From acclaimed biographer Flora Fraser, the brilliant life of Napoleon’s favorite sister. Celebrated for her looks, notorious for her passions, immortalized by Antonio Canova’s statue, and always deeply loyal to her brother, Pauline Bonaparte Borghese is a fascinating figure in her own right.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, she was considered by many to be the most beautiful woman in Europe. She shocked the continent with the boldness of her love affairs, her opulent wardrobe and jewels, and, most famously, her decision to pose nearly nude for Canova’s sculpture, which has been replicated in countless ways through the years. But just as remarkable as Pauline’s private life was her fidelity to the emperor (if not to her husbands). She was present for Napoleon’s great victories in Italy, and she was often at Malmaison with her brother and her rival for his loyalty, the empress Josephine. When he was exiled to Elba, Pauline was the only sibling to follow him there, and after the final defeat at Waterloo she begged to be allowed to join him at Saint Helena.
No biographer has gone so deeply into the sources or so closely examined one of the seminal relationships of the man who shaped modern Europe. In Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire, Flora Fraser has cast new light on the Napoleonic era while crafting a dynamic, vivid portrait of a mesmerizing woman.
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Flora Fraser is the author of Beloved Emma: The Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton; The Unruly Queen: The Life of Queen Caroline; and Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III. She lives in London with her husband and three children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Dinner at Marseille, 1796
The story of Pauline Bonaparte, legendary beauty and seductress, begins, appropriately, with a meeting of three men. At dinner in the port of Marseille in the south of France were her elder brother General Napoleon Bonaparte, her fiancé, Citizen Stanislas Fréron, and her future husband, Adjutant General Victor Emmanuel Leclerc. According to the Gregorian calendar it was March 22, 1796. But that annual register had been suppressed, and, according to the Revolutionary calendar, which the national government had instituted with effect from September 1792, the day was 2 Germinal, Year Four.
We have no record of what Pauline Bonaparte herself was doing on that day in Marseille. Fifteen years old, with her widowed mother, Letizia, and others of her siblings she had been an inhabitant of the south of France since dramatic events had caused them to flee their native Corsica. The island was in the throes of a struggle for independence backed in its early stages by members of the Bonaparte family. Latterly Napoleon and his brothers had supported the French Revolution, an adherence that had brought them into conflict with Corsican patriots. The family had settled first at Toulon and then in Marseille in 1793.
Nor indeed until shortly before this dinner do we have much reliable information about Pauline’s individual life. Her birth on October 20, 1780—she was the sixth of eight children—was recorded by her father, Charles, in his livre de raison, or commonplace book, which survives him. (He died when she was four.) The date of her baptism the next day in the small cathedral of Ajaccio in Corsica—Archdeacon Luciano Bonaparte, her great-uncle, stood godfather—is recorded in that town’s archives. She was christened Maria Paola, and as she grew up was known as Paoletta. With the later fame of her brother Napoleon eclipsing all interest in the stories of his siblings, Pauline’s childhood in the Maison Bonaparte in the harbor town of Ajaccio is distinguished by only a few mentions in the correspondence and anecdotes his admirers have so avidly collected.
When she was eleven, in 1792, Napoleon, aged twenty-two, sent her a fashion plate. Writing in the same month about her elder sister, Elisa, who had been educated far from Corsica at Madame de Maintenon’s convent school of Saint-Cyr, and doubting the overeducated girl’s chances in marriage, Napoleon mused that she was much less knowing than Paoletta. Both references, at once telling of Napoleon’s affection for Pauline, of her love of finery, and of her mischievous character, might seem invented did they not come from reputable sources. Years later, while in exile on Elba, the emperor remembered that he and his sister had been caught mimicking their crippled grandmother, who was “bent . . . like an old fairy,” and that Letizia punished Pauline rather than him—“it being easier to pull up skirts than undo breeches.” If true, the story testifies to the harsh justice that the Bonapartes’ mother meted out as well as to the taste this brother and sister displayed all their lives for unkind fun.
In the absence of other details about Pauline, these slivers of family life must represent her childhood years, her squabbles and games with elder brother Louis and younger siblings Maria Annunziata (always known as Caroline) and Jérôme. More generally her mother later spoke of a room in the Maison Bonaparte given over to the children, where they were allowed to play as they pleased, even scribble on the walls. That not much education—at most a dame school or the teaching of nuns—entered the lives of these younger Bonaparte children we know from later references to Pauline’s deficiencies in this area. A good deal of healthy living was part of the picture, and through the difficult years when, following the early death of Pauline’s father, Charles, the family might have been classed as pauvre, or unable to sustain themselves, they still summered at I Milleli, a substantial house in the maquis, or mountain scrub, above Ajaccio. It was here that Paoletta, her mother, and other siblings sheltered in the summer of 1793 when fleeing Corsican patriots, who had set fire to their home in Ajaccio following provocative remarks by her elder brother Lucien Bonaparte in a Jacobin club. From the nearby seashore they were sensationally rescued by Napoleon, and a French frigate bore them to the relative safety of the south of France. There Paoletta soon became known as Paulette, a gallicization that gradually gave way to Pauline.
