Friday, 8 May 2015

Pauline Foures


I am currently trying to finish a new novel, hence the lack of art work from my studio in recent weeks
Plus the fact that it is nearly summer in Corfu and the beach beckons each day!

Ingres - The Turkish Bath (1862)

My new project is a novel that tells the story of a young woman from Carcassonne (South West France) who marries an officer in Napoleon's army

When he is posted to Egypt, he smuggles his new wife on board ship disguised as a French cavalry officer. In Cairo - and now revealed as a beautiful young woman - she catches the eye of Napoleon and becomes his mistress - his very own, little 'Cleopatra'.

Meanwhile, Napoleon's wife - Josephine - is having her own secret relationship with a French cavalry office back in Paris!

This is a true story. The girl's name is Pauline Foures and she was a trainee milliner in Carcassonne - the town in the south-west corner of France where I have been living for the last four years

Thus far I have written 40,000 words but I am at that stage that most writers will recognise when I cannot progress

It's not exactly writer's 'block' but a sense that I have not yet subsumed my extensive research in such a way that I can reconstruct (and invent) my story with the freedom that is necessary for an historical novel

I am currently reading, for example, no less than nine books on Napoleon's Egyptian campaign, some written from an Egyptian perspective. It is not an easy task to absorb all that historical data without losing sight of my principal task - to tell Pauline's story effectively

It is clearly necessary in an historical novel to 'wear your scholarship lightly' - otherwise the story will become just 'one damn fact after another!' - which is how someone once described history!

That is far more difficult than it might seem because you need to balance historical fact against the invented or fictional components of your story in such a way that the history has credibility without impacting too much on the dramatic flow of your story

One way to make some creative progress is to steep yourself in the images of the period; to soak up the atmosphere and to gain some kind of insight into the events of the Egyptian campaign (1798-1801) from contemporary representations - in this case the engravings and paintings of the period

If you have already read my short article on Napoleon as 'spin-doctor' (see my Posting for Tuesday, 10th January) you will spot the dangers here

Most of the pictures shown here were primarily intended as propaganda, devised by Napoleon and his generals for consumption back in France. They show, accordingly, Napoleon and his army in an entirely favorable light - contrary to the realities of the catastrophic Egyptian campaign that resulted in plague, famine and inglorious defeat

As a writer, my job is not only to tell Pauline's story but to contextualize that personal narrative within the larger, historical  narrative of the campaign itself - warts and all!

One advantage that I have is that I know Egypt well

As a schoolboy I lived for a while in Alexandria and Ismalia and have been back to Egypt since then several times

Once, making a film for the BBC, I was arrested and held in an Alexandrian police cell for a few hours - until we bribed our way out! It seems we had been arrested for unwittingly filming 'a military installation'

'What installation?', we asked.'Why', came the reply, 'that tram'

When we protested it was explained to us, with impeccable Oriental logic, that in time of war a tram could be used to transport troops and was, therefore, a 'military installation'

Being a writer - like a general, I guess - is a rather lonely occupation. I cannot, at this stage, tell you when exactly I will resume my writing

For the moment, at least, I am trapped in a kind of creative limbo - anxious to progress but nervous of committing pen to paper. The best I can manage is to tinker with the 40,000 words written so far - crossing a 't' there or dotting an 'i' here. Even then I often forget to save the (very) minor changes I have made!

I should add that it is little consolation to read (in Peter Ackroyd's magnificent autobiography) that Charles Dickens often had the same problem!

I will report back to you when the flood gates open (hopefully) and the dramatic tale of Pauline Foures resumes its unsteady progress towards publication! I am also considering writing it as a film but it would need a VERY large budget to put Pauline on the big screen!

Mike Healey

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Napoleon - First 'Spin Doctor'?

Napoleon - the first Spin Doctor?

As you have probably gathered by now, I am currently working on a novel about Napoleon's campaign in Egypt that began heroically in 1798 but ended in disaster in 1801

My story (largely true) tells how a young milliner from Carcassonne married an officer in Napoleon's army. When her new husband was posted to Egypt, she accompanied him disguised as a French cavalry officer

On arrival in Cairo - and now revealed as an attractive young woman - she caught the eye of Napoleon himself and became his mistress - his 'Cleopatra'

In my historical research for this novel I have been struck by the way Napoleon consciously  manipulates his public image for home consumption back in Paris

He does this firstly by simply lying about his failures on the battle field, concentrating entirely on his numerous victories, ensuring that The Directory back in Paris only hears positive news about him and his army

He would not be the first general to 'massage' their image but he is certainly one of the cleverest 'spin doctors' in history

Napoleon was always conscious of his diminutive size (5ft.2 inches) and thin, sallow features and therefore commissioned a series of portraits that showed him in a better light

Each successive portrait improves his image, showing him to be a resolute and formidable individual. He also gets better looking with each successive portrait!


This may be a very poor likeness but this young hero's features are positively Byronic. It was, moreover, just one of ninety-two such engravings produced between 1796 and 1799

Not only was Napoleon consciously shaping his public image at this early stage of his career but he was quick to exploit new forms of communication by widely circulating such portraits in the newly burgeoning press back in France - newspapers, broadsheets, pamphlets and posters


Soon the French public (and beyond) were  not only avid for news of their army's continuing victories in Italy but keen also to know more about the young general at its head

Victory at Arcola on the 15th November, 1796 - part of his Italian campaign - provided a perfect propaganda opportunity for the ambitious (and, at that time, relatively unknown) general

The earliest engraving (and the most accurate, historically speaking) shows Napoleon leading the French charge across the bridge at Arcola, accompanied by general Augereau

By 1798, when the engraving below was published, Napoleon is single-handedly leading the charge - this time on foot. He is also carrying a flag - potent image of French nationalism


The little drummer-boy seems to be trying to restrain our impetuous hero - an image designed to tug at the emotions of an enthusiastic public back in France

This same image undergoes a further transformation, leaving Napoleon alone on the bridge, resolutely planting the French flag by himself


Napoleon of course was not the only general consciously developing their public image at this time - they were all at it - but he was the most successful

The Italian campaign - his first, solo expedition at the head of the French army - was a huge success for Napoleon but the perception of this was also due to his skills as a self-publicist and 'spin-doctor'

He would need all these skills because the subsequent invasion of Egypt - the setting for my new novel - proved to be, in military terms, a catastrophic disaster

But that is another story!

