Fraser, the author of highly praised biographies of Emma Hamilton, Queen Caroline and the six daughters of George III, prefers to illuminate history from the domestic sidelines, but even she seems to have been surprised by how far into the boudoir Pauline would take her. In a recent interview, Fraser argued that this “caustic, chic and contrary” woman has been unfairly “airbrushed out of the story” — known these days only as the model for Canova’s semi-nude marble statue of Venus Victorious, a tourist attraction in Rome since 1804, when the first plaster model was cast. Yet aside from Pauline’s six-year first marriage to General Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, the “blond Bonaparte,” whom she accompanied to the West Indies in his disastrous attempt to combat Toussaint L’Ouverture’s rebel slaves, her part of the Napoleonic pageant consists mostly of scandalous footnotes — schemes to hide lovers from her brother’s spies, sybaritic retreats to fashionable spas, a lot of social one-upmanship and even more shopping and decorating.
She was said to be the most beautiful woman in Europe: elegantly lithe and long-limbed, with pale skin and dark eyes, as small in stature as her brother. Rumor had it that she numbered him among her lovers. Her great rival, the Empress Josephine, appears to have believed it — and so does Fraser, who thinks Napoleon might have given Pauline venereal disease. But there were many other candidates, particularly after she returned from the Caribbean following Leclerc’s death in a yellow fever epidemic, trailing whispers about her tropical experiments with black and lesbian partners. Back in Paris, she was initially attracted to Prince Borghese (and especially his fortune), but not long after their marriage she was on the prowl again, and would be for the next 20 years. Paganini was said to have sampled her favors; so too the father of Alexandre Dumas, whose son wrote a tantalizingly discreet account of their visit to her country estate. Chateaubriand delivered slippers to her in Rome, shipped via the diplomatic pouch. In between trysts, Italy’s great actor, Talma, read to her from Molière, and she herself was fond of declaiming lines of Petrarch learned at 15 from one of her first lovers (to whom she had sworn “my heart is not for sharing”). When her last great amour died in Russia at the Battle of Borodino, the bullet came from the gun of a fellow French officer. Some wondered whether he’d fired out of jealousy — or on orders from Napoleon.
Only when she entered middle age did Pauline’s predations acquire a tinge of desperation. The sort of antics that had previously seemed mischievous (camouflaging a lover as her chamberlain, hiring a handsome violinist to lead her nonexistent orchestra) began to look pathetic. But in her early 40s, she managed to pull off one last coup. Losing her looks and succumbing to the cancer that would soon kill her, she persuaded the pope to shame Prince Camillo, whose company she’d long spurned, into evicting his mistress from his Florentine palazzo and welcoming back this most unrepentant of unfaithful wives. Pauline remained difficult to the end. On her deathbed, she interrupted the priest’s homily and substituted her own, then carefully dictated a long will (providing, among other matters, for the disposition of the urn in which she kept the embalmed hearts of her first husband and her only son, felled in early childhood by a fever) and lectured her maid on precisely how her corpse was to be dressed. She was interred in the Borghese family vault in Rome, “the Corsican cuckoo,” as Fraser puts it, in the company of a pope and a cardinal.
Pauline’s life wasn’t entirely self-indulgent. She appears to have been courageous in the face of horrific violence and disease in the West Indies. She alone of all his brothers and sisters joined Napoleon in exile on Elba. In the lining of the carriage he abandoned at Waterloo was a diamond necklace worth half a million francs, her contribution to his aborted restoration. She was preparing to join him on St. Helena when word came of his death. Still, after reading Fraser’s account of Pauline’s mostly amorous adventures, it’s hard not to agree with a friend of her first husband’s who observed that “she had no principles and was likely to do the right thing only by caprice.”
Certainly it’s the caprice that’s most memorable. Pauline’s two favorite roles were seductress and invalid, and she combined them in inventive ways as she roamed southern Europe in search of a cure for what Fraser believes was salpingitis, an inflammation of the fallopian tubes (which can occur after childbirth, but is also caused by multiple sexual partners and gonorrhea). One of the symptoms of the condition is abdominal pain that can be aggravated by walking — so Pauline insisted on being carried from bed to chaise longue to bath and back again, preferably by whatever man she had her eye on. Those who weren’t candidates for romance were treated more cavalierly. One visitor was stunned to find Pauline’s lady in waiting flat on the floor, Pauline’s feet firmly planted on her throat, in what was apparently her accustomed position. The lady remained there as Pauline chatted with her guest, joining the conversation in garbled tones. On another occasion, en route to a spa, Pauline made a brief rest stop. The owner of the estate had already been informed that she bathed in milk, but although he’d made sure to have plenty on hand, the arrangements were insufficient. “And my shower?” she demanded. In the absence of such a device, she required that a hole be cut in the ceiling above the bath so more milk could be poured down. This done, she continued on her way, ready to torment a new host.
Impetuous, cruel, alternately spendthrift and miserly, wildly manipulative and so self-destructive that her doctors helplessly sought ways to curb her sexual appetite, Pauline was, Fraser admits, “a terrible role model.” Which is, of course, why she’s such fun to read about. “I don’t suppose,” Fraser confesses, “I’ll ever write about anyone so infinitelyentertaining again.” Well, maybe not the next time out. Fraser has just started researching what looks to be a much more sedate project: “Portrait of a Marriage: The Washingtons.”