrogate parents.

It isn't clear how far Louis was aware of this plan - his later reaction rather indicates he wasn't. Hortense in any case was. As soon as it was clear that Louis would agree to the marriage, her mother put extreme mental pressure on her, imploring her to "sacrifice herself" for her mother's sake as Napoleon otherwise surely would divorce Josephine.

But first the family started to lean on Louis - from both sides. While Napoleon and Josephine tried to win him over to marry Hortense, Joseph (who disliked Josephine with a passion) implored him to resist. Louis, who was still bemoaning Émilie and probably guessed correctly that Hortense could not stand him, did the only reasonable thing and - ran. His military duties and illness gave him ample reason to be away from Paris.

However, it seems when the innuations and proddings would not cease he started to get used to the idea. Maybe even to sympathize with it - Hortense was a remarkable young lady after all, admired by each and everyone, and Louis was a young man not quite immune to her charms. At least that's what Lucien's memoirs suggest. Apparently this notoriously rebellious brother was the one Louis turned to for advice, and they had a conversation that went a bit like this:

Lucien: You know you and the Beauharnais girl do not have much in common.

Louis: That's true.

Lucien: You also know she's under her mother's influence and will probably always be.

Louis: I do.

Lucien: And she doesn't have a good reputation. She's a flirt. Parties, parties, parties all day, just like her mother.

Louis: Sure, sure. But ...

Lucien: But?

Louis: But I think I kinda fell in love with her.

Lucien: You're in love? Well, you idiot, what are you here for then? Go ahead and marry her!


Which really sounds much like something impulsive Lucien would suggest. Unfortunately, it proved to be not the best piece of advice.

Now that Louis was not utterly opposed to the thought anymore, it was Josephine's turn to work on Hortense. Hortense - according to her memoirs still completely in the dark about what had been going on - was mortified at the thought. She does not give any distinct reason for it but it gets pretty clear from her behaviour that she found Louis utterly repulsive. She was and would always be a romantic; at eighteen she understandably dreamt of true love like in the novels she read and the poems and songs she wrote. And Louis Bonaparte, that permanently sick, boring sourpuss who never danced, clearly did not qualify as a romantic hero!

As her mother insisted, Hortense cried and asked for respite. When time was up she asked for some more and cried a little more; all the while carefully avoiding Louis who, in his awkward way, had started to court her. In the end she gave in to her mother's wishes. Joséphine surely excelled at manipulating people's opinion; it's also noteworthy that Hortense's other possible advisor, her brother Eugène, at the time was stationed at Lyon with his regiment. He would not even attend her wedding - rather odd, given how close the three Beauharnais usually were.

The marriage was decidely rushed - quite probably to avoid Hortense changing her mind. She didn't. She did however make sure everybody would take notice of the noble sacrifice she made for her mother's sake by refusing to wear her wedding gown and jewelery and showing up for the ceremony sad-faced and teary-eyed. Like Josephine and Napoleon, Hortense too had a penchant for theatrics.

Napoleon gave the newly wed couple his and Josephine's old house in the Rue Chantereine turned Rue de la Victoire. He needn't have bothered. As soon as Hortense was sure to be pregnant (four weeks after the marriage) she more or less moved in with her mother and step-father again - attending parties, dancing, playing the harp, receiving guests, occasionally doing the "honeurs" in Josephine's place and generally being her all-charming self. Louis left town in order to once more seek cure for his ailments. He wrote his wife daily and very tender letters and very rarely received a reply. (Some might see a certain mother-daughter-resemblance here.) On the rare occasions he did find himself in the same location as his wife (he would later calculate that during the total of their marriage they had not spent more than three-and-a-half months under the same roof), he saw himself sourrounded by musicians, drawing teachers and Hortense' ever-present giggling schoolfriends. And of course he would be in the presence of his mother-in-law (and sister-in-law) Josephine who would not let go of her daughter and whom he by now openly destested.

Not surprising the British press called Napoleon the likely father of Hortense's child, and it cannot even be ruled out that this is precisely what Napoleon wanted (he later made a remark to Hortense that might indicate that). If Louis really fathered any of his sons, and if so, how many, is up for debate but of little interest here. One thing is for sure: Napoleon's and Josephine's attempt to claim the new-born Napoléon Charles as their adoptive son ended in the first of a series of quarrels between Napoleon and Louis. While Louis furiously refused to give up any of his children on this and several other occasions, Hortense mostly kept quiet. Did she actually have an opinion on the matter? She surely didn't share her husband's strong sentiments, and this caused yet another estrangement between the two.

