Famous Affinities of History
By Lyndon Orr

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Public Domain Books

Marie Antoinette a la Rose (detail)
by Elizabeth Vigee Lebrun

The Story of Pauline Bonaparte

It was said of Napoleon long ago that he could govern emperors and kings, but that not even he could rule his relatives. He himself once declared:

“My family have done me far more harm than I have been able to do them good.”

It would be an interesting historical study to determine just how far the great soldier’s family aided in his downfall by their selfishness, their jealousy, their meanness, and their ingratitude.

There is something piquant in thinking of Napoleon as a domestic sort of person. Indeed, it is rather difficult to do so. When we speak his name we think of the stern warrior hurling his armies up bloody slopes and on to bloody victory. He is the man whose steely eyes made his haughtiest marshals tremble, or else the wise, far- seeing statesman and lawgiver; but decidedly he is not a household model. We read of his sharp speech to women, of his outrageous manners at the dinner-table, and of the thousand and one details which Mme. de Remusat has chronicled–and perhaps in part invented, for there has always existed the suspicion that her animus was that of a woman who had herself sought the imperial favor and had failed to win it.

But, in fact, all these stories relate to the Napoleon of courts and palaces, and not to the Napoleon of home. In his private life this great man was not merely affectionate and indulgent, but he even showed a certain weakness where his relatives were concerned, so that he let them prey upon him almost without end.

He had a great deal of the Italian largeness and lavishness of character with his family. When a petty officer he nearly starved himself in order to give his younger brother, Louis, a military education. He was devotedly fond of children, and they were fond of him, as many anecdotes attest. His passionate love for Josephine before he learned of her infidelity is almost painful to read of; and even afterward, when he had been disillusioned, and when she was paying Fouche a thousand francs a day to spy upon Napoleon’s every action, he still treated her with friendliness and allowed her extravagance to embarrass him.

He made his eldest brother, Joseph, King of Spain, and Spain proved almost as deadly to him as did Russia. He made his youngest brother, Jerome, King of Westphalia, and Jerome turned the palace into a pigsty and brought discredit on the very name of Bonaparte. His brother Louis, for whom he had starved himself, he placed upon the throne of Holland, and Louis promptly devoted himself to his own interests, conniving at many things which were inimical to France. He was planning high advancement for his brother Lucien, and Lucien suddenly married a disreputable actress and fled with her to England, where he was received with pleasure by the most persistent of all Napoleon’s enemies.

So much for his brothers–incompetent, ungrateful, or openly his foes. But his three sisters were no less remarkable in the relations which they bore to him. They have been styled “the three crowned courtesans,” and they have been condemned together as being utterly void of principle and monsters of ingratitude.

Much of this censure was well deserved by all of them–by Caroline and Elise and Pauline. But when we look at the facts impartially we shall find something which makes Pauline stand out alone as infinitely superior to her sisters. Of all the Bonapartes she was the only one who showed fidelity and gratitude to the great emperor, her brother. Even Mme. Mere, Napoleon’s mother, who beyond all question transmitted to him his great mental and physical power, did nothing for him. At the height of his splendor she hoarded sous and francs and grumblingly remarked:

“All this is for a time. It isn’t going to last!”

Pauline, however, was in one respect different from all her kindred. Napoleon made Elise a princess in her own right and gave her the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. He married Caroline to Marshal Murat, and they became respectively King and Queen of Naples. For Pauline he did very little–less, in fact, than for any other member of his family–and yet she alone stood by him to the end.

This feather-headed, languishing, beautiful, distracting morsel of frivolity, who had the manners of a kitten and the morals of a cat, nevertheless was not wholly unworthy to be Napoleon’s sister. One has to tell many hard things of her; and yet one almost pardons her because of her underlying devotion to the man who made the name of Bonaparte illustrious for ever. Caroline, Queen of Naples, urged her husband to turn against his former chief. Elise, sour and greedy, threw in her fortunes with the Murats. Pauline, as we shall see, had the one redeeming trait of gratitude.

