In reality the story of Napoleon and Marie Louise and of the Count von Neipperg is one which, when you search it to the very core, leads you straight to a sex problem of a very curious nature. Nowhere else does it occur in the relations of the great personages of history; but in literature Balzac, that master of psychology, has touched upon the theme in the early chapters of his famous novel called “A Woman of Thirty.”
As to the Napoleonic story, let us first recall the facts of the case, giving them in such order that their full significance may be understood.
In 1809 Napoleon, then at the plenitude of his power, shook himself free from the clinging clasp of Josephine and procured the annulment of his marriage to her. He really owed her nothing. Before he knew her she had been the mistress of another. In the first years of their life together she had been notoriously unfaithful to him. He had held to her from habit which was in part a superstition; but the remembrance of the wrong which she had done him made her faded charms at times almost repulsive. And then Josephine had never borne him any children; and without a son to perpetuate his dynasty, the gigantic achievements which he had wrought seemed futile in his eyes, and likely to crumble into nothingness when he should die.
No sooner had the marriage been annulled than his titanic ambition leaped, as it always did, to a tremendous pinnacle. He would wed. He would have children. But he would wed no petty princess. This man who in his early youth had felt honored by a marriage with the almost declassee widow of a creole planter now stretched out his hand that he might take to himself a woman not merely royal but imperial.
At first he sought the sister of the Czar of Russia; but Alexander entertained a profound distrust of the French emperor, and managed to evade the tentative demand. There was, however, a reigning family far more ancient than the Romanoffs—a family which had held the imperial dignity for nearly six centuries—the oldest and the noblest blood in Europe. This was the Austrian house of Hapsburg. Its head, the Emperor Francis, had thirteen children, of whom the eldest, the Archduchess Marie Louise, was then in her nineteenth year.
Napoleon had resented the rebuff which the Czar had given him. He turned, therefore, the more eagerly to the other project. Yet there were many reasons why an Austrian marriage might be dangerous, or, at any rate, ill-omened. Only sixteen years before, an Austrian arch-duchess, Marie Antionette, married to the ruler of France, had met her death upon the scaffold, hated and cursed by the French people, who had always blamed “the Austrian” for the evil days which had ended in the flames of revolution. Again, the father of the girl to whom Napoleon’s fancy turned had been the bitter enemy of the new regime in France. His troops had been beaten by the French in five wars and had been crushed at Austerlitz and at Wagram. Bonaparte had twice entered Vienna at the head of a conquering army, and thrice he had slept in the imperial palace at Schonbrunn, while Francis was fleeing through the dark, a beaten fugitive pursued by the swift squadrons of French cavalry.