Mike Healey

The illustrations for this article are taken from Philip Dwyer's Napoleon - the Path to Power published by Bloomsbury, 2007

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Historical Reseach

Historical Research

If you have been following this blog recently you will know that I am currently engaged in writing a novel about Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign

 Gerome - Napoleon in Egypt, 1867

I also explained in an earlier posting that I was looking at paintings and engravings of the period in order to gain some insight into the Egypt of 1798

In that context, I would like this time to show you something of the work of Jean-Leon Gerome, a French painter and sculptor who died in 1904

Un Combat de Coqs, 1846

Gerome was an academic painter who studied under Paul Delaroche and at the Ecoles des Beaux Arts in Paris. He went on to become a very successful painter and sculptor, highly regarded by his contemporaries 

Today his work is unfashionable, not least because he immediately preceded the Impressionists who dramatically transformed our notions of art

Gerome was also a major sculptor whose works have a scale and apparent realism that is very much of its period


He was, however, also experimental and often used tinted marble, bronze and ivory, inlaid with precious stones

Today his painted statues appear very odd to us but this is exactly how Greek statues from antiquity would have been finished. The polished white marble that we naturally associate with Greek sculpture is entirely wrong

Corinthe (Painted plaster) -1903

Gerome - like many artists even today - was assiduous at promoting himself in a highly competitive market, to the extent that he painted many portraits of himself in his studio, thereby  demonstrating his skills as both painter in oils and monumental sculptor

La Fin de la Seance, 1886

What interests me, however, is his subject matter and here we have to be very careful, not least because his representation of the Orient is highly slanted

Anyone who has read  Edward Said's book Orientalism (1978) will know that representations of the Orient (and in my case, Egypt) are largely for Western consumption and are an integral aspect (albeit implicit) of Western colonialism

Marche D'Esclaves, 1866

These representations of the 'Orient' by Gerome are also hugely sexist - 'interpretations' of the exotic 'East' in which women are not only objects of male voyeurism but victims of absolute male domination

This is phallocentrism gone mad!

Grande Piscine de Brousse, 1885

The almost photographic 'realism' of these large paintings also gives them a bogus historical veracity and yet, when all is said and done, they are merely excuses to stare at naked women - predominantly white naked women

It is no accident that the central nude here is accompanied by a black servant, thereby contrasting the woman's delicate white skin with the black skin of the slave whose face we cannot (and should not) see

Moreover, the cothurni both women are wearing is an 'historical' detail merely designed to give the picture some kind of historical authenticity and at the same time give the white woman's hips an alluring tilt

Phyrne Devant L'Areopage, (Detail|)1861

Sometimes the sexism is even more blatant

The above picture, for example, shows Phryne being revealed ('exposed' would be a better word) before the Council of Areopagus - the ancient governing body of Athens

It is not difficult to see this as a a bunch of old men ogling a pretty young woman, even if one or two of the elderly politicians are making token protestations of horror or embarrassment!

L'Interieur Grec, 1850

Edward Said makes the point in Orientalism that these representations of the Orient invariably reveal deep-seated notions of Western dominance, power and control

This is particularly true of Egypt over whom the French and the British had fought for absolute control for hundreds of years

Napoleon et Oedipe

Napoleon himself justified his intervention in Egypt (1798-1801) as France's way of 'liberating' the Egyptians from Turkish (more precisely, Marmeluke) despotism

His real motive was to control routes to India and thereby scupper valuable British sea trade with India and beyond

Gerome first visited Egypt in 1856. There followed many orientalist paintings depicting Arab religion, genre scenes and North African landscapes

Le Marchand de Tapis au Caire, 1887

While I do not doubt that his genre paintings are the result of close observation, there is something curiously unconvincing about them

While beautifully painted the colours are just a bit too bright and the groupings somewhat 'staged'. This is a colourful, 'exotic' Orient of the imagination

Flaubert had visited Egypt seven years earlier and although he too sometimes romanticised Egypt he also described the squalor and abject poverty of the country

When Napoleon and his army occupied Egypt in 1798 they were horrified at the poverty, corruption and sheer squalor of ' this once great civilisation'

Charmeur de Serpents, 1880

It should be added here, perhaps, that there is often something prurient about Gerome's choice of subject matter

The naked child, closely observed by an all male audience, gives one an uneasy feeling that this painting is not just a moment in a snake charmer's performance. It is, for example, riddled with phallic symbols - not least the rearing head of the snake itself

Perhaps I am reading to much into this painting but there is definitely something 'uncomfortable' about it

Le Roi Candaule, 1859

While these paintings by Jean-Leon Gerome, therefore, are fascinating for historians and novelists alike, we clearly need to use them with caution and to recognise the hidden agenda (cultural hegemony) that is embedded deep within them

Mike Healey 

The illustrations for the above article are taken from Gerome 1824-1904, published by Connaisance des Arts in 2010