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On Sale: February 24, 2009
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27131-0
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From acclaimed biographer Flora Fraser, the brilliant life of Napoleon's favorite sister, with color photos, paintings, and illustrations.
Considered by many in Europe to be the most beautiful woman at the turn of the nineteenth century, Pauline Bonaparte Borghese shocked the continent with the boldness of her love affairs, her opulent wardrobe and jewels, her decision to pose nearly nude for Canova's sculpture, and her rumored incestuous relationship with her brother, the Emperor Napoleon—the only man to whom she was loyal. When Napoleon was exiled to Elba, Pauline was the only sibling to follow him there, and after the final defeat at Waterloo she begged to join him at Saint Helena.
In Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire, Flora Fraser casts new light on the Napoleonic era and crafts a dynamic, vivid portrait of a mesmerizing woman.



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 her family and follow Fréron, wherever the government might next send him. “. . . I swear, dear Stanislas, ever to love but you alone,” Pauline wrote on 19 Ventôse (February 9). “My heart is not for sharing. It’s given to you whole. Who could oppose the union of two souls who seek only happiness and who find it in loving each other? No, my love, not Maman, not anyone can refuse you my hand.” She went on, “Laura and Petrarch, whom you quote often, were not so happy as us. Petrarch was constant, but Laura . . . No, my dear love, Paulette will love you as much as Petrarch loved Laura.”

This rather surprising excursus into the world of Renaissance literature requires some explanation. We know that Fréron admired and translated into French the Italian poet’s sonnets. That he shared his knowledge of Petrarch, and of the sonnets dedicated to “Laura”—the woman the poet claims to have first seen in a church in Avignon and who, being married, could never return his passion—with Pauline, an ignorant and more or less unlettered refugee from Corsica, says much for the power of love to transcend all boundaries. It is probable that Pauline had help from someone more literate than herself in framing this and subsequent letters, to her “idol” Fréron. Her brother Lucien and her sister Elisa have been suggested as possible secretaries. But Fréron’s teaching left an indelible impression on Pauline. Later in life she was to take pleasure in reciting the lines from Petrarch he had taught her—to other lovers.

Pauline’s reference to her mother shows that Fréron had not succeeded in conciliating all at Marseille: “No, my love, not Maman, not anyone can refuse you my hand.” Following the early death of her husband, Charles, in 1785, Letizia Bonaparte had shared the duties that would have naturally fallen to him, as father of a family of five boys and three girls, with her two eldest sons, Joseph and Napoleon. Hence resistance from her to the match that Pauline and Fréron contemplated was to be taken seriously, even if Napoleon was in favor. (Within the family Napoleon was a figure of greater authority than his elder brother. In part this was because, unlike Joseph, he had spent months at a time at home in Corsica, helping his mother in her quest to make ends meet. In part he had the more dominant character.) That Madame Bonaparte objected, or at least wished the couple to delay their marriage, is made clear in a letter from Fréron to Napoleon days after his dinner with the young general. His mission concluded, Fréron was on the point of journeying north to Paris, where he had been called by the Directory, and intended taking Pauline with him as Madame Fréron:

Your mother is putting an obstacle in our way. I hold to the idea of marrying in Marseille in four or five days’ time. Everything is arranged for that. Independently of possessing this hand that I burn to unite to mine, it is possible that the Directory will name me straightaway to some distant post, which will mean an immediate departure. If I am obliged to come back here, I will lose precious time. Moreover, the government, which, rightly, occupies itself little with matters of the heart, might blame an absence that could retard [the object of] the mission entrusted to me.

On what ground Madame Bonaparte objected to her daughter’s marriage to Fréron we do not know. The bridegroom’s age may have been a factor—or, indeed, the bride’s youth. Or, being endowed with a remarkable ability to see which way the wind was blowing, Madame Bonaparte may have had some inkling, either from her links with the Corsican community in Paris or from information from the merchant community of Marseille with whom the Bonapartes were friendly, and indeed into which her son Joseph had recently married, that Fréron’s earlier crimes in the south were about to come back to haunt him. She may even have known of and objected to the five-year liaison that Fréron had enjoyed with an actress from the Italian theater. Two children had been born, and the actress was pregnant with a third. But her objections were certainly not shared at this point by her son Napoleon. Indeed Pauline later reminded him, “You consented to my marriage to Fréron,” and referred to “the promises you made me to smooth all obstacles.”

