By Michael Black
Key Themes: history, literature, art
Crossing Out The Emperor is an exploration into the states of mind of Beethoven in various states of love and deafness, and Napoleon during his invasion of Russia in 1812. Are these states of mind romantic and military, or are they, in modern parlance, possibly psychiatric, as discussed in the Foreword?
About the Author
Michael Black was born in England in 1962. He studied literature and history at York University before completing a doctorate at Cambridge University in South African studies, and has spent his adult life fascinated with exploring the territory at which history ends and literature begins (or vice-versa). His stage plays performed in Edinburgh, York, Cardiff, Manchester and London as well as in eastern Europe, frequently give witness to this, as does Crossing Out The Emperor, his first novel. Of this he is convinced; the real territory of creation is myth.
Humiliation! Standing in the throne room whilst the Emperor read out his reasoning for the divorce. And most of the bitching dog kennel of his family were at his side, in full silk and robes, their stone faces concealing their delight that the struggle of thirteen years was ending with the triumph of their will over my own. How often silk socks conceal eczema! There stood Louis the mad King of Holland, Caroline the Queen of Naples, Jérôme the King of Westphalia, and Pauline the pretty but dim-witted Princess Borghese, together through the second born of their number the most crowned family in Europe. Madame Mère, the prize bitch that bred them stayed away, but I knew she’d be smiling in secret even as my marriage vanished before me. Coward, coward, coward! I could have scratched out her eyes and swallowed them whole, no matter the consequences.
The Emperor coughed. Though dressed as ever in his beloved dark green uniform of a colonel in the Chasseurs, he looked short and squat. But then he was never impressive deprived of his General’s hat. Wiping the sweat from his palms, he concluded by stating his only motive was the good of the state, and then handed me my own statement of agreement. He had written it himself. “With the permission of my august and dear husband, I declare that having no further hope of children who would satisfy the needs of his policy and the interest of France, I am pleased to offer him the greatest proof of attachment and devotion that could be given…”
I was pleased to offer no such thing, but what choice did I have? Bon-a-parte est Bon-à-rien! Understand this. The Council of State, each and every one of them appointed by the Emperor himself, found reason to cast doubt over the civil contract of marriage. The wording was said to be suspect, and with great convenience, no one could find the wooden-legged Monsieur Lecombe who had conducted the ceremony. Such legal invention hardly surprised me, but the ease with which Cardinal Fesch did away with the religious marriage took my breath away. I’d always known the civil ceremony was insufficient for my purpose. That is why, armed with the Pope’s insistence, I had contrived the religious marriage prior to the Coronation. Afterwards, I pursued the Cardinal for two whole days before he surrendered to me the certificate of legality. I had clutched it to my bosom knowing full well the security it bestowed; only to find it bestowed nothing! The Cardinal, though he had conducted the ceremony in person, now saw fit to argue it null and void for want of a parish priest. Cambacérès, a most treacherous lawyer, found no evidence that the Emperor had ever granted his consent (to his own wedding!) The gutless Berthier and Talleyrand, so consummate a Foreign Minister he could lie fluently in five languages, suddenly found they had no recollection of having ever been present. Aspersions were cast that I must have forged their signatures of witness, and there was no higher authority than the Cardinal to whom I could resort with my honest grievances. No doubt anticipating his own actions, my newly freed husband had recently confiscated all the Italian Vatican lands and held the Pope prisoner at Savona. Bon-a-parte est Bon-à-rien!
So ended the marriage of Josephine to Napoleon on the 16th of December 1809. I had screamed and cried and fainted my protests to no avail save to gain the opinion of crooked doctors that I was over-wrought and unbalanced, accusations that circulate to this day. What of them? A forty-six year old obstacle to diplomacy, my life was stripped bare, consoled by nothing save the Elysée for life, the estate of Malmaison in full ownership and three million francs a year. I was not, Cardinal Fesch assured me, even a divorcée, since I had in fact never been married at all but had lived a decade and more in concubinage. A whore for thirteen years! Well, what of it? Enough had whispered it, let those who must spit it spit it publicly at last. I’ll be damned if I mourn a reputation amidst this Empire of liars and cheats.
Oh, I’ll want for nothing, I grant you that. Napoleon is never mean. His is a kind of absent-minded cruelty born of self-obsession. And, ever an adornment and never alone mighty, neither am I truly fallen. Besides, not even a corrupt Cardinal can steal away empty rhetoric, and so I retain my title. As I sit in these gardens of Malmaison I am still the Empress Josephine. An Empress mark! Whether as wife or concubine, spinster or une femme libre, it is a giddy height of fame for Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie, the sugar planter’s daughter from indolent Martinique, a bird of the islands, ambitious for nothing except an ample sufficiency of leisure and gossip. For twenty-five years the maelstrom has picked me up and turned me in its urgent motion. I have survived near shipwrecks; I have cheated the guillotine, thwarted the plots of assassins and lived a life of love and war in full measure. Passion has been constant in its rage around me, and I, of a calmer ilk, have found my life dictated by it daily. Always, always Napoleon! These gardens of Malmaison I planted myself, but the cedar I sit beneath is his. He brought it from Marengo to be planted in celebration of his great victory, and in time it will grow to dominate all. On Martinique my mother called me Yeyette. When I first came to France I signed myself Marie-Rose. It was Napoleon who decided upon Josephine, and as Josephine I now know myself and shall always be known. But now, since the maelstrom has set me down for good and all, I’ll speak for myself as well as any, and I’ll spare no reputations.