'Napoleon's Sister Does Not Feel Fear'

Article excerpt


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 life-size marble statue now on display at 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 that 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 - though 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 inhabitated 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. …