It was perhaps surprising that Madame Bonaparte made objections to her daughter’s marriage. When she and her children had fled Ajaccio for the mainland after the Maison Bonaparte had been burned down, the modest income they derived from the produce of vineyards and other smallholdings on their native island had come to an end. Indeed Corsica was now in British hands. In addition the support of a close-knit if quarrelsome structure of relations—paternal and maternal—had been lost to them. In Toulon, where they landed in June 1793, and afterward in Marseille, they had had to depend on small sums that the new republican government meted out to refugees from Corsica. Legend even has it that the Bonaparte women resorted to taking in laundry and washed it in the public fountain.

Now, however, in the spring of 1796, Napoleon had been appointed to head the Army of Italy, which had as its mission the expulsion of the Austrians from northern Italy and the introduction of republican government into that region. As a result he was able to supplement his family’s income from his salary. Equally Madame Bonaparte’s stepbrother, François Fesch, who had escaped with them from Corsica, had recovered some of his Swiss father’s patrimony and could also help. Fesch, whose vocation was the priesthood and who had earlier been archdeacon of Ajaccio after Luciano Bonaparte’s death, had been living a secular life since religious orders were suppressed under the Revolution.

From the Hardcover edition.
Flora Fraser|Author Q&A

About Flora Fraser

Flora Fraser - Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire

Photo © Elena Siebert

Flora Fraser, daughter of bestselling biographer Lady Antonia Fraser, is the author of Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III, Beloved Emma: The Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton and Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire. She lives in London.

Author Q&A

Q: Where did you first encounter Pauline Bonaparte, and what inspired you to write about her life?

A: Many years ago I was with an Italian friend and looking at a portrait of Pauline Bonaparte in the Duke of Wellington’s house in London. Pauline married Prince Borghese as her second husband, and my friend Sabina was a Borghese by birth. ‘You can read her letters’, Sabina offered, as I stared at Napoleon’s beautiful sister, there in the house of Wellington, who defeated the French Emperor at Waterloo. ‘They are all in the Vatican. But no one mentions her in my family, she is too scandalous.’ Pauline’s near-naked statue in the Villa Borghese, not to mention her many celebrated love affairs, plainly still had the power to shock! I was intrigued by the idea of reading Pauline’s letters amongst the correspondence of cardinals and princes of the Church, but I was busy writing about another scandalous woman, Emma, Lady Hamilton, Nelson’s mistress. We dropped the subject, and when, some years later, I visited the tenement house where Pauline grew up in Ajaccio on Corsica, I was meditating on a book about Napoleon, her brother, and not about her. (In the event I abandoned the idea and so one less book has been added to the vast library on the emperor!) Time passed. One evening I was walking to dinner in Rome, and the gates of a palazzo opened and out came a car. Briefly illuminated within I saw a double courtyard with statues surmounting the interior colonnade. Then the gates closed and we were again in darkness. But when I made out the name of the palazzo on my map, it was the Palazzo Borghese. Remembering the tenement house in Corsica, I thought what a journey Pauline had made—and I resolved to tell her story one day. But that day didn’t come till about four years ago when I was casting about for a new subject for a biography, and had incidentally decided to write about a man. I pursued various worthy candidates in the British Library for some weeks and then one evening on impulse rang my editor at Knopf, Bob Gottlieb. ‘It’s not a man, it’s Pauline Bonaparte’, I blurted out. Bob, understanding this announcement, as not everyone would have, said, ‘Done’ and the project was born.

Q: Napoleon’s name is universally known, yet most readers probably have not heard of his sister. Why, in your opinion, did such a fiery and iconic woman fade into obscurity?

