Tag Archives: Bonapartes

Betsy’s Circle: Scandalous Pauline Bonaparte

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Portrait of Pauline Bonaparte by Robert Lefevre, Image from Wikimedia Commons

Betsy was often told that she looked like her sister-in-law Pauline Bonaparte, shown above in one of her revealing gowns. Pauline, however, had a much more scandalous reputation than Betsy.

As a young woman, Pauline fell in love with Louis-Marie Stanislas Fréron, the proconsul of Marseille, but her mother objected to the match. Napoleon then married off his fifteen-year-old sister to one of his officers, General Charles Leclerc. However, Pauline couldn’t be happy with any man for long. She had a voracious sexual appetite (a trait that several of the Bonapartes shared). While she and LeClerc were stationed in Saint-Dominque, she took several lovers—despite the fact that she was plagued with illness. Pauline had an exasperating personality: arrogant, willful, capricious, narcissistic, and promiscuous.

After LeClerc died of yellow fever, Pauline returned to France. Defying Napoleon’s opinion about the proper mourning period, she married again within a year to Prince Camilo Borghese. They lived in Italy. Pauline quickly grew bored with him and continued behaving as riotously as before. They say that one of her lovers was the violinist Paganini. Other rumors say that she suffered from sexually transmitted diseases. While in Italy, Pauline posed semi-nude for the sculptor Canova, who created a famous statue of Pauline as a reclining Venus.

Pauline had only one child, a boy named Dermide, fathered by her first husband. Dermide died when he was six, and Pauline—true to her volatile nature—kept promising to make various nephews her heir and then changing her mind and rescinding the offers. In one area of her life, however, she did remain loyal. She stood by her brother Napoleon and was the only one of his siblings to visit him in his first exile on Elba.

Cancer was the scourge of the Bonaparte family, and Pauline was no exception. She died of the disease at the age of 44.

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Paying My Respects

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About two years ago, I started the process of writing a novel based on the life of Betsy Bonaparte. That November we traveled to her hometown of Baltimore to do research. My first full day there, I visited Betsy’s grave to pay my respects. As you can see, the grave has a high marble slab with carved columns at each corner. Misty rain was falling, and giant crows hopped from gravestone to gravestone cawing. It was like a scene out of Edgar Allan Poe. I was weeping. I promised Betsy that I would do my best to portray her fairly, without some of the stereotypes and harsh judgments that have crept into the historical records about her.

Then I found a violet blooming near her tomb. It was late autumn, yet there was a spring flower. So I picked it. I’ve never been able to smell violets. It always disappointed me bitterly as a little girl. However, the one I picked that rainy November day had a powerful scent. I took it with me to press. I still have it in a notebook I carried that week.

After leaving the cemetery, we visited a historic home that had a piece of Betsy’s furniture on display. It was a home she would have visited during her lifetime. After the tour, I found and bought a box of violet-scented powder in the gift shop. When we got back to the inn, I googled Betsy’s name and the word violet, and I discovered that the flower was associated with those who supported the Bonapartes. That was fitting. In spite of the difficulties she face, Betsy never lost her admiration for the emperor.

The whole story is eerie, n’est-ce pas? To me, it felt as thought Betsy was granting me permission to do this project. And I did my best to keep that graveyard promise to her as I wrote The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte.

 

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