So the Consular couple had to leave Rue de la Victoire No. 6 without having adopted anyone. It did not keep Napoleon from making plans for this nephew whom he treated as heir without officially declaring him so, all the while trying to appease Joseph who insisted on having a higher claim to succesion. While in 1804 Joseph became the highest-ranking prince of the now imperial family, Louis being second, it was explicitly stated that Napoleon could adopt any of his brothers' sons as heir - a constant threat to Joseph. Accordingly, the baptism of Hortense's and Louis' second son, Napoléon Louis, born in October 1804, was celebrated with grand pomp.

In 1806 Louis and Hortense found themselves being declared king and queen of Holland - and for once they seem to have agreed in their horror and abjection at this idea. Other than that, their marriage had already turned into a living hell. Louis allegedly had his wife watched day and night out of jealousy and malice; Hortense retaliated by spreading false complaints about him (like the accusation Louis had forbidden her to attend her brother's wedding). In Holland she found herself lodged in a room that was decorated with skulls...

Hortense's oldest son, Napoleon's possible heir, died of croup in 1807, which sent Hortense into a deep shock and brought Louis to his senses. A brief retaliation resulted in the birth of Charles Louis Napoleon who would one day be Napoleon III. As Hortense for a long time felt too ill to return to Holland (she was well enough to do some mountaineering, however) she once more had the opportunity to stay with her mother and grace Paris with her presence and charms. She was still there in 1809 when Napoleon dissolved his marriage with Josephine. Did she hope for a similar arrangement for herself and Louis? No such luck. At Napoleon's insistence and her brother's pleading she reluctantly moved back to Holland and her husband. She soon felt ill and ill-treated enough again to be allowed back to Paris. It was a separation for good this time.

Louis for his part had desperately tried to keep Holland free of Napoleon's influence and failed. In 1810 he abdicated in favour of his son and secretely moved to Austria. Hortense, of course, remained in France. She also had no objections when Napoleon annexed Holland to France, thus robbing her son of a crown.

As a matter of fact, she had problems of her own at the time, being pregnant yet again, and this time clearly not by her husband but her lover Charles Flahaut. She managed to hide her pregnancy for months while in full sight of the French court - not an easy accomplishment -, then went on a trip in the mountains and, at an inn in Switzerland, gave birth to the Duc de Morny of the Second Empire.

At the fall of the empire in 1814 Hortense once more had to choose: remain with the Bonapartes or stay with her mother? Of course she chose Josephine - and a good thing she did as Josephine would die within a couple of weeks. So the Russian tsar had the pleasure of meeting her and her family in Malmaison. Hortense managed to get on the good side of the new Bourbon government (or at least not on their bad side) which did not keep her from welcoming rebellious Bonapartists to her drawing room. After the Hundred Days saw her at Napoleon's side again, she had lost credit with everyone. She fled to Switzerland but was not allowed to stay, then on to Augsburg, Bavaria where the future emperor Napoleon III allegedly learned to speak French with a remarkable Swabian accent. In the end, when the dust had settled a bit, she was allowed to stay in Switzerland, with authorities simply closing both eyes.

Her marriage was still not dissolved - and never would be. As she and Louis could not quarrel directly anymore the fight was on over the children. As long as Napoleon was in power Hortense's sons as princes of France would of course stay at court. But already the Bourbon governement had made it clear that according to law custody fell to the father. And so Hortense and Louis (who by now was living in Italy) reluctantly had to reinstate communications regarding the education of their sons. Which unsurprisingly led to more quarrels and complaints about bad choice of teachers and unsatisfying grades. I remember reading a letter in which Hortense asked one of her brother's former aide-de-camps to accompany her son back to Switzerland from a sojourn at Louis's place in Italy because Louis would not trust Hortense's own people.

Hortense died of cancer in 1837 after having suffered the loss of yet another son in 1831 and the imprisonnement and exilation of the other. Louis lived through all his diseases until 1846.
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