“I'm a very honest man;
As their names appear from time to time in our chapters of
Let us first turn our attention to the girls in the family, in order of seniority.
Maria-Anna, known as Elisa, was plain physically but intellectually she was the one who most resembled her illustrious brother.
Thanks to a scholarship, between 1784 and 1792 she was able to attend the place of her first education, the Royal Education Academy of Saint-Cyr, which Napoleon later turned into the famous French military academy.
“THE VERY COUNTERPART OF THE EMPEROR”
In 1797, aged twenty, she married Félix Bacciochi, a Corsican officer who thanks to his wife who was created Princess of Lucques (75 kilometres west of Florence) and of Piombino (on the coast, 105 kilometres south-west of Florence) by Napoleon in 1805, was to see the course of his destiny change unexpectedly.
Elisa who was described as a wise and attentive ruler of her principalities was also somewhat uncharitably known as “a counterpart of the Emperor”. In 1809 Napoleon rewarded her for all her serious hard work by creating her Grand Duchess of Tuscany and he entrusted her with the government of the Tuscan provinces which had by then been united to the French Empire. She was to reveal her talent as a shrewd and able politician and Napoleon himself described her in the following terms:
“She was a most capable woman who possessed admirable qualities; she had a remarkable mind and was extremely hard working, she knew the affaires of her cabinet just as well as the most able diplomat would have done.”
Pauline was undoubtedly the greatest sinner in the Bonaparte family. She was as famous for her beauty which was legendary as for what we shall tactfully refer to as her generous and fickle heart.
After having first been courted by an ex-member of the French Convention – who was turned down – General Bonaparte attempted to marry his younger sister to one of his aides-de-camp, Marmont, an officer in the artillery, who was aged twenty-four at the time.
This occurred at Mombello, during the first Italian Campaign (1796-1797) and it was the oldest of the Bonaparte brothers who conducted the negotiations to arrange the marriage.
Despite all the inducements that this match had to offer and “the advantages that it promised”, Marmont courteously refused to succumb to the temptation for, as he later confessed in his memoirs:
“At the time I dreamed of married bliss, of conjugal faithfulness, of virtue so rarely found, in fact, but which often feeds the imagination of youth… In the hope of one day making this chimera which was so full of charm come true, I declined a marriage which would have had an immense influence over my career.”
But it was also true that a few lines above in the same memoirs, Marmont noted that Pauline, whose seductiveness was more than beguiling despite the fact that she was barely aged sixteen, already “revealed what she would be like later on.”
And upon discovering the list of those upon whom she later bestowed her favours - which were keenly sought after and not very difficult to obtain – if there was one dream which Pauline could certainly not have fulfilled for Marmont, it was his dream of married bliss.
It was a cruel experience for her. The French expeditionary corps which aimed to put down a bloody insurrection first encountered the barbarity of the inhabitants and the rebellion was brutally put down before the French forces were decimated by illness. Yellow fever killed one thousand five hundred officers, including commander-in-chief, Leclerc, and some twelve thousand soldiers, not to mention over two thousand civilians.
Pauline was forced to leave Santo Domingo under dramatic circumstances as the French forces evacuated the island, an episode during which she showed that she possessed the same cool-headed courage as her bother. She returned to France bringing her husband's body home with her.
PRINCESS BORGHESE, THEN DE GUASTALLA
In 1806, Napoleon gave Borghèse - but it was in fact for his sister - the principality of Guastalla, 35 kilometres south-west of Mantova. It was a really tiny principality, barely more than a village and this was a grave injustice compared to the principalities he had given to Elisa, and even more, to the youngest of the Bonaparte sisters, Caroline.
In the face of her husband's indifference, the neglected wife soon had a vast number of love affairs and unfortunately this aspect of her life is all that history has recorded about Pauline Bonaparte.
Yet she deserves to be remembered for much more than these wanton and spicy anecdotes for at least two reasons.
The first is the courage which she showed during the really horrific campaign of Santo Domingo, where despite the appalling conditions in the military hospitals she did not hesitate to visit the sick and wounded who were dying like flies in an attempt to alleviate their suffering at the risk of her own safety during the epidemic.
