The romaunt of the Rose

From Rose to Joséphine

Marie-Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie was born in Martinique on 23 June 1763 into a Creole family of white French settlers, owners of a sugar cane plantation in which more than one hundred and fifty African slaves worked. She was baptised Rose, in honour of Saint Rose of Lima, the patron saint of Latin America. At home they called her Yeyette.
In Paris, to where Rose, aged only sixteen and freshly married, moved with her husband, the Viscount Alexandre de Beauharnais, she soon had everyone falling at her feet on account of her special charm, so well described by one of her contemporaries: “There is a voluptuousness and an indefinable grace in her gaze that caresses, reaches the soul, and speaks above all to the senses. Her figure is that of a nymph; her whole person bears the imprint of vivacity, of softness, of abandon, that only Creole women know how to combine in their gait, mannerisms, tone of voice, even in their silence.”
Her rise in society was as fast as her life was short. In rapid succession she became a mother to Eugene and Hortense, spent some time in a convent where she resolved to separate from her husband and get custody of the children, returned to Martinique, then left again when word of the French Revolution reached the island. On her return to Paris she was imprisoned and became a widow when Beauharnais was guillotined on 23 July 1794. She then met a young and ambitious general, Napoleon Bonaparte, who fell in love with her, enchanted by her worldly charm. They got married in the evening of 9 March 1796, in Paris. No relatives attended the ceremony, only Barras, the powerful head of the Directory and previously her lover, and some other institutional figures. Two days later the general left for Nice, where he took over command of the Army of Italy. The bride and groom both lied about their age, claiming to be 28 years old: he was 27, she was 33. Napoleon’s wedding gift was a ring with a small inscription: “To destiny”.
Eight years later, in 1804, she was crowned Empress of the French in Notre-Dame cathedral. She has gone down in history as Josephine, as Napoleon rechristened her before their wedding. And that is what she is called from this point on in our story.

The story starts on 21 April 1799, the day when Josephine went to sign the deed of purchase for a small, run-down château surrounded by an overgrown park. It was located just eight kilometres from Paris, in Rueil, a small town in the Île-de-France, and called Malmaison, Mala-mansio, because in the 9th century it was a hideaway for the pirates who ravaged the region, plundering and sowing terror. Unconcerned by this inauspicious omen, Josephine and Napoleon set about turning it into a peaceful country retreat where he could forget his political and military responsibilities and she could get away from the frantic, suffocating turmoil of life at court.
While Napoleon was engaged in military campaigns in Egypt and Syria (1798-1801), Josephine spent the first summer at Malmaison after the purchase. Renovation works had started at a frenetic pace but were of little interest to her, as she was dreaming of her future garden, her plants, her animals and, perhaps, already her roses. […] She did not hesitate to call on the greatest experts of the time to get what she wanted, as well as her family, various relatives and friends/rulers, not to mention Napoleon himself – even in the midst of a military campaign – to help her find varieties she did not yet have, no matter how far away they were or how difficult it was to get hold of them. […] To obtain a specimen of Rosa indica odorata, the fabulous roses that England imported from China under a monopoly, as there was a naval blockade between the two powers, Josephine had no choice but to beg Napoleon to grant her nurseryman Kennedy authorisation to cross the Channel and return to Malmaison with the seeds and plants that she had ordered. This authorisation was to remain in force even after the divorce. […]

The rose collection

“No shrub can compete with the rose, for its flowers, its elegant shape, its sweet scent, its picturesque effect, its rightful place in the forefront of our gardens, where it is the greatest resource for all embellishments. […] We believe that if some devotee wanted to gather and cultivate all [existing] roses, the effect would be most fascinating, especially if a certain order was observed in their planting.” These were the words of Jean-Louis Guillemeau, author of L’Histoire naturelle de la Rose, published in France shortly after Josephine bought Malmaison. […]
The rose garden that took shape at Malmaison was not the classic rose garden, laid out in a closed, regular and geometric space, but a collection of roses distributed freely and imaginatively in a park, in varying numbers and groups. […]
André du Pont, a post office employee and serviteur des roses at the Jardin du Luxembourg, became the empress’s main adviser and supplier. He grew and marketed large quantities of roses, as well as importing botanical species and varieties as yet unknown in France from overseas. His collection is estimated to have consisted of 300 different species and 237 varieties. Du Pont’s first order was for no less than one thousand five hundred rosebushes, with another thousand the following season, truly remarkable numbers for the times. […] After the botanical species, the new Gallic hybrids were the showpieces of the collection. A unique, important collection, but made up of roses that bloomed only once a year, with few petals or with full corollas that were not always large. […]
Distributed in large groups along the edges of the canal, the winding waterway that meandered through the park, the Empress’s roses were mere co-stars in this “natural artifice”, created to surprise, enchant and reveal the botanical novelties from faraway lands. […] Potted roses were grown in greenhouses and transported outdoors for the May-June flowering. The warm greenhouses sheltered the rarest and most delicate varieties. To ensure they grew healthily and luxuriantly, she would not hesitate to send them to the South of France, accompanied by precise recommendations written in her own hand on the care they needed. […] If she was away from home, she would write to her dame de palais, the Countess of Arberg, to make sure that they were all being watered properly.
[…] Once the works were finished, the Malmaison park was the golden place that Josephine had wanted and knew how to create. A park so full of wonders, with a languorous, convivial atmosphere, where Napoleon would come every week so they could together enjoy this beautiful place that united them, where visits, games, receptions and social gatherings were organised, and learned botanical discourses were held, that she was to exclaim: “Mon jardin est maintenant plus populaire de mon salon” (My garden is now more popular than my salon).