To those who knew her she was from girlhood an incarnation of what used to be called “femininity.” We have to-day another and a higher definition of womanhood, but to her contemporaries, and to many modern writers, she has seemed to be first of all woman– “woman to the tips of her rosy finger-nails,” says Levy. Those who saw her were distracted by her loveliness. They say that no one can form any idea of her beauty from her pictures. “A veritable masterpiece of creation,” she had been called. Frederic Masson declares:

She was so much more the typical woman that with her the defects common to women reached their highest development, while her beauty attained a perfection which may justly be called unique.

No one speaks of Pauline Bonaparte’s character or of her intellect, but wholly of her loveliness and charm, and, it must be added, of her utter lack of anything like a moral sense.

Even as a child of thirteen, when the Bonapartes left Corsica and took up their abode in Marseilles, she attracted universal attention by her wonderful eyes, her grace, and also by the utter lack of decorum which she showed. The Bonaparte girls at this time lived almost on charity. The future emperor was then a captain of artillery and could give them but little out of his scanty pay.

Pauline–or, as they called her in those days, Paulette–wore unbecoming hats and shabby gowns, and shoes that were full of holes. None the less, she was sought out by several men of note, among them Freron, a commissioner of the Convention. He visited Pauline so often as to cause unfavorable comment; but he was in love with her, and she fell in love with him to the extent of her capacity. She used to write him love letters in Italian, which were certainly not lacking in ardor. Here is the end of one of them:

I love you always and most passionately. I love you for ever, my beautiful idol, my heart, my appealing lover. I love you, love you, love you, the most loved of lovers, and I swear never to love any one else!

This was interesting in view of the fact that soon afterward she fell in love with Junot, who became a famous marshal. But her love affairs never gave her any serious trouble; and the three sisters, who now began to feel the influence of Napoleon’s rise to power, enjoyed themselves as they had never done before. At Antibes they had a beautiful villa, and later a mansion at Milan.

By this time Napoleon had routed the Austrians in Italy, and all France was ringing with his name. What was Pauline like in her maidenhood? Arnault says:

She was an extraordinary combination of perfect physical beauty and the strangest moral laxity. She was as pretty as you please, but utterly unreasonable. She had no more manners than a school- girl–talking incoherently, giggling at everything and nothing, and mimicking the most serious persons of rank.

General de Ricard, who knew her then, tells in his monograph of the private theatricals in which Pauline took part, and of the sport which they had behind the scenes. He says:

The Bonaparte girls used literally to dress us. They pulled our ears and slapped us, but they always kissed and made up later. We used to stay in the girls’ room all the time when they were dressing.

Napoleon was anxious to see his sisters in some way settled. He proposed to General Marmont to marry Pauline. The girl was then only seventeen, and one might have had some faith in her character. But Marmont was shrewd and knew her far too well. The words in which he declined the honor are interesting:

“I know that she is charming and exquisitely beautiful; yet I have dreams of domestic happiness, of fidelity, and of virtue. Such dreams are seldom realized, I know. Still, in the hope of winning them–”

And then he paused, coughed, and completed what he had to say in a sort of mumble, but his meaning was wholly clear. He would not accept the offer of Pauline in marriage, even though she was the sister of his mighty chief.

Then Napoleon turned to General Leclerc, with whom Pauline had for some time flirted, as she had flirted with almost all the officers of Napoleon’s staff. Leclerc was only twenty-six. He was rich and of good manners, but rather serious and in poor health. This was not precisely the sort of husband for Pauline, if we look at it in the conventional way; but it served Napoleon’s purpose and did not in the least interfere with his sister’s intrigues.

Poor Leclerc, who really loved Pauline, grew thin, and graver still in manner. He was sent to Spain and Portugal, and finally was made commander-in-chief of the French expedition to Haiti, where the famous black rebel, Toussaint l’Ouverture, was heading an uprising of the negroes.

Napoleon ordered Pauline to accompany her husband. Pauline flatly refused, although she made this an occasion for ordering “mountains of pretty clothes and pyramids of hats.” But still she refused to go on board the flag-ship. Leclerc expostulated and pleaded, but the lovely witch laughed in his face and still persisted that she would never go.

