Michelle Moran is beloved by readers of historical fiction for her lively and well-researched novels. In The Second Empress, her fifth novel, she returns to France to detail Napoleon’s second marriage and the ultimate demise of his empire.
Other than taking over Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte is perhaps best known for his flashy, extravagant wife, Josephine. Although Napoleon is said to have loved Josephine dearly, she was never able to give him a child; he may have loved her children from a previous marriage, but as Emperor of France he required an heir of his own body. In order to make this happen, Napoleon dissolved his marriage to Josephine in early 1810 to marry Marie-Louise of Austria, a young girl from a very fertile family.
Michelle Moran’s latest novel, The Second Empress, takes the reader inside the circumstances surrounding Napoleon’s second marriage in the last days of his empire. To produce a fuller understanding of the thoughts and feelings floating around Napoleon’s court, Moran provides the reader with three separate points of view: Marie-Louise, the emperor’s sister, Pauline, and Pauline’s Haitian servant, Paul.
Marie-Louise’s story is the heart of The Second Empress, as she is the title character, known as the second empress because Josephine was allowed to retain her title of empress when she divorced Napoleon. Marie-Louise wants nothing to do with Napoleon after the way his wars have devastated her beloved Austria, but the power he holds ensures that if she refuses his offer of marriage, her father is likely to lose his throne; she loves her father even more than she hates Napoleon, so the marriage takes place.
Marie-Louise may be the character that readers will love, but it is Pauline they will love to hate. She is a truly outrageous human being, entirely in love with her own sense of self-importance. Her occasionally over-the-top actions are mitigated and balanced by her eminently reasonable servant Paul, a man whose opinion is valued by nearly everyone he comes in contact with. Paul is on a journey of his own; he followed Pauline to France out of love but is beginning to realize that in France their relationship will never be what he would hope for.
In The Second Empress, Moran describes the end of Napoleon’s empire in vivid, realistic terms. She wastes no time attempting to make the reader sympathetic for the megalomaniac Napoleon, instead providing compelling — if not always entirely likable — characters who must make difficult choices: What is the best way to be loyal to one’s family? When does self-respect and self-worth require giving up the person you love?