History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

15 February 2012

Summer at Malmaison

The summer of 1804 was a very uncomfortable time to be a friend of Napoleon’s wife.

My new book, The Garden Intrigue, comes out tomorrow. It’s set largely at Napoleon’s country house, in the summer of 1804—the summer that Napoleon’s imperial ambitions come to fruition and Napoleon goes from being “First Consul for Life”, that dubiously Republican title, to Emperor. He hasn’t been crowned yet (that won’t happen until December), but he’s already styled himself Emperor and begun assembling his court.

My American heroine, Emma, is rather uncomfortable with all this. She went to school with Napoleon’s stepdaughter, Hortense, back in the old days, when Napoleon was just another general and Hortense’s mother, Josephine, lived in a disordered jewel box of a house on the Rue Chantereine, a house so small that Hortense and her brother Eugene slept up in the attic when they visited. Now, her old school friend is suddenly an imperial highness. She’s not sure what to call people anymore—Napoleon is still figuring out what titles he’d like to confer on his friends and relatives, making them up as he goes, and he’s getting a little touchy about protocol.

Worst of all, in the summer of 1804, it seemed entirely possible that Napoleon would divorce Josephine. With historical hindsight, we know that he held off for a few years yet, but, at the time, it seemed entirely likely. It was one thing to be a Consul married to a barren wife; as an Emperor, he wanted heirs of his body. They had come to a bizarre arrangement two years earlier in 1802: Josephine’s daughter, Hortense, was married off to Napoleon’s brother, Louis, on the grounds that their children would be heirs to Napoleon and Josephine. That had been good enough for a hereditary Consulate—but was it good enough for an Empire?

Napoleon’s siblings and mother thought not. They had never liked Josephine—she was older, she was snooty, look at how much jewelry she bought!—and they saw their chance to get rid of her. So did several courtiers with an eye for the main chance. Josephine was older, she was barren, the marriage had only been a civil and not a religious one (this is also when Napoleon starts seriously sucking up to the Pope, since if Charlemagne had a papal coronation, he wants one, too). It would, Josephine’s detractors point out, be very easy to put her aside and take a younger, more nubile, more regal wife.

It creates an interesting dilemma for the courtiers flocking around the (almost) imperial court. Cultivate Josephine’s favor—or shun her in case she loses? Take a place as Josephine’s lady in waiting—or turn it down, rather than risk being part of a disgraced faction?

Of course, we know how it all turns out, but, at the time, it seemed quite likely that Josephine’s would be the losing side.

My poor heroine, Emma, is having trouble coming to grips with the situation-- in her world, this sort of thing just doesn't happen. In the following scene, she finally asks her old friend Hortense whether it's true:

Hortense raised a hand in warning, jerking her head towards the sleeping child in her lap.

Emma nodded to show that she understood, and lowered herself awkwardly onto the blanket, taking care not to bump Louis-Napoleon. Hortense’s husband was on the other side of the clearing, pointedly ignoring his wife and child.

Emma folded her legs beneath her, wondering how to ask what she needed to ask.

Before she could, Hortense said quietly, “Remember our old games of prisoner’s base?”

She was looking out across the river at the undulating vista of green grass and artfully artless trees, the scene of their old revels and games. “Yes. You always won.”

“My legs are longer than yours.” Hortense had always been generous in victory.

Emma couldn’t take it anymore. “Is it true?” she blurted out. “Is the Emperor planning to divorce your mother?”

Emma expected shock, outrage, denial. There wasn’t any. Hortense didn’t seem the least bit surprised. Bending her head over her sleeping child, she said carefully, “It is possible.”

Emma felt as though she had had the wind knocked out of her. “But—why?”

Hortense glanced over her shoulder to the canopy where the Emperor sat. Caroline stood by his side. He was dandling Caroline’s son, Achille, on his knee. The three-year-old squirmed, wriggling to be let down. Mme. Bonaparte looked on, a strained, fixed smile on her face.

