The Second Empress

For whatever reason, I have not been able to find that much historical fiction that deals with Napoleon. To remedy this, I recently read The Second Empress by Michelle Moran and enjoyed it immensely. Napoleon is known to posterity for his immense skills as a general, his dedication to restructuring European political systems, but The Second Empress takes a much narrower approach by focusing on Napoleon as a husband. To be fair, writing about Napoleon’s love life does not provide the most complete portrayal of him and readers who want a gripping, blow by blow account of the Battle of Waterloo or the Battle of Trafalgar should probably look elsewhere. Having said that, Moran does an excellent job of providing insight into Napoleon’s court and makes great use of first-person perspective to do this.

Whereas most authors who write in first-person tend to stick to one character, Moran opts instead to give us the POV of three different characters that are all written in first-person. Something like this could be very confusing, even if no chapter contains more than one POV and the order of the POVs does not change, but Moran rises to challenge with grace by giving each character a distinct voice. Maria Lucia, the Archduchess of Austria, loves painting and fine art and when we are in her POV, Moran often makes reference to the famous artists of the era or a specific painting technique that only a learned painter would know. In doing so, Moran reminds readers of the specific interests of Maria Lucia and makes her POV distinct from the other characters who do not think about how the sky looks as if it were painted in watercolor and oil.

Additionally, including multiple POVs allows Moran to explore a diversity of perspectives and develop more empathy for the characters that populate Napoleon’s court. While Moran does not try to condone Napoleon’s wars of conquest, Pauline Bonaparte’s chapters provide useful insight into Napoleon’s upbringing to help us understand his grievances and his motivations. Moreover, Paul Moreau’s POV helps us understand the human cost of Napoleon’s ambition. Paul hails from Haiti, a country that has been devastated by the French invasion, but his relationship with Pauline ensures he has a place in Napoleon’s inner circle. While Paul’s advice for Napoleon is often ignored, now and then Napoleon gently remonstrates Paul for his “obsession” with freeing his countrymen, Napoleon respects his intellect and takes him into his confidence on multiple occasions. Sometimes, this means Paul is roped into discussions about wedding decorations but on other occasions, it means Paul is roped into discussions about the feasibility of a military campaign against Russia. 

Owing to Paul’s lack of mention in the afterword or the historical note, it is very likely that Paul is an invented character, perhaps based on a real historical figure or perhaps included just to offer a different angle, but no reader should take this to mean that Moran cut corners when it came to research. To be fair, one can be forgiven for assuming that Moran invented certain details, like Pauline owning serving bowls modeled on her breasts, but as far as I know, this seems to be based on documented fact. Perhaps the best proof of Moran’s dedication to research comes from her familiarity with the primary sources. Many of the chapters are preceded by quotes from private letters and contemporary memoirs that are relevant as well as insightful. In addition to this, Moran provides a list of the biographies she considered “indispensable” so readers who doubt her research are free to check her sources. All in all, I think Moran has written a compelling novel that will appeal to anyone interested in Napoleonic France and while it does not provide much information regarding military matters, I think readers will find much to enjoy in the book anyway.

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