A Rose for Virtue by Norah Lofts

Cover of A Rose for Virtue by Norah Lofts

Cover of A Rose for Virture by Norah Lofts.

A Rose for Virtue is a historical novel about Napoleon's stepdaughter, Hortense de Beauharnais (1783-1837), by the British author Norah Lofts (1904-1983).  Lofts was a well-known author of historical fiction, often with a British setting.  She is probably best known as the author of novels about Tudor queens, including Anne Boleyn, as well as the Town House trilogy, which tells the story of a house and its inhabitants over many years.  A Rose for Virtue, set in Napoleonic France, represents something of a departure for her.  It is a well-written novel, with a sympathetic protagonist.

The novel begins in 1796, when Hortense is almost thirteen and a student at a boarding school run by Madame Campan, a former lady-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette.  She learns that her mother, Josephine, is going to marry General Bonaparte, who has recently been given the command of the army in Italy.  Hortense's brother Eugène hero-worships Napoleon and is thrilled at the prospect of having him as a stepfather, but it takes Hortense longer to be reconciled to the idea.  The Rose for Virtue of the title is a school prize which Hortense wins, then accidentally destroys when she learns her mother is to marry Napoleon.  Eventually, though, Hortense, who hardly knew her real father, Alexandre de Beauharnais, an aristocrat turned revolutionary who was guillotined during the Terror when Hortense was still a child, is glad to have a father figure in her life, once she gets to know Napoleon.  Her relationship with her stepfather has its ups and downs over the years, but for the most part she remains loyal to him.

Lofts tells of the major events of Napoleon's reign, as First Consul, then as Emperor, his rise to power, the assassination attempt of 1800, in which Hortense is slightly wounded, his coronation, his battles (although necessarily told second-hand in this case, since Hortense was not physically present), his divorce from Josephine and marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria, and his fall from power, from Hortense's point of view.  Hortense herself led a sad life, almost from the moment her mother married Napoleon.  Napoleon's family always hated Josephine and constantly plotted to get him to divorce her.  Hortense and her brother Eugène were also objects of their dislike.  In Lofts' novel, Hortense's main antagonist in the family is, at first, Napoleon's youngest sister, Caroline, a classmate of hers at Madame Campan's school.  They are enemies at school, and later on, Caroline is jealous because she thinks Napoleon favors Hortense over his own sister.

In 1802, when Hortense is nineteen, Napoleon decides to marry her off to his younger brother Louis.  After the assassination attempt of 1800, Napoleon fears what his lack of an heir will mean for France.  At this point he does not want to divorce Josephine and marry a younger woman, so he thinks that, if he cannot have a son of his own, a son of Louis and Hortense will be a suitable heir.  Josephine supports his wishes, and Louis agrees at first, even though he had been in love with Hortense's cousin, but Hortense dislikes Louis.  It takes her a long time, and entreaties by both her mother and stepfather, to get her to agree, but she eventually does.  And so Hortense becomes Napoleon's sister-in-law as well as his stepdaughter.  At first she reconciles herself to the idea of marriage with Louis, for duty's sake, but just before the wedding, someone in the Bonaparte family starts a nasty rumor that Hortense had slept with Napoleon, and Louis believes it.  Hortense knows nothing of the rumor at first, and she doesn't know why Louis treats her with suspicion.  Shortly after the wedding, Hortense becomes pregnant, and eventually she learns about the rumor.  She insists that the baby is Louis' and that she never slept with Napoleon. but Louis won't believe her.  He only reluctantly accepts the baby, a boy, as his.

This is only the beginning of Hortense's marital troubles, and things get worse from there.  Louis is often ill, with severe rheumatism and other ailments, some imaginary, some not.  Lofts suggests that Louis suffers from syphilis, contracted from a prostitute during the Italian campaign, and that this affects his brain and causes his irrational suspicions about Hortense's faithfulness.  Every attempt by Hortense to reconcile with Louis is met with a rebuff, although they do manage to produce another son in 1804, the year of Napoleon's coronation.  There is a delightful scene where Napoleon's sisters, especially Caroline, express their jealousy of Hortense.  As Louis' wife, Hortense has the title of Princess, while they do not.  Eventually, Napoleon gives in and awards them the title as well.

