The ravishing Pauline Bonaparte was capable of three simultaneous affairs, says Laura Thompson, reviewing Venus of Empire by Flora Fraser
There is a story of a racehorse owner who, having gained success with a champion colt, was asked if he would care to buy the horse’s female sibling. The answer was an adamant no. “Who,” said the owner, “ever heard of Napoleon’s sister?”
Venus of Empire by Flora Fraser
That is the question raised by Flora Fraser’s decision to write a life of Pauline Bonaparte. Pauline, a great beauty, is suitably commemorated in an exquisite sculpture by Antonio Canova: her reclining marble form is still admired by visitors to Rome’s Villa Borghese. But is she worthy of a serious biography? Or does her claim rest solely on the fact she is Napoleon’s sister?
I tend to think the latter. I also think Fraser’s cool intelligence is somewhat wasted on a subject so frivolous as to make Marie Antoinette seem like Simone de Beauvoir, and better suited to a florid historical romance. That said, I enjoyed this book, though mostly for the light it throws on Napoleon. He could scarcely have been more different from Pauline, was appalled by her excesses, yet indulged her emotionally and financially. I could have done with more about him and less about his silly sister; but I understand Fraser’s reluctance to let him dominate her story. In Venus of Empire, after all, Napoleon Bonaparte is Pauline’s brother.
The book opens in 1796, when Pauline – a ripe 15-year-old – is about to be married for the first time. Her husband was Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, who distinguished himself in the Italian campaign led by Napoleon, and whose loyalty to the republic was absolute.
Whether he got his just reward, in the form of marriage to Pauline, is another story. To say that she was a handful is an understatement. At the same time she was utterly ravishing: irresistible to most men, including Leclerc (and, on the whole, Napoleon). She was, in fact, one of those women whose looks – her “natural advantages”, as she casually put it – were her destiny. A friend of Leclerc’s described her as a “singular mix of all that was most complete in physical perfection, and most bizarre in moral qualities. Although she was the most beautiful person one could imagine, she was also the most unreasonable.”
Quite simply, she was unable to bear not being the centre of attention. She was jealous of her sister-in-law Josephine and of her two sisters, because she always wanted to come first with Napoleon. Nor was Leclerc’s adoration enough; she was constantly unfaithful, and according to the gossipy memoirs of her “friend”, the Duchesse d’Abrantès, was capable of three affairs simultaneously. There were even rumours – not entirely dismissed by Fraser – of a relationship with her brother. Unsurprisingly, she was afflicted with gynaecological problems. These began with the birth of her only child, a son by Leclerc, but they were exacerbated by her Bacchanalian promiscuity, and persisted to the point where a doctor advised the application of leeches to the salient area.
In 1802 Leclerc died, having contracted yellow fever on the island of Saint-Domingue – now Haiti – which he was attempting to recapture from rebel slaves. Pauline, who had travelled there with him, was distraught. Yet she perked up in Paris, where she lived in a style barely distinguishable from that of the pre-Revolution aristocracy; an irony that Fraser could perhaps have underlined. Less than a year after the death of Leclerc, she married Prince Camillo Borghese. She had little respect for him as a man. Her infidelities multiplied – soldiers, actors, the violinist Paganini – and her arrogance reached stupendous heights: at the opera she used a lady-in-waiting’s throat as a foot rest.
None of this would have been possible without Napoleon. Whatever its exact nature, her relationship with him was the most important in Pauline’s life: he facilitated her follies and, at times, brought out her strengths. As his power crumbled, she was the only member of the Bonaparte family to offer to accompany him to Elba. She would have survived in exile – her chequered upbringing in Corsica had instilled in her a certain pragmatic toughness – but she was never actually required to do so.
She ended her days within the splendid Palazzo Borghese, in apartments described as “beyond beyond”, where she received Whig politicians sympathetic to her protests against Napoleon’s treatment on St Helena. Her last flirtation, the year before her death in 1825, was with the Duke of Devonshire, to whom she bequeathed her brother’s Elban medals. Pauline was not a particularly interesting woman in her own right, but the story in which she played a part more than makes up for that deficiency.