A: Nowadays it seems almost inconceivable that the lives of bold and independent-minded women could be regarded as posing a threat to society. Nevertheless, in the years following her death in 1825 Pauline Bonaparte presented to moralists of the nineteenth century a terrible role model for women. She had generally got exactly what she wanted, and, besides taking lovers when she wanted and with impunity, had triumphed in a number of financial battles with her brother and with her husband, Prince Borghese. When Napoleon III, Pauline’s nephew, became emperor of the French after a rash of Bourbon kings restored after his uncle’s fall, not only were Napoleon I’s ashes brought to France from St. Helena, but many hagiographies of the first emperor appeared. His wife, Josephine, appeared in them as the beautiful, pliant muse of Malmaison, growing roses and flitting through the grounds in dresses of white muslin. But Napoleon’s sister Pauline, caustic, chic and contrary, as well as very much there at the time, was excluded from the story. And so, airbrushed out of the story, she began to fade into obscurity—except for that statue, the effigy of an overwhelmingly confident woman., in the Villa Borghese in Rome. Pauline’s statue, the Venus Victorious endlessly challenges the onlooker. It is, as someone more vulgar than I has observed, ‘sex on a stick’.

Q: You’ve written several biographies about royal or noble women—Emma, The Unruly Queen, Princesses—how did Pauline differ from your previous subjects? You’ve mentioned how much you enjoyed writing her story.

A: Well, Pauline is definitely the most outrageous character I have ever written about. She was so demanding and capricious, it was quite hard sometimes to keep a straight face when I was reading her letters in a rather forbidding library in Paris. She complained about everything. But she knew she could get away with anything with some people, because she was the emperor’s sister, and she rather despised those who gave in to her. With some people, however, notably her first husband and her brother Napoleon, she was a different person. She was fiercely loyal to General Leclerc, her first husband, and, when they were in Haiti and under attack from the native army, she refused to leave the island. His death caused her great grief but Pauline was a survivor and she rallied. Her greatest loyalty was reserved for her brother Napoleon, and, alone of his siblings, she followed him when he was exiled to Elba. She even wanted to go out to him on St.Helena, that rock in the Atlantic where he was marooned after Waterloo, but her petition to the English government coincided with news of Napoleon’s death. Pauline quarrelled with her brother and was prone to disobey him while he was in power. But, when his power was gone, she was his ‘comforting angel’. The twists and turns in Pauline’s story, the different aspects of her character that are revealed at different times, her sheer bloody-mindedness about getting her own way—there really aren’t many like her. I don’t suppose I’ll ever write about anyone so infinitely entertaining again—even if, sometimes, she’s appalling!

Q: In addition to being an acclaimed biographer in your own right, you’re also the daughter of the celebrated biographer Lady Antonia Fraser and have co-founded the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography along with your husband. What is it about the genre of biography that you find so appealing?

A: I enjoy enormously coming at history through the lives of those who were a part of it. Perhaps, as a third-generation biographer, I am genetically programmed to think that way! I seem to remember dates and events of history better when they are experienced by individuals, rather than recounted as a narrative in their own right. But there’s another thing. The voices of historical characters. Whether it’s the American Revolution and David McCullough writing on John Adams, or Robert Caro’s multi-volume life of Lyndon B Johnson, I enjoy reading extensive quotes from the letters or writings of biographical subjects. Their voices are ultimately what a good biographer wants to resonate in the reader’s mind, and the good biographer is expert at framing those voices with a narrative which allows those voices to sing out. I suppose what I find so appealing about writing biography is that what I outline above seems with each book so difficult, and then by degrees you make out a way to do it. The rewards can be huge. After the initial tussle with Pauline Bonaparte, I spent a year writing it, and enjoyed every minute. It was like playing a difficult piano piece and getting all the expression right.

Q: In Pauline Bonaparte you cite many private letters and personal accounts and anecdotes about Pauline. Where did you discover these sources?

