THE ROSE OF MARTINIQUE

A Life of Napoleon's Josephine

By Andrea Stuart. Grove. 455 pp. $27.50Napoleon Bonaparte possessed an acute sense of smell. A few years ago I saw an advertisement for Camembert cheese that purported to relate an incident in the life of the famous general: An aide-de-camp, afraid of drawing Napoleon's ire for awakening him after a fatiguing battle, devised a plan. He cut a ripened piece of one of the general's favorite cheeses and held it close to his nose. After some grunting and moaning, the general murmured, "Ahh, Josephine!"

In The Rose of Martinique, Andrea Stuart does not confirm the veracity of the advertisement but provides other details. Napoleon, in one of his more infamous letters to Josephine, begged her not to bathe, for he wanted to enjoy her body odor to the fullest.

Thanks to Josephine's meticulous preservation of Napoleon's many amorous letters, the empress's sex life has become legendary. "She changed her appearance incessantly," writes Stuart, "giving her lovers the illusion of infinite variety. She also understood the importance of the . . . settings of her romantic encounters. She paid meticulous attention to the design of her bedrooms. . . . Her fondness for mirrors, evident at the rue Chantereine and in later palaces, multiplied the images of their love, and created the illusion of an orgy."

Josephine, as Napoleon preferred to call her, was born far from France on the Caribbean island of Martinique on June 23, 1763. Her parents, owners of a sugar plantation, named her Marie-Josephe-Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie and called her Rose. Just after her 16th birthday, she was sent to France to marry Viscount Alexandre de Beauharnais, who, the author tells us, could have been the model for Valmont, the morally corrupt anti-hero of Choderlos de Laclos's scandalous 1782 novel Dangerous Liaisons. Like Valmont, Beauharnais loved luxury and political intrigue. He was well connected to the powerful aristocrats who were unhappy with the reign of Louis XVI. Three years older than Rose when he married her at 19, Beauharnais already had a mistress -- a married woman 11 years his senior. But Rose became an earnest, loving wife and bore him two children -- Eugene and Hortense.

Beauharnais's boorishness eventually led Rose to agree to a separation, and she moved into a convent that housed privileged women in similar predicaments. There she acquired her Parisian sophistication, absorbing not only social skills but also a certain degree of mettle. She won custody of the children and generous financial support from her husband. But her fate was pinned inextricably to his, even after she and the children sailed off to Martinique in 1788, returning to a much different France two years later. Beauharnais had made a swift rise to lead the National Assembly, but the Reign of Terror had just as swiftly brought him down. Rose was rounded up as a traitor of the revolutionary government and ended up in the same rat-infested prison where he was kept. It was the worst of times, but the two managed to have amorous affairs with other inmates. She fell desperately in love with a dashing republican, Gen. Hoche, and carried on the affair after both of them were released from prison. Before the Terror ended, Beauharnais was guillotined in a public square along with many other members of the French nobility.

Only after she became mistress of Paul de Barras, one of the ring leaders who overthrew Robespierre, did she meet Napoleon. "Barras had all the vices of a king," one politician said of him, "without having a single one of the virtues," but he did introduce Rose, by then the reigning hostess of Parisian society, to the promising general from the sticks of Corsica. When Napoleon fell head over heels in love with his "Josephine," Barras generously urged marriage, mainly to secure her financial security. The civil ceremony took place in 1796 with Barras as witness.

Stuart captures the passion of Napoleon in his letters, from which she quotes liberally. Here is one from December 1795: "How can I rest any more, when I yield to the feeling that masters my inmost self, when I quaff from your lips and from your heart a scorching flame? Yes! One night has taught me how far your portrait falls short of yourself! You start at midday: in three hours I shall see you again. Till then, a thousand kisses, mio dolce amore: but give me none back, for they set my blood on fire."

When Napoleon left to assume command of the Italian campaign, Josephine didn't wait long to have an affair with Hippolyte Charles, a strikingly handsome and debonair officer almost 10 years her junior. Meanwhile, Napoleon' s reputation kept rising after a string of military successes in Italy, despite the near-disastrous campaign in Egypt. He and his family turned against Josephine when they got wind of her affair, but after many tearful encounters, the couple reconciled. In August 1802, Napoleon was appointed Consul for Life, and two years later he became emperor. By then Josephine was able to insist on a religious ceremony, and on the eve of Napoleon's coronation on Dec. 2, 1804, with the official blessing of Pope Pius VII, they were married privately.

The Rose of Martinique is a comprehensive and truly empathetic biography. Andrea Stuart, who was raised in the Caribbean, combines scholarly distance with a genuine attempt to understand her heroine. For example, when she writes about the circumstances surrounding Napoleon's edict to reestablish slavery in Martinique and elsewhere, she explores the question of why Josephine did not intervene. One interesting theory is that she and Napoleon shared a complex about being born outside of mainland France and feared being suspected of having mixed blood.

As Stuart documents, it was hardly a misfortune for Josephine that Napoleon decided to divorce her and marry the archduchess of Austria, Marie-Louise d'Habsbourg. By then, Napoleon was showing his megalomania not just in matters of state but with his many mistresses and others over whom he held power. The formal divorce ceremony was a tearful one for both parties, during which Josephine declared: "With the permission of my dear and august husband, I declare that, no longer preserving any hope of having children to satisfy the political need for an heir in France, I proudly offer him the greatest proof of love and devotion ever given to a husband on this earth."

Josephine was allowed to keep her beloved Malmaison, the vast estate where she cultivated more than 250 varieties of roses and a renowned collection of horticultural specimens from around the world. Her aura of majesty stayed with her, even after she lost her grandiose title. Upon hearing of her death in 1814, Napoleon was devastated. "He retired to bed for three days in a darkened room, alone and without food." When his own death came seven years later on the remote island of St. Helena, "the last word to leave his lips was the name he had given her: 'Josephine.' "

She was immortalized in so many ways, but perhaps the most fitting tribute was the naming of two roses in her honor: "Josephine de Beauharnais" and "Empress Josephine." Napoleon had several roses named after him, too, including one that is sometimes referred to as "Madness at Corsica." Then there is the perennially popular "Souvenir de la Malmaison," along with roses named to honor Josephine's children. The plot thickens with such delightful roses. *

Kunio Francis Tanabe is art director and a senior editor of Book World. His e-mail address is tanabef@washpost.com.

Empress Josephine and Napoleon as a young generalA popular print shows Empress Josephine fainting upon hearing that Napoleon intended to divorce her.