Famous Affinities of History
By Lyndon Orr

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Public Domain Books

Marie Antoinette a la Rose (detail)
by Elizabeth Vigee Lebrun

Napoleon and Marie Walewska

There are four women who may be said to have deeply influenced the life of Napoleon. These four are the only ones who need to be taken into account by the student of his imperial career. The great emperor was susceptible to feminine charms at all times; but just as it used to be said of him that “his smile never rose above his eyes,” so it might as truly be said that in most instances the throbbing of his heart did not affect his actions.

Women to him were the creatures of the moment, although he might seem to care for them and to show his affection in extravagant ways, as in his affair with Mlle. Georges, the beautiful but rather tiresome actress. As for Mme. de Stael, she bored him to distraction by her assumption of wisdom. That was not the kind of woman that Napoleon cared for. He preferred that a woman should be womanly, and not a sort of owl to sit and talk with him about the theory of government.

When it came to married women they interested him only because of the children they might bear to grow up as recruits for his insatiate armies. At the public balls given at the Tuileries he would walk about the gorgeous drawing-rooms, and when a lady was presented to him he would snap out, sharply:

“How many children have you?”

If she were able to answer that she had several the emperor would look pleased and would pay her some compliment; but if she said that she had none he would turn upon her sharply and say:

“Then go home and have some!”

Of the four women who influenced his life, first must come Josephine, because she secured him his earliest chance of advancement. She met him through Barras, with whom she was said to be rather intimate. The young soldier was fascinated by her–the more because she was older than he and possessed all the practised arts of the creole and the woman of the world. When she married him she brought him as her dowry the command of the army of Italy, where in a few months he made the tri-color, borne by ragged troops, triumphant over the splendidly equipped hosts of Austria.

She was his first love, and his knowledge of her perfidy gave him the greatest shock and horror of his whole life; yet she might have held him to the end if she had borne an heir to the imperial throne. It was her failure to do so that led Napoleon to divorce Josephine and marry the thick-lipped Marie Louise of Austria. There were times later when he showed signs of regret and said:

“I have had no luck since I gave up Josephine!”

Marie Louise was of importance for a time–the short time when she entertained her husband and delighted him by giving birth to the little King of Rome. Yet in the end she was but an episode; fleeing from her husband in his misfortune, becoming the mistress of Count Neipperg, and letting her son–l’Aiglon–die in a land that was far from France.

Napoleon’s sister, Pauline Bonaparte, was the third woman who comes to mind when we contemplate the great Corsican’s career. She, too, is an episode. During the period of his ascendancy she plagued him with her wanton ways, her sauciness and trickery. It was amusing to throw him into one of his violent rages; but Pauline was true at heart, and when her great brother was sent to Elba she followed him devotedly and gave him all her store of jewels, including the famous Borghese diamonds, perhaps the most superb of all gems known to the western world. She would gladly have followed him, also, to St. Helena had she been permitted. Remaining behind, she did everything possible in conspiring to secure his freedom.

But, after all, Pauline and Marie Louise count for comparatively little. Josephine’s fate was interwoven with Napoleon’s; and, with his Corsican superstition, he often said so. The fourth woman, of whom I am writing here, may be said to have almost equaled Josephine in her influence on the emperor as well as in the pathos of her life-story.

On New-Year’s Day of 1807 Napoleon, who was then almost Emperor of Europe, passed through the little town of Bronia, in Poland. Riding with his cavalry to Warsaw, the ancient capital of the Polish kingdom, he seemed a very demigod of battle.

True, he had had to abandon his long-cherished design of invading and overrunning England, and Nelson had shattered his fleets and practically driven his flag from the sea; but the naval disaster of Trafalgar had speedily been followed by the triumph of Austerlitz, the greatest and most brilliant of all Napoleon’s victories, which left Austria and Russia humbled to the very ground before him.

Then Prussia had dared to defy the over-bearing conqueror and had put into the field against him her armies trained by Frederick the Great; but these he had shattered almost at a stroke, winning in one day the decisive battles of Jena and Auerstadt. He had stabled his horses in the royal palace of the Hohenzollerns and had pursued the remnant of the Prussian forces to the Russian border.

