The long, strange trip of Désirée Clary
Image: from “Portrait of Désirée Clary,” by François Pascal Simon, Baron Gérard, 1810.
I like the Portrait of Désirée Clary just because it’s so striking to look at. But even if you don’t care about its aesthetic appeal, its subject is an interesting figure to learn about. Désirée Clary is one of those fascinating figures you sometimes find on the fringes of Big History.
In her teenage years, she attracted the attention of a young Corsican artillery officer of little note named Napoléon Bonaparte. The two became engaged, but the engagement was broken when her family moved to Genoa. Depressed, Bonaparte poured his feelings about the relationship into a self-pitying romantic novella, Clisson et Eugenie (Clisson and Eugenie), about a doomed relationship between a dutiful soldier and his faithless wife back home.
Upon her return to France some years later, she met and married another soldier, General Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte. Bernadotte was a talented soldier himself, and after Napoléon seized power and made himself Emperor he elevated Bernadotte to the elite rank of Marshal of the Empire.The Marshals led Napoléon’s armies through the whirlwind of the Napoleonic Wars, as the little artillerist led France to conquer most of Europe.
Bernadotte was one of the few Marshals who had built a reputation on his own before the rise of Napoléon; this made his relationship with the Emperor a delicate one, since both were conscious that he could be seen in the right light as a potential rival for the Imperial throne. Because of the unique relationship she had with both Bonaparte and Bernadotte, both men periodically employed her in attempts to influence the other, with varying degrees of success. That all came to an end in 1809, one year before the Portrait of Désirée Clary was made, when Napoléon, furious at Bernadotte for his lackluster performance at the Battle of Wagram, stripped him of his Marshal’s baton. This effectively ended his career in the French military.
From a strictly ladder-climbing perspective, it may therefore appear that Désirée had married below her potential; if she had married Bonaparte, she would have become Empress of France, rather than wife of a disgraced Marshal. Time and fate would prove this judgement incorrect, however.
Back in 1806, at the Battle of Lübeck, Bernadotte’s forces had captured a contingent of Swedes. As was his usual practice — while he had plenty of faults, cruelty to prisoners was not one of them — Bernadotte had taken care to see that these prisoners were treated with kindness. When they returned to Sweden, the prisoners therefore had a story to tell of at least one French Marshal who was not a faceless, inhuman enemy. And tell it they did, all across Sweden.
This story redounded to Bernadotte’s benefit a few years later, when it became clear that the reigning (and quite old) King of Sweden, Charles XIII, was not going to be fathering any heirs to continue his royal line. This led that country’s nobility to search for a person who could be adopted into the royal family in order to take the throne when Charles died. Since Europe was embroiled in war, they thought, it was important that this person have a good military mind; and since Imperial France was at the peak of its strength, good connections there would be important too. Then someone cast their mind back to 1806. What was the name of that French general who had shown such kindness to the Swedes he had captured? What an excellent candidate he would make! So it was that in 1810, the year the Portrait was made, Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte was adopted into the Swedish royal line, and Désirée became Crown Princess of Sweden.
This would prove to be a much better long-term position than being Napoléon’s Empress would have been. By 1815 Napoléon’s power had been shattered for good, while Bernadotte would rule Sweden (and eventually Norway, too) for nearly three more decades. And even after Bernadotte’s death, Désirée would have influence in his kingdom as Queen Dowager until her own death in 1860, long after the First French Empire had been consigned to history.
But while her choices brought her incredible success at ascending the power structures of Europe — success that any ordinary social climber would have deeply envied — they were less successful at bringing her happiness. She had never sought a crown of her own, and had always preferred life in Paris to anywhere else in the world; she resisted actually moving to her new kingdom for years, leading to long separations as Bernadotte took the reins in Stockholm. She briefly attempted to live there in after her husband’s adoption, but found the climate unappealing and the royal family unwelcoming; she left for Paris in 1811 and would not return for twelve years, during which time both she and Bernadotte fell in love with others. Even after she came back to Stockholm and tried to live up to her royal role, she and Bernadotte drifted further apart, divided by her lack of interest in politics and dislike of the tiresome formality a Queen was expected to live under at all times. She became, as a result, a marginal figure in her own kingdom, viewed by her subjects as a sort of strange hothouse import, a Frenchwoman transplanted unsuccessfully into Swedish soil.
Much of the disconnectedness of her later life can be understood from a single fact: despite being queen of Sweden for almost 50 years, she never learned Swedish.
The woman who had been born a Marseilles silk-maker’s daughter died a queen in Stockholm in 1860. In an age of turmoil that struck down established personages and elevated new ones up to unprecedented heights, she had been elevated higher than nearly anyone else. But one has to wonder, as she gazed upon her unwanted crown, if it ever truly seemed worth what it had cost her.