Napoléon and Pauline Bonaparte: incest?

Researching For The King entailed delving more than once into the Memoirs of Joseph Fouché, Duc d’Otrante, Napoléon’s Minister of General Police (and many other things besides.) Here is what Fouché has to say about Pauline:

Of Napoléon’s three sisters, Elisa, Caroline et Pauline, the latter, famous for her allurements, was the one of whom he was fondest, without ever being enthralled by her.

Pauline Bonaparte by Robert Lefevre

Pauline Bonaparte by Robert Lefevre

Flighty, bizarre, dissolute, devoid of intelligence but not without some wit and a few glimmers, she liked luxury, dissipation and all kinds of homages. She was never adverse to any man, save for [General] Leclerc, her first husband, and for the sweetest of men, Prince Camille Borghese, whom Napoléon made her marry the second time.

Her first marriage was what is called a marriage of garrison. Sick, and refusing to follow Leclerc in his expedition of Saint-Domingue [Haiti] she was carried, by order of Napoléon, on board the Ship Admiral on her couch.

Bothered by the fierce ardors of the tropical climes, and relegated to Island of Tortuga by the mishaps of the expedition, she plunged headlong, to daze herself, in all kinds of sensual pleasures. Upon Leclerc’s death, she hastened to set sail, not …with weeping her eyes and holding her husband’s ashes, but free, triumphant, coming to immerse herself in the delights of the capital.

There, racked by a disease brought on by debauchery, Pauline sought all the resources of the Faculty, and healed. The odd thing in her miraculous cure was that her beauty, far from fading, only became more stunning and fresh, like those strange flowers that bloom and thrive on manure.

Anxious to experience pleasure without any curb or hindrance, but afraid of her brother and his sudden reprimands, Pauline hatched, with one of her ladies in waiting, the plan to subject Napoléon to the domination of her allurements. She put in it so much art, so much refinement, that her triumph was complete. Such was the the intoxication of the conqueror that more than once his entourage heard him proclaim that his sister was the beauty of all beauties and the Venus of our age. Yet she was but a daring beauty…

For over a year the infatuation of the brother for the sister remained strong, though without passion; indeed no other passion than domination and conquest could master his haughty and bellicose soul. When, after [the victory of] Wagram et the Peace of Vienna, Napoléon returned in triumph to Paris, preceded by the muffled rumor of his impending divorce from Joséphine, he ran on the same day to his sister, who was most anxiously waiting for him. Never did she show for her brother so much love and adoration. I heard her say on that very same day, for she knew I was in the secret: “Why don’t we reign in Egypt? We would do like the Ptolemies; I would get a divorce and marry my brother.” I knew she was too ignorant to have made such an allusion on her own, and I recognized there one of her brother’s impulses.

Imagine Pauline’s bitter and intense disappointment when, a few months later, she saw Marie-Louise, arrayed in all of her innocence, appear at the celebrations of her marriage and sit upon the throne next to Napoléon! The imperial court underwent a brutal reformation of its habits, its mores, its étiquette; the change was complete and implacable. Napoléon himself gave the example by the his strict adherance to decorum and the respect of his marital vows.

Marie Louise Gerard

Empress Marie Louise by Gerard

From that time Pauline’s dissolute court was deserted; and this woman who joined all of the weaknesses to the graces of her sex, considering Marie-Louise as her happy rival, was mortally piqued and entertained in her heart the bitterest resentment. Her health was affected. Following the advice of her physicians, she left to take the waters at Aix-la-Chapelle, as much to recover as to dispel the gloom that was gnawing at her.

On her way, she crossed in Brussels the path of Napoléon et Marie-Louise, who were headed for the Netherlands border. There, compelled to make an appearance at the Court of the new Empress, and seizing this opportunity to gravely offend her, she dared, when she saw [Marie-Louise] walking through a salon, make, while sniggering indecently, the two-finger sign that common people, by way of a gross joke, apply to credulous and betrayed spouses. Napoléon, who had witnessed this, shocked by such impertinence, which had been revealed to Marie-Louise herself by the reflection of the mirrors, did not forgive his sister: [Pauline] was ordered to withdraw from Court the same day.

Refusing now to make any amends, she preferred to live in exile and disgrace until the events of 1814, which found her again entirely devoted to her brother and his misfortunes.

So what do we make of this? For one thing, the authenticity of Fouché’s Memoirs, long called into question, is no longer seriously disputed. Written at the very end of the man’s life, they are a fascinating read. Fouché’s objectivity is another matter. He clearly hated Bonaparte, who returned the feeling but could never manage to dispense with the services of this exceptionally competent and devious Minister of Police.

Yet here I believe Fouché gives us, in addition to an entertaining portrait of Pauline (but then no one ever faulted her for being dull) a truthful glimpse at Napoléon’s feelings: family pride, admiration for her beauty, exasperation at her vulgarity, and yes, historically inspired fantasies of an incestuous union on the banks of the Nile. Did it go any further? I have yet to read Flora Fraser’s biography of Pauline and will reserve my opinion until then.

Pauline Bonaparte Borghese by Canova

Pauline Bonaparte Princess Borghese by Canova

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