It wasn’t until Egypt, when Napoleon was thousands of miles from home, that someone had the audacity to tell the incendiary general what all Paris was gossiping about: his wife Joséphine cheated on him. Napoleon was bitterly saddened by this betrayal. He wanted to divorce and live alone in the French countryside, he wrote to his brother Joseph.
The man who made Napoleon a cuckold was named Hippolyte Charles. He was a hussar, nine years younger than his mistress and possessed of an impressive mustache and a great sense of humor. Joséphine began an affair with him almost immediately after her marriage in 1796 and would spend three beautiful years with him. Not only did they have fun in bed, Josephine also helped Charles get contracts to supply her husband’s army with supplies during his campaign in Italy. While Napoleon was busy fighting, his rival grew rich.
In 1798 Napoleon began to feel wet, but Joséphine still managed to convince him that the suspicions against her were nothing more than dirty gossip. A year later, the final dismay followed in Egypt, when a brave comrade told Napoleon the bad news.
The Egyptian campaign did not end well for the French and Napoleon secretly left for France, avoiding being intercepted by the British navy on the way. Once ashore, he set course for Paris to seek redress from his wife.
Josephine knew he was aware of her infidelity and rushed south to tell Napoleon her side of the story. Unfortunately for her, they didn’t take the same route. So she missed him, and when she finally arrived in Paris, her in-laws had already had a few days to drip poison into Napoleon’s ear. She reported to his bedroom with trembling knees, but he refused to unlock the door.
Joséphine now used the children from her first marriage to reconcile her husband. Laure Junot, who had known Napoleon from childhood and later married the general who broke the news of Joséphine’s affair in Egypt, describes in her memoir the heartbreaking scene that followed. Eugène (18) and Hortense (16) threw themselves on their knees and wailed with tears streaming down their cheeks: “Don’t leave my mother! She will die from it! We poor orphans, whose scaffold has already devoured the natural protector, must injustice rob us of him who sent Providence?”
Napoleon could not compete with such larmoyant eloquence. He allowed his wife into the bedroom and there she restored the marital ties.
Joséphine would remain faithful to her husband after this scene, until he divorced her in 1810 because she had not given him any children.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of December 13, 2021