Jacques-Olivier Boudon on his book, Le roi Jérôme, frère prodigue de Napoléon

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Three questions for Jacques-Olivier Boudon on the publication of his new biography of Jerome Bonaparte, Fayard 2008.

1) Your portrait of Jerome has just been published by Fayard, as part of their prestigious ‘Biographies Historiques’ series. While much has been written about the other members of the imperial family, very little has been dedicated to the youngest of Napoleon’s brothers. Why did you decide to write about Jerome?

The decision rather made itself; as you quite rightly point out, Jerome is the least well-known of Napoleon's brothers. At the same time, he led a very exciting life. It begins with the episode of his marriage to the American Elizabeth Patterson, and takes in time at sea as well as participation during the 1806 Polish campaign. Jerome eventually becomes ruler of the kingdom of Westphalia, and this was all before his 24th birthday! But my interest in Jerome also comes from his longevity: he died in 1860, the last remaining character in the Napoleon saga. He thus experienced the birth of the Second Empire and participated in the evolution of the new regime. Another interesting aspect of his life is the fate of his children, in particular Princess Mathilde and Prince Napoleon, known as Plon Plon. And finally, he was the founder of the branch of the family that today bears the Bonaparte name.

2) This major biography arrives at the same time as the exhibition dedicated to Jerome, currently on display at Fontainebleau. Is our opinion of Jerome today changing?

The exhibition at Fontainebleau, which follows the one that was held in Kassel, emphasises above all Jerome's role as king, reformer and patron of the arts. I wanted, for my part, to show the multi-faceted aspect of the man who enjoyed the finer things in life. His reputation as the “König lustig” is well-merited. However, at the same time, he was attentive to his kingdom's needs and keen to introduce reforms, in particular civil equality and religious freedom. He abolished serfdom, accorded rights to Jews and introduced the Code Civil. He was also responsible for a number of administrative, judicial and financial reforms that transformed the country. Alongside these reforms, he greatly encouraged artistic and cultural development.

I also wanted to focus on the latter part of his life, which was spent in exile, first of all in Austria, then in Italy. This exile lasted for 33 years! It is a very interesting period that helps us understand what the Bonapartes did after the downfall of Napoleon and the preparation that went into the empire's restoration. From this point of view, the relationship between Jerome and Louis Napoleon is very revealing, especially between the Romagna insurrection in 1831 and the coup d'état of 2 December 1851. The relationship is complicated, particularly as Jerome found his nephew disruptive and feared that he would compromise the Bonaparte cause. Even in 1848, Jerome offered only limited support; he never completed abandoned the idea that he could have taken the place of Louis Napoleon. From this point, his hopes of assuming that role were placed on his son, Plon Plon.

3) You consulted a number of archives during the book’s research: what were the major discoveries that you made, or the areas previously forgotten upon which you were able to shed some light?

The book that has just been published is the first biography of Jerome to be based systematically on the very rich content of the Bonaparte family's private archives, which have been held at the Archives nationales since 1979 (shelf-mark: 400AP). These archives in particular throw light on the personal relationships between Jerome and a huge number of correspondents, his brothers and sisters first of all, but also men in his entourage and foreign rulers. I also consulted the more traditional archives regarding the Kingdom of Westphalia at the Quai d'Orsay, as well as the archives at the national library in St. Petersburg that concern the latter years of the empire and that had been taken by the Russians in 1813.

By combining these archives, I was able to clarify in particular the complex relationship between Napoleon and Jerome, something that research based purely on the private archives could not do. This is because Jerome did not keep the more critical letters that Napoleon had sent him; these had to be found elsewhere, in the public collections. The private archives are also very quiet about Jerome's romantic exploits, his son Plon Plon having burned the letters received by Jerome from the Marquess Bartholini whom he married morganatically in 1840.

Taken together, the richness of the sources available allow us to paint quite a complete picture of Napoleon's youngest brother, whose story takes us from the end of the Ancien Regime to the middle of the Second Empire.

Click here for more information on the book.
(Tr. and ed. H.D.W.)


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