A: A dedicated nineteenth century historian called Frederic Masson collected all the letters of Napoleon’s family that he could. So Pauline’s correspondence, as far as it related to her life in Paris, when she occupied what is now the British Embassy, is with the other family papers in the Bibliotheque Thiers. This library is conveniently near the Gare du Nord, where the Eurostar train comes in from London. Unfortunately it’s only open from 12:00 pm - 6:00 pm, Thursdays and Fridays. Highly inconvenient for getting back to weekend life with my husband and children in London! The Vatican Secret Archive in Rome, on the other hand, which houses the Borghese papers, is open 8:30 am – 1:30 pm which was fine. Except about 11:00 am I always desperately crave coffee. And by the time you had left the archive and negotiated several courtyards and walls and gates to go out of the Vatican and get to a café, and then come all the way back again, negotiating Swiss Guards and others, well, that was a lot of time wasted. So I did without coffee but felt rather lassitudinous, during the latter half of the morning. Then one day I discovered a great secret worth its weight in gold—or caffeine, anyway. As usual about eleven, instead of going for coffee, I stepped moodily out of the archive reading room to get some air on an adjoining terrace dotted with orange trees. I had previously assumed the monks and priests filing up some steps to a structure looking like a chapel were en route to pray. But I suddenly had a divine inspiration and joined them. As I had surmised, the chapel had been turned into a café, there was a roaring trade being done in coffee, panini and even good red wine. To make matters even better, the prices appeared to be heavily subsidised! You will not be surprised to hear that I went back to work with fresh vigour.

Q: Perhaps the most well-known piece of Pauline Bonaparte’s history is the life-sized, near-nude marble statue of her that is currently on display in the Villa Borghese in Rome. Was posing in such an exposed state considered scandalous for the Emperor’s sister? And if so, did this bother Pauline (or Napoleon for that matter)?

A: Canova, who sculpted Pauline, had in fact sculpted Napoleon, in a colossal nude statue, as the god Mars. But the nudity that was considered heroic in a depiction of the emperor was definitely shocking, where his sister was concerned, and she was by marriage a Roman princess. Roman matrons were not supposed to behave like that, whatever they might get up to in Paris. When Pauline’s mother-in-law asked her if she did not fear to pose so lightly clad, the sitter’s reply was inimitable: ’There was a good fire in the room.’ Pauline revelled in the attention. But as she grew older, she turned against the statue, which her husband owned, and tried to prevent his showing it. Her brother’s enemies were not content, she said after Napoleon’s fall from power, to poison him on St. Helena; they came to see her in Rome and compare her, ravaged by time and anxiety, with her ever-youthful marble effigy.

Q: Two recurrent themes in the biography are Pauline’s continually fragile health (for which she travelled extensively and in the process inconvenienced most everyone around her), and her voracious sexual appetite. Were the two linked in any way?

A: It would seem likely that Pauline was affected by sacro-iliac pain following the birth of her son, Dermide Leclerc. She certainly ordered at different times over the years a belt to support her pelvis, and often refused ethereally to walk a single step—at the most awkward moments when traveling as well as when a lover was on hand to lift her. Pauline also, however, suffered from what was probably salpingitis, or infection and inflammation of the fallopian tubes. This she could have contracted either during childbirth or during sexual intercourse with someone infected with venereal disease. The doctors of the day diagnosed her ailment as ‘furor uterinus’, or nymphomania, and among other cures suggested applying leeches. Although countless men and women in this period before the advent of antibiotics suffered from every form of venereal disease, we cannot for sure link Pauline’s illness to her sexual activity. We can be more confident that no illness relating to her love affairs was mortal, as she died, aged only forty-five, from what was said to be a tumour on her stomach and was probably cancer.

Q: Pauline had countless lovers throughout her life—and her marriages—but it was also rumoured that she had intimate relations with her brother Napoleon. Is there any truth to this? How did their relationship change during Napoleon’s rise to power and fall from it? He certainly seemed to be the most important male figure in her life.