Word was brought to Napoleon. He made short work of her resistance.

“Bring a litter,” he said, with one of his steely glances. “Order six grenadiers to thrust her into it, and see that she goes on board forthwith.”

And so, screeching like an angry cat, she was carried on board, and set sail with her husband and one of her former lovers. She found Haiti and Santo Domingo more agreeable than she had supposed. She was there a sort of queen who could do as she pleased and have her orders implicitly obeyed. Her dissipation was something frightful. Her folly and her vanity were beyond belief.

But at the end of two years both she and her husband fell ill. He was stricken down by the yellow fever, which was decimating the French army. Pauline was suffering from the results of her life in a tropical climate. Leclerc died, the expedition was abandoned, and Pauline brought the general’s body back to France. When he was buried she, still recovering from her fever, had him interred in a costly coffin and paid him the tribute of cutting off her beautiful hair and burying it with him.

“What a touching tribute to her dead husband!” said some one to Napoleon.

The emperor smiled cynically as he remarked:

“H’m! Of course she knows that her hair is bound to fall out after her fever, and that it will come in longer and thicker for being cropped.”

Napoleon, in fact, though he loved Pauline better than his other sisters–or perhaps because he loved her better–was very strict with her. He obliged her to wear mourning, and to observe some of the proprieties; but it was hard to keep her within bounds.

Presently it became noised about that Prince Camillo Borghese was exceedingly intimate with her. The prince was an excellent specimen of the fashionable Italian. He was immensely rich. His palace at Rome was crammed with pictures, statues, and every sort of artistic treasure. He was the owner, moreover, of the famous Borghese jewels, the finest collection of diamonds in the world.

Napoleon rather sternly insisted upon her marrying Borghese. Fortunately, the prince was very willing to be connected with Napoleon; while Pauline was delighted at the idea of having diamonds that would eclipse all the gems which Josephine possessed; for, like all of the Bonapartes, she detested her brother’s wife. So she would be married and show her diamonds to Josephine. It was a bit of feminine malice which she could not resist.

The marriage took place very quietly at Joseph Bonaparte’s house, because of the absence of Napoleon; but the newly made princess was invited to visit Josephine at the palace of Saint-Cloud. Here was to be the triumph of her life. She spent many days in planning a toilet that should be absolutely crushing to Josephine. Whatever she wore must be a background for the famous diamonds. Finally she decided on green velvet.

When the day came Pauline stood before a mirror and gazed at herself with diamonds glistening in her hair, shimmering around her neck, and fastened so thickly on her green velvet gown as to remind one of a moving jewel-casket. She actually shed tears for joy. Then she entered her carriage and drove out to Saint-Cloud.

But the Creole Josephine, though no longer young, was a woman of great subtlety as well as charm. Stories had been told to her of the green velvet, and therefore she had her drawing-room redecorated in the most uncompromising blue. It killed the green velvet completely. As for the diamonds, she met that maneuver by wearing not a single gem of any kind. Her dress was an Indian muslin with a broad hem of gold.

Her exquisite simplicity, coupled with her dignity of bearing, made the Princess Pauline, with her shower of diamonds, and her green velvet displayed against the blue, seem absolutely vulgar. Josephine was most generous in her admiration of the Borghese gems, and she kissed Pauline on parting. The victory was hers.

There is another story of a defeat which Pauline met from another lady, one Mme. de Coutades. This was at a magnificent ball given to the most fashionable world of Paris. Pauline decided upon going, and intended, in her own phrase, to blot out every woman there. She kept the secret of her toilet absolutely, and she entered the ballroom at the psychological moment, when all the guests had just assembled.

She appeared; and at sight of her the music stopped, silence fell upon the assemblage, and a sort of quiver went through every one. Her costume was of the finest muslin bordered with golden palm- leaves. Four bands, spotted like a leopard’s skin, were wound about her head, while these in turn were supported by little clusters of golden grapes. She had copied the head-dress of a Bacchante in the Louvre. All over her person were cameos, and just beneath her breasts she wore a golden band held in place by an engraved gem. Her beautiful wrists, arms, and hands were bare. She had, in fact, blotted out her rivals.

