This historical fiction novel by Michelle Moran is set during the final years of Napoleon’s reign, between 1809 and 1815, and explores the French Emperor’s relationships with his second wife, Marie-Louise, and his sister, Pauline. I have only read one of Michelle Moran’s previous novels, Cleopatra’s Daughter, which is set in Ancient Rome and although I enjoyed it, I thought this new one, The Second Empress, was much better – the quality of her writing seems to have improved and the characters felt more developed too.
The story is told by three very different characters who take it in turns to narrate one chapter each. The first is Maria-Lucia, the eighteen year old daughter of Francis I, Emperor of Austria. Abandoning her dreams of marrying Count Adam von Neipperg, the man she loves, and one day ruling Austria as her brother’s regent, Maria-Lucia agrees to a marriage with the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, as it will help to keep her father’s throne safe. Napoleon hopes she will be able to give him a legitimate heir, which his first wife Josephine was unable to provide. Maria-Lucia, or Marie-Louise as she became known in France, is a lovely, compelling character, intelligent, well-educated and talented. The portrayal of Napoleon is very negative (not that I had really expected anything else) but despite his cruelty to her throughout their marriage, Marie-Louise continues to perform her duties with dignity and grace.
Our second narrator is Pauline, Princess Borghese, Napoleon’s sister. She dreams of marrying Napoleon herself so that they can rule Egypt together like the ancient pharaohs and she is bitterly jealous of both her brother’s first wife, Josephine, who she encouraged him to divorce, and his second, Marie-Louise. Pauline is a spiteful, malicious person but of the three narrators, I thought her voice was the strongest and the most fun to read. She’s not a completely unsympathetic character because she is so obviously unhappy and miserable. She also has a lot of eccentricities – she’s obsessed with Egypt, she likes to bathe in milk, and she even uses her servants as footstools to rest her feet on. Although Pauline was a real historical figure, she’s not someone I’ve ever read about before so I’m not sure how accurate this portrayal is, but I thought she was a fascinating character.
Finally there’s Paul Moreau, Pauline’s Haitian servant, who accompanied her back to France after Haiti gained its independence from the French. Despite his loyalty to Pauline (and the fact that he has been in love with her for many years) Paul is aware of her faults and is able to feel sympathy for Marie-Louise too. He also still has hopes of returning to Haiti to help rebuild his war-torn country and this adds another interesting aspect to the story.
Although I have read other books set during Napoleon’s reign, this is the first one I’ve read which concentrates on the lives of Napoleon and the Bonaparte family. Before I started to read, I was worried that I might struggle because I don’t know a lot about this period of French history, but luckily this was not a problem. The focus is on the lives of the three narrators and their relationships with each other and the people around them; details of politics, battles and military campaigns are kept to a minimum (which could be either a good or a bad thing, I suppose, depending on your personal tastes in historical fiction). I was fascinated by the characters in this novel, particularly Pauline and Marie-Louise and was inspired to do some research and find out more about them – though as I had no idea how their stories would play out and didn’t want to spoil the book for myself, I waited until I had finished before I looked anything up. The author’s notes at the back of the book were helpful too and explained what happened to each of the main characters after the novel ends.
As I have so little knowledge of this subject, it wouldn’t be fair of me to comment on the historical accuracy of this book but I could tell that it had been well-researched – Moran had even included some extracts from real love letters sent between Napoleon and Josephine. A huge amount of information has obviously had to be condensed into 300 pages, so the book doesn’t really go into a lot of depth but would be a good choice if you’re looking for an enjoyable, entertaining historical fiction novel and don’t want to be overwhelmed with too many details.
I received a review copy of The Second Empress from the publisher via Netgalley