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  • Writer's pictureN.J. Mastro

Désirée Clary Bernadotte—The Reluctant Queen

When I picked up a copy of The Queen’s Fortune, a novel about Désirée Clary, the French woman who was Napoleon Bonaparte’s fiancé before he met Joséphine, I didn't realize I’d be stepping into a bit of Scandinavian history. I initially chose the book because Allison Pataki had written it. Pataki is a master at writing biographical fiction. Her books always deliver readers a look at a woman in history who is memorable because of her courage—and usually, her audacity. The Queen’s Fortune also promised a story of the French Revolution—and, of course, the rascal Napoleon.

By the time I finished the book, however, I was elbow deep into searching for information about Scandinavian royals. Désirée’s story became linked to mine, albeit in a very distant way. My great-grandparents came from Sweden and Norway in the latter part of the 19th century, giving me an affinity for these two countries that for me are ancestral.

My mental trip to Scandinavia, however, begins in France with the opening of The Queen’s Fortune in 1789. The French Revolution has just ignited. Désirée, the daughter of a wealthy French Irish silk merchant from Marseilles, is not yet twelve. The convent where she and her sister, Julie, are being educated sends them home.

Fast forward five years to 1794 in Marseille, when things for the Clary family take a turn for the worse. Désirée’s father dies. Prior to the Revolution, he had asked the French monarchy to award him a noble title. Past actions can prove deadly in revolutionary France. Any connection to the royals is now a liability. Those in power suspect the Clary family of being monarchists and arrest Désirée’s half-brother, Etienne. Désirée and Julie go to the authorities to ask for his pardon, which is granted.

Julie and Désirée Clary, (Robert LeFevre)

While getting their brother out of prison, Désirée and Julie meet a young Corsican soldier, who offers to see them safely home. Joseph Buonaparte soon becomes a regular visitor to the Clary household. As luck would have it, Joseph’s younger brother, Napoleon, comes to visit him in Marseille. The chance meeting at the prison is a fortuitous one for the Buonaparte brothers. Joseph falls in love with Julie, while Napoleon falls in love with Désirée. Within the first few chapters of the novel, both sisters are engaged to these two soldiers. These are advantageous marriages for the Buonaparte brothers. Young Napoleon is ambitious, but the brothers are poor. The Clary sisters, however, have wealth and status.

It is a frustrating start for Désirée. Napoleon is 25; she is not yet 16. They must wait for her to come of age before they can marry. Julie, however, is ten years older than Désirée. She and Joseph marry immediately. While Julie and Joseph start building a life together, Joseph and Napoleon go off to fight in France’s ongoing battles during the Revolution, and Désirée is left behind. She waits for Napoleon, the two corresponding by letter. A year later in Paris, however, Napoleon meets the lovely Joséphine du Beauharnais. They marry the following year in 1796, leaving Désirée devastated.

Désirée Clary (Robert LeFevre) / Napoleon du Buonoparte / Joséphine du Beauharnais (Andrea Appianni)

Fortunately, Désirée’s story doesn’t end there. It’s really just the beginning. Napoleon’s star is on the rise, but hers is as well—on a different trajectory. Désirée moves to Paris to live with Julie and Joseph, where she falls in love with the famed city of beauty and culture. And it is there in 1798 that she meets John-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte. Désirée is rich, beautiful, and connected to Napoleon through her sister’s marriage to his brother, Joseph. Bernadotte is a handsome, enterprising general in the French Republican Army. He also happens to be friends with Napoleon—and later, his rival.

I’ll leave my book review there by encouraging you to read The Queen’s Fortune to find out how this story unfolds. What I can tell you is this: the novel is almost as much about Napoleon’s rise to power and his obsessive relationship with Joséphine as it is about Désirée. Pataki takes readers into Napoleon’s court and his crazed drive for power. I was stunned at how ruthless and corrupt he was. In plain sight, he manipulated and fooled people. The French were surprisingly quick to embrace a heartless, self-serving dictator. This was especially hard to understand, knowing they had just suffered a bloody episode in history during which they fought to the death for a democracy. Such is the power of charlatans and their ability to deceive.

So Who Was the Real Désirée Clary?

Désirée’s actual story is pretty much as described in The Queen’s Fortune. Pataki did a superb job as usual, relaying history through the medium of fiction. Désirée Clary was born in Marseille, France in 1777. While being educated at a convent, she really was sent home at the commencement of the Revolution. She really did meet Joseph Buonaparte while trying to get her brother released from prison. And she really was engaged to Napoleon—until the cad jilted her for Joséphine. Désirée, however, ended up being the fortunate one. Désirée married John-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte. Désirée was 20 when she met Bernadotte. He was 35.

