Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Second Empress, by Michelle Moran

Of all the things that Napoleon Bonaparte did during his reign, the one thing that has always pissed me off the most was the way he dropped his wife, Josephine, when she couldn’t give him an heir.  This irrational dislike of the man began in my earlier teens, before I knew a whole lot about this career, and yet, even after learning about his uses and abuses of power (especially in Egypt and Russia), what I’ve always kept coming back to is his cold-hearted, cruel setting aside of his wife.  I know, I know – hundreds of thousands dead, and I focus on the guy’s private life.  But what can I say?  I am an obstinate historian and feminist….  However, as I’m always eager to learn more about history, when I saw my latest read at the book store, The Second Empress, by Michelle Moran, I felt it intrigued and wanted to learn more about the situation.

Here’s a potted history of the situation which gave Moran the inspiration for her book: after almost 15 years of marriage, and without the presence of an heir, Napoleon, feeling his vulnerability as an emperor without a true claim to his throne, put aside his first wife Josephine and married the daughter of the Austrian Emperor in hopes of having children to be the founder of a dynasty.  Marie-Louise was married off to Napoleon when she was 18 years old, and gave him his much-desired son within the year.  However, within a year of the birth, Napoleon declared war on Russia, which was the beginning of his end; by 1815, Napoleon was defeated, and Marie-Louise returned to Austria with her son.

Moran’s book tells the story of three people during the period of 1809-1815; Marie-Louise, Pauline Borghese (Napoleon’s sister), and Paul Moreau (Pauline’s chamberlain – or personal butler – and a survivor of the Haitian revolution against the French).  It’s an interesting way to split up the story to provide additional context and insight into the situation.  Marie-Louise is the focus of the story (she is the ‘second empress’ – this was her official title, as Napoleon allowed Josephine to keep her title) and provides context on Napoleon as a husband and emperor; Pauline provides the context and background information on the politics of the era and Napoleon as a person; and Paul provides the reader with information about court life Pauline’s life.  Each character is well-developed, engaging, and provides enough of a presence to move the story forward.

The one flaw I found with this book was the way Moran implied there was a sexual relationship between Napoleon and his sister.  I don’t know if this was the case, but it seemed like an author taking license with long-dead historical figures.  But other than that, it’s clear that Moran’s work is well researched, and she doesn’t feel the need to make that fact obvious; a lot of historical fiction authors will find primary sources and use them in a ham-fisted way so that readers feel like they’re sitting through a history lecture.  While Moran clearly used a multitude of sources, she either included them as letters in the text, or used a deft hand at incorporating them into the flow of her story.  It was very well done.

Moran’s writing style is one that I really enjoy.  It wasn’t until I was halfway through the book that I realized that she was the author of Madame Tussaud, which I had also read and enjoyed.  In both books, Moran found the balance between history and humanity in order to engage her readers.

So, final verdict?  I would say read this book.  It did nothing to rehabilitate Napoleon in my eyes (if he can ever be), but it was a wonderfully written, well researched, and incredibly interesting historical fiction on the life of the women in Napoleon’s court, and the people around him.  I don’t think you have to be a history buff to enjoy this book.

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