Author: Michelle Moran, 2012.
Genre: Historical Fiction. Early 19th Century France. War.
Other Details: Trade paperback. 358 pages.
Moran's fifth historical novel covers the last six years of Napoleon's reign. It opens in 1809 as the 19-year old Maria-Lucia, Archduchess of Austria, is compelled to accept the marriage proposal of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France. Napoleon has put aside his great love, the Empress Josephine, in favour of a younger royal bride who can bear him an heir. Maria-Lucia is very aware that only sixteen years previously her great-aunt, Queen Maria Antoinette, had been beheaded by the French and now she was to follow in her footsteps. Maria-Lucia is informed that she must now be known as Marie-Louise. At the lavish court she comes up against Napoleon's sister Pauline, who is wildly jealous of her brother's new wife and tries her best to undermine her. Pauline is obsessed with Ancient Egypt and would much rather Napoleon reconquer Egypt, crown himself Pharaoh and marry her so that they can rule in the manner of the ancient Egyptians. She is decidedly creepy in her devotion to her brother.
The novel's third narrative voice is Paul Moreau, Pauline's chamberlain, who had accompanied her from Haiti. Paul is deeply attached to Pauline though keeps her at arms length, well aware that of her tendency to take lovers and discard them on whim. Paul is also a confidant of Napoleon and hopes that over time that he will be able to persuade the Emperor to end the slave trade in the French colonies, a cause dear to him as he is of mixed race. These three perspectives provide a portrait of Napoleon and his eventual downfall. Interwoven with the chapters are transcripts of letters exchanged between Napoleon and Josephine.
Moran writes in a rich descriptive style and captures those small details that really brought the period setting to life. She rounds out the story with a historical note that indicates where she used creative licence and also included some recommendations for non-fiction works on the period as well as a glossary. In terms of the cover art, I much prefer the USA one as it strikes me as more representative of the two women of the story.
I enjoyed this novel very much. I felt I gained some insight into this complex period of French history and may well follow up with a non-fiction work on the subject.
Michelle Moran's Page on 'The Second Empress' - contains a more detailed synopsis, and links to an excerpt and Q&A.