What an inappropriate name for a country estate! Malmaison, bad house or house of evil. In a country where an idealized setting has “beau” or “belle” placed before its name as a suggestion of Arcadian delight, this could only be considered an ill-fated designation. According to history, the name goes back to Norman times when hordes of not so civilized warriors stomped across these fertile lands near Paris, any other interpretation being folk tale.
The house stands almost modest at the end of a short avenue, a glorified manor house, far from the architectural trappings of French country domains. Josephine de Beauharnais purchased it after marrying Napoleon. The house lacks a monumental staircase. Access to the upper floors is out of sight, on a simple staircase behind the consular wall decorations of Percier and Fontaine, a detail reflecting the simplicity of style she wanted to bestow on the whole environment. The extensive park was redesigned, exotic species planted and merino sheep, then little known in France, brought to grace the grounds. The landlady spent her time there tending to her gardening passion: roses. She no doubt shared the pastoral philosophy of the unlucky Marie-Antoinette in her rustic retreat. Yet, Josephine, curiously named Rose before she met Napoleon, had a more pragmatic view of these ideas, having partaken of the turbulence of the revolutionary early years. She was herself in prison from where her former husband did not escape. For this contemporary heroine, Malmaison was the location of her intense devotion for Napoleon and later the shelter of her sorrow.
The bucolic setting became, after its acquisition in 1797, a botanical delight, a menagerie of exotic animals and the playground of the First Consul and his wife. According to Bourrienne, Napoleon’s private secretary, “except on the field of battle, I never saw him as happy as he was at Malmaison”. Yet, trouble soon crept into their lives. Josephine was nearly killed in an attempt on the Emperor’s life in Paris. Ugly arguments were frequent between the two due to his infidelity and her inability to produce an heir. Finally, the imperial divorce took place in January of 1810.
She continued to live at la Malmaison, with the honorary title of Empress. She did not repent her spendthrift ways, acquiring art, fashion and entertaining visiting royalty. One early spring evening of May, she took to bed after walking her guest, the Tsar Alexander I, on a visit through her gardens. The cold developed into a pneumonia from which she never recovered. She died four days later. For Josephine, this little paradise so lovingly redesigned hid a dark omen, a brutal sting. The prophetic name may not be folk tale after all.