When Princess Caroline met Empress Marie Louise
It’s like a set piece from a movie: the wives of two famous enemies meet, gossip about their estranged husbands, and have a lovely time together, ending in the singing of a Mozart duet. Such was the scene in the Swiss city of Bern on September 23, 1814, when Princess Caroline of England visited Empress Marie Louise of France.
Caroline was the lusty, eccentric 46-year-old wife of England’s Prince Regent, the future King George IV. George had reluctantly married Caroline – his German cousin – in 1795. He fathered a daughter (Charlotte) with Caroline. He then began living apart from her. For details of this unhappy union, see “The Strange Marriage of the Prince Regent and Princess Caroline of Brunswick” on Jane Austen’s World.
Marie Louise was the 22-year-old second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. At the time, Napoleon was in exile on Elba. Napoleon was hoping that Marie Louise and their three-year-old son, Napoleon II, would join him, but Marie Louise’s father, Emperor Francis I of Austria, would not allow it. Instead, Napoleon had just received a visit from his Polish mistress, Marie Walewska, and his illegitimate son Alexandre. Marie Louise didn’t know about the visit, but even if she had known, she may not have much cared. She was finishing up a holiday in the company of Count Adam Albert von Neipperg, her consort in Napoleon in America, who had just become her lover.
The meeting in Bern
Marie Louise arrived in Bern on September 20. Caroline, who was on her way to Rome, reached the city two days later. The two women had never met. Caroline sent her chamberlain, Lord Craven, to convey her respects to the dethroned French Empress. As England was one of the countries whose arms had ousted Napoleon, any recognition of the Regent’s wife by Marie Louise was unnecessary and not in the best of taste. Nonetheless, Marie Louise dispatched the Count de Bausset, former prefect of Napoleon’s palace, to invite Caroline for a visit. Bausset reports:
[Princess Caroline], so adventurous and so celebrated for [her] great vicissitudes…was of medium height, with regular and pronounced features, and a pleasant and expressive countenance. Her great spirit and character…didn’t fail to charm, although it was easy to see that she lacked the extreme fineness of form that is one of the most seductive attributes of a pretty figure. Her manners were easy, lively and natural, her regard penetrating and quick. She spoke French perfectly well, and without an accent. She wore a white muslin gown, and her head was enveloped in a large veil of the same fabric, which fell lightly over her shoulders and her bosom. A diadem of diamonds crowned this veil, and rendered her costume rather like those of the Greek priestesses who appeared in our operas. This ensemble…appeared to me extraordinary for a traveller who had only arrived a few hours earlier. (1)
When Caroline joined Marie Louise the next morning, she spoke “with biting directness” about the difficulties she had experienced in England.
‘Your Majesty will find it hard to believe,’ she said to Marie Louise, ‘that I was not admitted to the Queen’s drawing room during the visit of the sovereigns of Russia and Prussia to England, because it suited my royal husband to not find himself with me, either privately or in public.… I complained to the queen, and even wrote to [my husband] a beautiful letter which I signed, the most faithful and submissive of wives’ (in saying these last words, the princess smiled maliciously); ‘he didn’t bother to respond. But not believing that duty condemned me to absolute retirement, I went to all the places where the public was admitted for a fee. Once, when the sovereigns and my royal husband were in a box in the dress-circle at the opera, I was discovered at the end of a box in the second row, where I had gone in disguise. The people showed their good will toward me by such loud applause that these august spectators, thinking it impossible that such homage could be addressed to anyone other than themselves, thought it incumbent upon them to rise and bow to the audience. I quickly seized on this chance to avenge myself. Pretending to consider their mistake as an act of politeness toward me, I gravely made them three sweeping curtsies, which excited loud and ironic applause.’ (2)
Marie Louise asked about Princess Charlotte.
‘My daughter is as charming and as clever as one can be; but, after myself,’ she added, smiling, ‘I don’t know a more quarrelsome person.’ (3)
Marie Louise, who had recently learned of the death of her grandmother, Queen Maria Carolina, was dressed in black. After offering condolences, Caroline expressed the fear that she would soon be obliged to wear mourning for her husband, whose infirmities grew every day. The two hit it off so well that Marie Louise returned the visit that afternoon. She invited Caroline to join her for dinner.
The evening was reportedly a jolly one. Caroline spoke with enthusiasm about the pleasure she hoped to experience on her trip to Italy. She mentioned that she might go and visit Napoleon on Elba. Marie Louise asked Caroline to sing some Italian arias. The latter consented, but only if Marie Louise would sing with her.
The Empress wanted to hide herself in her timidity, which made her incapable of uttering a note before listeners. The princess encouraged her, saying that for her part, she never had fear, except on account of her friends. (4)
They sang the duet “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Marie Louise took the part of Zerlina, and Caroline that of Don Giovanni. Count Neipperg accompanied them on the piano.
Baron Méneval, present for the occasion, said Caroline “sang effectively with a voice of which I will say nothing, only that it proved indeed the courage of this princess.” He added:
Despite her clothing and appearance, which one could frankly call bizarre, the Princess of Wales had the air of an excellent woman, simple, frank and putting everyone at ease. (5)
I am not enough of a connoisseur to pronounce an opinion on the accuracy and flexibility of the voice of Caroline of England; what struck me the most was her range…. Marie Louise’s voice had the sweetest and most naïve inflections, like her character… Those of the Princess of Wales were masculine, sonorous and strong, like her nature. It was easy to judge, in listening to them, that if the Princess Caroline had found herself to be Napoleon’s wife, she would have presented large obstacles to the success of the coalition by the stiffness, the persistence and the calibre of her soul. (6)
Caroline and Marie Louise never met again. Caroline died on August 7, 1821, at the age of 53, three months after the death of Napoleon. Marie Louise married Neipperg. She died on December 17, 1847, at the age of 56.
You might also enjoy:
- Louis François Joseph de Bausset, Mémoires anecdotiques sur l’intérieur du palais et sur quelques évenements de l’Empire, Vol. III (Paris, 1828), pp. 54-55.
- Ibid., pp. 55-56.
- Ibid., p. 56.
- Claude François Méneval, Napoleon et Marie-Louise, Vol. II (Paris, 1845), p. 294.
- Ibid., pp. 294, 295.
- Mémoires anecdotiques sur l’intérieur du palais et sur quelques évenements de l’Empire, Vol. III, p. 58.
Despite her clothing and appearance, which one could frankly call bizarre, the Princess of Wales had the air of an excellent woman, simple, frank and putting everyone at ease.