Pauline Foures: Napoleon's Cleopatra
When Napoleon Bonaparte sailed from Toulon to begin the conquest of Egypt, he left behind him his beloved wife, Josephine. He had desperately wanted her to accompany him but she had hated the idea and had cried incessantly all the way from Paris to Toulon, where Bonaparte finally agreed to let her remain in France and follow him at a later date. Josephine would travel to Plombieres to take the waters, in the hope that it would help her produce a son for Bonaparte. In truth, she did not want to be separated from her luxurious lifestyle and her lover, Hippolyte Charles. Bonaparte had unwillingly agreed to her demands and waved her goodbye from his flagship, L'Orient, as it left for Egypt.
Josephine had never been the most faithful of wives, and rumours about her infidelities were common amongst the army and Paris society alike. Bonaparte had believed her liaison with Hippolyte Charles to be over, until Junot disclosed Josephine's latest infidelity one evening in Egypt. Bonaparte was devastated. He threw all his energies into organising Egypt and his now isolated army. He was determined to divorce Josephine upon his return to France; no more would he forgive her unfaithfulness; his heart was broken.
During his stay in Egypt Bonaparte had little to do with the local women. He found them "Ruben-esque" and undeserving of his attentions. It was a French woman then, who turned Bonaparte's head. He had always been faithful to Josephine, but why should he now - the divorce was only awaiting his return to France? A young blonde, Pauline Foures, wife of a lieutenant in the Chasseurs, became the object of his desire.
Born Pauline Bellisle in southern France on 15 March 1778, Pauline was the daughter of a clockmaker, Henri Jacques-Clement Bellisle. She worked as a milliner until she met Jean-Noel Foures a cavalryman on sick leave from the fighting in the Pyrennes. They were soon married, but their honeymoon was cut short by Foures' call-up for the Egyptian campaign. Wives and mistresses were not to accompany the expedition, but, desperate not to be parted, Pauline disguised herself in a Chasseurs' uniform and sneaked aboard the transport ship, La Lucette. The Foures were not the only ones to do this, in fact there were many wives, lovers, and mistresses accompanying the French army to Egypt.
Pauline remained undetected throughout the voyage and landed with the rest of the regiment at Alexandria. It is difficult to believe that, confined on board a transport ship for 54 days, the couple was able to avoid raising any suspicion. Pauline was to prove very popular with the officers in Egypt, and no doubt her charm, and the chance for some female company, however platonic it may be, caused any suspicious officers to turn a blind eye to her presence. Pauline finally arrived in Cairo on 30 July 1798, with her husband. Finally, she was able to discard her uniform and dress once again as a woman. Though she had only a few dresses, her company was much sought after; to the distaste and anger of her jealous husband.
Life in Cairo proved very different to that which the French had expected. The local women concealed all but their eyes, and those that did reveal more, i.e. the dancers, were not viewed very highly by the strangely moralistic French soldiers. When the French first arrived there were no ovens to make bread, no decent wine, no printing presses to produce newspapers, and little that they would call entertainment. Bonaparte knew morale was important, especially following the catastrophe at Aboukir Bay. He ordered ovens to be built, wine to be produced and two newspapers to be printed. Members of the newly created Institute d'Egypte were tasked with implementing new ideas and systems to re-organise Cairo, and Egypt as a whole, to suit more Western tastes. Bonaparte also ordered the opening of the Tivoli Egyptien, a pleasure garden based on the famous Parisien Tivoli. It was here, on the 30 November 1798 that Bonaparte first saw Pauline Foures, playing vingt-et-un with a group of officers and ladies.
Pauline's blond hair, her slim petite figure and her perfect smile immediately attracted the attentions of the Commander-in-Chief. Introductions were made and they chatted awkwardly for a while before Bonaparte, conscious of the many eyes watching them, brought the conversation to an end and left. He was infatuated with Pauline and was determined to make her his as soon as possible. Pauline was not to be won over easily though. She was loyal to her husband, either through love or fear — Foures was an extremely jealous and short-tempered man.
Bonaparte sent Pauline expensive gifts and Junot and Duroc courted her on his behalf. Pauline was flattered by the attentions of the Commander-in-Chief, but made it clear that nothing could happen while her husband was still in Cairo. Bonaparte instructed Berthier to arrange for Foures to act as the next courier to the Directory in Paris. There was no urgency for the dispatches he was to carry, the urgency lay in getting Foures as far away from Cairo as possible without raising his suspicions.
On 17 December 1798, Berthier called for Lieutenant Foures and gave him his orders. He was to travel to Paris and deliver a parcel of dispatches to the Directory, await any reply and then return to Egypt as soon as possible. Foures requested that he be given time for his wife to pack before leaving. Berthier, trying hard not to give anything away, informed him that he must leave immediately and, as the Army did not recognise wives in Egypt, he would travel alone to Paris. Foures bade farewell to his wife and was on his way to Alexandria within a few hours. Pauline was now free from her husband's jealousies and Bonaparte wasted little time in pursuing her.
