‘Napoleon’s sister does not feel fear’
In “Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire,” Flora Fraser portrays the life of Napoleon’s favorite sister — a capricious, petulant beauty, who defied convention and shocked 19th-century Europe with her many flagrant affairs, louche behavior, opulent jewels and lavish lifestyle. Christened Maria Paoletta and raised along with seven squabbling siblings in a tenement in Corsica, she rose to the apex of luxury as a princess of both France and Italy and was immortalized by Canova in a near-nude lifesize marble statue the Villa Borghese in Rome.(The seductive, reclining figure is a major tourist attraction today.)
Ms. Fraser, who has written several well received biographies, among them “Princesses” and “Queen Caroline,” belongs to English literary royalty. Her grandmother, Lady Elizabeth Longford, and mother, Lady Antonia Fraser, are two of Britain’s most accomplished and acclaimed historical biographers. (Her stepfather was playwright and actor Harold Pinter). Ms. Fraser became interested in Pauline after seeing her famous statue and catching a glimpse of the magnificent Palazzo Borghese in Rome several years ago and decided to delve into the life of the confident and independent woman who, despite star quality, had somehow been neglected by history and relegated to obscurity.
Protected and supported by Napoleon, who indulged her even though he was unable to control her outrageous behavior, Pauline was frank about her sexual appetite and exploits and blase about the ensuing notoriety. Gossips called her a modern Messalina, and she was accused of nymphomania, lesbianism, gonorrhea and an incestuous relationship with Napoleon himself. Ms. Fraser writes that some of these accusations were true, suggesting an intimacy with the emperor, but a number of the licentious rumors which continually swirled about her were fomented by her brother’s enemies in England and enhanced by the French government during the Bourbon restoration.
The cosseted Pauline married twice; the first time to a close friend of Napoleon, Gen. Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, to whom she was truly devoted and with whom she had a son, Dermide. Totally loyal, she accompanied him to Haiti when he was sent to restore France’s sugar income, and quell a local insurrection. Despite illness and several uprisings she refused to leave her husband, whom she called, “joli petit gamin,” declaring, “Napoleon’s sister does not feel fear.” After LeClerc’s death from yellow fever, she returned to France and reclaimed her place as a leading fashionista in Paris society eventually marrying Camillo Borghese, a feckless, titled Roman, of whom she quickly tired and deserted but not before acquiring his family’s famous title, diamonds and homes. She was now at the epicenter of the beau monde, extremely powerful, a double princess and, according to Count Metternich, the Austrian ambassador, “as beautiful as it was possible to be. She was in love with herself alone and her sole occupation was pleasure.”
During the Empire, she inhabited the magnificent hotel de Charost, that, ironically, after her brother’s exile, she sold with all its sumptuous contents to the Duke of Wellington when he was appointed British Ambassador to France. It remains the British Embassy in Paris. And though they never met, and Wellington referred to her to her as a “heartless devil,” he chose to place her glamorous portrait in one of the main rooms at Apsley House, his mansion in the heart of London.
A continuing theme throughout the book, beside her obsession with her appearance and wardrobe, (even Napoleon commented “She has only ever cared for her toilette and pleasure”) is Pauline’s poor state of health. She complained constantly and visited spas all over France and Italy to combat a variety of mysterious illnesses, often refusing to walk a step, preferring instead to be carried by a current lover or transported by one of he many liveried servants in a litter. She traveled with a portable tub and insisted on bathing in milk. On one occasion, she demanded her host create a hole in the ceiling of a room in his chateau so she could install a make-shift milk shower. Another startling escapade describes Pauline entertaining a guest as a lady in waiting lay on the floor while the princess’ feet were either resting on, or massaging the woman’s throat. Apparently, this was almost a daily ritual, meant to show off her perfect toes, and several women were employed to fulfill this unusually demeaning role .
Relentless in her in her search for a cure to what ailed her, doctors of the day diagnosed Pauline with nymphomania, and several suggested applying leeches along with other medications. They also discovered an inflammation of the fallopian tubes, and probably gon- orrhea, but the ultimate remedy, abstinence, was not one she ever intended to follow. In French society, long before advent of antibiotics, every form of venereal disease was rampant, and, like Pauline, many men and women were infected by ailments which were alluded to but never openly discussed. Her promiscuity, however, did not prove fatal. When she died at 45, it was of stomach tumor, probably cancer, and it had nothing to do with her innumerable, amorous adventures.
Her true loyalty was to Napoleon. She was the only one of his siblings to follow him to exile in Elba. “One should not leave the emperor all alone,” she wrote her mother. “It’s now when he is miserable that one should show him affection. Or that’s how I see it.” To cheer him up, she established a mini-court, organized elaborate balls, picnics, plays and teas and laid out plans for a summer retreat in the hills. It was late at night, after a one of her soirees on Feb. 25,1815, that Napoleon took her aside and announced plans to gather his retinue and set sail to the southern coast of France the following day. Concerned but practical, Pauline offered him the Borghese diamond necklace worth 500,000 francs in case he needed to raise cash. She entrusted the stones to her brother ’s valet with the words “Don’t abandon him, Marchand, take care of him.” (The fabulous necklace was sewn into the lining of the carriage that Napoleon was forced to abandon on the field after the rout at Waterloo. There was no time to retrieve the gems and they have never been found or seen again.)
When her brother was sent to remote St. Helena she made friends with a number of well placed English Whigs who visited Paris and then pleaded with the English government to be allowed to visit him on his rocky atoll, but her petition arrived along with the news of Napoleon’s death.
Throughout her life, she remained a fashion plate and, surprisingly, toward the end reconciled with Camillo Borghese. She also turned on her famous pink marble effigy and begged her husband to remove it from public view — convinced Napoleon’s enemies only came to see her, changed by time and infirmities, in order to compare her with the golden girl of the past. The woman who basked in attention grew fearful of aging.
The twists and turns of Pauline’s story and the improbability of her lifestyle make her biography interesting reading. It would be impossible to conjure her up today. Flora Fraser has plucked her from the shadows and, through archives, diaries and letters, reveals one of the most colorful, crafty and intriguing women of the 19th century.
Sandra McElwaine is a Washington based journalist and a contributor to The Daily Beast.