But enough of vague accounts of a childhood we cannot reconstitute. Let us return to the dinner table in Marseille on March 22, 1796, and to the three men at it—Bonaparte, Fréron, and Leclerc. All three had been dedicated to the Revolution since it had first broken out in Paris on July 14, 1789, and all of them had played a distinguished part during its subsequent transformations. The Bourbon king Louis XVI had been executed in January 1793, and France, already steeped in blood at home, was now at war. Its enemies—Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, Spain, and Naples—had banded together to stop the French national government from spreading revolution throughout Europe and to support French royalists in their bid to restore the Bourbon monarchy. Although this struggle, which has since become known as the War of the First Coalition, provided the inescapable backdrop as the men dined that spring evening, we know that two of them at least had Paulette Bonaparte much in mind.
Despite the difference in their ages—he was forty-one to her fifteen—Stanislas Fréron had every intention of marrying Pauline within days, and her elder brother Napoleon favored the match, as well he might: Fréron was a person of consequence. He had been the national government’s choice to take up the appointment of proconsul in Marseille the previous year and reestablish order in a city torn by faction and still bruised from the excesses of Robespierre’s Revolutionary Terror of two years earlier. He had succeeded wonderfully well in his task, aided by one of the two younger men at the dinner, Adjutant General Leclerc, who had restored discipline to the disorderly troops in the town garrison. The third man at the table, General Bonaparte, had interrupted important preparations at Toulon for the launch of an Italian campaign to come and inspect the Marseille garrison, and this dinner marked the end of his visit and the successful conclusion of Fréron’s and Leclerc’s mission.
Some criticized the pomp and extravagance in which Fréron had lived at Marseille since his arrival the previous November, likening his behavior to that of a “Persian viceroy.” The house he had commandeered was illuminated day and night by lanterns, and he never ventured out without a large suite of attendants. But he ordered theater and bullfights, which pleased the Marseillais. The salons of the city, slowly opening again following the overthrow of Robespierre and the installation of the new government called the Directory, marveled at his wit and address. He had been brought up, before the Revolution, in the household of Louis XVI’s aunts, and among his attractions for the young Pauline Bonaparte was the lordly air he had preserved. When, exactly, over the past few months Pauline had come to the attention of this magnificent, decadent Parisian being, and where they had first met, we do not know. But it was almost certainly Lucien, acting as Fréron’s aide-de-camp in Marseille, who introduced them. From political life in Paris Fréron knew the three eldest Bonaparte brothers, Napoleon, Joseph, and Lucien—and indeed had singled out for praise in the Convention, the national assembly that preceded the Directory, Napoleon’s conduct in a royalist insurrection. Napoleon, meanwhile, noted with approval his brother Lucien’s appointment to Fréron’s staff.
What is certain is that Pauline and the other Bonaparte females would have known of Fréron long before they encountered him during this pacificatory mission to Marseille. For, after they left their native Corsica in the summer of 1793, they lived between Toulon and Marseille in the south of France. And in the summer of 1794 in the Midi, Fréron’s name was synonymous with the Terror, after he had, with Paul Barras, been dispatched by Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety to oversee in that region the national bloodshed in the Revolution’s name that so horrified the rest of Europe. In Marseille he and his fellow commissioner, Barras, punished those who had backed the Girondins, moderate opponents of Robespierre’s Jacobins. In Toulon they exacted vengeance on the royalist town for turning to the English. (It was at the siege of Toulon in late 1793 that the twenty-four-year-old Napoleon had first made his name, dispersing the British fleet in his capacity as captain of artillery.)
During this return visit two years later to the scene of his earlier crimes, however, Fréron had now succeeded by wise government in conciliating many. The day after the dinner, on March 23, 1796, General Napoleon Bonaparte reported from Toulon to Barras, now a member of the Directory, “Fréron has behaved well at Marseille. They seem to fear his departure and the renewal of assassinations.” And on the thirtieth of that month from Nice he repeated his encomium to the same correspondent: “I found Fréron at Marseille. His departure has been a matter for regret—it seems he has behaved well there.”
Fréron had certainly succeeded in attracting the heartfelt passion of Pauline Bonaparte, and already six weeks before Napoleon’s visit to Marseille their imminent marriage was the subject of discussion between them. The fifteen-year-old girl was preparing herself to leave...
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