I love France #28: (2012) #39 review: The Second Empress


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The Second Empress:

A Novel of Napoleon’s Court


Michelle MORAN

320 pages

Publication date: by Crown, on August 14th 2012

Ebook provided by NetGalley & Crown/Random House




How exciting to present you Michelle Moran’s brand new book, The Second Empress, even before publication date!

Since Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution, I have been a great fan of Michelle Moran. Even though I thought this book was not as fantastic as Madame Tussaud, it is still very good.

Moran does as usual a fantastic homework. It shows here, as she inserts many excerpts of letters by her characters, mostly Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his first wife Joséphine, and manages to draw an interesting portrait of the imperial couples.
We get to know what happened between Napoleon and Joséphine, and then more in depth between Napoléon and Marie-Louise, as major episodes of European history develop: Napoleon’s overwhelming power over many nations, followed by his quick fall after his trying to invade Russia, ending in a total disaster.

The chapters and events are presented in turn by three narrators:
Marie-Louise, his very reluctant second wife from Austria;
Pauline, his sister, full of jealousy, just as ambitious as him, and as sex oriented as him (they may even have had some incestuous relationships), and maybe more insane;
and Paul Moreau, Pauline’s Haitian servant for thirteen years.

I liked this triple perspective, especially by characters who are not often considered as central, such as Paul. This was actually really smart to have Paul as close witness to Napoleon’s last six years: Paul is a native from Haiti, and Haiti was always a painful memory to Napoleon, for what he did there.

Marie-Louise’s sacrifice is beautifully rendered: as her great-aunt Marie-Antoinette, she has to leave her lover and the Austrian court for a country she does not know. She hates the idea of being married to Napoleon of ill-fame, but does it uniquely to save her country and her father’s position.

As for Pauline, she is portrayed as insanely in love with Egypt and pushing her brother to try to reach to the eternal grandeur of its pharaohs, hoping of course to share the same fame. She is very sick in her body and her mind.

Through Moran’s narrative, you get a good image of what’s going on. Napoleon is shown in all the insanity of his thirst for power, ambition, but also for his love for his first wife. Unfortunately, she never gave him an heir, hence his second marriage.

His second wife is more like a useful tool for him, and she DOES produce an heir; while married to her, Napoleon still exchanges love messages with his first wife. From the first day she hears about Napoleon’s predicament while a teenager at the Austrian court, Marie-Louise abhors this prospective husband; once married to him, she is delighted when she sees him go away for his foreign campaigns. But she also needs to reign as regent during those times, and her being from Austria does not make her international affairs easy.

We follow her until the fall of the Napoleonic regime, during his exile, and see her finally go back to Austria and marry the man she always loved, after Napoleon passes away.

The only reproach I have for this book is that it could actually have been longer, with even more in depth presentation of the characters. But is is still a very good book, and if you like French historical fiction, you really have to read it.


National bestselling author Michelle Moran returns to Paris, this time under the rule of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte as he casts aside his beautiful wife to marry a Hapsburg princess he hopes will bear him a royal heir.

After the bloody French Revolution, Emperor Napoleon’s power is absolute. When Marie-Louise, the eighteen year old daughter of the King of Austria, is told that the Emperor has demanded her hand in marriage, her father presents her with a terrible choice: marry the cruel, capricious Napoleon, leaving the man she loves and her home forever, or say no, and plunge her country into war.

Marie-Louise knows what she must do, and she travels to France, determined to be a good wife despite Napoleon’s reputation. But lavish parties greet her in Paris, and at the extravagant French court, she finds many rivals for her husband’s affection, including Napoleon’s first wife, Joséphine, and his sister Pauline, the only woman as ambitious as the emperor himself. Beloved by some and infamous to many, Pauline is fiercely loyal to her brother. She is also convinced that Napoleon is destined to become the modern Pharaoh of Egypt. Indeed, her greatest hope is to rule alongside him as his queen—a brother-sister marriage just as the ancient Egyptian royals practiced. Determined to see this dream come to pass, Pauline embarks on a campaign to undermine the new empress and convince Napoleon to divorce Marie-Louise.