As he marched into the Polish provinces the people swarmed by thousands to meet him and hail him as their country’s savior. They believed down to the very last that Bonaparte would make the Poles once more a free and independent nation and rescue them from the tyranny of Russia.

Napoleon played upon this feeling in every manner known to his artful mind. He used it to alarm the Czar. He used it to intimidate the Emperor of Austria; but more especially did he use it among the Poles themselves to win for his armies thousands upon thousands of gallant soldiers, who believed that in fighting for Napoleon they were fighting for the final independence of their native land.

Therefore, with the intensity of patriotism which is a passion among the Poles, every man and every woman gazed at Napoleon with something like adoration; for was not he the mighty warrior who had in his gift what all desired? Soldiers of every rank swarmed to his standards. Princes and nobles flocked about him. Those who stayed at home repeated wonderful stories of his victories and prayed for him and fed the flame which spread through all the country. It was felt that no sacrifice was too great to win his favor; that to him, as to a deity, everything that he desired should be yielded up, since he was to restore the liberty of Poland.

And hence, when the carriage of the emperor dashed into Bronia, surrounded by Polish lancers and French cuirassiers, the enormous crowd surged forward and blocked the way so that their hero could not pass because of their cheers and cries and supplications.

In the midst of it all there came a voice of peculiar sweetness from the thickest portion of the crowd.

“Please let me pass!” said the voice. “Let me see him, if only for a moment!”

The populace rolled backward, and through the lane which they made a beautiful girl with dark blue eyes that flamed and streaming hair that had become loosened about her radiant face was confronting the emperor. Carried away by her enthusiasm, she cried:

“Thrice welcome to Poland! We can do or say nothing to express our joy in the country which you will surely deliver from its tyrant.”

The emperor bowed and, with a smile, handed a great bouquet of roses to the girl, for her beauty and her enthusiasm had made a deep impression on him.

“Take it,” said he, “as a proof of my admiration. I trust that I may have the pleasure of meeting you at Warsaw and of hearing your thanks from those beautiful lips.”

In a moment more the trumpets rang out shrilly, the horsemen closed up beside the imperial carriage, and it rolled away amid the tumultuous shouting of the populace.

The girl who had so attracted Napoleon’s attention was Marie Walewska, descended from an ancient though impoverished family in Poland. When she was only fifteen she was courted by one of the wealthiest men in Poland, the Count Walewska. He was three or four times her age, yet her dark blue eyes, her massive golden hair, and the exquisite grace of her figure led him to plead that she might become his wife. She had accepted him, but the marriage was that of a mere child, and her interest still centered upon her country and took the form of patriotism rather than that of wifehood and maternity.

It was for this reason that the young Countess had visited Bronia. She was now eighteen years of age and still had the sort of romantic feeling which led her to think that she would keep in some secret hiding-place the bouquet which the greatest man alive had given her.

But Napoleon was not the sort of man to forget anything that had given him either pleasure or the reverse. He who, at the height of his cares, could recall instantly how many cannon were in each seaport of France and could make out an accurate list of all his military stores; he who could call by name every soldier in his guard, with a full remembrance of the battles each man had fought in and the honors that he had won–he was not likely to forget so lovely a face as the one which had gleamed with peculiar radiance through the crowd at Bronia.

On reaching Warsaw he asked one or two well-informed persons about this beautiful stranger. Only a few hours had passed before Prince Poniatowski, accompanied by other nobles, called upon her at her home.

“I am directed, madam,” said he, “by order of the Emperor of France, to bid you to be present at a ball that is to be given in his honor to-morrow evening.”

Mme. Walewska was startled, and her face grew hot with blushes. Did the emperor remember her escapade at Bronia? If so, how had he discovered her? Why should he seek her out and do her such an honor?

“That, madam, is his imperial majesty’s affair,” Poniatowski told her. “I merely obey his instructions and ask your presence at the ball. Perhaps Heaven has marked you out to be the means of saving our unhappy country.”

In this way, by playing on her patriotism, Poniatowski almost persuaded her, and yet something held her back. She trembled, though she was greatly fascinated; and finally she refused to go.