Nevertheless, Mme. de Coutades took her revenge. She went up to Pauline, who was lying on a divan to set off her loveliness, and began gazing at the princess through a double eye-glass. Pauline felt flattered for a moment, and then became uneasy. The lady who was looking at her said to a companion, in a tone of compassion:

“What a pity! She really would be lovely if it weren’t for THAT!”

“For what?” returned her escort.

“Why, are you blind? It’s so remarkable that you SURELY must see it.”

Pauline was beginning to lose her self-composure. She flushed and looked wildly about, wondering what was meant. Then she heard Mme. Coutades say:

“Why, her ears. If I had such ears as those I would cut them off!”

Pauline gave one great gasp and fainted dead away. As a matter of fact, her ears were not so bad. They were simply very flat and colorless, forming a contrast with the rosy tints of her face. But from that moment no one could see anything but these ears; and thereafter the princess wore her hair low enough to cover them.

This may be seen in the statue of her by Canova. It was considered a very daring thing for her to pose for him in the nude, for only a bit of drapery is thrown over her lower limbs. Yet it is true that this statue is absolutely classical in its conception and execution, and its interest is heightened by the fact that its model was what she afterward styled herself, with true Napoleonic pride–"a sister of Bonaparte.”

Pauline detested Josephine and was pleased when Napoleon divorced her; but she also disliked the Austrian archduchess, Marie Louise, who was Josephine’s successor. On one occasion, at a great court function, she got behind the empress and ran out her tongue at her, in full view of all the nobles and distinguished persons present. Napoleon’s eagle eye flashed upon Pauline and blazed like fire upon ice. She actually took to her heels, rushed out of the ball, and never visited the court again.

It would require much time to tell of her other eccentricities, of her intrigues, which were innumerable, of her quarrel with her husband, and of the minor breaches of decorum with which she startled Paris. One of these was her choice of a huge negro to bathe her every morning. When some one ventured to protest, she answered, naively:

“What! Do you call that thing a MAN?”

And she compromised by compelling her black servitor to go out and marry some one at once, so that he might continue his ministrations with propriety!

To her Napoleon showed himself far more severe than with either Caroline or Elise. He gave her a marriage dowry of half a million francs when she became the Princess Borghese, but after that he was continually checking her extravagances. Yet in 1814, when the downfall came and Napoleon was sent into exile at Elba, Pauline was the only one of all his relatives to visit him and spend her time with him. His wife fell away and went back to her Austrian relatives. Of all the Bonapartes only Pauline and Mme. Mere remained faithful to the emperor.

Even then Napoleon refused to pay a bill of hers for sixty-two francs, while he allowed her only two hundred and forty francs for the maintenance of her horses. But she, with a generosity of which one would have thought her quite incapable, gave to her brother a great part of her fortune. When he escaped from Elba and began the campaign of 1815 she presented him with all the Borghese diamonds. In fact, he had them with him in his carriage at Waterloo, where they were captured by the English. Contrast this with the meanness and ingratitude of her sisters and her brothers, and one may well believe that she was sincerely proud of what it meant to be la soeur de Bonaparte.

When he was sent to St. Helena she was ill in bed and could not accompany him. Nevertheless, she tried to sell all her trinkets, of which she was so proud, in order that she might give him help. When he died she received the news with bitter tears “on hearing all the particulars of that long agony.”

As for herself, she did not long survive. At the age of forty-four her last moments came. Knowing that she was to die, she sent for Prince Borghese and sought a reconciliation. But, after all, she died as she had lived–"the queen of trinkets” (la reine des colifichets). She asked the servant to bring a mirror. She gazed into it with her dying eyes; and then, as she sank back, it was with a smile of deep content.

“I am not afraid to die,” she said. “I am still beautiful!”


The Empress Catharine and Prince Potemkin  •  Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen  •  The Story of Aaron Burr  •  George IV. and Mrs. Fitzherbert  •  Charlotte Corday and Adam Lux  •  Napoleon and Marie Walewska  •  The Story of Pauline Bonaparte  •  The Story of the Empress Marie Louise and Count Neipperg