How do you get a Bonaparte who’s twice a Bonaparte but not a Bonaparte?
That about sums up my favorite Bonaparte, Hortense de Beauharnais– who also happens to be best friends with the heroine of Pink IX, Emma Morris Delagardie.
The daughter of Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, by her first marriage, Hortense was less than thrilled when she heard that her mother had married an egotistical little Corsican general. Hortense groused that her new stepfather might have won many battles, but he certainly wasn’t going to win her over. But Napoleon gradually won her over, and Hortense came, not only to accept the marriage, but to be fond of her stepfather, although she recognized that his ambitions were likely to cause upheaval in their lives. “He is the comet and we are the tail,” she mused. “We must follow where he leads for good or for ill.”
Universally the most liked of the Bonaparte clan, Hortense proved an early sacrifice to her mother’s fears and her stepfather’s ambitions. Although her mother, Josephine, had borne two children in her first marriage, she failed to conceive in her marriage to Bonaparte, a failure that cast a serious kink in Bonaparte’s imperial ambitions. As a stopgap measure, Napoleon and Josephine cooked up the following scheme: they would marry Hortense to Napoleon’s younger brother Louis, thus ensuring heirs of both their blood. Josephine’s tears won Hortense’s acquiescence. The pair married in 1802.
The marriage was a disaster. Louis was an unprepossessing character, lachrymose and flat-footed. What was more, he was insanely jealous, suspecting Hortense of affairs with just about everyone– including her own stepfather, Napoleon.
My heroine, Emma, first met Hortense when they were both pupils at Mme. Campan’s school for girls in St. Germain-en-Laye, where they became fast friends. It’s Hortense who helps Emma elope from Mme. Campan’s, and, when Emma’s hasty marriage fails, it’s Hortense who takes Emma in.
But by the time Pink IX opens, in late spring of 1804, Napoleon’s imperial ambitions have changed everything, even their friendship. Emma is aware her old friend is in a bad way– but she hasn’t the faintest idea how to help….
When Emma was shown into Hortense’s boudoir, the others were already deep in conversation, a china pot of coffee on the table between them, two cups half full and a third glaringly empty.
Jane Wooliston smiled at Emma over her coffee cup. “Only fifteen minutes late this time. You’re improving.”
Hortense Bonaparte made a face at Jane. “Don’t be unkind!” Rising, she embraced Emma, the differences in their height reversed from when they had first known each other, when Hortense was eleven and Emma fourteen. Now Hortense was the taller of the two, a grown woman and a mother. But she still had the same sweet nature that had endeared her to everyone at Mme Campan’s. “I’m sure there was an extenuating circumstance. Such as…
“A stampede of bears across the Champs-Elysee?” suggested Jane. “Typhoons? Hurricanes?”
Emma plumped down with a thump on the yellow silk settee. “A hurricane, indeed! Hurricane Augustus, you mean. Someone”—she looked hard at Jane—“unleashed a poet on me.”
“Unleashed is such a strong term,” said Jane.
“No one ever tells me anything,” complained Hortense, to no one in particular.
It was meant jokingly, but Emma felt a twinge of guilt all the same. If she thought her own position was fraught, Hortense’s was far worse. Bad enough being the First Consul’s stepdaughter, but she was made doubly a Bonaparte by her marriage to Napoleon’s younger brother, Louis. As the family rose in prominence, those who surrounded them were increasingly likely to be toadies, informers, or both. There were few these days whom Hortense could call friend and believe it.
Emma angled herself towards Hortense. “Trust me, you aren’t missing much of anything. You know Augustus Whittlesby, don’t you?”
“The poet?” Hortense perked up. She turned to Jane. “Isn’t he in love with you?”
“Perpetually,” said Emma, before Jane could jump in.
“Poetically,” countered Jane repressively. “It isn’t at all the same thing.”
“Yes, yes, we’ve had this discussion,” said Emma. And Augustus Whittlesby had been so very terrified when he had thought she might be flirting with him. Emma pushed that thought away; it wasn’t a particularly flattering recollection. “What did you tell him about me?” she demanded. “You didn’t say anything about my predilection for his pantaloons, did you?”
“Oh, my,” said Jane, raising one brow. “One afternoon in his company and you’re already away with the alliteration.”
“Don’t change the subject,” said Emma severely. “The poor man is terrified that I intend to seduce him.”
“Do you?” asked Hortense, with interest. The intense scrutiny of a jealous husband left her little opportunity to seduce anyone, but she took a generous interest in her friends.
“No! Absolutely not. I’m just using him for his help with my masque.” She wasn’t quite sure when, but somehow, it had become her masque, hers, quite hers. Maybe it had something to do with the pirates.
“So you are writing it!” Hortense put down her cup with a delicate clink. “Maman will be so pleased. She was terrified she might have to ask Caroline to help instead, and you know how Caroline is.” She made an admirable effort to sound cheerful, but there was no mistaking the strain beneath it.
“And Whittlesby,” said Jane. “Is he… helpful?”
“Stop that! And, yes,” Emma admitted. “He is. Or, at least, he might be. We’ll see. If you don’t stop smirking I’ll send him back to writing odes for you.” She turned to Hortense. “You will be my heroine, won’t you?”
Hortense took a deep interest in the contents of her coffee cup. “You know I want to be… but it might not be possible.”
“There won’t be much to… Oh.” Emma stared at Hortense’s hand where it rested gently on her stomach as her friend’s words took on new meaning. “Are you—I mean….”
Hortense nodded. “Yes.”
“But that doesn’t mean you can’t perform.” Women tended to go about in society up until the very last moment, a pregnancy no bar to one’s usual social whirl. The masque was in less than a month. “You won’t even be showing.”
Hortense shook her head, not meeting Emma’s eyes. “Louis wouldn’t like it.”
Emma and Jane exchanged a look. It was no secret that Hortense’s marriage was a sham, her husband delighting in all manner of petty persecutions.
It was a hideous situation. Hortense had never wanted to marry Louis, nor Louis Hortense, but if he wanted a dynasty, Bonaparte needed more heirs, and Hortense and Louis were to provide them. It was either that, or Bonaparte would divorce or Hortense’s mother and marry again, someone younger, more fertile. Hortense and Louis had one child already, Louis-Charles, but he was sickly, prone to every fever and chill that came along.
For the sake of her mother’s happiness, Hortense was caught, a glorified broodmare in the service of everyone else’s ambition.
Emma’s heart ached for her friend.
And, just a little bit, for herself. She certainly didn’t envy Hortense her situation, but she did envy her the curve of her hand across her belly, the child sleeping in the nursery, the press of small arms around her neck.
Fun Fact: I wrote a novel about Hortense de Beauharnais (then called The Tail of the Comet, later retitled Napoleon’s Daughter) when I was in high school. That novel began in 1796, just before Josephine’s marriage to Napoleon, and ended in 1802, with Hortense’s marriage to Louis. Not exactly the happiest of endings.