Scarcely had the envoy left her, however, when a great company of nobles entered in groups and begged her to humor the emperor. Finally her own husband joined in their entreaties and actually commanded her to go; so at last she was compelled to yield.

It was by no means the frank and radiant girl who was now preparing again to meet the emperor. She knew not why, and yet her heart was full of trepidation and nervous fright, the cause of which she could not guess, yet which made her task a severe ordeal. She dressed herself in white satin, with no adornment save a wreath of foliage in her hair.

As she entered the ballroom she was welcomed by hundreds whom she had never seen before, but who were of the highest nobility of Poland. Murmurs of admiration followed her, and finally Poniatowski came to her and complimented her, besides bringing her a message that the emperor desired her to dance with him.

“I am very sorry,” she said, with a quiver of the lips, “but I really cannot dance. Be kind enough to ask the emperor to excuse me.”

But at that very moment she felt some strange magnetic influence; and without looking up she could feel that Napoleon himself was standing by her as she sat with blanched face and downcast eyes, not daring to look up at him.

“White upon white is a mistake, madam,” said the emperor, in his gentlest tones. Then, stooping low, he whispered, “I had expected a far different reception.”

She neither smiled nor met his eyes. He stood there for a moment and then passed on, leaving her to return to her home with a heavy heart. The young countess felt that she had acted wrongly, and yet there was an instinct–an instinct that she could not conquer.

In the gray of the morning, while she was still tossing feverishly, her maid knocked at the door and brought her a hastily scribbled note. It ran as follows:

I saw none but you, I admired none but you; I desire only you. Answer at once, and calm the impatient ardor of–N.

These passionate words burned from her eyes the veil that had hidden the truth from her. What before had been mere blind instinct became an actual verity. Why had she at first rushed forth into the very streets to hail the possible deliverer of her country, and then why had she shrunk from him when he sought to honor her! It was all clear enough now. This bedside missive meant that he had intended her dishonor and that he had looked upon her simply as a possible mistress.

At once she crushed the note angrily in her hand.

“There is no answer at all,” said she, bursting into bitter tears at the very thought that he should dare to treat her in this way.

But on the following morning when she awoke her maid was standing beside her with a second letter from Napoleon. She refused to open it and placed it in a packet with the first letter, and ordered that both of them should be returned to the emperor.

She shrank from speaking to her husband of what had happened, and there was no one else in whom she dared confide. All through that day there came hundreds of visitors, either of princely rank or men who had won fame by their gallantry and courage. They all begged to see her, but to them all she sent one answer–that she was ill and could see no one.

After a time her husband burst into her room, and insisted that she should see them.

“Why,” exclaimed he, “you are insulting the greatest men and the noblest women of Poland! More than that, there are some of the most distinguished Frenchmen sitting at your doorstep, as it were. There is Duroc, grand marshal of France, and in refusing to see him you are insulting the great emperor on whom depends everything that our country longs for. Napoleon has invited you to a state dinner and you have given him no answer whatever. I order you to rise at once and receive these ladies and gentlemen who have done you so much honor!”

She could not refuse. Presently she appeared in her drawing-room, where she was at once surrounded by an immense throng of her own countrymen and countrywomen, who made no pretense of misunderstanding the situation. To them, what was one woman’s honor when compared with the freedom and independence of their nation? She was overwhelmed by arguments and entreaties. She was even accused of being disloyal to the cause of Poland if she refused her consent.

One of the strangest documents of that period was a letter sent to her and signed by the noblest men in Poland. It contained a powerful appeal to her patriotism. One remarkable passage even quotes the Bible to point out her line of duty. A portion of this letter ran as follows:

Did Esther, think you, give herself to Ahasuerus out of the fulness of her love for him? So great was the terror with which he inspired her that she fainted at the sight of him. We may therefore conclude that affection had but little to do with her resolve. She sacrificed her own inclinations to the salvation of her country, and that salvation it was her glory to achieve. May we be enabled to say the same of you, to your glory and our own happiness!