A: I believe that Napoleon and Pauline very likely did have intimate relations at a time when he was drawing away from his wife Josephine. She had reached an age where she was too old to bear him children and Napoleon desperately wanted an heir. Pauline certainly encouraged her brother to divorce Josephine, and there is a fascinating period in Paris when Josephine is the shunned—but not yet divorced—wife and Pauline the resplendent sister and confidante flaunting her power. Once Napoleon does divorce Josephine and remarries and fathers an heir, the intimacy with Pauline is over. When Napoleon is depressed and in exile on Elba, Pauline is the comforter, not the lover. It doesn’t seem to me likely that they had intimate relations then, although it has been widely alleged that they were lovers at that time. We cannot know for certain if Napoleon and Pauline were ever lovers. Most importantly, I don’t think, if they were, it changed anything dramatically in their relationship. To Pauline, Napoleon remained the head of the family, in a clannish, Corsican sense, to whom her loyalty, and that of the rest of her family, was owed. And as in many clans, there was a good deal of in-breeding accepted in the family. When Napoleon wanted their brother Louis to marry Josephine’s daughter, the match took place. When Napoleon thought of marrying one of his own nieces, it was regarded as a perfectly acceptable plan. In this context, if Napoleon and Pauline had intimate relations—and the rumours that they did at some point are strong—the act would not perhaps have seemed as unnatural as it does to us today.

Q: Even beyond her relationship with Napoleon, rumors continually swirled around Pauline. Did you notice a similarity to the tabloids and gossip we see surrounding celebrities today? And did you come across anything truly ridiculous?

A: When Pauline was in Haiti with her first husband, General Leclerc, the most amazing claims were made. They said she had threesomes with natives of the island, and lesbian affairs, and experimented to see whether the black Haitians made better lovers than her husband’s French fellow officers. There were other common reports—for instance, that Pauline was a ‘modern Messalina’, the Empress Messalina having had an ungovernable sexual appetite. There was one story which for some reason seems particularly ludicrous. Pauline was thought to have become colossally rich from looted property when she was in Haiti with her husband, Leclerc. Accordingly it was said , when she returned to France in mouirning and with her dead husband’s bier, that in Leclerc’s coffin, rather than his body, were piles of cash. Although Pauline, in appearance, was petite and utterly feminine with pale skin and womanly curves, the stories that accrued about her are all about her being outrageous. And so the press Pauline attracted to me recalls the kind of stories that feature male rock stars like Mick Jagger. But I don’t want to exclude Madonna. Pauline was definitely the Material Girl of her generation.

Q: Pauline didn’t get on with many of the women at court, and she showed an active dislike for the Empress Josephine. Was it just jealousy or something deeper?

A: When Pauline first came across Josephine, the latter was newly married to Napoleon, but was no novice bride. Josephine was a very sophisticated woman who had been married already—to an aristocrat who had been guillotined—and had two children. Josephine’s friends were the most fashionable women in Paris—and Pauline, I think, felt like a dowdy provincial beside her. Pauline soon learnt sophistication, and, without any education at all, became famous for the style of her dress, her jewels, and her homes. But Pauline was very competitive, and was prepared to fight hard and dirty to win the pre-eminent place, be it for beauty, wit or fashion. She was in this way, as many observed, wonderfully childish, and indeed some felt the Bonapartes in some respects had never really left the nursery!

Q: Fashion was very important to Pauline, and she was considered by many to be the most beautiful woman in Europe. Beyond her portraits, how did you discover the details of her extensive wardrobe and accessories?

A: In the Bibliotheque Thiers in Paris there is a fine collection of invoices from Pauline’s many dressmakers, and the jewellers that she patronized. Besides, she corresponded minutely with the Michelots, her steward and his wife whose taste she trusted, about her different households, and many of these letters still exist. (In addition to the house in the Faubourg St Honore that Napoleon bought for Pauline when she was a widow, he gave her the chateau of Neuilly outside Paris.) She was also always playing with her jewels, both those her husband Borghese gave her on their marriage, and those Napoleon gave her. When Prince Borghese attempted to recover the Borghese jewels from Pauline after Napoleon’s fall, she claimed they had been set and re-set so often she ahd no memory of which stones were those given to her by Napoleon and those belonging to the Borghese family.

Q: One of the most fascinating—and devastating—chapters of Pauline’s life was the time she and her first husband Leclerc spent in Saint Domingue. Was it typical for a woman of her stature to accompany her husband on such a hostile assignment?

