PUBLISHER AND RELEASE DATE: Quercus; 5 July 2012
Empress Josephine’s family has been called to Napoleon’s court for the terrible news that he intends to divorce his barren wife of thirteen years and take a younger bride, the Austrian Princess Marie-Louise. For Josephine’s daughter, Hortense, this means she is free to leave her husband, Napoleon’s brother, having given the Bonapartes three heirs. As she looks for love, she must support her mother through the terrible grief of Napoleon’s betrayal. For his new wife, it is a terrible duty she must take on in her father’s name. She has nothing in common with the strange, older man she has married and can find little in her life to enjoy. But an unlikely friendship with Hortense will bring her much comfort, especially as she must fight for her own happiness. For Napoleon’s sister, Pauline Bonaparte, it is yet another woman stealing her brother’s attention and affection. Having spent years attempting to control his power and his influence, she must fight harder and dirtier if she is to win…
RFHL Classification: Biographical historical fiction; heat rating 1
REVIEW RATING : 3 1/2 stars
Review by Caz
I ended up enjoying this book more than I thought I was going to when I started it. I’m not terribly familiar with the events of this period and had no idea that Napoleon set aside his beloved Josephine in favour of the great-niece of Marie Antoinette, so The Second Empress was an excellent way of discovering more about the politics of Europe at that time and about some lesser-known – to me at any rate – historical figures.
By a strange coincidence, I was in or near many of the areas of France that feature in the book at the time I was reading it! In fact, I had actually visited the Palace of Chantilly in Picardy on the very day I read that part of the book in which it featured.
This is essentially the story of the young Maria Lucia, daughter of the Emperor of Austria and great-niece of the doomed Marie Antoinette. When it is learned that Napoleon wishes to rid himself of Josephine because of her inability to bear him an heir (and because she had lied to him about her barren state) it is not long before his eyes turn to Austria and he asks for Maria Lucia’s hand. Her father gives her a choice, but she knows it’s Hobson’s Choice, and she agrees to the match, knowing that if she does not, Napoleon will take his revenge upon her family.
The story is told by three different narrators, which I quite liked, but which I felt was also necessitated by the author’s use of first person narration in the present tense. Using just one narrator would not have enabled the reader to see the whole story as that person could not have knowledge of all the events as they unfolded. I’m going to nail my colours to the mast here and say that I’m not a fan of First Person in general, but especially when used in historical fiction, where I feel a narrator needs to be able to provide more of an overview in order to make the story work without it appearing too contrived. To my mind, using a first person narration means that the character(s) who is/are telling the story have to spout large chunks of exposition and make assumptions about the feelings and actions of other characters which they cannot know absolutely. This leads to an air of artificiality as the author has constantly to resort to phrases such as “I am sure he must have felt…” or, “my father later informed me that…” which I, personally, find very unsubtle and which immediately take me out of the story. And this is indeed what happened when I started reading, which is why I didn’t expect to enjoy the book as much as I eventually did.
Fortunately, once the first few, introductory chapters are over and we are told about the things that are happening “now” rather than being told about past events, things picked up and I began to enjoy the book a lot more.
The three narrators are Maria Lucia – renamed “Marie Louise” – Napoleon’s sister Pauline, Princess of Borghese, and her half-Haitian chamberlain, Paul.
Pauline Bonaparte is an especially fascinating character in the way that train-wrecks are fascinating. She is debauched, cruel and completely obsessed with her brother. In the notes at the end of the book, the author states that it is likely they shared an incestuous relationship and she deals with it deftly in the story, never going too far, but saying enough not to leave the reader in much doubt about what was probably going on.
Marie Louise is revealed to be a clever and determined woman, even at the tender age of nineteen. She bears Napoleon his longed-for son, and cements her position with him by remaining calm, offering good advice and deferring to him – but she’s no doormat. She knows what she needs to do to keep her head and her position, and is rewarded when Napoleon leaves her as regent when he goes off to war once again.
There are elements of romance in the story of course, although they tend to be played out in the background. Marie Louise is in love with one of the gentlemen of her father’s court, Count Adam Neipperg and it is clear that they have had a sexual relationship, even before she marries the Emperor. Paul is in love with Pauline, although the love remains unconsummated (which is probably lucky for him as Pauline was riddled with disease!); as the novel progresses he becomes more and more aware of her faults and eventually leaves her court to return to his home.
And as for Pauline – she loves only herself and her brother.
The great love in the novel though, is that of two people we only ever see through the eyes of others – Napoleon and Josephine. The author uses a number of quotations from their letters throughout the book, and from those and their actions throughout, it is clear that although he cast her aside, he never stopped loving her (insofar as he could actually love anyone).
The historical detail is rich and accurate, and the characters themselves are fascinating. I did enjoy the book, but I found the first person narration to be a barrier. It made me feel more of a spectator rather than drawing me right into the story, and for that reason, I’m giving it three-and-a-half stars.