Memoirs of a Highland Lady: Queen of Sweden

The book Désirée  by Annemarie Selinko was one of the first historical fiction books I read. I loved the movie version of the book starring Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando. My favorite scene is when Désirée throws champagne on Josephine’s dress because she knows it will stain. (She should know, as the daughter of a silk merchant.) A close second is when she runs away and is thinking of jumping from a bridge when her future husband finds her and pretty much announces that they’ll be married. I guess that’s not the way it really happened, but I love it nonetheless.

So imagine my surprise when I’m reading Memoirs of a Highland Lady and dear Désirée appears!

Bernardine Eugénie Désirée Clary was the daughter of a silk merchant in Marseille, France. She was briefly engaged to Joseph Bonaparte and her sister Julie to Napoleon Bonaparte, but then they switched partners. Julie married Joseph Bonaparte and Napoleon eventually broke his engagement to Désirée to marry Josephine instead. Désirée instead married a General of France, Jean-Baptiste-Jules Bernadotte, who was eventually adopted by the childless King of Sweden as heir to the throne. Désirée did not enjoy living in Sweden and returned to France without her husband and son in 1811.

Jean-Baptiste-Jules Bernadotte

At one point she apparently fell in love with the French prime minister, but the affection was not answered by Richelieu, who referred to her as his “crazy Queen”. According to Laure Junot, she did not dare to speak to him or approach him, but she followed him wherever he went, tried to make contact with him, followed him on his trip to Spa and had flowers placed in his room. She followed him around until his death in 1822.

Elizabeth Grant writes:

On reading over my travels, I find I have left out a good many little incidents that in their due place would have materially lightened the rather meager narrative, but they are in themselves too trifling to stand alone in a list of omissions—excepting indeed two incidents which really should not be forgotten. Our dinner at the Dutch merchant’s at Rotterdam, for he kept his word that chance acquaintance of ours of the table d’hôte at Maestricht, and the singular behaviour of two people who, one or the other of them, crossed our path in almost every direction, the queen of Sweden and the Duc de Richelieu.

Bernadotte Eugénie Désirée Clary Bernadotte

She was the Wife of Bernadotte, once Mademoiselle Le Clerk of Marseilles. Monsieur de Richelieu had, ‘twas said, been her lover and she was constant still, age though detracting from her charms not having chilled her heart. He had tired of the business and he was now intent on flying, while she pursued. He had a light carriage and travelled post with small attendance and he must have had a staff of intelligence Agents all along the road besides, for frequently when he seemed quite settled comfortably in the same hotel with ourselves at different places, Aix, Liège, Spa, he would suddenly interrupt all his quiet arrangements, pack up and be off without leaving a trace behind and just get out of sight before the queen arrived in her more stately equipage, a well loaded Berline. Her stay was always short, her manners hurried, the many imperials were no sooner unpacked and carried up to her apartment than they were down again and replaced upon the carriage, and her Majesty and suite hastening after them, when away they rolled upon their fruitless search. While we were in the habit of encountering them, he had always the start of her, always escaped her. She was a pretty little woman, no longer young but well preserved, beautifully dressed and had something attractive about her air though he was not in the least dignified. It was odd altogether such proceedings in a queen, for there seemed to be no attempt at any concealment of the object of her cross journeyings, the enquiries concerning the pursued being quite open and most minute. We set the whole affair down to the account of foreign manners.

Armand-Emmanuel Duke of Richelieu

Memoirs of a Highland Lady

‘I was born on the 7th May 1797 of a Sunday evening at No. 5 N. side of Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, in my father’s own lately built house and I am the eldest of five children he and my mother raised to maturity.’ Thus opens one of the most famous set of memoirs ever written. Since its first bowdlerised edition in 1898, they have been consistently in print. This is the first ever complete text. Written between 1845 and 1854 the memoirs were originally intended simply for Elizabeth’s family, but these vivid and inimitable records of life in the early 19th century, and above all on the great Rothiemurchus estate, full of sharp observation and wit, form an unforgettable picture of her time. The story ends with the thirty-three-year-old Elizabeth finding her own future happiness in marriage to an Irish landowner, Colonel Smith of Baltiboys. ‘A masterpiece of historical and personal recall.’ Scotsman


Memoirs of a Highland Lady

6 thoughts on “Memoirs of a Highland Lady: Queen of Sweden

  1. Oh dear, Desiree was also one of my first historical novels as a teen. (Laura Ignalls Wilder, of course was part of my childhood.) I loved the book. Still do, have read it many times, and I mean many, I’m 75. I loved the film as well. Brando, another love, made a very effective Napoleon and I was truly in love with Bernadotte as well. Now I read about all these goings on! How disillusioning!
    Well the Desiree in the book will remain my Desiree. And, I hope my grand-daughter’s too. I gave her a cop for her birthday. (I will never part with my copy which is still in great shape. As Selinko writes in her introduction, we don’t know all the facts, but I choose to believe what might have happened did. In that spirit, I’ll leave my Desiree’s life as it is in the book, and let the “real Desiree” cavort in another dimension.


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