Michelle Moran – The Second Empress

EMPRESS JOSEPHINE’S FAMILY has been called to Napoleon’s court for the terrible news that he intends to divorce his wife of thirteen years, who has failed to provide an heir, and take a younger bride, the Austrian Princess Marie-Louise.

FOR HIS NEW WIFE, it is a horrible duty she must take on in her father’s name. Marie-Louise must leave her love and family behind for an older man with whom she has nothing in common. There is little in her new life to enjoy. But an unlikely friendship with Hortense, Josephine’s daughter, will bring her comfort, as she struggles to find happiness.

FOR NAPOLEON’S SISTER, Pauline Bonaparte, it is yet another woman stealing her brother’s attention. She spent years attempting to control his power and this latest distraction is the biggest threat she’s ever faced. It’s time to fight.

One of the first reviews I posted on A Fantastical Librarian was for Michelle Moran’s Cleopatra’s Daughter, which I loved. I had planned to get all her other works, but you know how it goes; I have a wish list a mile long and only a limited budget to buy books. However, when I saw The Second Empress, which was about Napoleon’s womenfolk, I was really excited and interested. I’ve always had an interest in Napoleon, both because of his influence on my country – Holland was occupied by the French from 1795 until 1813 – and because I visited The Dome des Invalides, where Napoleon is buried, when I was fourteen and I was fascinated, not just by the opulence of the place, but by the idea that one who had brought so much death and suffering to so many people still would have been revered enough to be honoured like that. I also saw the painting depicting Napoleon’s crowning Josephine empress in the Louvre and was gripped by their story. So I was pretty familiar with their history; who I didn’t know much about was Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s second wife. And with The Second Empress Michelle Moran has definitely remedied this.

Moran tells her story through three separate viewpoints interspersed with letters between Napoleon and Josephine. The three viewpoints consist of Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger sister, her chamberlain, Paul Moreau, and Marie-Louise, the second empress herself. Through these we learn not just about Napoleon’s almost magnetic charm on the populace and his truly awful temper, but also about his strategic genius and his ruthless ambition. We follow the Bonapartes from 1809, when Napoleon puts Josephine aside for her barrenness and marries Marie-Antoinette’s great-niece Marie-Louise, until his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. They show us the cut-throat politics of the Napoleonic court and how the subtle, under-the-skin machinations of the women is just as deadly as Napoleon’s more straightforward go-for-the-throat dealings.

The fact that Moran manages to make all three of our narrators sympathetic is really surprising, since Pauline was a rather disturbed individual, whose greatest ambition is to marry Napoleon in the tradition of the Pharaohs and rule the Empire by his side. Moran evokes pity rather than disgust for her, showing us that she’s been broken by her family’s past and her treatment after they fled Corsica. In addition, she is implied to be mentally impaired due to the effects of venereal disease and the medicines she takes for this. We see Pauline not just through her own eyes, but through those of the other two as well of course, but mostly through the loving eyes of Paul Moreau. Devoted to Pauline since her time on Haiti as the governor’s wife, he gives a relative outsider’s view of the events in the book, one who moves between the three spheres of influence of Napoleon, Pauline and Marie-Louise. I loved his development throughout the novel. He has to let go of so much to come back to who he wants to be and be able to return home.

If not for Marie-Louise, Paul would have been my favourite character in this book. I fell in love with Marie-Louise; Moran’s portrayal of her as a strong-minded nineteen-year-old, who sacrifices her future to save her father’s rein, as she thinks herself a dutiful daughter, and grows into a self-assured young woman, who manages to keep herself standing in the venal court of the Bonapartes was compelling. Her friendship with Hortense de Beauharnais, Josephine’s daughter from her first marriage, was surprising, but touching. Marie-Louise’s growth and her composure and quick thinking when Napoleon names her Regent when he goes to war, was amazing. Young as she was, she was a power to be reckoned with.

The one thing I would have liked to see addressed more is how Marie-Louise viewed Josephine. The latter must have been an intimidating figure for her, not just because Napoleon obviously still loved her even if he divorced, but also because she was well-loved by the French and Marie-Louise was seen as an Austrian interloper. For the great-niece of the last Austrian queen, who was beheaded by her subjects, this must have been at least a little frightening. The continuing love between Napoleon and Josephine is showcased in the book through the interspersion of several of their letters throughout the book. It shows the depth of their love and the very real passion between them, even after their divorce. For a young girl like Marie-Louise, this must have been hard, as it must have made her feel even more of an object—Pauline even refers to her as ‘the womb’. However, beyond her initial trepidation at having Hortense as Mistress of the Robes, Marie-Louise doesn’t really mention anything about it, which was a little puzzling.

Despite my wish for a deeper look at Marie-Louise’s feelings about Josephine, The Second Empress was a riveting read, rich in descriptions of the gorgeous Parisian buildings and wonderful characterisations of not only its narrators, but of the secondary characters as well. It’s once again convinced me that I need to catch up on this author’s backlist as soon as I can. While the events the book follows a grand in scale, the book is an intimate narrative and lets the reader into the characters’ minds and hearts and feel for them. If you’re interested in the Napoleonic era and aren’t as familiar with his court as with his military exploits, this is a good book to get you started. Michelle Moran has once again delivered a delightful novel and I can’t wait to see whether her next book, which will be set in India, will be just as engaging as the works I’ve read so far.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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