The Story Of Pauline Bonaparte
It was said of Napoleon long ago that he could govern emperors and
kings, but that not even he could rule his relatives. He himself
"My family have done me far more harm than I have been able to do
It would be an interesting historical study to determine just how
far the great soldier's family aided in his downfall by their
selfishness, their jealousy, their meanness, and their
There is something piquant in thinking of Napoleon as a domestic
sort of person. Indeed, it is rather difficult to do so. When we
speak his name we think of the stern warrior hurling his armies up
bloody slopes and on to bloody victory. He is the man whose steely
eyes made his haughtiest marshals tremble, or else the wise, far-
seeing statesman and lawgiver; but decidedly he is not a household
model. We read of his sharp speech to women, of his outrageous
manners at the dinner-table, and of the thousand and one details
which Mme. de Remusat has chronicled--and perhaps in part
invented, for there has always existed the suspicion that her
animus was that of a woman who had herself sought the imperial
favor and had failed to win it.
But, in fact, all these stories relate to the Napoleon of courts
and palaces, and not to the Napoleon of home. In his private life
this great man was not merely affectionate and indulgent, but he
even showed a certain weakness where his relatives were concerned,
so that he let them prey upon him almost without end.
He had a great deal of the Italian largeness and lavishness of
character with his family. When a petty officer he nearly starved
himself in order to give his younger brother, Louis, a military
education. He was devotedly fond of children, and they were fond
of him, as many anecdotes attest. His passionate love for
Josephine before he learned of her infidelity is almost painful to
read of; and even afterward, when he had been disillusioned, and
when she was paying Fouche a thousand francs a day to spy upon
Napoleon's every action, he still treated her with friendliness
and allowed her extravagance to embarrass him.
He made his eldest brother, Joseph, King of Spain, and Spain
proved almost as deadly to him as did Russia. He made his youngest
brother, Jerome, King of Westphalia, and Jerome turned the palace
into a pigsty and brought discredit on the very name of Bonaparte.
His brother Louis, for whom he had starved himself, he placed upon
the throne of Holland, and Louis promptly devoted himself to his
own interests, conniving at many things which were inimical to
France. He was planning high advancement for his brother Lucien,
and Lucien suddenly married a disreputable actress and fled with
her to England, where he was received with pleasure by the most
persistent of all Napoleon's enemies.
So much for his brothers--incompetent, ungrateful, or openly his
foes. But his three sisters were no less remarkable in the
relations which they bore to him. They have been styled "the three
crowned courtesans," and they have been condemned together as
being utterly void of principle and monsters of ingratitude.
Much of this censure was well deserved by all of them--by Caroline
and Elise and Pauline. But when we look at the facts impartially
we shall find something which makes Pauline stand out alone as
infinitely superior to her sisters. Of all the Bonapartes she was
the only one who showed fidelity and gratitude to the great
emperor, her brother. Even Mme. Mere, Napoleon's mother, who
beyond all question transmitted to him his great mental and
physical power, did nothing for him. At the height of his splendor
she hoarded sous and francs and grumblingly remarked:
"All this is for a time. It isn't going to last!"
Pauline, however, was in one respect different from all her
kindred. Napoleon made Elise a princess in her own right and gave
her the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. He married Caroline to Marshal
Murat, and they became respectively King and Queen of Naples. For
Pauline he did very little--less, in fact, than for any other
member of his family--and yet she alone stood by him to the end.
This feather-headed, languishing, beautiful, distracting morsel of
frivolity, who had the manners of a kitten and the morals of a
cat, nevertheless was not wholly unworthy to be Napoleon's sister.
One has to tell many hard things of her; and yet one almost
pardons her because of her underlying devotion to the man who made
the name of Bonaparte illustrious for ever. Caroline, Queen of
Naples, urged her husband to turn against his former chief. Elise,
sour and greedy, threw in her fortunes with the Murats. Pauline,
as we shall see, had the one redeeming trait of gratitude.
