The Notorious Pauline Bonaparte

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

Napoleon Bonaparte

They say that you can't choose your family, and Napoleon knew that more than most. Throughout his lifetime his many siblings fought amongst themselves and him. They were greedy, grasping, but fiercely loyal if anyone from the outside attacked them. Of all his siblings, who he placed on the thrones of Europe as his puppet monarchs, his favorite sibling and in some ways the most notorious was his sister Pauline

She was born Maria Paoletta Buonaparte, but known as Pauline, on October 20, 1780 in Ajaccio, Corsica (all the Bonapartes used the french versions of their names when they moved to France). She was the sixth child and second daughter of Carlo Buonaparte and his wife Letizia. When she was five, her father died suddenly of cancer, and her eldest brother Joseph became head of the family. However, it was Napoleon, who made the fortunes of the family, during his rise to power, first as a General in the French army, then as First Consul, and finally as Emperor. Her early childhood, like most of her siblings, was spent on her native Corsica, where she received little formal education until the age of thirteen when she and the rest of the Buonaparte family had to escape in the middle of the night to France.

Pauline was the beauty of the family with a lush figure, and a beautiful face, attracting legions of admirers which caused her mother and brothers great cause for concern. When Pauline was sixteen, she fell in love with Stanislas Freron, he was forty years old with a reputation for philandering. After her brother nipped that relationship in the bud, he caught her with Victor Emmanuel Leclerc behind a screen in his office, in flagrante delicto. Pauline had no choice but to wed Leclerc, who was a General in Napoleon's army. Leclerc was 24 and so devoted to Napoleon that he not only dressed like him but imitated his walk as well. They were married on June 14th, 1797. Although Pauline had feelings for her husband, she was never faithful (she seemed to have a thing for soldiers). She gave birth to her only child, a son in 1798, that Napoleon insisted on naming Dermide, after a character in a poem by Ossian.

Leclerc was given command of the army in Haiti. Toussaint L'Ouverture, a black soldier and physician had managed to overthrow not just the French planters, but the English and Spanish as well and freed the slaves (with Napoleon's approval). However, now Toussaint was becoming a problem, while Napoleon thought that L'Ouverture had saved the island for France, he had other ideas. Toussaint made himself Governor of the island, declaring that he was the Bonaparte of Saint Domingue. Napoleon wanted Toussaint arrested and slavery reestablished in the colony. When Pauline found out that she was expected to follow her husband, she threw a fit and had to be carried on to the ship. She arrived in Haiti in 1801.

Once in Haiti, however, Pauline found that the society was not as provincial as she had first thought. She threw herself into the parties and balls on the small island, continuing her promiscuous ways, mainly with low-ranking soldiers and officers. However, when the island was struck with yellow fever, Pauline joined in with the nursing of the sick. Unfortunately her husband Leclerc was one of the many that perished in the epidemic. Pauline was grief-stricken, cutting off her long hair, and placing in the coffin with her husband's body, which was placed in a lead-lined coffin and returned to France.

Pauline's grief was short-lived however. Once back in France, she was up to her old tricks. Pauline didn't only indulge her physical appetites for love, she also indulged her more materialistic side as well. She bought masses of clothes, more than she could ever wear, she attended party after party, prompting huge amounts of gossip amongst the French upper classes. She wore her dresses so sheer that one could see the perfection of her body through the fabric. She was impulsive and child-like, as many youngest children often are. She had little to no maternal instincts. When Dermide died at the age of eight, Pauline was no where around. Napoleon worked to obscure this fact, presenting Pauline in a more flattering light. In fact, for most of her life, Napoleon worked overtime producing propaganda that defended his sister.

Pauline bathed every day in a bathtub of milk and water which was supposed to soften and keep her skin white. She was carried to her bath by a negro servant named Paul. When someone pointed out how improper it was, Pauline famously declared that 'A negro is not a man.' Still she married Paul off to one of her white servants to make it somewhat more respectable. She had a habit of receiving male guests while lounging in her tub. Clad only in a chemise, she would spend hours with her male guests, choosing her perfume, rouging her nipples, having her hair done.

Unlike Napoleon's other siblings, Pauline was not particularly ambitious for titles, she didn't want a kingdom to rule. Although she received many gifts from her brother, he treated her less lavishly than his other siblings. However, he did gift her with the duchy of Guantalla which she promptly sold to Parma for six million francs, after complaining about its size (however she kept the title of Princess of Guantella). Like the other Bonaparte siblings however, Pauline detested the Emperor's wife Josephine. On the day of Josephine's coronation as Empress, Pauline claimed that she was too sick to carry her train in the ceremony.

Eight months after the death of her first husband, Pauline married Prince Camillo Borghese in August 0f 1803. Napoleon was appalled that she would remarry so soon, but Borghese was one of the richest men in Italy, with one of the worlds finest diamond collections and the Villa Borghese. The marriage brought Pauline 70,000 francs a year, part ownership of the Villa Borghese, and two carriages among other goodies. Soon after their marriage, Pauline was disallusioned by her husband. There were rumors that he was either gay, or a transvestite. The truth was more likely that the Prince was just not well-endowed enough for the new Princess.

She also disliked Roman society. Before she went back to France, she went to Florence where she commissioned two statue of her self from the sculptor Antonio Canova, the most famous sculptor in Italy at the time. Canova had already done several commissions for Napoleon so it was only natural that he sculpt the Emperor's favorite sister. Pauline decided to pose nude, which shocked the sculptor, whose hands shook when he applied the clay to her body. When she was later asked how she could possibly pose nude, she replied that 'Why not, it was not cold, there was a fire in the studio.' The statue of Pauline as Venus Victrix so appalled her husband that he kept in the attic where no one can see it (it is now on display at the Villa Borghese in Rome where everyone can see it).