She also showed her courage during the last combats on the island when there were only 2,000 French soldiers still in fighting condition. When her husband insisted that she should embark, she is reported to have said indignantly to those who surrounded her hoping to find protection at the side of the wife of the commander-in-chief:
“You are all afraid of dying, but I'm Bonaparte's sister, and I'm not afraid of anything.”
HER INDEFECTIBLE LOYALTY TO NAPOLEON
The second reason is much more touching and reveals her true character.
… It is in the name of all the members of the Emperor's family that I appeal to the English government for a change of climate. If a request which is as wholly justified as this were refused, it would be tantamount to pronouncing his sentence of death and in that case, I request your permission to leave for St. Helena so as to be present when he breathes his last…
I know that the moments in the life of the Emperor are counted and I would reproach myself eternally if I had not endeavoured to use all the means which are in my power to ease the last moments of his life and to give him proof of my entire devotion to his person…
I beg you, My Lord, to inform Lady Holland who has constantly given every proof of the great interest that she takes in the Emperor of my letter and I am yours very truly.”
Liverpool did not even have the elementary decency of replying to her. But her generous letter was of no use anyway. The “death sentence” had already been executed on the 5 May 1821.
However great her faults may have been, it is impossible to judge Pauline fairly without first reading these lines, which in 1814, she addressed to her brother-in-law, Bacchiochi, who offered to take her with him as he fled, together his wife Elisa, from their kingdom of Tuscany :
“I did not love the Emperor as a sovereign; I loved him as my brother, and I shall remain faithful to him until death.”
Pauline kept her word and for this alone she must rank well above her sisters and occupy a place of honour.
Caroline, who was registered on her birth certificate as Maria-Annunziata was, of Napoleon's three sisters, the one who did him the most harm.
HER AMBITIONS FULFILLED
If for Elisa and Pauline their husbands were little more than conventions, Caroline's marriage was different and she was inseparable from her husband as he was the indispensable instrument for achieving her end. And she was successful at this subtle game of manoeuvring her husband as, unlike Pauline and to a certain degree like Elisa, Caroline's ambitions were fulfilled. In 1806, thanks to her husband she became Grand Duchess of Berg and Cleves and two years later thanks to Murat's new “promotion”, she became Queen of Naples.
But the social ascension of the youngest of the Bonaparte sisters was also largely due to her innumerable fits of crying and jealous tantrums which her imperial brother had had to put up with in the past. Such had been the case when her oldest sister, Elisa, had been created Princess of Lucques and Piombino and worse still when Louis Bonaparte and his wife Hortense were made King and Queen of Holland.
Napoleon was in the habit of saying that, “The Queen [of Naples] has more energy in her little finger than the King in all his body.”
If it cannot be denied that Caroline was an intelligent and skilful woman, she was also capable of shrewd and selfish reckoning and according to Napoleon, her “ambition was inordinate”. And all these grave faults would ultimately be detrimental to the Emperor and consequently to the Empire.
WAS CAROLINE RESPONSIBLE FOR MURAT'S DEATH?
Thus, in 1813 it was all these faults which drove her to influence her husband again by urging him to defect and make contact with the enemy - Austria among others - in the hope of saving her throne of Naples for despite the fact that she was undeniably intelligent, she refused to see that her throne could not survive without her brother to whom she owed everything. And by her action she struck a blow which was to prove fatal to Napoleon and consequently to the French Empire.
With regards to her private life, Caroline like her two sisters had a great many lovers, all of whom she utilized to satisfy her insatiable ambition. But on one occasion at least she definitely overstepped the mark when she gave herself to one of Napoleon's worst enemies, the Austrian statesman, Metternich.
On the 13 October 1815, at the Pizzo in Calabria, Marshal Murat, who had for a time been King of Naples, was executed by a firing squad as he attempted to reconquer his throne. It is not an exaggeration to put forward that it was Caroline's wild ambition which had led him there.
After she was banned from France in 1815, like all the other members of the Bonaparte family, Caroline became countess of Lipona - this easy anagram of Napoli was undoubtedly a reminder of her past splendour. She outlived her husband for twenty-four years and died in Florence on 18 May 1839.
To be continued (Napoleon's brothers)