“They want him to put Maman aside,” Hortense said quietly.

“What?” Emma guiltily turned her attention back to her friend. Now wasn’t the time to dither over Augustus, not when the whole world was falling to pieces around her.

“They want him to divorce her,” said Hortense. “Before the coronation. Theirs was only a civil marriage, you know.”

“Who wants it? The Bonapartes?” The Bonapartes had hated Hortense’s mother from the very beginning, holding against her her age, her past, her effortless elegance.

Hortense shook her head. “Not just the Bonapartes. His advisors, too. They say the succession is unsure. They want him to make a dynastic marriage.”

“A dynastic marriage?” Dynastic marriages were for kings and dukes and the scion of ancient houses, not jumped-up generals turned rulers. Hadn’t they fought a revolution to be done with dynasties? The very idea was ludicrous. “He’s not exactly King George.”

“No,” said Hortense quietly. “He rules far more territory than King George, and will rule still more if his plans go as he intends them. They usually do,” she added.

It wasn’t an indictment, just a statement of fact.

“What plans?” asked Emma suspiciously.

“There are always plans,” said Hortense wearily. “This time it’s the invasion of England. He’s always wanted to conquer England. If he manages that . . .” She shrugged. “He’ll have achieved what none of his predecessors could. France will rule England. For that, he’ll need an heir.”

Emma couldn’t care less about England, but she did care about Hortense. “But he has an heir,” Emma said stubbornly. “What about you? What about Louis-Napoleon?”

The very purpose behind Hortense’s disaster of a marriage to Bonaparte’s younger brother had been to provide Bonaparte with that heir, an heir of both his blood and Josephine’s. Louis-Napoleon had been intended for that position from birth. If the Emperor had changed his mind now, it meant that Hortense’s sacrifice and all the pain she had endured since had been for naught.

It was, thought Emma passionately, unthinkable.

“He won’t go back on his word now,” she said, wishing she could believe her own words.

Hortense smiled without humor. “It’s not the same. If he is to be an emperor, he must have heirs of the blood. Or so they say.”

Emma bit down on her lower lip. “What about your mother?”

Hortense didn’t even need to think about it. “It will devastate her,” she said simply.

Emma could remember when Bonaparte had been the one clamoring for Mme. Bonaparte’s attention, suing for such crumbs of affection as she might choose to toss him. She had treated him, then, with a sort of abstracted fondness, and chosen her lovers elsewhere.

Emma wasn’t sure when the balance had shifted; she had been preoccupied with her own affairs, with Carmagnac and Paul and her own wounded feelings. It had been a blurry and confused time, and, at the end of it, she had come to Malmaison to find that the world had shifted, that it was Mme. Bonaparte begging her husband’s affection, biting her lip and looking the other way as he chose his mistresses from among the actresses at the Comédie-Française, and sometimes even from among his stepdaughter’s friends.

Once, Mme. Bonaparte might have had her own way with a single, softly spoken word. Not anymore.

Emma had a very bad feeling about this.

“What can you do?” Emma asked her friend.

Hortense looked down at her son’s head. “I’ve done everything I can do,” she said, and there was a touch of bitterness in her voice. “What else, I don’t know.”

If you're in Atlanta tonight or in Scottsdale, AZ tomorrow, come hear more about The Garden Intrigue! I'm speaking tonight at Georgia Gwinnett College and tomorrow at the Poisoned Pen (with the wonderful Deanna Raybourn). You can find a full list of tour dates on my website.


Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I've always loved Hortense. She got such a raw deal. Really looking foward to this installment!

12:11 PM  
Blogger Maria D. said...

I have always felt sorry for Josephine! She got a raw deal, he knew she was older when he got involved with her of course I also felt sorry for Marie Antoinette!
Congratulations on your release tomorrow!

12:51 PM  
Blogger Renee said...

If I had known in time, I would have been at Georgia Gwinnett College. I have been waiting most impatiently for this book.

5:51 PM  

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