Theirs appears to have been a love match. In 1799, she gave birth to their only son, Oscar. This was also the year Napoleon seized power in a bloodless coup from which he emerged as First Consul of France.

Bernadotte worked for more than a decade as one of Napoleon’s generals during the Napoleonic Wars. But in 1810, Sweden and Norway named Bernadotte their Crown Prince. Eight years later, they crowned him as King Charles XIV Johan. In 1829, they crowned Désirée as queen.

So how does a French couple become the royal family of not one, but two Scandinavian countries? To make sense of this, we must turn to history…

Historians describe Désirée as an amiable and good-natured woman. After she and Bernadotte married, Bernadotte traveled with the French Republican army. Désirée stayed in Paris with Oscar. Julie and Joseph Buonaparte were also in Paris. To Napoleon, family and loyalty to him, and him only, were paramount. As Napoleon’s brother, Joseph had a special role to play. He was to help expand Napoleon’s empire. Joseph and Julie arranged alliances by hosting parties and soirees, fetes where Désirée was always present.

Napoleon seemed to have maintained a soft spot for Désirée and treated her like a member of the Buonaparte family. Perhaps he felt guilty. Perhaps he still loved her, if not as much as Joséphine, at least in the sense that Désirée was important to him. Or maybe he wanted to keep an eye on her. Whatever the reason, this ongoing attention from Napoleon earned Désirée a front-row seat as witness to the rise and fall of one of the world’s most complex leaders in history. And she became a close confidant of Joséphine.

Whatever affection Napolean may have had for Désirée, she was loyal to Bernadotte and served almost as a sort of spy between Napoleon and her husband, apprising Bernadotte of the behind-the-scenes happenings at French court—which were volatile with Napolean, atmospheric when it involved Napoleon and Joséphine. But Désirée seemed to operate below the radar, moving in and out of circles of influence the way a modern drone flies over enemy territory, gathering intelligence. By this time, France ruled vast territory in Europe, and Napoleon had unlimited power. He named Joseph King of Naples and later King of Spain, making Désirée’s sister Julie queen. In 1804, Napoleon named Bernadotte as Marshal of France, the same year France crowned Napoleon emperor. Two years later, Napoleon gave Bernadotte an Italian province by making him Prince of Pontecorvo. But Désirée and Julie lived for Paris. They send their noble husbands off to be noble.

When Napoleon sent Bernadotte to Hamburg to serve as governor of Hanover in 1806, however, Bernadotte’s life changed in a way few can imagine, thus altering what was in store for Désirée. The French defeated the Prussians in the Battle of Lübeck, during which they captured a small Swedish force assisting the Prussians. As their captor, Bernadotte treated them with respect. The Swedes never forgot it.

Meanwhile, Sweden was desperate for an heir. King Charles XIII was ill and had no children. Because Sweden and Norway wanted to stay in Imperial France’s good graces—Napoleon is a tyrant; they don’t want him knocking on their door—King Charles adopted Bernadotte as his heir. When I read this in The Queen’s Fortune, I’m sure my jaw literally dropped. A Swedish and Norwegian crown prince—the heir to the kingdom—who was neither Swedish nor Norwegian?

As they say, history is stranger than fiction.

Bernadotte moved to Sweden in 1810 and began his duties immediately. A year later, Désirée and Oscar joined him. But Désirée hated Sweden, and her stay was short. The climate was cold, and even Stockholm could not compare to the glitter of Paris. She was lonesome for her home, and court life did not interest her, which was rather curious, given all the time she spent in Napoleon’s orbit. (Perhaps that’s why her attitude toward royal life was so chilly!) She returned to Paris within months after arriving in Sweden, leaving Oscar with his father. It must have been a difficult choice, to stay or to go. Given how little say women had then, the option to take her son with her wasn’t even on the table. Oscar would one day become the crown prince; he must be raised in Sweden.

In Paris, Désirée kept a low profile by living almost incognito. She called herself the Countess of Gotland, which was probably a good thing. Napoleon was eventually exiled, not once, but twice, first to Elba in 1814, when he abdicated his throne after a failed attempt to take Russia, and a second time after his defeat at the hands of the British at Waterloo in 1815, when he tried to retake power. Where it was once favorable to be close to Napoleon, suddenly, it was not. He was disgraced, and France was no longer the dominant European power it had been.

