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.

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