Josephine and Caporal Violette

The subject is violets, Napoleon, and Josephine Beauharnais, the original  trophy wife.

Well, highly decorative wife, at any rate, and she would have been rich – “rich as a Creole” was the expression in pre-Revolutionary France – had her  sugar baron father not gone bankrupt.

She was born in 1763 in Martinique, “Ile aux Fleurs” , where perfume is more or less superfluous.   When the flowers are in bloom – and when are they ever not? – the competing scent rides on the sea breezes and permeates the air.  A veritable onslaught of porcelaine rose, heliconias, flamboyants and who knows what else. Not quite enough to put her off perfume entirely, but by some accounts, it seems to have created a taste for simpler things.  For her garden, roses.  For her perfume,  violets.*

She left the island for good in 1779 and, at the urging of her family, married Alexandre de Beauharnais, the son of her aunt’s lover.  A practical people, the French.  He was beheaded during the Terror, leaving her a widow with two children, having narrowly escaped execution herself, and on regaining her freedom, followed her aunt’s career and became a semi professional cocotte until she won the heart of Napoleon.

It was love for the little man, and he suffered for it.  The coquetry, the infidelity, the long absences, the lack of heirs – poor fellow, he was always something of a bumpkin.  So if it was violets she wanted, violets she would have.  Parma violets?  But of course.  By great good fortune, he had held that particular city since 1796 and could get her all the violets she wanted.

And she did.  Josephine  carried  violets to her wedding, she had them embroidered in her dress, and if the Bonaparte’s anniversary clashed with his conquering Europe, he made certain to send her a fresh bouquet of the things.

Eventually and when things went badly, the bloody romantic Napoleon took the flower as his symbol, much as Sir Percy Blakeney did the Scarlet Pimpernel.   Where did they seek him?  In picture postcards.

Let me explain.

While he was unable on Elba, Bonaparte told his confidants that he would return to France carrying violets.  Followers of Caporal Violette took up the imagery with a vengance.  Their secret decoder rings carried the violet in enamel. When the emperor landed for Act Two in Ferjus, the markets in Paris were suddenly filled with the flower which were bought as a means of distinguishing oneself as a partisan.   “Aimez vous la violette?”  (The proper answer was not “Oui!” Too obvious, but “Eh Bien.  Eh, bien! reparaitra au printemps. “Excellent! They return in spring.”)

And finally, the illustration above spread across France, a charming posy of violets.  Delightful and innocent. But look closely.  In the coils of leaf and stem the discerning can find silhouettes of Napoleon,  his son Charles, and his wife.  His second wife, that is to say, Marie Louise of Austria, who, Mrs. Allen tells me, also had a taste for violets.  (Which in turn could explain her choice of Parma as a place to retire.  Me, it would be cheese and ham. But I digress.)

Do we see a pattern here?  No matter. The second wife was not for love, but for the heir that Josephine could not provide.  (These postcards, incidentally,  were banned in later years in an attempt to quell any lingering traces of Bonapartism.)

He failed in war as he had failed in love, of course, lasting only for his Hundred Days until the teetering suspense of Waterloo when the fate of Europe was balanced on the fulcrum of a single battlefield.  Unfortunately for Napoleon, it swung the wrong way and toppled the emperor into defeat.

Before he left France for good in 1814, he visited Josephine’s grave – she had died the year before – which was covered with the flower.   Sentimental in his old age, he plucked a few.

They were found, after his own death, in a locket worn around his neck.

*(Others say she her tastes also embraced  musk, the earthier the better. According to this line, that smell lingered in her boudoir for another sixty years, in her bathtub for 150. And that Napoleon did not care for it.  Which in turn raises the question, what appeal did he find in the Josephine to whom he allegedly wrote: “Coming home within a week. Do not bathe”?  Perhaps we require this pair to tend towards the heavy and the  louche.  If so, well, more surprises next time on the Emperor’s New Perfume.)

POSTSCRIPT -  Research never ends. I found this post giving further information on the second Mrs Bonaparte and her connection to violets and the Parma.


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