Napoleon had been married to his adored Joséphine for two years when he left France to lead the Egyptian campaign. As usual he begged his wife to accompany him on his travels but the louche, comfort loving Joséphine gracefully refused, prefering to remain in their beautiful home in Paris, where she was assured of being surrounded by friends and the male admirers that she had come to depend upon.
There had been rumours for a long time that the elegant Madame Bonaparte was not always entirely faithful to her impetuous and excitable younger husband and the situation was to reach a scandalous head in the summer of 1798 when Joséphine was seen rather more often than was wise in the company of the dashing and devastatingly handsome Hussar lieutenant, Hippolyte Charles who looked wonderful squiring her to the fashionable Parisian balls in his amazing uniform.
It was probably no surprise to anyone that some malicious soul, probably one of Napoléon’s siblings, who were avowed enemies of Joséphine thanks to the fact that her assured, aristocratic manners showed up their rather more parvenu Corsican ways, made the absent General aware of what was going on in Paris.
Enraged, Napoleon decided that enough was enough and resolved to console himself in a depressingly time honoured fashion by taking a mistress. He dismissed the local women as too plump (Napoleon’s ‘type’ was willowy, slender women with small hands and feet) but then a chance stroll through the Tivoli pleasure gardens that he had ordered be created in Cairo for the amusement of his officers and their wives, brought him into the orbit of someone who was altogether more to his taste, a young soldier’s wife by the name of Pauline Fourès, who he spotted playing vingt-et-un with a group of officers.
The beautious Pauline was just twenty years old, the daughter of a clock maker who had worked as a milliner until she married Jean-Noel Foures and enthusiastically threw herself into following the drum. Her adventures ought to have been curtailed by the fact that soldier’s wives were not allowed to accompany the expedition to Egypt, but the courageous Pauline was undaunted by such strictures and decided to don a uniform and stow away aboard a ship called La Lucette, that was bound for Alexandria with the French army.
Her arrival in Cairo in July 1798 was a triumph as the pretty Pauline discarded her uniform and once again donned dresses, hailed by all as a heroine and applauded for her spirit and vivacity. It probably came as no surprise to anyone therefore when she caught the eye of Napoléon himself and rapidly became his mistress.
It was not to be an easy conquest however as Pauline at first was highly resistant to Napoleon’s advances despite his sending her several gifts and persuading his officers to plead his cause. In the end he was forced to resort to sending her husband away elsewhere, inviting her to lunch and then pretending to knock a jug of water over her so that he had an excuse to take her away into a side room. The rest of the guests discreetly pretended not to notice Pauline’s dishevilled appearance when she came back to the table, but it was obvious to all that things had changed.
The very next day, Pauline left her married quarters and moved into her own private villa, where she was able to entertain Napoleon whenever he pleased. The couple were far from discreet though, and she was often to be seen riding at his side, dressed in a General’s uniform and with her hair tied up with a tricolor sash. Soon, all of Cairo was referring to her as ‘La Générale’ or, perhaps less flatteringly, ‘Cléopatre’.
Perhaps keen that reports of his dealing with Pauline would reach Joséphine’s ears, Napoleon took her everywhere with him and even requested that she act as hostess to his officers and other dignitaries, a service that she performed with considerable aplomb.
But what of Monsieur Fourès? It seems that not even Napoleon could keep Pauline’s jealous spouse away from Cairo forever and when he returned, after a brief spell as an English prisoner, he was enraged to discover that his wife had been living it up as the mistress of Napoleon himself, while he had been having a miserable time. He immediately sought her out and made a public scene, demanding that she return to him and then attempting to hit her when she refused and demanded a divorce.
It took only a few days for Pauline’s divorce to be finalised (things clearly moved quickly in Napoleonic Cairo!) and she was then hailed as Napoleon’s official mistress, while he made no secret of the fact that should his Cléopatre give him a son then he would immediately divorce Joséphine and marry her instead.
It must have been heady stuff for the young Pauline, a relatively humble girl who had never had an easy life and had lived by her wits up until that point. I always think that there is something of Becky Sharp in Pauline actually and really admire her for her spirit and determination. She seems to have been a real eccentric in later life, and I think that she probably injected a much needed sense of fun into Napoléon’s life at this time.
Sadly, it wasn’t to last. Just two months after Pauline’s divorce, Napoleon headed off with this troops to Syria and refused to let her accompany him, instead preferring to send to her the passionate and somewhat mortifyingly intimate love letters that he had once delighted in sending to Joséphine. They resumed their affair as soon as he came back to Cairo, but things were never to be quite the same as Napoléon was already looking forward to returning to France and had decided not to take Pauline back with him.
Pauline and Napoleon said goodbye to each other in August 1799. She was unaware that he was not planning to return and his last act was to consign her to the case of General Kleber, whereupon they promptly jumped into bed with each other.
Pauline was not to return to France for another year, by which time Napoléon had reconciled with Joséphine and tales of his dalliance in Cairo had become something of an embarrassment. He refused to see Pauline when she arrived in Paris, but bought her off with a mansion on the outskirts of the city and an allowance.
Pauline died in March 1869, causing scandal to the very end and outliving almost everyone who had known her during her glory days when she had ridden alongside Napoleon with a tricolor ribbon laced through her hair.