Josephine and the Old Shoes: 1789

Josephine's daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais, as Queen of Holland

Josephine’s daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais, as Queen of Holland

JOSEPHINE: THE STORY OF THE OLD SHOES

After the divorce of the amiable Josephine from her second husband, Napoleon, she retired to Malmaison, a pleasant country residence not far distant from Paris. Here, though retaining the title of empress, she lived in comparative seclusion till the period of her death in 1814. Some time before her lamented decease, she was visited by two young ladies of her acquaintance, whose interview with her is thus described by one of the party, in the Memoirs of Josephine:—’It happened to us to request of the empress to show us her diamonds, which were locked up in a concealed cellar. She yielded with the most willing compliance to the wishes of such giddy girls as we were, ordered an immense table to be brought into the saloon, upon which several of her maids-in-waiting laid a countless number of caskets of every form and shape. They were spread upon that spacious table, which was absolutely covered with them. On the opening of the caskets, we were perfectly dazzled with the brilliancy, the size, and the quantity of jewels composing the different sets. The most remarkable after those which consisted of white diamonds, were in the shape of pears, formed of pearls, perfectly regular, and of the finest color; opals, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds, were encircled with large diamonds, which were, nevertheless, considered as mere mountings, and never taken into account in the estimation made of those jewels. They formed altogether a collection which I believe to be unique in Europe, since they consisted of the most valuable objects of that description that could be found in the towns conquered by our armies. Napoleon was never under the necessity of seizing upon objects, which there was always evinced the utmost anxiety to offer to his wife: the garlands and bouquets formed of such a countless number of precious stones had the effect of verifying the truth of the descriptions hitherto so fanciful, which are to be met with in the fairy tales. None but those who have seen this splendid collection can form an adequate idea of it.

‘The empress seldom wore any other than fancy-jewels; the sight, therefore, of this exhibition of caskets, excited the wonder of most of the beholders. Her majesty greatly enjoyed our silent admiration. After having permitted us to touch and examine everything at our leisure—” I had no other motive,” she kindly said to us, “in ordering my jewels to be opened before you, than to spoil your fancy for such ornaments. After having seen such splendid sets, you never can feel a wish for inferior ones; the less so, when you reflect how unhappy I have been, although with so rare a collection at my command. During the first dawn of my extraordinary elevation, I delighted in these trifles, many of which were presented to me in Italy. I grew by degrees so tired of them, that I no longer wear any, except when I am in some respects compelled to do so by my new rank in the world: a thousand accidents may, besides, contribute to deprive me of those brilliant though useless objects. Do I not possess the pendants of Queen Marie Antoinette? and yet am I quite sure of retaining them? Trust to me, ladies, and do not envy a splendor which does not constitute happiness. I shall not fail to surprise you, when I relate, that I felt more pleasure at receiving an old pair of shoes, than at being presented with all the diamonds which are now spread before you.” We could not help smiling at this observation, persuaded as we were that Josephine was not in earnest; but she repeated her assertions in so serious a manner, that we felt the utmost curiosity to hear the story of this wonderful pair of shoes.

‘”I repeat it, ladies,” said her majesty: “it is strictly true that the present, which of all others has afforded me most pleasure, is a pair of old shoes of the coarsest leather; you will readily believe it when you shall have heard my story. I had set sail with my daughter Hortense, from Martinique, in the West Indies, on board a ship in which we received such marked attentions, that they are indelibly impressed on my memory. Being separated from my first husband, my pecuniary resources were not very flourishing; the expense of my return to France, which the state of my affairs rendered necessary, had nearly drained me of everything; and I found great difficulty in making the purchases which were indispensably requisite for the voyage. Hortense, who was a smart, lively child, sang negro songs, and performed negro dances with admirable accuracy; she was the delight of the sailors, and in return for their fondness, she had made them her favorite company. I no sooner fell asleep, than she slipped upon deck, and rehearsed her various little exercises to the renewed delight and admiration of all on board. An old mate was particularly fond of her; and whenever he found a moment’s leisure from his daily occupations, he devoted it to his little friend, who was also exceedingly attached to him. My daughter’s shoes were soon worn out with her constant dancing and skipping. Knowing, as she did, that I had no other pair for her, and fearing lest I should prevent her going upon deck, if I should discover the plight of those she was fast wearing away, she concealed the trifling accident from my knowledge. I saw her once returning with bleeding feet, and asked her, in the utmost alarm, if she had hurt herself. ‘No, mamma.’ ‘But your feet are bleeding.’ ‘It really is nothing.’ I insisted upon ascertaining what ailed her, and discovered that her shoes were all in tatters, and that her flesh was dreadfully torn by a nail.

“We had as yet only performed half the voyage; a long time would necessarily elapse before I could procure a fresh pair of shoes; and I was mortified at the bare anticipation of the distress my poor Hortense would now feel at being compelled to remain confined in my wretched little cabin, and of the injury her health might experience from the want of exercise. At the moment when I was wrapped up in sorrow, and giving free vent to my tears, our friend the mate made his appearance, and inquired with his honest bluntness what was the cause of our whimperings. Hortense replied in a sobbing voice, that she could no longer go upon deck, because she had torn her shoes, and I had no others to give her. ‘Is that all? I have an old pair in my trunk; let me go for them. You, madame, will cut them up, and I shall sew them over again to the best of my power. Everything on board ship should be turned to account. This is not the place for being too nice or particular. We have our most important wants gratified when we have the needful.’ He did not wait for our reply, but went in quest of his old shoes, which he brought to us with an air of exultation, and offered them to Hortense, who received the gift with every demonstration of delight. We set to work with the greatest alacrity; and my daughter was enabled, towards the close of day, to enjoy the pleasure of again amusing the ship’s company. I repeat, that no present was ever received by me with more sincere gratitude. I greatly reproached myself for having neglected to make inquiries after the worthy seaman, who was only known on board by the name of James. I should have felt a sincere satisfaction in rendering him some service, since it was afterwards in my power to do so.”

Hortense afterwards became the wife of Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland, and mother of the present President of France, Prince Louis Napoleon. The poor circumstances in which Josephine had thus been placed, by her sudden removal or flight from Martinique, after the breaking out of the rebellion in that island, were less distressing than her subsequent sufferings on her arrival in France. Her husband, M. de Beauharnais, who had figured as one of the early military leaders in the French revolutionary movements, was seized, condemned, and brought to the guillotine; and she narrowly escaped the same fate only by the death of Robespierre, whereupon she was released from confinement.  

Chamber’s Miscellany 1853

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Josephine, estranged from her first husband, Alexandre, Compte de Beauharnais, had returned to her native Martinique in 1786. Alexandre had a change of heart and entreated her to return. She did so in the voyage described above. Although this is an excerpt from Chamber’s Miscellany, the original appears in Memoirs of the Empress Josephine by  John S. Memes, LL.D., 1838, who says in his preface: “The biographer who professes to write from other sources than personal knowledge can claim little merit beyond diligent inquiry and happy arrangement. Whether he has been fortunate in their combination does not belong to the author to determine ; but he believes the materials will be found to have been laboriously collected and carefully examined. Upwards of one hundred volumes, many of them unknown to the English
reader, have been consulted ; but it was deemed unnecessary to crowd the page with references, especially as the main facts in these Memoirs are made to rest chiefly on the authority of the principal personage. The numerous letters and con-
versations of the Empress which appear in the volume, are from originals understood to be still in possession of her family, or from sources equally
authentic.”

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One thought on “Josephine and the Old Shoes: 1789

  1. Pingback: The Diamond Necklace of Queen Hortense: 1806 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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