I was born in exile – civically dead – at Trieste, on 27 May 1820.
When Princess Mathilde Bonaparte was born as the daughter of Napoleon’s brother Jérôme Bonaparte and his second wife, Catharina of Württemberg, Napoleon’s reign was over. Her father Jerome was now the former King of Westphalia and the family was banned from France. Mathilde was their second child. She had an older half-brother, an older full brother and a younger full brother. She spent the first three years of her life in Trieste before Jerome was given permission to move to Rome to be near his mother. Every Sunday after mass, Mathilde and her younger brother were taken to their grandmother’s sombre palace, and Mathilde wrote in her memoirs, “Mme Laetitia used to greet us politely, but without affection.” Afterwards, they visited Hortense, the former Queen of Holland, where they were greeted with much more kindness.
Her father bought a house in Rome despite him already being deep in debt. Mathilde and her younger brother would spend their early years there sharing a room. Her education was overseen by first an English governess and later a French one. She thought of herself as an excellent pupil. Tragically, her relationship with her mother was tough. She wrote, “as for me, I never had very much love from my mother because I was a girl. She was rather quick with her hand.” She later recalled, “the agonies of her childhood, which made her unable to see her mother except as a torturer who was jealous of her.” Mathilde became devoted to Madame de Reding who had watched over her since she was a child. She wrote, “I love her more than my mother, whom I hardly knew. Her memory is a religion to me. My eyes grow wet with tears whenever I think of her, and nothing has been able to lessen my regrets for her.”
In 1831, Mathilde and her family settled on the banks of the Arno. She and her younger brother spent their days with their lessons and lived a life completely separate from their parents. Mathilde’s favourite subject was history. During the summer of 1833, Mathilde became friends with her cousin Sophie of Württemberg, who would later marry King William III of the Netherlands, and they remained friends until Sophie’s death. In October of that year, Sophie wrote, “Dear Mathilde, in finding you I have found a friend for life. I know that, even when we’re apart, nothing will break the bond between our hearts.”
The following years were marked by the illness of Mathilde’s mother. In April 1835, the family was advised to go to Switzerland to restore her health, but she only became worse. Doctors announced she had dropsy and it soon became clear that she would not survive. Catherine died on 29 November 1835 with Mathilde and her younger brother kneeling beside her bed. Shortly after, Hortense sent her own son Louis-Napoleon to comfort Mathilde with an ulterior motive – she was looking for a bride for her son. He reported back to his mother that he found Mathilde charming but that he was not in love with her. Nevertheless, the plans for a marriage went ahead, and Jerome gave his consent. Then Louis-Napoleon made a wild attempt to seize power in France, and he was arrested. Marriage with Louis-Napoleon was now impossible.
The man she would eventually marry was someone she had already met in Rome. Anatole Nikolaievitch Demidoff was already an acquaintance when he came to Florence in June 1838. He came from a rich noble Russian family, but his humble origins meant that the family was never quite accepted in society. At first, her father refused to even consider the marriage, but then he realised the advantages of having a rich son-in-law. In the meantime, Mathilde was frustrated and isolated, even more so when Sophie married the then Prince of Orange. Sophie wrote to her, “Let me send you a flower from my wedding bouquet & when you get married you can add it to your own.” Then suddenly, Mathilde’s own wedding was given the go-ahead.
Mathilde married Anatole at the Greek chapel in Florence on 1 November 1840. A second ceremony took place in the Duomo. Mathilde wrote, “I had a low-cut dress of English lace, with a veil in the same material, and when I made my appearance, wearing the pearl necklace which the Emperor Napoleon I had given to Queen Catherine, my mother, the necklace which M. Demidoff had bought back from my father, I was – and I can say so, now, because it’s so long ago – a charming and beautiful bride.” Reportedly, Louis-Napoleon wept upon hearing that Mathilde was married and said, “This is the last and heaviest blow that fortune had in store for me.” He had been imprisoned for a second attempted coup.
In early 1841, the newlyweds visited Vienna, Krakow, Warsaw and finally St. Petersburg. In those early months, she finally got to know her husband. He was a violent and selfish man. They settled into a palace on the Nevski Prospect, and the following Sunday Mathilde was presented to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. She secured for her husband a return to active service and the restoration of his title of Gentleman of the Chamber. Nevertheless, Anatole did not appreciate it, and he asked to return to Paris for the winter. Tsar Nicholas commented to Mathilde, “You will not be happy with Demidoff but, whatever happens, you will always find me on your side.” On 17 August 1841, Mathilde entered Paris, and she wrote, “I was beside myself with joy at being at last in Paris: Paris the object of my dreams since I had been conscious of my being.”1