Life in Europe went on, however. King Charles XIII of Sweden died in 1818, and Bernadotte (left) ascended to the throne, four years after Sweden and Norway joined to form the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, a union under which they shared a common monarch. (This union lasted from 1814 to 1905.) By this time, Désirée and Bernadotte had not seen each other for twelve years. Absence can make the heart grow faint, and they both had fallen in love with others—dalliances, you might say. But now that Bernadotte is king, it was unseemly for his wife to not be with him.

There was also the matter of their son. Oscar was now 18. Désirée decided it was time at last to go to Sweden. Things were not the same in Paris. The Napoleon show was over. Her sister was no longer there, either. After Napoleon’s fall, Joseph Buonaparte went to America. Désirée convinced King Louis XVIII, the new royal in France, to allow Julie to retreat to Brussels. And Oscar was engaged to be married. Europe is a small place. His fiancé was Josephine of Leuchtenberg—granddaughter to Joséphine du Beauharnais, the woman whom Napoleon chose as his wife over Désirée.

Désirée went to Sweden, though it is said she always wanted to go back to Paris. But in 1829, Sweden crowned her Queen of Sweden and Norway. Overnight, she became Eugenia Bernhardina Desideria. Suddenly, her life in Scandinavia was set in stone, and she lived happily ever after. Kind of. Bernadotte—King Charles XIV—died in 1844. Oscar became King Oscar I of Sweden and Norway. He preceded his mother in death, however, when he passed away in 1859 at 60. Désirée followed him to her own grave the next year, at 83 years of age.

Queen Desideria of Sweden (Fredric Westin)

Désirée as a Historical Figure

After reading The Queen’s Fortune, and following my very limited research on her, Désirée strikes me as a quiet figure in history. Yet she intrigues me so. A woman who helped start a dynasty is hard to forget. She didn’t do “the work,” per se. She didn’t write constitutions, nor did she fight on the battlefield. But she was royalty, nonetheless.

I’ll admit, upon discovering that Sweden and Norway had crowned a French couple as their king and queen, I felt a bit let down. When it comes to royal succession, my mind travels in a straight line. Why King Charles XIII couldn’t have found a nice Swedish or Norwegian boy to adopt escapes me. But then I consider the weight of politics and the nature of the times. The Swedes were desperate to position themselves in Napoleon’s good graces. He was that much of an unpredictable tyrant. I felt better upon learning that Oscar’s wife Josephine of Leuchtenberg was related to Gustav I of Sweden through her grandmother. So, when Oskar I’s son Carl Ludvig Eugen was crowned Charles XV, my world went right again. (For purposes of this post, I’ve stayed with English names. In Swedish his name was Karl XV; in Norwegian, Karl IV.) Charles XV ruled from 1859 to 1872 and was the third Swedish monarch from the House of Bernadotte, the royal house that continues to this day in Sweden.

King Oscar I of Sweden and Norway, Désirée and Bernadotte's son

Lineage was just one of my many questions while reading The Queen’s Fortune. I kept wondering, what would keep Désirée from her child and husband for 12 years? Different possibilities came to mind that conceivably influenced her. She might have taken for granted that a man like Bernadotte could be so easily plucked from the crowd to become king. After all, look at Napoleon, whom I decided after reading The Queen’s Fortune was a little off-balance, to say the least. Also, when Désirée left Bernadotte and Oscar and returned to Paris, she was just 34 years old. Separations were common then. Men went away to wage war; children went off to boarding schools, as had Désirée until the French Revolution broke out. And I can understand see how she might have felt like the proverbial fish out of water in Sweden. She had a passion for Paris. It was her home. In retirement, my husband and left my home state in a northern climate to live in America’s South, where one can golf 365 days a year. I find it difficult to embrace my new surroundings. I miss the snow. I miss the culture I grew up in. Place matters in a person’s life. When you don’t feel a sense of belonging where you live, it’s hard to be your best authentic self. And let’s face it. Divorce wasn’t what it is now. In centuries past, once married, both men and women were stuck. Living apart was the next best thing. When Désirée finally moved to Sweden in 1823, she was 46. By then, perhaps she thought it was time to play the part destiny had set for her.

Whatever went through Désirée’s mind, she continued to choose her own path in Sweden. This earned her a certain reputation. It always does when a woman steps out of line; the world is quick to judge. Her kingdom viewed her as detached, which I found interesting, coming from a culture that is, by nature, stoic. Swedes and Norwegians are a reserved people, especially compared to the French. But Désirée had three palaces. Money was no object. She manages, mostly by keeping to herself. Despite those from a distance who saw her as cold, others close to her described her as friendly and having a sense of humor. She liked animals, and she enjoyed being outdoors.

