I read Pauline
Bonaparte, Venus of Empire by Flora Fraser last week.
It’s the kind of biography where you’re surprised at how much
material there is, but a little sorry that more of it didn’t get
But the picture that emerges of the Bonaparte family life is
really pretty interesting. Especially how much better the
siblings got along after Napoleon was sent to Saint Helena than
when he was Emperor and could give them money and jobs.
I was also interested in the details of living with 19th
century medical care. Of course, Pauline was troubled for most
of her adult life by illnesses that could have been fixed by
antibiotics or a hysterectomy.
On the other hand, she was lucid almost to the minute she died, which I don’t
think very many people accomplish with high tech medicine.
She might have opted for modern painkillers over lucidity if she’d had
the choice, but she presumably did have some choice, and she
went with revising her will in detail:
…in the night of June 8, the doctors reported that the end
was at hand and she should be given the last rites. But
Pauline, ill though she was, said, “I’ll tell you when I am
ready. I still have some hours to live.” Not until eleven the
following morning did she agree to receive the priest who had
been hovering outside. And even at the moment of communion,
when the priest wished to speak a few words, Pauline, on easy
terms with the Church to the last, stopped him, and spoke
herself. It was a discourse, wrote Sylvie d’Hautmesnil, who was
present, most touching in its piety.
From her bed, dressed “as ever” with elegance, Pauline
dictated the terms of her will. It was a lengthy document, for
thre were many family members of whom to make mention.
“I die in the middle of cruel and horrible sufferings,” she
declared, and indeed her bedchamber woman wrote that Pauline had
not been free from pain for over eighty days, her liver, lungs,
and stomach all causing her torment.
Having signed the will, Pauline handed the pen to Sylvie to
place back on her éscritoire, and the notary
exited, leaving the princess to say a punctilious good-bye to
the members of the household. To Sylvie, Pauline gave cool
instructions about the toilette and the parure in which
her embalmed corpse was to be attired. Apparently she called
for a mirror to inspect her appearance. More certainly Pauline
Borghese’s last act before she died was to hand her keys…to
the prince. Her affairs were in order, and she died at one in
the afternoon on June 9, 1825. The cause of her death…was
given as a scierro–or tumor–on the stomach.
It’s also interesting to read about the life of a Princess
whose every whim gets catered to. There’s one story about her
staying at a house on a journey. She had informed them in
advance that she would need a milk bath, and they had laid in a
large supply of milk. But it turned out that she needed a milk
shower after her milk bath, and they didn’t have a shower. So
she ordered them to cut a hole in the ceiling and have the
servants pour the milk over her through the hole. The whole
house smelled of sour milk for weeks afterwards.