Saturday, 6 October 2012

Book Review: The Second Empress by Michelle Moran

"I am a monarch of God’s creation, and you reptiles of the earth dare not oppose me."
-          Napoleon addressing member’s of the Catholic clergy 

The Second Empress is Michelle Moran’s fifth novel and surrounds the little known story of the unlikely marriage between Napoleon Bonaparte to his second wife, Princess Marie Louise of Austria, great-niece to the unfortunate Marie Antoinette of France.

The story presents an insightful tale of the later reign of Napoleon Bonaparte shortly after the discovery of his wife’s infertility and unfaithfulness. With both his desire to produce a male heir and his even greater desire to extend the French Empire, he chooses the unlikely bride, Princess Marie-Louise of Austria, a tactic not only to ensure the submission of the Austrian Empire but personally, to glorify himself marrying the great-niece of Marie Antoinette, a real princess.

Princess Marie-Louise fearful that if she turned down Napoleon’s hand her father would not only lose his crown but would destroy the Treaty of Schonbrunn, she reluctantly accepts. Thrown into a world she is unfamiliar with, she finds some comfort in an unlikely friend, the late Empress of France’s daughter, Hortense.

The story alternates between three central characters; Princess Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s sister Pauline Bonaparte and Paul Moreau, Pauline’s Chamberlain. This helps in developing each character and gives us a further understanding of the egotistical, narcissistic family the Bonaparte’s really were, stopping at nothing to get what they wanted for their own personal gratification regardless of whether they destroyed lives in the process.

Most novels surrounding Napoleon’s reign are about his political and public genius who re-established a nation after the French Revolution left France in a state of political and social unrest. Through sheer charisma, Napoleon influenced a nation marching hundreds of thousands to their deaths; a flaw which ultimately led to his downfall, yet after all this, Napoleon is forged throughout history as a legend.

The Second Empress does nothing to glorify the achievements of Napoleon, only briefly mentioning battles at Leipzig, Russia and Waterloo although this wasn’t the author’s intention in any case. The Second Empress is a novel about the strength and determination of Marie-Louise, Second Empress of France and exposes the real character of Napoleon and his siblings, who were quite extreme in many of their aspirations. Napoleon was barbaric and militant minded, his idiosyncrasies, sexual appetite and little care for the female person, believing that “Women are nothing but machines for producing children” all adding to Moran’s realistic portrayal of Napoleon. Moran’s historical notes point out that in her attempt to recreate Napoleon’s last six years of his reign, many personal court letters were relied upon, small snippets of which, are included in the novel providing a raw truthfulness to the story and the characters.

After having fallen in love with Moran’s last novel Madame Tussaud, I had great expectations reading this novel. And although it wasn’t quite as enthralling as its predecessor, I very much enjoyed reading a novel which surrounded the little known protagonist, Princess Marie-Louise of Austria who, in many ways treaded in her great-aunt’s footsteps. It was an easy novel to read and the story flowed effortlessly, combined with historical snippets from personal letters it made an excellent period read and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a good historical fiction, Moran never fails to disappoint.  

Book Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

“It is all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow.”

- Cromwell

Wolf Hall is the brilliantly written novel by Hilary Mantel and has sat in my “to read” pile for a long period, waiting. Just the size of the book daunted me, so I continued to pick up shorter novels before finally committing to the long haul read. Funnily enough, the book is so well written I found myself reading through the chapters effortlessly and before I knew it, I had finished.

Wolf Hall is set during the reign of King Henry VIII but is really a story about the rise of Thomas Cromwell, from blacksmith’s son to the Kings right hand man. Mantel introduces us to the many layers that make up “Thomas Cromwell”; the devoted family man who wants nothing more than to give his family everything he didn’t have, as well as having a deep affection for animals, particularly small dogs who he continues to name “Bella” after a small dog he had as a child and going out of his way for those less fortunate in society. Typically, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More tend to be painted as power hungry zealots in most Tudor fictions and you can’t help but dislike them. Even Mantel managed to capture this trait in More and I found it impossible to like the man at all, my skin crawled each time More popped into the scene.  Cromwell on the other hand is far more personable, Mantel including characters from his blood kin and adopted family, turning the once villain into the ingenious lawyer he really was with an honest and surprisingly hard upbringing.

As with most Tudor fictions; this novel also incorporates the usual suspects of the time including the Cardinal Wolsey, Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary, Katherine of Aragon and her daughter the Princess Mary,  Jane Seymour, Thomas Wyatt, the Lords Norfolk and Suffolk and the author was true to their characters, even down to the demure Jane Seymour. Like most Tudor enthusiasts, we’re familiar with the King Henry VIII/Anne Boleyn relationship which bought about the downfall of Holy See in England and revolutionised religious belief at the time. It was refreshing that the focus of the story stemmed away from the “familiar” King Henry VIII/Anne Boleyn stories to something “unfamiliar”, the story of Thomas Cromwell who was without a doubt, crucial in shaping England and revolutionizing its laws.

Hands down, Wolf Hall is without a doubt, my favourite Tudor fiction to date and I could almost kick myself for having chosen all those smaller books to read before finally picking it up. The book flowed effortlessly and the description of Tudor England was expertly told as though Mantel had been there, I could easily believe that this was the real story of Thomas Cromwell. For anyone who has a passion for the period, I couldn’t recommend this novel enough, it’s absolutely brilliant!