After this letter came others from Napoleon himself, full of the most humble pleading. It was not wholly distasteful thus to have the conqueror of the world seek her out and offer her his adoration any more than it was distasteful to think that the revival of her own nation depended on her single will. M. Frederic Masson, whose minute studies regarding everything relating to Napoleon have won him a seat in the French Academy, writes of Marie Walewska at this time: Every force was now brought into play against her. Her country, her friends, her religion, the Old and the New Testaments, all urged her to yield; they all combined for the ruin of a simple and inexperienced girl of eighteen who had no parents, whose husband even thrust her into temptation, and whose friends thought that her downfall would be her glory.

Amid all these powerful influences she consented to attend the dinner. To her gratification Napoleon treated her with distant courtesy, and, in fact, with a certain coldness.

“I heard that Mme. Walewska was indisposed. I trust that she has recovered,” was all the greeting that he gave her when they met.

Every one else with whom she spoke overwhelmed her with flattery and with continued urging; but the emperor himself for a time acted as if she had displeased him. This was consummate art; for as soon as she was relieved of her fears she began to regret that she had thrown her power away.

During the dinner she let her eyes wander to those of the emperor almost in supplication. He, the subtlest of men, knew that he had won. His marvelous eyes met hers and drew her attention to him as by an electric current; and when the ladies left the great dining- room Napoleon sought her out and whispered in her ear a few words of ardent love.

It was too little to alarm her seriously now. It was enough to make her feel that magnetism which Napoleon knew so well how to evoke and exercise. Again every one crowded about her with congratulations. Some said:

“He never even saw any of US. His eyes were all for YOU! They flashed fire as he looked at you.”

“You have conquered his heart,” others said, “and you can do what you like with him. The salvation of Poland is in your hands.”

The company broke up at an early hour, but Mme. Walewska was asked to remain. When she was alone General Duroc–one of the emperor’s favorite officers and most trusted lieutenants–entered and placed a letter from Napoleon in her lap. He tried to tell her as tactfully as possible how much harm she was doing by refusing the imperial request. She was deeply affected, and presently, when Duroc left her, she opened the letter which he had given her and read it. It was worded thus:

There are times when all splendors become oppressive, as I feel but too deeply at the present moment. How can I satisfy the desires of a heart that yearns to cast itself at your feet, when its impulses are checked at every point by considerations of the highest moment? Oh, if you would, you alone might overcome the obstacles that keep us apart. MY FRIEND DUROC WILL MAKE ALL EASY FOR YOU. Oh, come, come! Your every wish shall be gratified! Your country will be dearer to me when you take pity on my poor heart. N.

Every chance of escape seemed to be closed. She had Napoleon’s own word that he would free Poland in return for her self-sacrifice. Moreover, her powers of resistance had been so weakened that, like many women, she temporized. She decided that she would meet the emperor alone. She would tell him that she did not love him, and yet would plead with him to save her beloved country.

As she sat there every tick of the clock stirred her to a new excitement. At last there came a knock upon the door, a cloak was thrown about her from behind, a heavy veil was drooped about her golden hair, and she was led, by whom she knew not, to the street, where a finely appointed carriage was waiting for her.

No sooner had she entered it than she was driven rapidly through the darkness to the beautifully carved entrance of a palace. Half led, half carried, she was taken up the steps to a door which was eagerly opened by some one within. There were warmth and light and color and the scent of flowers as she was placed in a comfortable arm-chair. Her wrappings were taken from her, the door was closed behind her; and then, as she looked up, she found herself in the presence of Napoleon, who was kneeling at her feet and uttering soothing words.

Wisely, the emperor used no violence. He merely argued with her; he told her over and over his love for her; and finally he declared that for her sake he would make Poland once again a strong and splendid kingdom.

Several hours passed. In the early morning, before daylight, there came a knock at the door.

“Already?” said Napoleon. “Well, my plaintive dove, go home and rest. You must not fear the eagle. In time you will come to love him, and in all things you shall command him.”

Then he led her to the door, but said that he would not open it unless she promised to see him the next day–a promise which she gave the more readily because he had treated her with such respect.

On the following morning her faithful maid came to her bedside with a cluster of beautiful violets, a letter, and several daintily made morocco cases. When these were opened there leaped out strings and necklaces of exquisite diamonds, blazing in the morning sunlight. Mme. Walewska seized the jewels and flung them across the room with an order that they should be taken back at once to the imperial giver; but the letter, which was in the same romantic strain as the others, she retained.