A: Some have suggested that Napoleon made Pauline go with Leclerc—and even gave Leclerc this dangerous command—because he could not control Pauline, who flaunted her lovers when she was in Paris. But this command—its aim to restore the sugar income of Saint Domingue to France—was the most important mission for France at this time. Napoleon gave it to Leclerc because this officer had proved himself a brilliant soldier and an excellent administrator, and was above all others the most likely man to succeed. The plan was that Leclerc was to become governor and remain in Haiti at least a year or two, once he had subdued the natives, an occurrence that never in fact took place. (When Leclerc died, Napoleon said he had lost his right arm.) For a wife to follow her husband when he was appointed to the colonies was not unusual. What was unusual was for Pauline to accompany her husband when the island was still in enemy hands. As it transpired, she rose magnificently to the challenge, and scorned frightened women with the declaration, ‘Napoleon’s sister does not feel fear.’

Q: Is there anything about Pauline that you wish you could have found out, but weren’t able to learn from the sources that exist?

A: I would have liked to have found correspondence between Pauline and a lover, Jules de Canouville, who was the epitome of a dashing officer in the Napoleonic Wars and who fell at the Battle of Moscow. We know that Pauline was absolutely stricken when she had news of his death. I would like to have had more of a picture of what he was like, and why he made such an impression on her, when her heart remained fairly hardened towards so many of her lovers. He does look frightfully handsome, so perhaps that was enough.

Q: What’s next for you? Do you have your next subject in mind, and do you think you will write about a man like you had planned to do?

A: I have just embarked on a book which I am going to enjoy writing, but there is a great deal of reading and thinking to do first. It is called Portrait of a Marriage: The Washingtons, and with it I move into American territory. Well, my husband is American, and our two sons have dual nationality, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so timorous. But I am aware that George and Martha Washington are not exactly English subjects. In fact, very decidedly not! Still, Bob Gottlieb, who has supported and encouraged me my whole writing life, is once more supportive. So rather tentatively and with a good deal of help to come, I hope, from the ladies of Mount Vernon, as well as from the wonderfully digitized papers of George Washington—three cheers for the University of Virginia—I cast off into these new transatlantic waters.

From the Hardcover edition.



“Scandalous . . . Memorable . . . [A] juicy portrait of Napoleon's most flamboyant and favored sibling. . . . Pauline was, Fraser admits, ‘a terrible model.’ Which is, of course, why she's such fun to read about.”  —The New York Times Book Review

“Flora Fraser has plucked [Pauline Bonaparte] from the shadows and, through archives, diaries and letters, reveals one of the most colorful, crafty and intriguing women of the 19th century.”  —The Washington Times

“Entertaining. . . . Pauline's life of scandal and intrigue makes for a page-turning read.”  —The Economist

“Intriguing. . . . With funny glimpses of [Napoleon’s] domestic life away from the battlefield.”  —The Star-Ledger (Newark)
"Without gilding this slightly tarnished Bonaparte lily, Flora Fraser encourages us to admire Pauline for the infinite vigour and resourcefulness of her buccaneering, even at its most teasingly self-indulgent. The success of a biography of an unimproving subject like this is whether or not we miss them at its close. Pauline . . . was clearly irresistible company." —Literary Review (UK)
“Lively and enjoyable. . . . it’s impossible not to be swept along by [Fraser’s] story.”  —The Mail on Sunday (UK)
"A moving and subtly feminist achievement . . . Fraser never condescends to her subject . . . She directs rigorous scholarship towards capturing the nuances of a bizarrely flamboyant life. . . . [Told] with elegance and poise . . . A remarkably lifelike portrait."  —Standpoint Magazine (UK)
“Miss Fraser tells [Bonaparte’s] story with elegance, colour and style.”  —Country Life (UK)
“Was Pauline Bonaparte . . . really as naughty as the British enemy tried to paint her with their propaganda?. . . . Did she really have an incestuous relationship with her brother Napoleon. . . . Was she as bad as history has made out?  Read this well-researched book and decide for yourself.”  —Folkestone Herald (UK)

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