To those who knew her she was from girlhood an incarnation of what
used to be called "femininity." We have to-day another and a
higher definition of womanhood, but to her contemporaries, and to
many modern writers, she has seemed to be first of all woman--
"woman to the tips of her rosy finger-nails," says Levy. Those who
saw her were distracted by her loveliness. They say that no one
can form any idea of her beauty from her pictures. "A veritable
masterpiece of creation," she had been called. Frederic Masson
She was so much more the typical woman that with her the defects
common to women reached their highest development, while her
beauty attained a perfection which may justly be called unique.
No one speaks of Pauline Bonaparte's character or of her
intellect, but wholly of her loveliness and charm, and, it must be
added, of her utter lack of anything like a moral sense.
Even as a child of thirteen, when the Bonapartes left Corsica and
took up their abode in Marseilles, she attracted universal
attention by her wonderful eyes, her grace, and also by the utter
lack of decorum which she showed. The Bonaparte girls at this time
lived almost on charity. The future emperor was then a captain of
artillery and could give them but little out of his scanty pay.
Pauline--or, as they called her in those days, Paulette--wore
unbecoming hats and shabby gowns, and shoes that were full of
holes. None the less, she was sought out by several men of note,
among them Freron, a commissioner of the Convention. He visited
Pauline so often as to cause unfavorable comment; but he was in
love with her, and she fell in love with him to the extent of her
capacity. She used to write him love letters in Italian, which
were certainly not lacking in ardor. Here is the end of one of
I love you always and most passionately. I love you for ever, my
beautiful idol, my heart, my appealing lover. I love you, love
you, love you, the most loved of lovers, and I swear never to love
any one else!
This was interesting in view of the fact that soon afterward she
fell in love with Junot, who became a famous marshal. But her love
affairs never gave her any serious trouble; and the three sisters,
who now began to feel the influence of Napoleon's rise to power,
enjoyed themselves as they had never done before. At Antibes they
had a beautiful villa, and later a mansion at Milan.
By this time Napoleon had routed the Austrians in Italy, and all
France was ringing with his name. What was Pauline like in her
maidenhood? Arnault says:
She was an extraordinary combination of perfect physical beauty
and the strangest moral laxity. She was as pretty as you please,
but utterly unreasonable. She had no more manners than a school-
girl--talking incoherently, giggling at everything and nothing,
and mimicking the most serious persons of rank.
General de Ricard, who knew her then, tells in his monograph of
the private theatricals in which Pauline took part, and of the
sport which they had behind the scenes. He says:
The Bonaparte girls used literally to dress us. They pulled our
ears and slapped us, but they always kissed and made up later. We
used to stay in the girls' room all the time when they were
Napoleon was anxious to see his sisters in some way settled. He
proposed to General Marmont to marry Pauline. The girl was then
only seventeen, and one might have had some faith in her
character. But Marmont was shrewd and knew her far too well. The
words in which he declined the honor are interesting:
"I know that she is charming and exquisitely beautiful; yet I have
dreams of domestic happiness, of fidelity, and of virtue. Such
dreams are seldom realized, I know. Still, in the hope of winning
And then he paused, coughed, and completed what he had to say in a
sort of mumble, but his meaning was wholly clear. He would not
accept the offer of Pauline in marriage, even though she was the
sister of his mighty chief.
Then Napoleon turned to General Leclerc, with whom Pauline had for
some time flirted, as she had flirted with almost all the officers
of Napoleon's staff. Leclerc was only twenty-six. He was rich and
of good manners, but rather serious and in poor health. This was
not precisely the sort of husband for Pauline, if we look at it in
the conventional way; but it served Napoleon's purpose and did not
in the least interfere with his sister's intrigues.
Poor Leclerc, who really loved Pauline, grew thin, and graver
still in manner. He was sent to Spain and Portugal, and finally
was made commander-in-chief of the French expedition to Haiti,
where the famous black rebel, Toussaint l'Ouverture, was heading
an uprising of the negroes.
Napoleon ordered Pauline to accompany her husband. Pauline flatly
refused, although she made this an occasion for ordering
"mountains of pretty clothes and pyramids of hats." But still she
refused to go on board the flag-ship. Leclerc expostulated and
pleaded, but the lovely witch laughed in his face and still
persisted that she would never go.
