Saturday, September 3, 2016

Empress Josephine’s Love Affair with Roses

Many of us Regency authors and readers know that Napoleon’s wife, the Empress Josephine contributed to establishing the slim, high-waisted, chemise dress as the dominant fashion in Regency England, but did you know that Josephine is also known for her passionate love of roses?

She was born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie in 1763 on the Caribbean island of Martinique where her wealthy family owned a sugar plantation. The island is a lush, tropical paradise with beautiful flowering plants. Perhaps it was there she first developed a love for beautiful, fragrant plants, for she was to introduce many to France.

After she married Napoleon and became Empress of France, Josephine spent vast sums of money collecting new varieties of plants, including roses, from all over the world for her garden at Chateau Malmaison outside of Paris. Napoleon complained about the expense but he was off fighting the British in various places, so Josephine pursued her love of roses and expanded her garden.

Napoleon turned a blind eye when Josephine broke the law by asking that English seeds and plants be brought to her from captured ships. Her informal plantings had already been christened jardins à l’anglaise (English Gardens) and her greenhouses were modeled on those at Kew Gardens near London.

Chateau de Malmaison

Her principal source for roses was the Lee & Kennedy Vineyard Nursery in London. But Josephine wanted every rose known in the world. In 1804, by way of Lewis Kennedy, she was in proud possession of the new Chinese roses: Slater's Crimson China, Parson's Pink and Hume's Blush Tea Scented China. These roses were recent imports to England from China, and it was a coup for the Empress (and for France) to have them growing at Malmaison. They became known as “stud roses”, potent parents of the modern ever blooming rose cultivars.

Andre du Pont, Josephine's head horticulturist, began breeding new roses for the Empress. His 1813 catalogue of roses at Malmaison listed nearly 200 different varieties, including many new introductions.

The fact that France was at war with England did not stop her from looking at the enemy’s roses. At the height of the war in the early 1800's, Napoleon sent money to England to pay for his wife's rose plant bills. And the British Admiralty allowed ships to pass through its naval blockade to deliver those roses to Malmaison. War could wait while the rose deliveries continued. She even obtained a passport of a London nurseryman to travel back and forth with her new plants.

During the period 1805-1810, she collected 260 roses for her gardens. But she did more than plant a beautiful rose garden. She influenced the growing of roses. The roses at that time bloomed once a season, and their blossoms faded quickly once a flower was cut. By systematically hybridizing the western rose with varieties from China, where the rose first developed, Josephine re-structured the way roses developed their petals. The result was a rose that blossomed several times a season, and looked splendid in a vase in the parlor for days.

Josephine elevated the stature of the rose by commissioning artist Pierre-Joseph Redoute, a former court painter of Marie Antoinette, to paint a series of rose portraits. Blush Noisette is considered by many to the all time masterpiece of botanical illustration.

Blush Noisette

After Josephine died in 1814, Redoute published his rose portraits in three volumes simply titled Les Roses (1817-24), dedicated to Josephine’s memory. The book has continuously been in publication ever since. 

In my Regency story Racing with the Wind, the first book in the Agents of the Crown series, much of which is set in Paris, Lady Mary escapes a heated ballroom into a garden where she encounters the mysterious Lord Ormond who tells her of Josephine’s passion for roses:

The stone terrace was lit, and the soft light on the balustrade from the outside lamps allowed her to see she was alone for the moment. She welcomed the times she was alone. As an only child, she had frequently been her only company.

There were gardens out here she remembered from her prior visit, and with confidence she took the stairs that led down to them. On the lawn she inhaled deeply the smell of clean earth, grass and flowers. Gardens. It seemed she was always escaping into them. The thought amused her, and she smiled.

A few quick turns and she found her destination, or rather, more accurately, she smelled it. The fragrance of roses was just what she needed to shake off the memory of that crowded ballroom. She was just bending down to smell a pink blossom when she heard a deep voice behind her.

“The Empress Josephine had a passion for roses, too, you know.”

She started at the familiar voice, stood up from the flower and turned. Lord Ormond loomed before her like a terrible dark angel. Was he taller than she’d remembered? His dark brown hair appeared ebony in the dim light, and tonight it was smoothed back from his chiseled features. The pirate had dressed up for the evening, and he was so ruggedly handsome he made her heart ache.

Before she could say a word, he said, “I wanted to see you, but I didn’t want to announce it by asking you to dance.” 

London 1816

Hugh Redgrave, Marquess of Ormond, hides his true identity as the legendary Nighthawk—the thief of Napoleon's most valued secrets—behind his life as a horseman and a rake. Returning to England after years in France, he knows he must choose a wife from among the ingénues who appear each year at the ton, but he hopes to avoid what will be an arranged marriage for as long as he can.

When Lady Mary Campbell rides across his path on a magnificent black stallion, he is enthralled. Independent, intelligent and rebellious, Lady Mary is bored by the prospect of her first Season. A bluestocking hoyden, she craves adventure and loves the world of her statesman uncle, who is often called upon by the Crown for difficult tasks. When her uncle leaves for Paris, she goes with him. But, once there, who should appear in King Louis’ court but the mysterious Lord Ormond?

Lady Mary fears her growing fascination with the rake and resents his interference with her plan to uncover the truth behind a treacherous plot to take down the newly restored Bourbon king.

  On Amazon


  1. Thanks, Kryssie! I'm so glad you liked it.

  2. Beautiful post! Racing with the Wind surely sweeps readers away from today’s worries.

    One of my favorite roses is Souvenir de la Malmaison. It’s lovely in form and fragrance.