Friday, March 20, 2009

get your Napoleon fix !

the New York Times

March 22, 2009
Twisted Sister

By ALIDA BECKER
PAULINE BONAPARTE


Venus of Empire


By Flora Fraser

Illustrated. 287 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.95

True to his Corsican roots, Napoleon Bonaparte made empire a family business. In the wake of his conquering armies, one brother was sent to rule the Kingdom of Naples, another the Kingdom of Holland; a sister and her husband, packed off to Germany, became Grand Duke and Duchess of Berg. But how to deploy his 25-year-old sister Pauline, already a disciplinary hard case, notorious for philandering in a court not known for circumspection? “What is Guastalla, dear brother?” she inquired, when informed of the principality where she and her husband, Prince Camillo Borghese, were to preside. “Is it a fine great town, with a palace and subjects?” Told it was a four-square-mile strip of northern Italy, she erupted in a tearful rage, shouting that she wanted a government and ministers, just like her sister had, and threatening to scratch out the emperor’s eyes. “And my poor Camillo,” she demanded. “How can you do nothing for him?” When Napoleon pointed out that her husband was an imbecile, her answer was simple and direct: “True, but so what?”

It was the sort of impasse Napoleon would often face in dealing with Pauline, who resembled him both in temper and in looks. His solution indicates how well he understood her. Pauline was allowed to retain the title Duchess of Guastalla, along with the subsidiary income that went with it, and the principality itself was sold for six million francs, making her extremely (and, equally important, independently) wealthy. As Flora Fraser remarks in “Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire,” her juicy portrait of Napoleon’s most flamboyant and most favored sibling, one of the few things Pauline respected was the power of money.

Fraser, the author of highly praised biographies of Emma Hamilton, Queen Caroline and the six daughters of George III, prefers to illuminate history from the domestic sidelines, but even she seems to have been surprised by how far into the boudoir Pauline would take her. In a recent interview, Fraser argued that this “caustic, chic and contrary” woman has been unfairly “airbrushed out of the story” — known these days only as the model for Canova’s semi-nude marble statue of Venus Victorious, a tourist attraction in Rome since 1804, when the first plaster model was cast. Yet aside from Pauline’s six-year first marriage to General Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, the “blond Bonaparte,” whom she accompanied to the West Indies in his disastrous attempt to combat Toussaint L’Ouverture’s rebel slaves, her part of the Napoleonic pageant consists mostly of scandalous footnotes — schemes to hide lovers from her brother’s spies, sybaritic retreats to fashionable spas, a lot of social one-upmanship and even more shopping and decorating.

She was said to be the most beautiful woman in Europe: elegantly lithe and long-limbed, with pale skin and dark eyes, as small in stature as her brother. Rumor had it that she numbered him among her lovers. Her great rival, the Empress Josephine, appears to have believed it — and so does Fraser, who thinks Napoleon might have given Pauline venereal disease. But there were many other candidates, particularly after she returned from the Caribbean following Leclerc’s death in a yellow fever epidemic, trailing whispers about her tropical experiments with black and lesbian partners. Back in Paris, she was initially attracted to Prince Borghese (and especially his fortune), but not long after their marriage she was on the prowl again, and would be for the next 20 years. Paganini was said to have sampled her favors; so too the father of Alexandre Dumas, whose son wrote a tantalizingly discreet account of their visit to her country estate. Chateaubriand delivered slippers to her in Rome, shipped via the diplomatic pouch. In between trysts, Italy’s great actor, Talma, read to her from Molière, and she herself was fond of declaiming lines of Petrarch learned at 15 from one of her first lovers (to whom she had sworn “my heart is not for sharing”). When her last great amour died in Russia at the Battle of Borodino, the bullet came from the gun of a fellow French officer. Some wondered whether he’d fired out of jealousy — or on orders from Napoleon.

Only when she entered middle age did Pauline’s predations acquire a tinge of desperation. The sort of antics that had previously seemed mischievous (camouflaging a lover as her chamberlain, hiring a handsome violinist to lead her nonexistent orchestra) began to look pathetic. But in her early 40s, she managed to pull off one last coup. Losing her looks and succumbing to the cancer that would soon kill her, she persuaded the pope to shame Prince Camillo, whose company she’d long spurned, into evicting his mistress from his Florentine palazzo and welcoming back this most unrepentant of unfaithful wives. Pauline remained difficult to the end. On her deathbed, she interrupted the priest’s homily and substituted her own, then carefully dictated a long will (providing, among other matters, for the disposition of the urn in which she kept the embalmed hearts of her first husband and her only son, felled in early childhood by a fever) and lectured her maid on precisely how her corpse was to be dressed. She was interred in the Borghese family vault in Rome, “the Corsican cuckoo,” as Fraser puts it, in the company of a pope and a cardinal.

Pauline’s life wasn’t entirely self- indulgent. She appears to have been courageous in the face of horrific violence and disease in the West Indies. She alone of all his brothers and sisters joined Napoleon in exile on Elba. In the lining of the carriage he abandoned at Waterloo was a diamond necklace worth half a million francs, her contribution to his aborted restoration. She was preparing to join him on St. Helena when word came of his death. Still, after reading Fraser’s account of Pauline’s mostly amorous adventures, it’s hard not to agree with a friend of her first husband’s who observed that “she had no principles and was likely to do the right thing only by caprice.”

Certainly it’s the caprice that’s most memorable. Pauline’s two favorite roles were seductress and invalid, and she combined them in inventive ways as she roamed southern Europe in search of a cure for what Fraser believes was salpingitis, an inflammation of the fallopian tubes (which can occur after childbirth, but is also caused by multiple sexual partners and gonorrhea). One of the symptoms of the condition is abdominal pain that can be aggravated by walking — so Pauline insisted on being carried from bed to chaise longue to bath and back again, preferably by whatever man she had her eye on. Those who weren’t candidates for romance were treated more cavalierly. One visitor was stunned to find Pauline’s lady in waiting flat on the floor, Pauline’s feet firmly planted on her throat, in what was apparently her accustomed position. The lady remained there as Pauline chatted with her guest, joining the conversation in garbled tones. On another occasion, en route to a spa, Pauline made a brief rest stop. The owner of the estate had already been informed that she bathed in milk, but although he’d made sure to have plenty on hand, the arrangements were insufficient. “And my shower?” she demanded. In the absence of such a device, she required that a hole be cut in the ceiling above the bath so more milk could be poured down. This done, she continued on her way, ready to torment a new host.

Impetuous, cruel, alternately spendthrift and miserly, wildly manipulative and so self-destructive that her doctors helplessly sought ways to curb her sexual appetite, Pauline was, Fraser admits, “a terrible role model.” Which is, of course, why she’s such fun to read about. “I don’t suppose,” Fraser confesses, “I’ll ever write about anyone so infinitely entertaining again.” Well, maybe not the next time out. Fraser has just started researching what looks to be a much more sedate project: “Portrait of a Marriage: The Washingtons.”

Alida Becker is an editor at the Book Review.


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