Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, the girl who grew up to be the Empress Josephine, had a life more extraordinary than that of any fairy-tale princess. Born into the family of a provincial ne’er-do-well, she survived divorce and the Revolution – she was days from the guillotine when Robespierre fell – to become one of the celebrated beauties of the Directory before almost inadvertently capturing the heart of a gauche young general, Napoleon Bonaparte. By his side she would become, as a voodoo priestess had predicted when she was a child in Martinique, greater even than a queen.
Their romance produced some of the most passionate love letters ever written. The morning after their first night together (the date on the letter was amended by Josephine’s children after her death to make it look as if it had been written after their marriage), Napoleon wrote that he could