The same evening, Bonaparte invited Pauline to a dinner party at his lodgings along with a variety of officers and ladies. Pauline was seated at his right hand and Bonaparte could hardly take his eyes off her. She was as charming as ever, no doubt revelling in the attentions of Bonaparte, and the freedom her husband's absence granted her. During the meal, a carafe of water was spilt over Pauline, soaking her dress. Bonaparte quickly came to her aid, offering his quarters for her to "repair the damage". Calling for a lamp, he led the way to his bedroom; the couple were gone for almost an hour. The other guests were not surprised or shocked by their absence, Bonaparte's feelings for Pauline were common knowledge as were hers for him.
The following day, Pauline left her lodgings and was installed in a villa in Esbekiya Square, close to Bonaparte's quarters. She became his companion, and travelled with him wherever he went. Pauline dressed in a general's uniform and wore a tricolour sash as a bonnet. She spent her time entertaining Bonaparte's senior officers, organising picnics in the desert, excursions to the Pyramids, dinner parties, and receptions. She was Bonaparte's hostess and she played the role with vigour and delight. She would ride about Cairo to the cheers of the troops who had nicknamed her "Clioupatre" or "La Generale".
Bonaparte and Pauline were obviously in love. Unlike Josephine, Pauline was happy simply to be his mistress and Bonaparte wished nothing more than for her to bear him a child; something Josephine appeared unable, or unwilling to do. He was more determined than ever that she would divorce Josephine. Whether or not he would then marry Pauline was something he kept to himself, but a child would no doubt have influenced his decision. However, there still remained the small matter of Lieutenant Foures, and he was to return rather sooner than either Bonaparte or Pauline had expected.
Foures' ship, Le Chasseur, had been intercepted by the British frigate, Lion. Foures and the dispatches were taken aboard the Lion and examined. The English captain at first could not understand why Foures had been sent with such out of date and useless dispatches. He suspected Foures carried a verbal report and, as he could get nothing out of him, decided to return Foures to Egypt. Foures was set ashore near Alexandria and immediately made his way to Alexandria to report to Marmont. He was coolly received. Marmont had been well aware of the real reason for Foures journey, but when Foures demanded he be allowed to return to Cairo Marmont agreed. Why should he try to keep Pauline's infidelity from her husband when every soldier in the Army knew of it?
Foures returned to Cairo to find his house empty and his wife gone. His fellow officers informed him of what had been going on since his absence and he immediately made his way to the residence in Esbekia Square. He found Pauline at home and flew into a rage. He demanded she should return with him to their house, but she quietly refused and simply stated that she had left him and wanted a divorce. Foures pleaded with her to return, then his anger took hold and he struck out at her and had to be restrained by a group of officers who had overheard the commotion.
Pauline applied for a divorce a few days later, "to protect herself against his brutality". Divorce in Egypt was not a complicated matter and within hours Sartelon, the commissaire of Cairo granted the divorce. Pauline adopted her maiden name and became Bonaparte's official mistress. She presided over dinners, acted as his hostess and was attended by his aides; all except Eugene Beauharnais, who pointed out the anomaly of the situation to his stepfather.
However, two months later Bonaparte left for Syria and refused to let Pauline accompany him. She was left in Cairo, where she presumably received passionate letters from her lover; letters that have since vanished. Upon his return to Cairo, Bonaparte revived their relationship, but he had already planned to return to France and he had no intention of taking Pauline with him. On 17 August 1799, Bonaparte received word from Admiral Ganteaume that the English fleet had left Egyptian waters and the way was now clear for a return to France. Bonaparte summoned the select few whom where to accompany him to Elfi Bey's palace, where he said his final goodbye to an unaware Pauline, who simply thought he was off on an inspection of the delta area.
Following Bonaparte's return to France, Pauline remained in Egypt, became Kleber's mistress for a short period and eventually returned to France in 1800. She had originally sailed from Alexandria aboard the USS America, but the ship was intercepted by the frigate HMS Theseus and she was returned to Egypt, where she was forced to remain for several months before another ship became available. Bonaparte, by now First Consul and wary of creating new scandal, refused to see her but granted her a mansion near Paris and repeated gifts of cash. Pauline married Henry de Ranchoup and is reported to have met Napoleon only once at a ball in 1811.
Pauline Foures, one of the longest surviving participants in Bonaparte's Egyptian adventure, led a colourful later life. She was a painter, a harp player, wrote two novels, startled the residents of Craponne by taking her small dog to Mass on Sundays and, in 1816 married an ex-guards officer and moved to Brazil to sell exotic wood to France. In 1837, she finally returned to Paris and lived in an apartment surrounded by monkeys.
Pauline died in 1869, probably the oldest survivor of Napoleon's Egyptian campaign. She may not have been one of Napoleon's longest serving mistresses but without doubt, she was certainly one of the most colourful.
Chandler, David. Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars 1999.
Elgood, P.G. Bonaparte's Adventure in Egypt London; 1931.
Herold, J.C. Bonaparte in Egypt London; 1963.
Masson, F. Napoleon et les femmes Paris; 1894.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2000