On that same evening there was another dinner, given to the emperor by the nobles, and Marie Walewska attended it, but of course without the diamonds, which she had returned. Nor did she wear the flowers which had accompanied the diamonds.

When Napoleon met her he frowned upon her and made her tremble with the cold glances that shot from his eyes of steel. He scarcely spoke to her throughout the meal, but those who sat beside her were earnest in their pleading.

Again she waited until the guests had gone away, and with a lighter heart, since she felt that she had nothing to fear. But when she met Napoleon in his private cabinet, alone, his mood was very different from that which he had shown before. Instead of gentleness and consideration he was the Napoleon of camps, and not of courts. He greeted her bruskly.

“I scarcely expected to see you again,” said he. “Why did you refuse my diamonds and my flowers? Why did you avoid my eyes at dinner? Your coldness is an insult which I shall not brook.” Then he raised his voice to that rasping, almost blood-curdling tone which even his hardiest soldiers dreaded: “I will have you know that I mean to conquer you. You SHALL–yes, I repeat it, you SHALL love me! I have restored the name of your country. It owes its very existence to me.”

Then he resorted to a trick which he had played years before in dealing with the Austrians at Campo Formio.

“See this watch which I am holding in my hand. Just as I dash it to fragments before you, so will I shatter Poland if you drive me to desperation by rejecting my heart and refusing me your own.”

As he spoke he hurled the watch against the opposite wall with terrific force, dashing it to pieces. In terror, Mme. Walewska fainted. When she resumed consciousness there was Napoleon wiping away her tears with the tenderness of a woman and with words of self-reproach.

The long siege was over. Napoleon had conquered, and this girl of eighteen gave herself up to his caresses and endearments, thinking that, after all, her love of country was more than her own honor.

Her husband, as a matter of form, put her away from him, though at heart he approved what she had done, while the Polish people regarded her as nothing less than a national heroine. To them she was no minister to the vices of an emperor, but rather one who would make him love Poland for her sake and restore its greatness.

So far as concerned his love for her, it was, indeed, almost idolatry. He honored her in every way and spent all the time at his disposal in her company. But his promise to restore Poland he never kept, and gradually she found that he had never meant to keep it.

“I love your country,” he would say, “and I am willing to aid in the attempt to uphold its rights, but my first duty is to France. I cannot shed French blood in a foreign cause.”

By this time, however, Marie Walewska had learned to love Napoleon for his own sake. She could not resist his ardor, which matched the ardor of the Poles themselves. Moreover, it flattered her to see the greatest soldier in the world a suppliant for her smiles.

For some years she was Napoleon’s close companion, spending long hours with him and finally accompanying him to Paris. She was the mother of Napoleon’s only son who lived to manhood. This son, who bore the name of Alexandre Florian de Walewski, was born in Poland in 1810, and later was created a count and duke of the second French Empire. It may be said parenthetically that he was a man of great ability. Living down to 1868, he was made much of by Napoleon III., who placed him in high offices of state, which he filled with distinction. In contrast with the Duc de Morny, who was Napoleon’s illegitimate half-brother, Alexandre de Walewski stood out in brilliant contrast. He would have nothing to do with stock-jobbing and unseemly speculation.

“I may be poor,” he said–though he was not poor–"but at least I remember the glory of my father and what is due to his great name.”

As for Mme. Walewska, she was loyal to the emperor, and lacked the greed of many women whom he had made his favorites. Even at Elba, when he was in exile and disgrace, she visited him that she might endeavor to console him. She was his counselor and friend as well as his earnestly loved mate. When she died in Paris in 1817, while the dethroned emperor was a prisoner at St. Helena, the word “Napoleon” was the last upon her lips.


The Empress Catharine and Prince Potemkin  •  Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen  •  The Story of Aaron Burr  •  George IV. and Mrs. Fitzherbert  •  Charlotte Corday and Adam Lux  •  Napoleon and Marie Walewska  •  The Story of Pauline Bonaparte  •  The Story of the Empress Marie Louise and Count Neipperg