A brief account of the history of the rose, from its origins through Egypt, Greece and Rome, enhancing banquets and decorating harems and mosques, to the gardens of medieval convents. Various snippets of history are offered until we come to the start date chosen for the Romanzo della rosa – 1799, when Malmaison is acquired by Napoleon and Josephine.

Botany and history at Malmaison
This is the story of Josephine who created her garden at Malmaison, which became a place of joy and happiness with Napoleon, and of consolation and fortitude after their separation. At Malmaison, with the help of André du Pont, a post office employee and serviteur des roses at the Jardin du Luxembourg, Josephine collected plants and animals in perfect harmony. A painter, Pierre Joseph Redouté, and three nurserymen Jean-Pierre Vibert, Louis Noisette and Lewis Kennedy, of the Lee & Kennedy nurseries, helped her compose the work for which she is remembered by the world.

Upon her death, Josephine’s debts were a mountain as high as the honour and fame that her garden had gained in the world. It was Jules Gravereaux, a wealthy businessman, who stepped in to save a heritage that was the pride of France, helped by the great landscape architect Edouard André. The Napoleonic saga did not end along with the second empire. Sumptuous gardens flourished in Caserta and in St. Petersburg, political figures were exiled for reasons of state and roses bloomed in distant lands.

New roses for Europe from China and America
The first four Chinese roses, known as “the progenitors” arrived in Europe between 1792 and 1824. They were shipped from China along with tea, leading many to believe that their scent derives from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis (tea plant) with which they shared the holds on the long journey west. America and Europe had two new rosarians: in Haiti, Philippe Noisette, brother of Louis, the empress’s nurseryman who transformed the island into a plantation of rice and indigofera, but never neglected roses or civil rights. When he died, Philippe asked for the emancipation of his Creole wife and children. In Europe, Lyon became the capital for roses, not just for silk, with the new creations of the lyonnais Ducher and Pernet-Ducher, Guillot – père et fils, Cochet and Cochet-Cochet. In Orléans the leading representatives of rose cultivation were: Mauget and Vilmorin, Albert Barbier and Eugène Turbat.

The race for novelty: colour, scent, cut flowers
Now we come to the time of the great painters on the French Riviera, with Monet painting at all hours to capture the gradations of light; la Belle Epoque was a triumph of rose saplings, hybrid tea roses and climbers. The catalogues of Nabonnand, the official supplier of the European aristocracy, tell of roses in every possible shade of colour. The perfume industry was born, and Ernst Beaux’s fifth bottle became the famous Chanel No. 5.

Roses & surroundings
The first public gardens, the Roseraie de L’Haÿ and Bagatelle, were created, and there were competitions for the most beautiful flowers. Then came the art of artificial flowers: roses made of paper and porcelain, silk and elder pith invaded paintings and city streets, with fleuristes who soon set down the rules for the language of flowers.

Restoration and revolution
From the Old to the New Continent, hybridisers, producers, merchants and enthusiasts all fell in love with hybrid tea roses. Reverend Pemberton, and the three great Englishwomen: Gertrude Jekyll, Ellen Ann Willmott and Vita Sackville-West, who experimented tirelessly, without fear of failure, because great success can be achieved by trying and trying again. It was at this time that Italy’s largest garden was created: Ninfa, the brainchild of Ada Bootle Wilbraham and inspiration for the garden of Giorgio Bassani’s Finzi Contini.

Gardens and gardeners
A trip to South Africa, then to the Americas, to the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery, where more than 20,000 pioneers were buried among four hundred roses that grow among the pines, cedars and elms, as far as the island of Alcatraz which hosts a long-lost Bourbon rose. Then to Australia, where Alister Clark created a giant – a twenty-five metre high bush covered with fragrant white roses, as large as magnolia flowers.

The journey continues
The rose went through some hard times between the two world wars. The classic varieties had almost vanished from the market, but experienced something of a revival between 1960 and 1980. England, France, Belgium and Italy were the countries of its newfound youth.

The book also contains:
Chronology of Josephine and Malmaison
Index of names