The Second Empress: A Novel of Napoleon's Court
Crown, 2012 (2012)
Reviewed by Hilary Williamson
The Second Empress
, Michelle Moran, author of many excellent historicals (
The Heretic Queen
) continues with French history to tell the story of eighteen-year-old Maria Lucia, Archduchess of Austria. She was forced to marry Napoleon Bonaparte after he divorced his first Empress, Joséphine de Beauharnais, who was unable to give him an heir (the alternative being for Austria to be dragged into war and her beloved father dethroned).
t is also the story of Napoleon's lascivious sister Pauline (Princess Borghese) who had an unhealthy love for her brother and dreamed of their starting an Egyptian style dynasty with a marriage between siblings. Readers see Pauline through the fond eyes of her Haitian servant Paul Moreau, whose love for her keeps him at her side, even though he despises much of her behavior. To him she is '
damaged and beautiful, vulnerable and fearsome
'. Pauline scandalizes Europe by posing nude for a sculptor, and has serving bowls modeled on her breasts. And she tries to hide her illness.
aria Lucia lives happily in Austria, her stepmother (also a Maria) her close friend, and only a few years older. She adores her small spaniel Sigi and is in love with Count Adam Neipperg. She is devastated to learn that Napoleon '
looks to marry the great-niece of Marie-Antoinette.
' She does not forgive Prince Metternich for arranging the union. But she tells her lover that she cannot refuse - '
I am no Helen of Troy.
' She goes to her fate bravely, and does give Napoleon the heir that he needs. In France she is renamed Marie-Louise.
hen Napoleon takes his army to Russia he surprisingly leaves his empire in the hands of twenty-one year old Marie-Louise as regent for their son Franz. Her first command is to give her small son more playtime! Of course, anyone who knows history is aware of Napoleon's defeat in Russia. He writes to his brother Joseph, '
I would rather see my son's throat cut than imagine him brought up as an Austrian prince in Vienna.
' Of course his son's mother disagrees and is delighted to be reunited with her family once more - and with Adam Neipperg.
hen Napoleon escapes from Elba, Pauline's dream revives, but not for long. The Battle of Waterloo follows and Napoleon's exile to remote Saint Helena. Don't miss the author's
to learn what happened afterwards to all players in this drama. As always, Michelle Moran gives us a superlative and well researched historical novel. Though Pauline is a tragic figure in many ways, what I most appreciated were the details of Napoleon's vagaries and temper, and the fact that Marie-Louise (Maria Lucia) had such a happy ending, living openly with her lover on Parma. Don't miss
The Second Empress
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