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.”
The coup of 18 Brumaire swept the Directory aside and made Napoleon First Consul. Despite poor health and difficulties walking after the birth of her son, Dermide, Pauline went with Leclerc to Sainte-Domingue, where he was dispatched by Napoleon to subdue the ex-slave and rebel leader Toussaint Louverture. Still only 22, Pauline was brave on this ill-fated mission, which claimed the lives of hundreds of West Indians and Frenchmen. Leclerc himself died of yellow fever and Pauline returned to France a widow and single mother.
Napoleon thought she should mourn for a year, in keeping with French tradition, if not with the new Civic Code. But Pauline, vital and ebullient, moved swiftly on to Camillo Borghese. Newly-arrived in Paris, Camillo was a wealthy young Roman prince with flawless revolutionary credentials (he had fought with French forces against the papal army). Disobeying her brother, Pauline married Camillo in August 1803. For her last appearance at the Tuileries, before leaving for Rome, she was dazzling in a dress of green velvet with “a quantity of white diamonds”.
Apprised of the marriage he had not yet agreed to, Napoleon wrote to his sister en route to Rome, “Show respect and devotion towards the Holy Father…What I would most like to hear about you is that you are well behaved…Love your husband, make your household happy, and above all do not be frivolous or capricious. You are 24 years old and ought to be mature and sensible by now. I love you.” He was spitting in the wind.
As Princess Borghese, Pauline’s appetite for amorous adventure only increased and her behaviour became more eccentric. In a sumptuous villa in Nice she received visitors while resting her feet on the throat of her lady-in-waiting, spread-eagled on the floor. If she was cold on coach journeys, she thrust her feet indecently under the same servant’s skirt to warm them. Lovers were taken up and dropped with abandon. There were even rumours that Pauline’s relationship with Napoleon had become erotic and as far afield as New York she was compared to the promiscuous Roman empress Messalina. When the French army set out to invade Russia, there were so many of Pauline’s former lovers marching in the ranks that “one could indeed say, ‘Their name is Legion’.”
Fraser continues the story to Pauline’s death in June 1825. She was a good Catholic, in the last instance, as Napoleon at his death had been: “I die without any feelings of hatred or animosity against anyone, in the principles of the faith and doctrine of the apostolic Church and in piety and resignation.” There had been promiscuity, depravity, joy and despair along the way, but in the end, Pauline was dignified beyond detraction.
Venus of Empire is a moving and subtly feminist achievement. Despite serious provocation, Fraser never condescends to her subject. Nor is she ever impatient. Instead, she directs rigorous scholarship towards capturing the nuances of a bizarrely flamboyant feminine life. Contemporaries claimed that Pauline looked like her brother. It is fascinating to contemplate in Fraser’s company the translation of all that force of nature from the masculine to the feminine universe in 19th-century France.