Still, questions lingered in my mind. Did Désirée cheat herself of a life she would have preferred, or did she cheat a kingdom of its queen, given the way she tended to avoid the public? After all, there are certain obligations one must fulfill to wear the crown. Or was she perfectly happy living somewhere in between the life she had once imagined, and the life circumstances dictated? She wasn’t the first person to have to make hard decisions. We saw what happened when Diana, Princess of Wales, wanted to be happy and be queen. Her son Harry faces similar existential questions today. Think of Sisi, Empress Elizabeth of Austria or Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, women who struggled with wearing the royal cloak. Even Great Britain’s beloved Queen Elizabeth II had to make certain concessions in life. Only King Charles II of the United Kingdom seems to have gotten it all. But then he’s king. For the record, I am happy for him that in the end he married the woman he loved, as he should have been able to all along.

Why do we care about royalty? I don’t know. Ask the millions who tuned into “The Crown,” “The Empress,” “Victoria,” or “The Spanish Princess”—the number of series streaming on television about real life at court seems endless. There’s something about royalty that dazzles us mere mortals. Are royals still relevant in today’s world? That’s debatable, as well. Some think of them as outdated figureheads. But there’s a mystique about them that captures the imagination even though they live what seem like privileged and indulgent lives, when money spent elsewhere might do more for the common good. Then again, I’m not sure. Royals who use their title for good can rally a people toward goodness. Millions worldwide who’d never set foot in the United Kingdom thought of Queen Elizabeth II as their queen and wept when she passed away. I guess I side with those fascinated by centuries-old traditions. Castles and riches still lure people into a story. And that is what royals are, a fairy tale most of us will never live.

Thank you to Allison Pataki for bringing readers The Queen’s Fortune. I will never think of Sweden’s and Norway’s royal houses in the same way. Today His Royal Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf, is the seventh Swedish king of the House of Bernadotte. Her Majesty King Silvia Renate serves as queen. In 1980, Sweden was the first country to change the rule of succession to the first child rather than the oldest son. (Yay, Sweden!) Thus, Her Royal Highness the Crown Princess Victoria Ingrid Alice Désirée will succeed her father as queen. Yes, you read that right. Désirée is her middle name, named after Désirée. When Crown Princess Victoria married Daniel Westling in 2010 (below), she wore the crown belonging to Napoleon’s first wife, Joséphine du Beauharnais Bonaparte, who’d left it to her only daughter, Eugenie. It has become the preferred diadem for Swedish princesses to wear at their wedding, including Victoria’s mother, and many others. Talk about a family heirloom!

Attribution: Holger Motzkau, Wikimedia Commons

I’ve neglected Norway a bit in this post. When the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway ended in 1905, the dissolution of the union between the two countries was not without controversy. Norway voted to maintain a monarch over shifting to a republic. The question was, who would be king? They chose Crown Prince Carl of Denmark for his matrilineal connections to the House of Bernadotte, and for his connection to the royal house of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. His wife was the daughter of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Prince Carl changed his name to Haakon and renamed his son Olav. Norway crowned him King Haakon VII in 1906. Olav succeeded him in 1957 and ruled until January 1991 as King Olav V. You might like knowing that King Olaf V and Crown Princess Martha were the royal couple who were the subject of “Atlantic Crossings,” the World War II series on PBS. Crown Princess Martha was Swedish—a descendant of the House of Bernadotte! Today Norway is ruled by His Majesty the King Harald V and Her Royal Majesty Queen Sonja—who was, by the way, a commoner, proof again that anyone can become queen—just like Désirée.

How about you? If offered a kingdom but accepting it required you to give up your life as you knew it, would you say yes to the crown?

Thanks for reading. I’m glad you’re here. To receive my next post directly in your email box, be sure to subscribe below.



All photos are in the public domain from Wikimedia Commons except where noted.

2 comentarios

Daryl Byklum
Daryl Byklum
27 nov 2023

A tangled web of intrigue. I can’t decide whether to applaud Desiree or feel sorry for her. But, any story involving Napoleon is not likely to end well.

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N.J. Mastro
N.J. Mastro
30 nov 2023
Contestando a

Oh, yes. Napoleon was trouble. I felt sorry for her. Men and women were such pawns then. But she seems to have made a life that might not have been what she imagined, but a good life no less. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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