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Marie-Pauline Bonaparte was the uncrowned Queen of Folly

Posted in Historical articles, History on Friday, 31 January 2014

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This edited article about Pauline Bonaparte first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 536 published on 22 April 1972.

Pauline Bonaparte,  picture, image, illustration

Marie-Pauline Bonaparte, Madame Leclerc, Princess Borghese

In a museum in Rome there is a statue of a woman reclining on a sofa. Propped on her elbow, she is modelled in the classic style. She holds an apple in her left hand and in her eyes there is a distant look; in her half-smile a hint of pleasure enjoyed, savoured and remembered beyond the grave.

Venus Victorieuse the Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova called his notable statue of Pauline Bonaparte, Princess of Guastalla and sister of the Emperor Napoleon. When a friend of Pauline’s saw the half-nude statue for the first time, he at once asked:

“How could you ever bring yourself to pose like that?”

“Ah,” replied Pauline. “There was a fire in the room.”

The answer was typical of the girl who rose from the rags of Corsica to the riches of France, of whom it was said that no-one was ever bored by her company and who unwittingly projected her soldier brother on to the first step of the ladder he took to international fame.

When France lay in the grip of the Revolutionary Reign of Terror and Napoleon Bonaparte was a young and unknown lieutenant in the French army, Pauline Bonaparte was living in a tumbledown house in the old quarter of Marseilles, so poor that her clothes were all faded and shabby and earning a few sous by taking in the local washing.

To this house one day came Citizen Freron, Commissioner of the Convention to Marseilles, a man who, at 28, had the kind of power that only a terrorist government can delegate. A word from this Citizen was enough to send a man to the guillotine – or to an important government appointment.

If Freron was a man to be feared, Pauline Bonaparte was a girl too scatter-brained to know the meaning of fear. She was soon passionately attracted by Freron and set her heart upon marrying this influential man.

Freron, too, was in love with her, and showed his interest by using his power on behalf of the Bonaparte family. When Pauline’s soldier brother Napoleon complained that his services to the army went unrewarded, Freron recommended him to Paris for promotion to an important command. Napoleon did not know this at the time and eagerly took every chance that came his way. And for Madame Bonaparte there was a small pension, which made it possible to send out the laundry and buy a few luxuries.

But Pauline’s dream of marriage was not to be. In Paris Napoleon had risen faster than anyone thought possible. He had married Josephine and was already a real power in the land; looking down from this high office he decided that Citizen Freron was not a worthy suitor for his sister who should marry riches as well as power.

His choice for Pauline was General Leclerc, the well-educated son of a rich ruler, and believed to be a “coming man” in the new France. Pauline offered no objection, for she loved a pretty uniform and Leclerc was fair-haired and quite good-looking.

Life in those days was paradise for Pauline. She was married at Montebello, where Napoleon was surrounded by the glory of his first Italian campaign – and the constant round of parties and entertainments was entirely to her taste for pleasure.

But the novelty of being a wife soon wore off for Pauline. She treated Leclerc like a slave – quite thoughtlessly, for she was not naturally cruel. And she came to detest Josephine, mainly because Josephine had refused to help Pauline’s romance with Freron.

Pauline’s entry into Parisian society was delayed until her son Dermide was born, but then her house became a gathering ground for gay young officers, full of charm and flattery. When Leclerc looked unhappy and sighed, she used to feel hurt, for she hated people to be less happy than herself.

The more his fame spread, the more disapproving Napoleon became with his sister’s pleasure-seeking way of life. When Leclerc was sent in command of an expedition to Haiti, Napoleon, then First Consul, ordered him to take Pauline.

She wept, pleaded, feigned illness, vowed she was being condemned to boredom – a fate for her which was worse than death – but her brother was firm. Then when, in a spirit of mockery, he ordered Citizen Freron to go too, and in the same ship, her tears dried and her health magically returned!

Haiti was an earthly hell of malaria, cholera and yellow fever in which a handful of French soldiers attempted the impossible task of quelling a negro rebellion.

Death gradually closed in upon the French until they were pinned down into the peninsula of Cap Haitien. There Citizen Freron met his fate and left his bones forever. Then Leclerc went down with cholera just as the final negro charge began.

When it was decided to evacuate the women and children to the ships, Pauline’s attitude came close to heroism. Proudly she told the rest, “You may go if you wish – you are not sisters of Bonaparte!”

The attack was repulsed and Pauline turned to nursing the husband she had treated so badly. Her devotion could not save him and when Leclerc died her grief was frantic, sorrowfully she cut off her hair and laid it in his coffin.

Back in Paris, city of military red jackets and rousing drum beat, the sadness was forgotten. As soon as it was decently possible, Napoleon found her another husband, a foolish Italian princeling, Camille Borghese, who found favour in her eyes because he could make her a “real princess.” Soon, however, Borghese was as neglected by Pauline as Leclerc had been.

When Pauline’s sisters were brought to Paris to carry Josephine’s train at the coronation, they thought the duty was beneath them. So, at a pre-arranged signal, they suddenly dropped Josephine’s heavy train, causing her almost to fall on her back as she was about to mount the throne.

Napoleon now began to get tougher with his scatterbrained sister. Any officer who became too friendly with her was ordered to carry dispatches of no importance to the French army in Spain. Since all communications were continuously threatened by Spanish guerrillas, for a lone dispatch-rider this amounted to a death sentence.

Pauline’s extravagances undoubtedly helped to destroy Napoleon’s popularity. Once she gave a party which cost the revenue of several provinces – far more wasteful than anything under the old regime ousted by the Revolution. As a sap to the people’s discontent, she gave another party for them. They were still not pleased, for, they said, they were being offered the court’s leavings.

The Empire was tottering, and when it collapsed, Pauline, who had not worried her little head with great events, was surprised by a messenger who brought the news.

“Then if the Empire is over, my brother is dead!” she exclaimed.

Outside, people were cheering and shouting, “Down with the tyrant!” Pauline fainted; when she came round, Napoleon had arrived – wearing a foreign uniform.

“They would have killed me,” he told her. “I’ve had to disguise myself to escape them.”

“I can’t kiss you in that!” exclaimed Pauline.

In his hour of disaster, Pauline at last proved her unselfishness. She not only visited her brother in exile in Elba, but she sold her jewellery and put the money at his disposal – a considerable sacrifice for a woman of her character.

After the Battle of Waterloo, she sold everything remaining to her and sent the money to ease Napoleon’s lot upon the lonely isle of St. Helena. His death there in 1821 was a blow from which she never recovered.

By an odd quirk of fate, the Emperor’s fall resulted in the setting up of a commission to return works of art looted by the French to their former owners in Italy. The man who headed the commission was the sculptor Antonio Canova, who had immortalised Pauline in his marble statue and whose work had gained him his place as sculptor to Napoleon’s court.

In September, 1823, Pauline’s health began to fail and two years later, when she was aged 45, word reached her at her home in Florence that an old friend had been kidnapped by bandits and was being held to ransom. The shock was too much for her now feeble health and she quickly began to sink.

Her husband, Prince Borghese, was distracted, but on 9th June, 1825, she suddenly rallied and asked for a mirror. In it she carefully surveyed her pale, pinched features, and then sighed with satisfaction.

“I am still beautiful!” she murmured.

Then, with the mirror still in her hand, she lay quietly back among the pillows and, smiling still, died. Today, that smile of the “Queen of Folly” as Pauline was called, lives on in her Roman statue. It is the smile of a woman who lived well, if not altogether wisely.

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