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Poule de luxe

‘Pauline was as beautiful as it was possible to be’, the Austrian statesman Metternich once observed.

3 June 2009

12:00 AM

3 June 2009

12:00 AM

Venus of Empire Flora Fraser

John Murray, pp.287, 20

‘Pauline was as beautiful as it was possible to be’, the Austrian statesman Metternich once observed.

‘Pauline was as beautiful as it was possible to be’, the Austrian statesman Metternich once observed. ‘She was in love with herself alone, and her sole occupation was pleasure’. Metternich was not quite fair. Pauline, as sculpted in Canova’s famous statue of the barely clad reclining princess, was indeed extremely beautiful. But along with her undisputed love of herself, she was also devoted to her brother Napoleon, delighting in his victories, and fretting over his defeats. She went with him into exile on Elba, sought to join him on Saint Helena, and campaigned frantically to have the punitive conditions under which the British kept him ameliorated. When Napoleon died, she was devastated. Loyalty was probably her nicest trait.


Born in Corsica in 1780, the sixth of eight children, Maria Paoletta was 11 years younger than Napoleon, and was his favourite sister. She was 16 when she married General Leclerc, his second-in-command in Italy. A French courtier noted at the time that she was deeply unreasonable, impudent and childish and that she had no decorum — all characteristics that were to mark her not very long life.

Despatched, on Napoleon’s orders, to Saint-Domingue, where General Leclerc had been sent to put down the slave uprising of Toussaint Louverture, Pauline was excruciatingly bored. Rumours circulated that, to while away the six weeks her husband was away fighting, she had affairs with both men and women. Both on Saint-Domingue and later in Paris and Rome, after her unhappy second marriage to Camillo Borghese, Pauline remained spoilt and imperious, changing lovers with the seasons and tormenting those around her with her whims. When she discovered that her brother-in-law, Jean-Louis Leclerc, had no shower in his house when she arrived to stay with him, she demanded that a hole be made in the ceiling of her bathroom through which water could be poured over her.

All her life, Pauline wrote letters, or rather she dictated them, for she found the act of writing fatigued her. But they seem to have provided evidence of very little interest in anything beyond her lovers, fashion, jewels, expensive property, Napoleon and her own health. Because Napoleon, as Flora Fraser shows, managed to control not only every aspect of his empire, even when marching on Berlin or retreating from Moscow, but also the comportment of each member of his unruly family, he plays a prominent and engaging part in her book.

Pauline was always ill. Much of her life was spent travelling from spa to spa seeking relief from a malady variously ascribed to venereal disease or gynaecological ailments. As she grew older, her skin began to look more yellow than glowingly white, and after Napoleon’s death friends remarked on her ‘desiccated’ appearance. Rather touchingly, she banned visits to Canova’s statue, which had been artfully arranged so that it circled round under tasteful torches, showing off the perfect curves to their best advantage.

Scheming, self-obsessed and restless, Pauline seems to have lacked her brother’s genius and intellect. Hers was a sad life, and it is hard to warm to her. Her only son, Dermide, died at the age of six. Many of her glamorous lovers, officers in Napoleon’s armies, were killed in the military defeats of his last years. Pauline herself, a ‘consummate coquette’ to the bitter end, died in 1825, not long before her 45th birthday, apparently of a tumour on her stomach. There is no indication that she was much mourned.

Caroline Moorehead’s latest book, Dancing to the Precipice: Lucie de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution is published by Chatto & Windus, £20.


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