‘Napoleon’s sis­ter does not feel fear’

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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