Venus of Empire: The Life of Pauline Bonaparte

Written by Flora Fraser
Review by Edward James

It is not always good news to have a dictator in the family. It certainly did no good for Stalin’s family, and it is perhaps fortunate that Hitler had no close relatives. Napoleon, however, was lavish with the wealth and honours he showered upon his siblings, making monarchs of both his elder brothers.

His beautiful sister, Pauline, was not forgotten. As Flora Fraser reminds us several times, she came a long way from the back streets of Ajaccio to a palace in Rome. But it had its downside. Her first husband died of yellow fever in the disastrous campaign in Haiti, leaving her a widow at the age of 22. Her brother promptly married her off to an Italian prince, whom she came to detest. She spent the rest of her comparatively short life consoling herself with numerous lovers. Her most enduring monument is a life-sized near-naked marble statue of herself in the Villa Borghese in Rome.

Pauline was both a spoilt brat and a tragic heroine. Her life is a footnote to history, but an interesting footnote that throws fresh light on Napoleon’s close-knit but quarrelsome family.