As Pauline’s insightful Haitian servant, Paul, watches these two women clash, he is torn between his love for Pauline and his sympathy for Marie-Louise. But there are greater concerns than Pauline’s jealousy plaguing the court of France. While Napoleon becomes increasingly desperate for an heir, the empire’s peace looks increasingly unstable. When war once again sweeps the continent and bloodshed threatens Marie-Louise’s family in Austria, the second Empress is forced to make choices that will determine her place in history—and change the course of her life.

Based on primary resources from the time, The Second Empress takes readers back to Napoleon’s empire, where royals and servants alike live at the whim of one man, and two women vie to change their destinies. [Goodreads]


Michelle Moran was born in the San Fernando Valley, CA. She took an interest in writing from an early age, purchasing Writer’s Market and submitting her stories and novellas to publishers from the time she was twelve. When she was accepted into Pomona College she took as many classes as possible in British Literature, particularly Milton, Chaucer, and the Bard. Not surprisingly, she majored in English while she was there. Following a summer in Israel where she worked as a volunteer archaeologist, she earned an MA from the Claremont Graduate University.

Michelle has traveled around the world, from Zimbabwe to India, and her experiences at archaeological sites were what inspired her to write historical fiction. A public high school teacher for six years, Michelle Moran is currently a full-time writer living in California. [goodreads]




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12 thoughts on “I love France #28: (2012) #39 review: The Second Empress

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  4. I think Gulland’s trilogy on Josephine Bonaparte is a good novel on Napoleon and his court, and his portrayal is more complex – at the same time exasperating and fascinating – and accurate than Moran’s incredibly biased one.
    ‘The Second Empress’ is an entertaining book but very inaccurate also. I was bothered with the changes the author makes to actual, well known facts and her rather ambiguous reference to ‘primary sources’ – Marie Louise never wrote her memoirs – on the final historical note. After, or before reading it a little research will help the reader to difference fact from fiction.
    For example Marie Louise never was called Maria-Lucia, she wasn’t Neipperg’s lover before her marriage, Hortense never was her Mistress of Robes or the closest friend Marie Louise had in Paris – the only woman she was close to was her lady of honor, the Duchess of Montebello. Neither she – Hortense – was part of Marie Louise’s household.
    Napoleon’s son didn’t have a tutor in the first years of his life so I don’t know where did this ‘Monsieur Laurent’ comes from. He had a governess, Madame de Montesquiou – the child nicknamed her ‘Maman Quiou’ -, who adored the poor boy, by the way never known as Franz before his arrival in Vienna. In his grandfather’s court, the ‘Eaglet’ was stripped of his name, his heritage, his language and the people he had known from his birth. The boy and his governess were separated in Vienna after Napoleon’s defeat, to the child – and hers – immense chagrin. Napoleon II lived the rest of his short life as a prisoner in Vienna, virtually abandoned by his mother.
    Also, there’s nothing – apart from English and Monarchist propaganda, or apocryphal anecdotes – to sugest that Pauline and Napoleon could have been lovers.


  5. She was baptized as Maria Ludovica Leopoldina Franciska Therese Josepha Lucia, so yes, there was a ‘Lucia’ somewhere. But she never used that name; in her family she was known as Luisl and in her correspondence she used to sign as ‘Louise’. Napoleon also called her Louise. After learning of his death, she wrote to a friend that she never had loved him, but also – rough translation, the original is in French – ‘I can’t forget he is the father of my son and that, far from having mistreated me, as everybody thinks, he always showed me the utmost respect, the only thing you can desire on a political marriage’. Source: Correspondance de Marie Louise, 1799-1847; lettres intimes et inédites à la comtesse de Colloredo et à Mlle de Poutet, depuis 1810 comtesse de Crenneville (1887). Historians have been very harsh – too perhaps, because she was young and manipulatable – on Marie Louise for her bevahior in the years after Napoleon’s defeat.
    Ironically enough, it was her son and nor she who suffered the fate of being deprived of his name. His story is very sad; yes, his grandfather loved him and there’s no doubt about that. But he loved his Empire more than his grandson and knew very well that Napoleon’s heir was a ‘problem’, hence he always kept him as hostage. He seldom saw his mother, who rarely went to Vienna.


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