As the sad General David Petraeus sex scandal seems to grow more bizarre by the hour, and its undraping remains more riveting than the Fiscal Cliff, a curious American might ask, “What would the French do?”
By reputation, France is more tolerant of sexual shenanigans than those of us in the USA, home to the Puritans, Salem witch trials, and 24-hour cable news desperate for things to talk about.
The French are hardly immune to scandal. Former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn had his political ambitions derailed by his sexual appetite, though his first undoing came from allegations of assault by a New York hotel maid, not a Parisian one.
But for rip-roaring sexual soap opera, and sophisticated yawns about the same, French history is instructive. And a good example is the Napoleonic era I write about in my Ethan Gage novels.
“Napoleon’s Women,” by British historian Christopher Hibbert, is a good compendium of the affairs, trysts, and romances of Napoleon and the people around him. The principles didn’t have to stand for election and there were no gossip magazines, but they were expert gossips. There was also a tolerant acceptance of human appetites very different than today.
Women were attracted to power. Men were attracted to women. Church authority had evaporated in the French Revolution. And sex with the right person could be a means of survival.
We know that Napoleon lost his virginity to a Parisian prostitute and that his early courtships were somewhat clumsy, hampered by the fact he was a Corsican by birth with seemingly poor prospects. Girls kept turning him down.
His sexual fortunes rose with his military ones. Josephine was a widow six years his senior with bad teeth and two children, but she had the charm of a Creole born in Martinique, a great deal of bedroom experience, and was the mistress of Paul Francoise-Barras, a government leader who could do a great deal for Napoleon’s military career.
The rising general allowed Barras to gently dispose of Josephine, while her bet was that Bonaparte might make something of himself. It was one of the most spectacular sexual payoffs in history.
So they married, at a Revolutionary time in which divorce was rampant and a third of children in Paris were illegitimate.
Napoleon started out hopelessly in love, writing plaintive letters from his campaign in Italy that paid glowing tribute to certain geographies of her body. Josephine reciprocated by ignoring the mail and starting an affair.
The general was reportedly devastated to learn the truth just before the Battle of the Pyramids in Egypt. In revenge he first took an Egyptian girl as a mistress – she was later beheaded by Egyptian authorities for the relationship – and then shipped off the husband of a Frenchwoman on the campaign and bedded her instead.
He returned to France determined to divorce Josephine, but she hammered on his locked bedroom door for hours, pleading, and by the next morning the pair greeted guests from their bed.
From then on, Napoleon regarded women as one of the spoils of war, having brief affairs (as brief as three minutes, by some accounts) with women as he campaigned and ruled. They included actresses, an Italian opera singer, a duchess, a bedchamber maid, and so on. In manner, he ranged from seductively charming to misogynistic, depending on his mood. He eventually divorced Josephine, and remarried, to father an heir. (Napoleon II died of tuberculosis at age 21 without ever coming to power.)
Napoleon was hardly alone. His sister Pauline had a notorious string of lovers. (Including Ethan Gage, in “The Dakota Cipher.”) His brother-in-law Marshal Joachim Murat changed women as often as he changed horses, and wife Caroline, Napoleon’s sister, had affairs of her own. Foreign minister Talleyrand, a defrocked priest, had numerous affairs. Bonaparte periodically lectured his relatives on their morals while continuing his own bedroom conquests across Europe.
It was that time. Thomas Jefferson had a slave mistress, Sally Hemings, while ambassador to Paris.
While testament to human nature, this history isn’t guidance to 21st Century American politics. CIA directors and top generals really can’t have affairs, given the potential for blackmail.
But the Napoleonic court would likely view our periodic tizzies about sex with considerable amusement. Born well after Napoleon, Anatole France summed it up: “It is human nature to think wisely and act foolishly.”