As I’ve been writing the first draft of my sequel to Beyond the Ghetto Gates, I’m faced with the dilemma so many historical novelists must contend with – when to diverge from the historical record for dramatic effect and when to hew strictly to the facts.
And this has been particularly ticklish in my relating of Napoleon’s “Cleopatra” – his infatuation with Pauline Fourès, a new bride of one of his cavalrymen, who snuck aboard one of Napoleon’s ships in uniform, and whom he enticed into an affair after he learned of Josephine’s infidelity.
The facts, so far as my research shows, are thus:
- Pauline did, indeed, stow away on her husband’s ship, La Lucette.
- Her husband, Jean-Noël, seems to have been a particularly possessive husband.
- Napoleon was introduced to her at the Tivoli Gardens, a pleasure grounds the French troops created in Cairo.
- She first rebuffed Napoleon’s advances, particularly when the uncouth General Junot made them.
- She was further wooed by Duroc, Napoleon’s aide-de-camp, giving her expensive gifts and heart-felt protestations from the general.
- She told Napoleon nothing could happen between them so long as her husband was around.
- In a stunning abuse of power (a la King David and Bethsheba), Napoleon sent Jean-Noël on a diplomatic mission back to Paris. It would take at least three months, if not longer, for him to return.
- Napoleon then invited Pauline, along with other French wives, to a luncheon, where a jug of water was – one assumes deliberately – spilled over her dress. He “helped” her dry off and they were absent for quite a while.
- Pauline moved into apartments near Napoleon’s headquarters. She clearly enjoyed being his mistress, acting as his hostess, holding parties, taking expeditions to the Pyramids, etc.
- Jean-Noël’s boat was intercepted by the British ship, the Lion. The sailors took great pleasure in sending him back to Cairo.
- Jean-Noël acted violently to Pauline upon his return. The couple were divorced by the war commissioner Sartelon.
- Pauline, reverting to her maiden name Bellisle, lived in great luxury as Napoleon’s mistress until he abandoned the troops in 1799. She then became the new commander, Kleber’s, mistress for several months.
Dramatic enough, right? What more could I want? Why would I need to deviate from the facts of this delicious story?
But here’s the problem. Neither Napoleon nor Pauline are focal characters in my novel. They can’t tell their own story. And any time you tell a story second-hand, it loses impact in the retelling. I needed to describe the events through one of my point-of-view characters who were actually there – either Daniel or Christophe, who, as lowly officers, didn’t generally mix in Napoleon’s rarified circles. Or, at the very least, have them be told the story by someone directly involved, who could communicate the emotions and passion of the situation.
And I needed to weave this secondary plotline into my main plot. So yes, I deviated from the historical record – hopefully without losing the “truth” as I fictionalized it.
So what did I change? Well…
- Since Christophe is a cavalryman himself, he would know both Pauline and Jean-Noël. I had Napoleon first notice Pauline not at Tivoli Gardens but in a brief, unspoken encounter during the celebrations of the Birth of the Prophet when the couple accompanied Christophe to the souk. This helps establish Pauline earlier in the plot.
- I have Pauline rebuff Napoleon when Junot approaches her in Tivoli Gardens with a clumsy invitation from Napoleon. This may indeed have happened as I describe it – but I manage to have Daniel and Christophe present when it does, so it can be told firsthand.
- I have Jean-Noël relate the “jug of water” episode to Daniel as though he were there when it happened – which he was not – allowing me to delve deeply into his frustration and shame at being sent from Cairo so Napoleon can bed his wife. This chapter intersects with the main plotline as Daniel is frustrated by the British blockade, which prevents him from sending a critical letter to Mirelle back in Italy. So he takes advantage of Jean-Noël’s mission to get that letter to her.
- Jean-Noël’s violence to Pauline when he returns to Cairo unexpectedly may or may not have occurred privately. I have him confront her at a dinner that she hosts for Napoleon and maneuver to have Daniel be among the guests through his friendship with one of Napoleon’s savants. This not only allows us to see the scene play out dramatically but also shows Daniel’s disappointment as he realizes that, once more, his letter to Mirelle will not be delivered.
Will the seekers of “truth” in historical fiction pick my choices apart? Very possibly. But as a historical novelist, did my twisting of the actual facts serve my story better than if I told everything second-hand? Did I adhere to Albert Camus’ famous quote: “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth?” I certainly hope so!
Oh, and one mystery regarding the historical record that I wish someone would explain to me – Pauline is always described as a blonde, but every portrait of her shows her with dark hair. Where does that truth lie?