A biography of Pauline Bonaparte, by Flora Fraser

Pauline Bonaparte Flora Fraser

Pauline Bonaparte by Flora Fraser

Flora Fraser is the daughter of Lady Antonia Fraser, author of the best-selling biography of Marie-Antoinette and the stepdaughter of the late Harold Pinter. So writing runs in that family.

I came across this New York Times review of the book. Actually it is more a summary than a true review since the author of the article doesn’t tell us what she specifically likes or dislikes in the book, beyond the terse statement that it is “fun to read.” Not much of an endorsement for what is presented as a serious biography. It was enough, however, to prompt me to read Flora Fraser’s interview on her publisher’s website, which is far more interesting.

I have to say I disagree with Flora Fraser’s contention that Pauline was “airbrushed out of the story.” Quite the contrary. She is well remembered in France for her beauty, the record-setting number of her lovers, and her fidelity to Napoléon after his abdication and exile. And also of course for her nude statue as Venus Victorious by Canova. The reason why she may not be as well known as her numerous siblings is that she alone had no political role. While her brothers and sisters were given various European thrones, she had to be content (or more exactly furious) with the four square miles of the Italian dukedom of  Guastalla, where she never took the trouble of residing.

Flora Fraser notes, “I believe that Napoleon and Pauline very likely did have intimate relations at a time when he was drawing away from his wife Josephine.” Later she becomes more cautious and notes that “We cannot know for certain if Napoleon and Pauline were ever lovers.”

Certainly Napoléon loved his little sister Pauline, but he was very conventional in his private life (even his many adulteries were marked by a bourgeois discretion and an extreme aversion to scandal.) To imagine him engaged in an incestuous relationship simply goes again the grain.

Pauline Bonaparte by Marie Benoist

Pauline Bonaparte by Marie Benoist

Napoléon did arrange the marriage of Hortense, Joséphine’s daughter by her first husband, with his brother Louis, but that had nothing to do with “inbreeding” since the bride and groom were totally unrelated by blood. And even the marriage contemplated at some point by Napoléon with one his own nieces would have been socially acceptable, and sanctioned by the Church given the proper dispensation.

However, contrary to what Fraser says, people in the late 18th and early 19th centuries very clearly drew the line when it came to sexual relations between siblings, or parents and children: that was deemed an enormity and unacceptable by any standard.

The adultery would have happened just before his divorce from Joséphine, who had been, and remained till his death, his great love. Also he was superstitious and convinced that his good fortune was attached to her. He was clearly distraught to have to discard her for dynastic reasons.

Pauline, having no throne of her own, resided in Paris, in the mansion that is now the British Ambassador’s residence. Napoléon, in spite of his exasperation at her behavior, had always been fond of that brat of a sister. She was totally loyal to him. He sought Pauline’s company and she offered comfort when he was at a crossroads of his extraordinary destiny.

I may be hopelessly naive, but I fail to see anything incestuous in this closeness between brother and sister in this kind of situation. And of course when he remarried afterwards Marie-Louise, the young new Empress, did not cast a friendly eye on this scandalous, eccentric, beautiful, fashionable, flamboyant, maddening sister-in-law. Nothing very surprising in that either.

This tabloid aspect somewhat cheapens the book’s scholarship, though I still plan on reading it. In the meantime, you can nibble at an excerpt here (sorry, no juicy incest in this passage.)

Related post: Fouché’s take on the issue.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

12 Comments to “A biography of Pauline Bonaparte, by Flora Fraser”

  1. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Matterhorn! Yes, I too find Pauline beautiful. A bit difficult, though…

  2. Matterhorn says:

    Thanks for this article, very interesting. That incest allegation does sound pretty absurd, I must say.

    A very beautiful woman, by the way!

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    Indeed these two ladies did not get along. Pauline called Josephine la vieille (“the old hag.”)

  4. Elisa says:

    Pauline is quite a character (to say the least!) in the Josephine B. trilogy.

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    So it seems, Elena!

  6. Indeed, many of us novelists hold ourselves to a higher standard of historical accuracy than do some biographers.

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Truth be told, I was a bit disappointed myself. But I am interested in that era and will get the book nevertheless. My second novel, after all, takes place in 1800-1801, at the beginning of Bonaparte’s reign.

  8. Lucy says:

    Catherine, thank you for shedding some light onto this incest gossip (that’s what I call it) because it is unsubstantiated. Corsicans by nature were extremely attached to their kin and extremely demonstrative people- maybe this is what led people to make such insinuations. Napoleon, as you mentioned, was always, even in his affairs, quite prudish and discreet. Paolina knew how to choose her lovers, and she certainly didn’t need to add her brothers to these. Thanks for bringing up strong points, Catherine. I’m surprised that a somewhat renowned author would stoop this low.

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    Ingrid – Certainly this shouldn’t be a dull read.

    Penny – At least here Flora Fraser doesn’t say that she “hopes” Pauline had an affair with Napoleon.

    Elena – Even in a novelist should not write this kind of things without some serious research. And yes, Pauline’s boundaries in sexual matters were elastic by any standard, but she must have drawn the line somewhere. Most promiscuous people do not commit incest. And Napoleon, with his horror of scandal… I hope this work will have enough serious material otherwise to justify the expenditure of time and money.

  10. It does not surprise me that Flora Fraser would follow her mother’s footsteps in adding a zest of something scandalous and unsubstantiated into otherwise well-researched works. Sex sells. Why don’t they just write novels and be done with it?

    I have heard this lurid accusation before and have read that Josephine started the rumor in her distraught state. Although Pauline was the type of person who did not have too many boundaries on her sexual conduct, I really can’t see Napoleon having a fling with his own sister.

    Thanks for your insights, Catherine. I agree, which means we both must be hopelessly naive.

  11. Penny says:

    just like the mother. not a real historian. in her mother’s book on marie antoinette, she said “one hopes” that she was Count Fersen’s lover. I look forward to your reactions.

  12. Ingrid Mida says:

    I saw the NY Times review as well and the allusion to scandal and humour peeked my interest. I think too many history books are dull. This will be a must read for me too!

Leave a Reply