Napoleon Bonaparte rose in the French military during the Revolutionary period and eventually became First Consul of France. In 1804 he crowned himself Emperor. He was born on the island of Corsica in 1769, ten years before Sophie. He became First Consul of the new French government in 1799, one year and eleven days before Sophie took her first vows in the Marais in 1800.
Their lives overlapped in various ways over the next fourteen years. Napoleon, who had received a Jesuit education as a young boy in Corsica, was wary of any kind of religious community, especially those that were networked (like the Jesuits) rather than monastic. For a period of time he had his secret police opening Joseph Varin’s mail: he suspected Varin of being a proto-Jesuit (the Jesuits were banned in most of Europe between 1773 and 1814), and in this he was surely correct. This means, of course, given the correspondence that flew between Sophie and Varin, that Napoleon’s police were undoubtedly reading some of Sophie’s mail as well! In 1805, in a tent near Tilsit, Napoleon signed a document verifying that the Sophie could retain possession of Ste. Marie d’en Haut, the Visitation convent in Grenoble where Philippine Duchesne was overseeing her second school. The army had wanted to use it as a military barracks, but Sophie and Philippine prevailed on the emperor to allow the school to continue (“Ré d’Italia,” Part 4).
In 1796 Napoleon married Joséphine de Beauharnais (above left), the widow of a French aristocrat who lost his head on the guillotine. She herself was imprisoned for a short time. She had two children by Viscount de Beauharnais: Eugène (above center) and Hortense (above right). Eugène becomes an important character in the novel through his relationship with Célestine. Though the Célestine portion of the book is fictional, everything else about Eugène is based on fact. It is true, for example, that every one of his six children by his wife, the Bavarian Princess Augusta, married into the noble houses of Europe. Many of today’s ruling European monarchs are descended from him.
Hortense de Beauharnais was married to Napoleon’s brother Louis, and it was their son Louis-Napoleon who eventually became Napoleon III (above). He was elected President of the Second French Republic in 1848 and crowned Emperor of the Second Empire four years later. He ruled until 1870 and did much to modernize the city of Paris. (Napoleon’s son by the Austrian princess Marie Louise, whom he married after divorcing Joséphine, is referred to as Napoleon II by historians; he died in 1832 at the age of 21.)