Word was brought to Napoleon. He made short work of her
"Bring a litter," he said, with one of his steely glances. "Order
six grenadiers to thrust her into it, and see that she goes on
And so, screeching like an angry cat, she was carried on board,
and set sail with her husband and one of her former lovers. She
found Haiti and Santo Domingo more agreeable than she had
supposed. She was there a sort of queen who could do as she
pleased and have her orders implicitly obeyed. Her dissipation was
something frightful. Her folly and her vanity were beyond belief.
But at the end of two years both she and her husband fell ill. He
was stricken down by the yellow fever, which was decimating the
French army. Pauline was suffering from the results of her life in
a tropical climate. Leclerc died, the expedition was abandoned,
and Pauline brought the general's body back to France. When he was
buried she, still recovering from her fever, had him interred in a
costly coffin and paid him the tribute of cutting off her
beautiful hair and burying it with him.
"What a touching tribute to her dead husband!" said some one to
The emperor smiled cynically as he remarked:
"H'm! Of course she knows that her hair is bound to fall out after
her fever, and that it will come in longer and thicker for being
Napoleon, in fact, though he loved Pauline better than his other
sisters--or perhaps because he loved her better--was very strict
with her. He obliged her to wear mourning, and to observe some of
the proprieties; but it was hard to keep her within bounds.
Presently it became noised about that Prince Camillo Borghese was
exceedingly intimate with her. The prince was an excellent
specimen of the fashionable Italian. He was immensely rich. His
palace at Rome was crammed with pictures, statues, and every sort
of artistic treasure. He was the owner, moreover, of the famous
Borghese jewels, the finest collection of diamonds in the world.
Napoleon rather sternly insisted upon her marrying Borghese.
Fortunately, the prince was very willing to be connected with
Napoleon; while Pauline was delighted at the idea of having
diamonds that would eclipse all the gems which Josephine
possessed; for, like all of the Bonapartes, she detested her
brother's wife. So she would be married and show her diamonds to
Josephine. It was a bit of feminine malice which she could not
The marriage took place very quietly at Joseph Bonaparte's house,
because of the absence of Napoleon; but the newly made princess
was invited to visit Josephine at the palace of Saint-Cloud. Here
was to be the triumph of her life. She spent many days in planning
a toilet that should be absolutely crushing to Josephine. Whatever
she wore must be a background for the famous diamonds. Finally she
decided on green velvet.
When the day came Pauline stood before a mirror and gazed at
herself with diamonds glistening in her hair, shimmering around
her neck, and fastened so thickly on her green velvet gown as to
remind one of a moving jewel-casket. She actually shed tears for
joy. Then she entered her carriage and drove out to Saint-Cloud.
But the Creole Josephine, though no longer young, was a woman of
great subtlety as well as charm. Stories had been told to her of
the green velvet, and therefore she had her drawing-room
redecorated in the most uncompromising blue. It killed the green
velvet completely. As for the diamonds, she met that maneuver by
wearing not a single gem of any kind. Her dress was an Indian
muslin with a broad hem of gold.
Her exquisite simplicity, coupled with her dignity of bearing,
made the Princess Pauline, with her shower of diamonds, and her
green velvet displayed against the blue, seem absolutely vulgar.
Josephine was most generous in her admiration of the Borghese
gems, and she kissed Pauline on parting. The victory was hers.
There is another story of a defeat which Pauline met from another
lady, one Mme. de Coutades. This was at a magnificent ball given
to the most fashionable world of Paris. Pauline decided upon
going, and intended, in her own phrase, to blot out every woman
there. She kept the secret of her toilet absolutely, and she
entered the ballroom at the psychological moment, when all the
guests had just assembled.
She appeared; and at sight of her the music stopped, silence fell
upon the assemblage, and a sort of quiver went through every one.
