The Wisdom of Hortense, Queen of Holland
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
In the 1920s, a memoir written over a hundred years earlier by Hortense de Beauharnais, Queen of Holland, was published. Hortense’s life was the sort of thing made for movie screens, but she has been vastly overshadowed by the flashier characters of her family circle, after all she was Napoleon I’s stepdaughter, Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter, Louis Bonaparte’s wife, and Napoleon III’s mother.
Recently I re-read The Memoirs of Queen Hortense while writing a play called Happiness in Palaces for 365 Women a Year, a project promoting the creation and production of stage works inspired by historical women. Adapting a portion of Hortense’s life for the stage was exciting, and also enlightening. It never ceases to amaze me when a something written centuries ago is incredibly applicable to life today (this is one of the reasons I love memoirs so much), so I have decided to make this post all about Hortense’s words.
Hortense was born in 1783, to Alexandre and Josephine de Beauharnais, lived through her mother’s arrest and father being guillotined during the French Revolution, had her stepfather become Emperor Napoleon I, endured a disagreeable marriage, wore a crown that she did not want, got tangled in a love affair, and spent the years following Napoleon’s fall living in exile until her death in 1837. It was during this exile that she wrote her memoirs, and here are some of the things she said:
“Friendship is noblest sentiment the human heart can conceive.” (Vol I, p. 261)
"Anyone can be a lover, but how many people know how to remain friends? In other words, how many people can treat another human being with that frankness which admits one's own mistakes combined with that tolerance which accepts the weaknesses of others?" (Vol I, p. 261)
“Where real friendship is concerned one wishes every feeling to be wholly spontaneous and dreads any sense of obligation.” (Vol II, p. 112)
“...the most painful accusations that can be made against us are those of people we considered our friends.” (Vol II, p. 289)
“Happiness consists in a harmony between our tastes and our position in society.” (Vol I, p. 260)
“…a single unfulfilled desire is enough to dampen too intense a joy.” (Vol II, p. 3)
“...I was convinced that happiness was not the lot of those who dwell in palaces.” (Vol II, p. 150)
“What a disappointment it is when we realize that the people about us are generally hypocrites.” (Vol I, p. 24)
“People think you should be sad, see that you are happy, and conclude you are a hypocrite.” (Vol II, p. 32)
“I felt that to be truly independent, one must first acquire those things that insure this independence, in other words, strength of character and a sound education.” (Vol I, p. 22-23)
On Love and Relationships
“...passion can neither foresee the future, nor remedy the past.” (Vol I, p. 126)
“The more people seek to belittle the object of our affections, the more our pride increases our attachment to him.” (Vol I, p. 171)
“When one’s sentimental interests are at stake it is astonishing how the smallest things become important.” (Vol I, p. 273)
“Between married people who are unhappy together everything becomes a reason for quarrels and discussions.” (Vol I, p. 298)
On Politics (and Men and Women)
“It is the same thing everywhere; people love a change and expect what is new will be an improvement.” (Vol I, p. 185)
“Only women know how to rise to the occasion, and when the fate of nations depends on men such as I have just seen one cannot be surprised if everything goes wrong, and if the most worthy causes are lost.” (Vol II, p. 77)
“Human beings can act as they please, choose their own fate, but they should not try to decide the future of others.” (Vol II, p. 137)
“The habit of considering oneself a great nation gives a country a haughty attitude, which it retains in spite of what may happen.” (Vol II, p. 254)
“...what does all the reason in the world amount to if one judges in accordance with one’s political bias?” (Vol II, p. 274)
“I have noticed that in general during political upheavals men have less moral resistance than women.” (Vol II, p. 287)
“When political passions run as high as they do nowadays, the truth is of only minor importance.” (Vol II, p. 316)
“...I could not understand how [Christianity] could be used in France as an excuse for that injustice and hatred of others which its teachings condemn.” (Vol II, p. 318)
On Sadness and Misfortune
“My ability to support all of life’s vicissitudes is principally due to the fact that my imagination magnifies the coming misfortunes which when they arrive appear less terrifying than the picture I conjure up in advance. Hence I find myself with more than enough courage to face all such perils and afflictions as may befall me.” (Vol I, p. 66)
“Misfortune makes one superstitious.” (Vol I, p. 178)
“Our inner sorrows instead of limiting the circle of our sympathies develop them and cause us to take a more active and compassionate interest in what goes on about it.” (Vol I, p. 224)
“...our imagination frequently evokes misfortunes which never take place, while at the same time it does not foresee the other evils that Fate holes in store for us.” (Vol I, p. 272)
Hortense, Queen of Holland, The Memoirs of Queen Hortense, Translated by Arthur K. Griggs, 2 Vols., New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1927.
Anne Louis Girodet-Trioson, Portrait of Hortense de Beauharnais, Queen of Holland, c. 1806-c.1809, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum.
The Angels of France: The Queen Hortense, The Empress Josephine, and The Empress Eugenie, from Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Queen Hortense Playing the Lyre, from Bibliothèque nationale de France.