Pauline Bonaparte

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

In 1964, historian R. F. Delderfield published The Golden Millstones, a collective biography of the brothers and sisters of Napoleon I. Delderfield characterized the actions of Napoleon’s siblings as detriments to his career and at least partially responsible for his demise. Flora Fraser’s Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire reveals that Delderfield’s description of the siblings applied especially to Pauline, Napoleon’s younger sister. The Pauline who emerges from Fraser’s pages is superficial, egoistical, narcissistic, and cruel, with no redeeming characteristics. Fraser does not relate even one anecdote of an act of kindness or compassion performed by Pauline, nor of any action of historical significance.

Pauline was christened Maria Paola the day after her birth on October 20, 1780, in Ajaccio, Corsica. The sixth of eight children, she grew up as Paoletta. She became known as Paulette shortly after Napoleon moved his family to the south of France in 1793, and was eventually addressed as Pauline. Virtually no records survive of Pauline’s life or activities before 1796.

Fraser begins her biography of Pauline with a dinner held on March 22, 1796, in Marseille and attended by her brother Napoleon, her future husband Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, and her then-fiancé Stanislas Fréon. Fréon was a man of some consequence in the revolutionary government and potentially a valuable ally for Napoleon. In a surviving letter (which Fraser speculates was not composed by the poorly educated Pauline) the fifteen-year-old girl proclaimed her undying love for Fréon, who was almost three times her age. Fréon subsequently fell out of favor with the Directory (France’s revolutionary government). As a result, Napoleon apparently no longer saw an advantage to a union between Fréon and his sister and ordered the engagement ended. Pauline offered only token objection to the broken engagement. Within a year, Napoleon had arranged a marriage between Pauline, who resembled him both in facial appearance and in stature, and Leclerc, perhaps as a means of binding the promising young military commander more closely to himself.

The couple was married on June 14, 1797, at Mombello, Italy. Within a year, Pauline was pregnant. She gave birth to her only child, a son (Dermide Louis Napoléon Leclerc, named by Napoleon), on April 20, 1798, in Milan, Italy. In September, the army transferred Leclerc to Paris with his wife and child. Within a month, the Directory sent Leclerc to another post in Brittany, while Pauline stayed with their child in Paris.

In Paris, Pauline indulged her interest in the high fashions of the day. Based on two-hundred-year-old court gossip, Fraser argues that Pauline also at this time began to participate in the sexual affairs for which she later became notorious. These affairs accelerated into 1799, when Napoleon returned from his ill-fated Egyptian campaign to overthrow the Directory and establish himself as the de facto dictator of France in a government called the Consulate.

In early 1800, Pauline began a ritual that would mark the rest of her life: visiting European spas for her health. She went to Plombières-les-Bains in the Vosges seeking relief from pelvic complaints that nonetheless continued to plague her. Returning to Paris, Pauline and Leclerc bought an elegant house, as had most of the other members of the Bonaparte clan, and began to participate in Parisian society. Pauline apparently continued the sexual escapades that she had begun there earlier.

Napoleon dispatched Leclerc and Pauline to Haiti on December 14, 1801a decision that had tragic consequences for the young couple. Pauline supposedly continued her sexual conquests among Leclerc’s junior officers (as well as Haitians of both sexes). The general eventually fell ill from yellow fever and died on November 1, 1802. In a macabre gesture, Pauline had his heart embalmed separately from his corpse and kept it near her in a gilded urn for the rest of her life.

Pauline returned to Paris and apparently resumed her life of sexual excesses in a new residence that was a large as those of her brothers and sisters. Pauline had hardly reestablished herself in Paris when her brother Joseph began intriguing to marry her to an empty-headed Italian prince, Camillo Borghese. Napoleon was lukewarm toward the match, but it took place on August 28, 1803. The marriage barely caused a pause in Pauline’s amorous adventures.

Pauline subsequently moved with her husband and increasingly ignored son...

(The entire section is 1865 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 11 (February 1, 2009): 14.

The Economist 390, no. 8621 (March 7, 2009): 91.

History Today 59, no. 8 (August, 2009): 65.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 24 (December 15, 2008): 1290.

Library Journal 134, no. 1 (January 1, 2009): 99.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 49 (December 8, 2008): 54.