I just read the book “Madame Toussaud”, by Michelle Moran; bear with me here for a short deviation from gardens. Madame was an incredible woman, although she must have been all business first. If the characterization is true, I’m sure that she would have been called “hard” and unfeminine by many, especially in her day. I admire her for doing what was necessary. Moving back and forth between the worlds of both royalty and revolutionaries, she survived her central role in the French revolution by making wax death masks of the executed. When she could do so no longer, she was imprisoned. I highly recommend this book as a very readable but historically accurate depiction of life and death during the French Revolution. Winding back to the topic for this post, the book has her in prison, awaiting execution with as woman named Rose, who would later be known as Empress Josephine, or Josephine Bonnaparte.
Rose is another self-made woman from that era who was often described as being pragmatic, at best. Rose’s first husband from an arranged and failed marriage was executed, but after Robespierre’s execution, the prisons were opened and she survived to live on her wits and highly placed friends, until she married Napoleon. My mind is still open but it’s impossible for me to tell, from hundreds of years away, whether her contributions to the science of botany and her ambitious plant collections were a sign of a serious and capable woman, or symptomatic of leftover imperialistic ideals.
Whatever values they reflect in the woman, history does tell us of her successes. In a day when people were scouring the globe to bring home the new and novel, for study or the amusement of their friends, she amassed a small menagerie and a garden full of exotic plants at Malmaison, where she continued to live after her divorce from Napoleon. Roses were a favorite and she’s reported to have collected hundreds of varieties, helping to establish a source of breeding stock for early hybridizing efforts. She employed the premier garden designers and botanists of her time. Her gardens were immortalized in books and in paintings. The painter Redoubt captured hundreds of her roses alone, and was influential in having them converted to printed media.
After her death in 1814, through neglect and the influence of war, the gardens were destroyed. The Chateau has been restored as a museum to Bonaparte and the gardens, a restored wisp, a memory, a small fragment of their former glory can be seen today at Chateau Malmaison in a Rueil, a close-in suburb of Paris. It’s a chance to touch her spirit, even if time has diminished the impact. The pictures were taken in 2003.