Her costume was of the finest muslin bordered with golden palm-
leaves. Four bands, spotted like a leopard's skin, were wound
about her head, while these in turn were supported by little
clusters of golden grapes. She had copied the head-dress of a
Bacchante in the Louvre. All over her person were cameos, and just
beneath her breasts she wore a golden band held in place by an
engraved gem. Her beautiful wrists, arms, and hands were bare. She
had, in fact, blotted out her rivals.
Nevertheless, Mme. de Coutades took her revenge. She went up to
Pauline, who was lying on a divan to set off her loveliness, and
began gazing at the princess through a double eye-glass. Pauline
felt flattered for a moment, and then became uneasy. The lady who
was looking at her said to a companion, in a tone of compassion:
"What a pity! She really would be lovely if it weren't for THAT!"
"For what?" returned her escort.
"Why, are you blind? It's so remarkable that you SURELY must see
Pauline was beginning to lose her self-composure. She flushed and
looked wildly about, wondering what was meant. Then she heard Mme.
"Why, her ears. If I had such ears as those I would cut them off!"
Pauline gave one great gasp and fainted dead away. As a matter of
fact, her ears were not so bad. They were simply very flat and
colorless, forming a contrast with the rosy tints of her face. But
from that moment no one could see anything but these ears; and
thereafter the princess wore her hair low enough to cover them.
This may be seen in the statue of her by Canova. It was considered
a very daring thing for her to pose for him in the nude, for only
a bit of drapery is thrown over her lower limbs. Yet it is true
that this statue is absolutely classical in its conception and
execution, and its interest is heightened by the fact that its
model was what she afterward styled herself, with true Napoleonic
pride--"a sister of Bonaparte."
Pauline detested Josephine and was pleased when Napoleon divorced
her; but she also disliked the Austrian archduchess, Marie Louise,
who was Josephine's successor. On one occasion, at a great court
function, she got behind the empress and ran out her tongue at
her, in full view of all the nobles and distinguished persons
present. Napoleon's eagle eye flashed upon Pauline and blazed like
fire upon ice. She actually took to her heels, rushed out of the
ball, and never visited the court again.
It would require much time to tell of her other eccentricities, of
her intrigues, which were innumerable, of her quarrel with her
husband, and of the minor breaches of decorum with which she
startled Paris. One of these was her choice of a huge negro to
bathe her every morning. When some one ventured to protest, she
"What! Do you call that thing a MAN?"
And she compromised by compelling her black servitor to go out and
marry some one at once, so that he might continue his
ministrations with propriety!
To her Napoleon showed himself far more severe than with either
Caroline or Elise. He gave her a marriage dowry of half a million
francs when she became the Princess Borghese, but after that he
was continually checking her extravagances. Yet in 1814, when the
downfall came and Napoleon was sent into exile at Elba, Pauline
was the only one of all his relatives to visit him and spend her
time with him. His wife fell away and went back to her Austrian
relatives. Of all the Bonapartes only Pauline and Mme. Mere
remained faithful to the emperor.
Even then Napoleon refused to pay a bill of hers for sixty-two
francs, while he allowed her only two hundred and forty francs for
the maintenance of her horses. But she, with a generosity of which
one would have thought her quite incapable, gave to her brother a
great part of her fortune. When he escaped from Elba and began the
campaign of 1815 she presented him with all the Borghese diamonds.
In fact, he had them with him in his carriage at Waterloo, where
they were captured by the English. Contrast this with the meanness
and ingratitude of her sisters and her brothers, and one may well
believe that she was sincerely proud of what it meant to be la
soeur de Bonaparte.
When he was sent to St. Helena she was ill in bed and could not
accompany him. Nevertheless, she tried to sell all her trinkets,
of which she was so proud, in order that she might give him help.
When he died she received the news with bitter tears "on hearing
all the particulars of that long agony."
As for herself, she did not long survive. At the age of forty-four
her last moments came. Knowing that she was to die, she sent for
Prince Borghese and sought a reconciliation. But, after all, she
died as she had lived--"the queen of trinkets" (la reine des
colifichets). She asked the servant to bring a mirror. She gazed
into it with her dying eyes; and then, as she sank back, it was
with a smile of deep content.
"I am not afraid to die," she said. "I am still beautiful!"