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.  


  1. I also read Moran's novel. It was an entertaining one. However, is also one of the most inaccurate I've read on Napoleon's era and the final note is extremely misleading. The author makes reference to 'primary sources' which are not primary at all. For example there are not 'Memoirs of Marie-Louise'. There is a fictional book called like that on its English translation, but was written by Imbert de Saint-Amand long time after Marie-Louise's death. And what you can read on these 'sources' has very little to do with the novel. Hortense's memoirs are very clear on her relationship with Marie-Louise: cordial, but not close. They weren't friends. Of course Hortense was not Marie-Louise's 'Mistress of the Robes' or a member of her household. It seems Moran's confided too much on Flora Fraser's biography on Pauline, a very unreliable book. There are many other liberties taken on Moran's novel. Napoleon and Josephine's divorce had nothing to do with her infidelity on the first years of their marriage. Marie-Louise wasn't Neipperg's lover before her wedding to Napoleon: their relationship started on 1814. There was not a 'Monsieur Laurent' in charge of her child. Also, Napoleon treated her very well as her letters she wrote after his death proved. Marie-Louise was not a caring mother; her child was kept as hostage in Vienna and he rarely visited him.
    Marie-Louise's personality was far from strong or determined. Comparing her behavior with Marie-Antoniette's strengh and dignity in front of adversity is almost an insult to the poor Queen. Marie-Louise was weak and always relied on others, never made a decision herself. I wish Moran had included Napoleon's letters to Marie-Louise instead of those written to Josephine, and the ones Marie-Louise wrote to him. She kept corresponding to Napoleon until January 1815.

    1. Thank you for posting your comment although at the end of the day, Moran wrote this as a work of fiction, not non fiction, and I think it serves its purpose well. As an author, you want to tell your own story & make it your own, if all novels were to base their story on fact; then they would all sound the same. And this is what you expect when you buy non fiction: the same set of facts with perhaps a differing theory drawn from its author.

      My background is archeology & history so of course, little facts, especially dates occasionally ruffle my feathers. But at the end of the day, I buy the novel for enjoyment, if I wanted a memoir or period detail, I would buy non fiction.

      And I say, Marie Louise treaded in her great aunts footsteps purely in relation to this novel as it compares their journeys from Austria to France in similar light. Marie Antoinette & Marie-Louise were two completely different women & couldn't possibly be compared, a lot had changed politically & socially between the two lives lived by these personalities.

      At the end of the day we're all entitled to our opinions & there will be people who both love & hate the book. But I think Moran did a good job at writing another excellent work of fiction.