In her new book, Flora Fraser tells the story of Pauline Bonaparte's extraordinary life with elegance and poise, avoiding the biographer's temptation either to exonerate or pass severe moral judgment on her subject.
The result is a remarkably lifelike portrait: an almost tangible sense of the beautiful, but all too human, flesh and blood woman immortalised in the pink stone statue by Canova that reclines so sublimely in the Villa Borghese, Rome.
Born in 1780, in Ajaccio, Corsica, christened Maria Paola and known as Paoletta until her name was gallicised to Paulette before finally becoming Pauline, Napoleon's younger sister was gifted with astonishing beauty. In itself, that beauty might have been enough to draw her from provincial origins to the highest circles of wealth and influence in 19th-century Europe. But in combination with her brother's military prowess and political ambition it was unstoppable.
The Bonaparte family fled Corsica in 1793 and settled in southern France during the Terror. Three years later, Napoleon intervened to prevent 16-year-old Pauline marrying Stanislas Fréron, a man of 41 with a dark revolutionary past behind him. That past caught up with Fréron the following year, just as Pauline embarked on a new engagement to Adjutant General Leclerc,
Napoleon's special envoy and a man the future Emperor described as joining "excellent conduct to pure patriotism". Pauline was never short of suitors.
One of the problems was that Pauline's own conduct was far from excellent. Early on, this could be excused as girlish immaturity. Leclerc's friend Arnault remembered how even Napoleon's ferocious glances, which had "recalled the most intractable men to order", did not work with the capricious, attention-loving Pauline. She was also under-educated, even by the standards of her sisters, and Fraser suggests that Pauline's dependence on a secretary, to whom she dictated her many letters, might have been a way of hiding poor spelling and grammar.
Young, beautiful and ignorant, Pauline suffered initially at the hands of the sophisticated salon women known as the incroyables under the Directory (the government seeking to bring order to France after 1794). Not even her brother's growing fame could protect her from the envy of other women, always keen to remind her of her humble origins. Fraser shows how quickly Pauline learnt to trade in the toxic currency of social insult. On one occasion, when her own younger sister, Caroline, also very beautiful, was brought by their mother to a soirée, Pauline declared: "My God, Maman, she is as clumsy as a peasant from Fiumorbo."