Venus of the Emperor?

18 April 2010

I am half way through reading Venus of Empire, the recent biography of Pauline Bonaparte by Flora Fraser. I was planning to review it in full when I had finished the entire book but decided to post something now while it is still fresh in my mind.

Now, I have to admit that I haven’t really enjoyed any of Flora Fraser’s previous efforts – I’ve found them dull, pedestrian and without any of the flair and dash that makes her mother, Antonia Fraser’s books so eminently readable. Princesses, about the daughters of George III,  in particular, was a dreary slog of a book that I am afraid I cast aside only a third of a way in.

The new book about Pauline Borghese, however, is rather more of a page turner and I am really enjoying reading it. I fully expected to absolutely loathe Pauline when I started it as, after all, her reputation is not of the best and she has come down in posterity as an arch, spiteful, mannerless coquette, whose only redeeming feature was her continued loyalty to her brother, Napoléon, when everyone else had fled and left him to his fate.

Instead, the image of Pauline that Flora Fraser evokes is of a not too bright, stubborn girl who liked to enjoy life and formed sincere attachments to her first husband and their son, Dermide. Most of Pauline’s infamous peccadillos and quirks, such as her insistence upon being carried about by strong men or even her affairs are explained away as the results of actual physical weakness or frustration induced by her failure of a marriage to the Prince Borghese.

However, I have to take issue with Flora Fraser’s bizarre assertion that there was some sort of incestuous relationship going on between Pauline and her brother, Napoléon. I would have expected such a grave assertion to have more justification than the short paragraph that it received and more proof than Fraser’s assertion that it was her belief that they probably had sex because, get this, they both liked having sex and they also liked each other. That’s it.

Now, I like reading books about Egyptian Pharaohs and so am not exactly horrified by tales of incest between siblings, however, I think this was going too far. I can’t even really put my finger on why it bothers me so much, but it seemed to me like Fraser threw this snippet into the mix in the hopes that it would spice her book up a bit but was ultimately too timid to actually back it up in any way.