Readers who enjoy dramatic, character-based historical fiction --- especially novels starring under-recognized female legends who have influenced history radically --- should consider Michelle Moran’s bestsellers, each one an excellent stand-alone book. Her fourth novel is fairly short (around 300 pages) and features an unknown woman with a riveting life story: Princess Marie-Louise of Austria, second wife to Napoleon Bonaparte and mother to the sole heir of the French Empire.
THE SECOND EMPRESS presents a shrewd tale of Napoleon’s later life, personal exploits, and odd character traits, based upon extensive research and surviving letters. This is a story of Napoleon’s divorce and remarriage to an Austrian princess after he brought down the Holy Roman Empire, in essence destroying Austria’s time of glory and forcing submission of the world’s greatest powers. The French Empire was truly an idea conceived by the mischief of a single man.
"Moran’s novel is entertaining and sure to become another bestseller. Empress Marie-Louise of Austria makes a compelling heroine to whom readers, particularly women, will find it easy to relate."
In the later era of Napoleon’s life when he was potbellied and overindulged, he became desperate to provide France with an heir, especially after it was clear that his first wife, Josephine, was infertile and unfaithful. Despite his continued professions of love for Josephine throughout his life, Napoleon forced her out but let her keep the title First Empress. This was followed by an unprecedented marriage proposal to Marie-Louise of Austria, presented coldly and as a tactic of force against the Austrian nation --- though the purpose of the marriage was important to him on a personal level. The princess accepted only out of fear and loyalty to her country, highly discouraged by the idea of having to live with “the ogre” and let him touch her, but determined to abide by the Treaty of Schonbrunn and save her father’s throne through the union.
The book provides little-known information about Napoleon’s private motives and public genius, and sheds light on his tendencies toward compulsive egotism. As much as Napoleon’s early life was consumed by war and power, few battles are covered here (only Waterloo, Leipzig, and the invasion of Russia, briefly.) The book is more of a character study about Napoleon’s carnal appetites and idiosyncrasies --- his wicked thoughts, the women he loved, seduced and bullied, the state of the Empire, why the French were so influenced by his fantastic charisma in spite of hundreds of thousands of French deaths he was personally responsible for, the fatal flaws that led to his undoing.
The storytelling alternates among several differing points of view: that of Napoleon’s wife, Marie-Louise, who loathed her husband and remained faithful to Austria and in love with an Austrian count throughout life; Napoleon’s sex-crazed, venal, Egypt-obsessed sister Pauline, a beautiful woman who adored Napoleon and had enough lovers to warrant her reputation as a nymphomaniac, but privately was attempting to seduce her brother; and the gallant Haitian chancellor Paul Moreau, whose love for Pauline was definite, but perhaps the only Frenchman who ever spent a significant time around any of the Bonapartes and escaped unscathed, with better intentions and virtues intact.
By book’s end, as Moran paints him, Napoleon is exactly what we expect him to be: callous, cruel, intelligent, ambitious, tyrannical. But there are many other details that do come as a surprise, including substantial evidence that Napoleon was slightly mad and severely affected by failing health over years before his actual life’s end, the apparent result of the same stomach malignancy that killed him. There is also a fair case here that Napoleon had significant psychological problems, manifested by mania, strange obsessions, and cold-hearted insensitivities extending to every living thing, including (and perhaps most especially) his sisters, wives and son. In contrast, Princess Marie-Louise is painted as quiet, intelligent, self-sacrificing, a relatable heroine with modern appeal, and a woman whose betrayal made her a primary force in Napoleon’s eventual downfall.
THE SECOND EMPRESS begins at the turn of the 19th century and ends shortly after Napoleon’s death in the 1820s, skipping his rise to power and covering his fall in greater detail. Though Michelle Moran is harsh in her portrayal of him, Napoleon does seem to deserve his reputation and has also been dealt with fairly in being credited for the important legal reforms he enacted, most especially the Napoleonic Code that abolished slavery and provided religious freedom for France and all its territories. Moran’s novel is entertaining and sure to become another bestseller. Empress Marie-Louise of Austria makes a compelling heroine to whom readers, particularly women, will find it easy to relate.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on August 24, 2012