In 1806, Napoleon makes Louis King of Holland.  At first Hortense dislikes the idea of moving to Holland because it means living there with Louis and also because she loves Paris and doesn't want to live anywhere else.  As it turns out, she likes it there more than Louis does, and the Dutch people take a liking to her, but not to Louis.  She makes an effort to learn Dutch, while Louis does not.  But in Holland her marriage goes from bad to worse, and she eventually separates from Louis and goes back to Paris.  Tragically, her oldest son, the one who was to be Napoleon's heir, dies at the age of four.  In 1808, during a brief period of reconciliation with Louis, Hortense gives birth to her third son, Louis-Napoleon, who will eventually become emperor as Napoleon III.  Louis, in his jealousy, never really believes the child is his, although at this point Hortense has given him no reason for his jealousy.

There is, however, another man in Hortense's life, but at first the relationship is not sexual in nature.  While still in Paris before leaving for Holland, Hortense had fallen in love with Charles de Flahaut, a young army officer who is rumored to be Talleyrand's illegitimate son.  The feeling is mutual, but Hortense and Charles know they cannot act on their feelings.  But then, after she leaves Holland, hoping for a divorce from Louis, and encouraged by her lady-in-waiting, who knows Hortense has never known true love before, Hortense begins an affair with Charles, which lasts only a month, but which results in Hortense's pregnancy.  At this point, Hortense has had no contact with Louis for a long time.  Louis, who had wanted more independence in Holland than Napoleon is willing to give him, has abdicated the throne of Holland, and he and Hortense lead separate lives.  In desperation, Hortense tries to rid herself of the baby, but when that does not work, she, with the help of her lady-in-waiting and Charles' mother, concocts a plot in which she goes off to a spa in order to have the baby in secret.  The unexpected arrival of her brother Eugène almost ruins the plan, but Eugène, although horrified at first by his sister's having a child out of wedlock, eventually sympathizes with Hortense because he knows how Louis has mistreated her, and agrees to help.  Charles wants to marry Hortense if she can get a divorce from Louis, but he remains strangely indifferent to the child.  After the child, a boy, is born, he is raised by a peasant couple at first, but then Charles' mother adopts him.

Not long before Hortense's affair, Napoleon has divorced Josephine and married Marie-Louise of Austria.  Hortense, while loyal to her mother, manages to get along well with Marie-Louise, as long as they don't talk about Josephine.  As far as we know, Josephine never does learn about Hortense's affair and illegitimate child.  Luckily for Hortense, Louis never finds out, either.  For the next few years, Hortense never gives up in her attempt to get a divorce from Louis, but the problem is that Louis demands custody of their older son, and Hortense is not about to give him up.  Eventually, the court decides against Hortense.  This decision coincides with Napoleon's escape from Elba and his brief return to power, the Hundred Days, during which Hortense hopes he will help her.  But there is no time for that.  After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, Hortense's loyalty to him means her life is in danger as long as she stays in Paris, and she lives under house arrest for a while.  In a moving scene, which I am sure is fictitious, Hortense tries to convince Napoleon to go to America instead of being exiled to St. Helena, but at this point Napoleon no longer seems to care what happens to him.  Hortense eventually goes into exile in Switzerland, but before leaving Paris she finds out that her former lover, Charles de Flahaut, is going to marry another woman.

A Rose for Virtue is well-written, from Hortense's first-person point of view.  The novel is somewhat romanticized, and it does not have quite the depth of other novels about Napoleon's family that I have read recently, such as Sandra Gulland's Josephine B. trilogy and Annemarie Selinko's Désirée, but it is an enjoyable read, and Hortense is a likeable protagonist.  She lacks the charm of her mother Josephine, but she possesses a quiet strength which makes the reader sympathize with her.  Lofts barely mentions one aspect of Hortense's life which I find very interesting: her musical talent.  Hortense was a composer of songs and marches for Napoleon's armies.  Sandra Gulland writes of this aspect of her life in more detail than Lofts.  These are only minor criticisms, though.  For the most part, I enjoyed the novel very much.  It gives the reader an unusual perspective on Napoleon's reign and, especially, his family.  Also, readers should be aware that the reprint edition, published byThe History Press in 2009, has very tiny print.  It is probably better to look for the original 1971 edition.

A Rose for Virtue is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.  Please be aware that this is the 2009 edition, with the tiny print.