The Second Empress: A Novel of Napoleon’s Court
After Napoleon jettisons his only true love, the Empress Josephine, who has not given him an heir, he makes a political deal with Austria to marry its 18-year-old archduchess, Marie-Louise. In capitulating to her father’s wishes, the young empress embarks on a strange and often terrifying adventure in Paris, making choices that will perhaps change the course of history but certainly of her own life.
But that is not where Moran shines in this novel – neither Marie-Louise nor Napoleon grabbed center stage for me. Pauline, Napoleon’s sister, is the most heinous of the entire crew (and that is saying a lot considering Napoleon’s horrific history). Her intense physical lust for her brother (with whom many believe the sexually indiscriminate Pauline had an incestuous relationship) is only surpassed by her hallucinations about becoming empress, and after Napoleon conquers Egypt, queen to the Pharaoh. Simply put, she is nuts – but how gloriously nuts in Moran’s talented hands!
Second only to Pauline in significance is her servant, confidant and friend, Paul Moreau, a former Haitian slave. Paul is likely the most insightful, clever and grounded person in the entire household and he finds himself divided in loyalty between Pauline – who he loves dearly (and inexplicably) – and Marie-Louise.
Shifting between the different character voices and points of view, Moran punctuates the novel with primary sources – letters between Napoleon and Josephine, historical tidbits – but that is not where the story is the most powerful. While Napoleon may rule absolutely, those around him learn to navigate the waters of this most destructive force. It is a bit like watching a train wreck, and it is highly entertaining.