Scoop] Josie and Boney on the rocks

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The Independent Online
RECENTLY, whenever I have read about the Prince and Princess of Wales, I have started also to think of my old French teacher, Mr Hunter. For if there was one thing he taught me, in between the irregular verbs and the strange habits of the subjunctive, it was that lurking in every page of history there is a wonderful soap opera waiting to jump out. Or, to put it another way, that our present Royal Family has nothing on its predecessors in history.

Mr Hunter's approach to implanting French history was not the usual propagation method. He used French history as the seed, yes, but the method he preferred was, of all things, gossip. He was left cold by the broad economic sweep, the plight of the peasant or the quest of the colonialist; what brought history alive for him was the melodrama, the whispering behind the scenes and the tugging of puppets by strings.

Louis XIV he found interesting ('though Versailles must have been a ghastly place at the best of times - if you boys think you are brutally treated here at school, you should have tried surviving at Versailles . . .') but not as interesting as the mistresses, the Mesdames Maintenons and Montespans.

Mr Hunter never mentioned our own Royal Family. I think he found them dull. Nor did he talk much about Napoleon, whom I fancy he, being a bit of a snob, found rather an upstart. A pity, because there are some interesting parallels between Napoleon and Josephine, and Charles and Diana.

I have just been reading a most absorbing book by Theo

Aronson called Napoleon and Josephine: a Love Story, a history-as-gossip volume that Mr Hunter would have loved, and which, in his absence, I have been greatly enjoying. The book also contains a story that is uncannily reminiscent of today's happenings . . .

In 1798 Napoleon was busy conquering Egypt. His pleasure in this task was considerably diminished by being given proof that in his absence his wife, Josephine, was being passionately unfaithful to him back in France.

He wrote an anguished letter to his brother Joseph, also back in France, talking openly about his misery and the possibility of divorce.

The letter never got to Joseph, however. The ship bearing it was captured by the British. With it was also captured a letter from Josephine's son, Eugene (serving with Bonaparte in Egypt), explaining to his mother the background of all Napoleon's anguish.

These two letters were rushed back to London and promptly published there, to the delight of all British - well, I nearly said 'tabloid readers'.

These days our Royal Family gazes over the Channel in fear at the French press. In those days, however, it was the other way round, and the British publication of the letters gave Josephine the first savage hint that Napoleon was on the warpath.

Nor, according to Mr Aronson, was that all. Back in Egypt, Napoleon was determined to have his revenge in the infidelity stakes, and took as his mistress Pauline Foures, the 19-year-old wife of an army officer. She sounds rather fetching, actually, having first made her way out to Egypt as a stowaway in men's clothes, and now to be seen

sitting beside Napoleon in

public, wearing braided blue jacket, plumed hat and tight white trousers . . .

Poor Lieutenant Foures himself was sent away by Napoleon on remote missions, first up country, then back to France. His boat home, though, was also captured by the British. The British captain realised this Foures was the very same whose wife was being paraded openly by Napoleon in Cairo, and, with that sense of humour for which the British have always been famous, gallantly returned the soldier to the shores of Egypt in order to embarrass everyone concerned, which it did.

The moral of all this is that - well, there is no moral at all, actually. All it means is that next time somebody sympathises with the royal couple and says that there was no threat to privacy - such as pirated phone calls - in the old days, you can say: 'Far from it] Have you not read Mr Aronson's excellent book? In the good old days you could have your intimate mail seized at sea by a foreign power and published abroad for all to read . . .

'No, it is not the world of publishing that has changed at all. It is only the technology that has improved.'