Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Second Empress A Novel of Napoleon's Court

Michelle Moran's fifth published novel was about the second wife of Emperor Napoleon.  Following the deaths of Marie Antoinette and the bloody revolution comes Napoleon, a young general from Corsica.  He puts aside his first wife Josephine, also known as Rose de Beauharnais, who has been unfaithful to him and not provided an heir.  He requests for the hand of 18 year old Marie-Lucia, daughter of the king of Austria and great niece to Marie Antoinette.  Marie knows she really doesn't have a choice- to deny him would be to plunge their countries into civil war.  He is known to be short, demanding of his wives by changing their names and requesting their specific items of clothing.  Not at all excited at the prospect of being empress with Napoleon, she leaves behind her lover Adam and her beloved father and stepmother and embarks on the journey.  She meets his sister Caroline along the way, and they all meet at Fontainebleau Palace.  She is forced to leave behind her puppy Sigi (seems reminiscent of Marie Antoinette having to leave behind her puppy too when she wed the dauphin).

Immediately you are plunged into meeting this horrific, little ambitious man.  Napoleon is cruel and demanding of her and changes her name to Marie-Louise.  She meets the equally horrid second sister Pauline and her man servant Paul, a Haitian man she took to France with her.  Through the perspectives of these three people you get the choppy and short version of events.  Napoleon marched in with 40,000 soldiers into Egypt about 11 years prior to take control of the Indian Empire.  He wanted to be another Alexander the Great and wanted it all for glory.  He cared not for deaths or money but just simply the glory.  The Hapsburg-Lorraines had ruled for almost 800 years and here came along Napoleon and his Bonaparte family with his ambitions.  His sister Pauline is the Princess of Borghese, her second husband gave her the name, and she is obsessed with all things Egypt.  She has more lovers than she can remember and cares nothing for slavery or anything besides her own complexion.  When Napoleon marries Marie-Louise and puts aside Josephine, Pauline is not at all happy.  When you read her point of view she wishes to be like the old rulers of Egypt and rule beside her brother.  It was said they were incestuous together and their love as siblings was abnormal.  She suffers throughout the book with a venereal disease from all her escapades.

You will also read from the point of view of Paul Moreau, Pauline's servant and good friend.  He has a complicated relationship with Pauline- they met in Haiti and he followed her to France.  Never a lover but a companion and friend, he serves her faithfully amidst her cruelty to others.  Marie-Louise does not seem a strong character to me and just talks about her son who she has named Franz.  She has accomplished in one year what the first empress Josephine has not.  Scattered throughout the book are also letters from Napoleon and Josephine, his first wife.  He obviously still had feelings for her and loved her very much.  The Napoleonic wars involving every major European power took place.  He soon had a dominant position in central Europe.  With the invasion of Russia hundreds of thousands died and so much money was spent in waste.  Instead of spending money for good he used it for his wars.  The following year the Coalition invaded France and forced Napoleon in exile to the island of Elba.  With the help of Pauline his sister, who sold much of her jewels and collections for his return, helped him escape and return to power.  But he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo and was sent to Saint Helena with his mother and sister. Six years later he died of stomach cancer.  His sister Pauline also died of stomach cancer.

Napoleon was a military genius, taking a country devastated by war and built an empire.  He was known for the Napoleonic code which dealt with the civil system.  But he was known for being harsh to women and not respectful.  Marie-Louise is able to escape with her son during his adbidcation and returns to her home of Austria and her lover Adam.  Upon the death of Napoleon they wed and had children together.  Paul Moreau returned to Haiti, finally abandoning Pauline to her selfishness.  I personally did not like this book for a few reasons.  I did not like the characters- Napoleon because of his bloodthirsty ambition and cruelty to women, Pauline for her selfishness and treatment of people and her relationship with her brother, and Marie-Louise because she seemed weak.  I think I liked Michelle Moran's other books better because the women seemed in control, powerful and memorable.  It seemed a little short; the three different view points were hard to switch between, and the random love letters from Napoleon to Josephine seemed to disrupt the dialogue.  Also I am curious why the two Marie's (the empress and her stepmother) are on the front cover when Napoleon and his sister Pauline were more key figures in this book.  Not my favorite so far, but it was still an entertaining read.

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