Pauline apparently suffered from a veneral disease that temporarily turned her into a nymphomaniac whenever it flared up. She had several lovers who she wore out with her constant need for sex. Her lovers included the painter and intellectual Nicolas de Forbin, a man of little income which Pauline changed by making him her Chamberlain. He was also known to be well-endowed. She next moved on to the violinist Blangini, and then after him to Armand Jules de Canouville, oeno f the four aides to Marshal Berthier, Napoleon's chief of staff. In an effort to protect her reputation, Napoleon had a tendency to send her lovers off to fight in his wars, where they were inevitably killed.

When Napoleon fell from power, Pauline proved what a true sister that she was. She liquidated all her assets into cash (she sold her house, the Hotel Charsot to the Duke of Wellington who was quite taken with her), and moved to Elba, joining her brother in his exile. She was the only sibling to do so. His sister Caroline, who had made Queen of Naples, encouraged her husband to turn against Napoleon. She used the money to better Napoleon's condition on the island. She threw parties and balls for the inhabitants of the island, and wore her prettiest dresses to please her brother.

Napoleon, although he loved his sister, found her presence to be particularly trying after awhile. Still, when Napoleon decided to return to France to try and regain his power, no one was more supportive than Pauline. She presented him with the Borghese diamonds before he began his final campaign. When he was captured by the English after Waterloo, they were found in his carriage.

After Waterloo, and Napoleon's final exile to St. Helena, Pauline moved back to Rome, where she enjoyed the protection of Pope Pius VII. She lived in a villa named Villa Paulina and decorated in in a style called Egyptomania, the result of her brother's campaign in Egypt. Still concerned about her brother, she wrote letter after letter to foreign dignataries trying to get better conditions for her brother, and to join her brother in exile. Unfortunately due to a series of illnesses, she was unable to visit him during his final exile. When he died in 1821, she cried bitter tears.

Although her husband had moved to Florence, where he kept a mistress for ten years, and tried to divorce her, Pauline managed to persuade the Pope to help her reconcile with her husband three months before her death from cancer in 1825 at the early age of 44. Legend has it that before she gasped her last breath, she asked a servant for a mirror. She gazed into it, and then as she sank back, she smiled. 'I'm not afraid to die,' she said. 'I am still beautiful.'

She died in her best dress, and asked to be buried with the rest of the Borghese family. One of her final wishes was that her casket be a closed on. For those who desired to see her, they could look at Canova's statue.

Whatever else one could say about Pauline Bonaparte, and during her lifetime people said plenty, that she was pretty, silly, with the morals of a cat, she proved to be more of a Bonaparte than the rest of her siblings, devoted to her brother until the end.

Sources include: Wikipedia
Napoleon and his Women: Christopher Hibbert
Nymphos and other Maniacs - Irving Wallace
Famous Affinities of History - Lyndon Orr


Anonymous said…
What a wonderful post. I just love your blog so much and enjoy linking to it for virtually every article you do. I am officially entering your book giveaway. Keep up the wonderful work of helping all of us learn the unwritten history of women!
Unknown said…
Have you read Sarah Gulland's series on Josephine Bonaparte? She does an excellent job of characterizing Pauline.
Georgie Lee, I haven't read them yet. They are in my TBR pile, along with a huge pile of books that are staring balefully at me. I've always found Pauline fascinating because of the duality in her nature. Loving sister/good time girl!
Thanks Afeateradrift! Your name is officially going into the pot. And thanks for the kind comments. This blog is really a labor of love for me and I've enjoyed every minute of it since I started it, particularly when I get comments from readers like you.

I enjoy reading your posts, and I have added a link of your blog on my blog.
Thanks, Jessica for the compliment. I'll have to check out your blog!
Now she was somethin' else... whew!
She's one of the more colorful of Napoleon's siblings most of whom seem to have been either stupid, weak or power hungry. What's intersting is that the women in his family seem to have inherited the smarts along with Napoleon but not the men. Pauline was the only one actually who didn't end up broke at the end of her life.
Posterizer said…
Never heard of her before. and i didn't even know that Napoleon had a sister. 'cause history used to be fulfilled with men and warfare

her picture with sheer dress makes me wonder actually. Is she depicted as whore or something?

hope you can visit my blog sometime
~Women Lifestyle
Commander Kelly said…
I enjoyed your post on Pauline. Well done! I just posted on "Museo Napoleonico, Rome" with photos of Pauline here....
Commander Kelly said…

I posted a link to your Pauline post on my own blog ("Museo Napoleonico, Rome") here...

Thanks for all your do and best success!

Unknown said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said…
fairly intriguing article-- impugned by citing wikipedia as a reference, which of course puts it on the level with hearsay. good effort however. would have liked to have dated her-- sounds like my second last girlfriend
Louisiana said…
Interesting comment about the sheer dress in picture. It would seem strange to modern women that the acceptable, respectable, dress at that time was Empire style (after the Roman Empire style) with the lower dress ending up under the bust line, & the fabric across the bust being as sheer as possible. There was also a competition among the fashionable as to who could show the most exposed breast. The other challenger was to make the lower part sheer enough so as to show the outline of figure when walking. AMAZING WHAT IS RESPECTABLE IN FASHION.

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