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American Imago 60.3 (2003) 343-378

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Marie Bonaparte's Theory of Female Sexuality:
Fantasy and Biology

Nellie L. Thompson

When, in 1985, I asked the British psychoanalyst, J. C. M. Sym, if she had known Marie Bonaparte, she replied with affection and amusement, "Oh, she was a splendid old thing!" Although I knew Bonaparte only through her writings, I intuitively understood and appreciated the aptness of Sym's characterization. A redoubtable figure, who by turns could be both charming and demanding, self-absorbed and generous, passionately romantic and morbidly realistic, Bonaparte was deeply committed to intellectual pursuits. As we shall see, the poignant and dramatic experiences that shaped her personality also found expression in her psychoanalytic writings, especially her papers on female sexuality.

Today Marie Bonaparte is chiefly remembered for her devotion to Freud's theories and well-being, her financial generosity to the movement, and her role in establishing psychoanalysis in France, while her intellectual contributions are largely neglected. She was, however, a prolific author; among her works are the series of essays gathered in Female Sexuality (1953b), a massive biography, Edgar Allan Poe, A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation (1933), a two-volume autobiography, To the Memory of the Departed (1952b), and detailed commentaries on her childhood writings, Five Copy-Books Written by a Little Girl between the Ages of Seven-and-a-Half and Ten: With Commentaries (1950; 1952a; 1953a). 1

Bonaparte's discovery of these enigmatic childhood writings and drawings among the papers of her father, Roland Bonaparte, after his death in 1924 prompted her to seek an analysis with Freud. For several years thereafter, beginning in the autumn of 1925, Bonaparte, now in her forties, traveled to Vienna for the analysis, each time staying several months (1952a, 3:313). She found in Freud what she desperately [End Page 343] needed—a new "father" to love and serve. He was superior to Roland Bonaparte in two significant respects: he accepted her intellectual aspirations, and he took seriously the ideas that disturbed her life. During the analysis Bonaparte shared her copy-books with Freud, and following it began writing psychoanalytic commentaries on them. Simultaneously she wrote a series of essays on female sexuality that were deeply influenced by her study of her childhood copy-books. The goals of the present paper are to render a narrative of Bonaparte's early life drawn from her various attempts to reconstruct it (1928; 1950; 1952a, 1952b; 1953a); to provide an exposition and critique of her theory of female sexuality; and to discuss how her personal history and her approach to understanding that history significantly structured the perspective found in her theory of female sexuality.

Life of Marie Bonaparte

Marie Bonaparte was born on July 2, 1882, at St. Cloud, outside of Paris, the daughter of Marie-Felix née Blanc, and Roland Bonaparte. 2 The former was wealthy young heiress whose late father, François Blanc, had founded the Casino at Monte Carlo; the latter was a penniless army officer, the son of Pierre Bonaparte (1815-1881) and grandson of Lucien Bonaparte, an older brother of Napoleon I (Bonaparte 1952b, 13). The birth was difficult and forceps were applied. When the infant finally emerged she was nearly dead; the attending physician labored forty-five minutes to restore her breathing to normal. Marie-Felix, whose health had been delicate, was severely weakened. A month later, on the first day on which she was allowed up from her bed, she died in her husband's arms from the effects of an embolism (14, 16). Roland Bonaparte (1859-1924) immediately invited his widowed mother, Justine Eléonore (1832-1903), to live with him and supervise the upbringing of his daughter.

A near-fatal pulmonary illness in Marie's fourth year aroused the fear that she had inherited her mother's frailty. Henceforth she was not allowed outdoors unless a certain [End Page 344] temperature had been reached, and play with other children in the park was forbidden lest she be infected. At the first sign of redness in her throat, sirop de flon...


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