The Second Empress by Michelle Moran (Aug 2012)

ImageSo, do you have any idea how much of a jerk Napoleon was?  I mean, we’ve all heard the little-man-big-ego jokes.  But his real life, the one where hundreds of thousands were killed, without remorse, for his ambitions . . . it’s not a very funny joke.  I found this out reading The Second Empress, which, like all of Michelle Moran’s books, is entertaining.  This book is about Napoleon’s second wife, the Hapsburg princess Marie-Louise, whom he married after setting aside Josephine.  Her story is told here, fictionally.  Moran claims to have done quite a bit of serious research, saying the vast majority of the novel is based closely on real stuff, including letters that are quoted throughout.  Unfortunately, her sources don’t appear to have been very good ones.  Reviews written by people knowlegable about the period are fairly critical of the ways Moran veers from the historical record.  Again, this is historical FICTION, and it is entertaining.  I rather gobbled it up.  But it seems one should be very cautious about absorbing the historical detail — other than the most general fact that, yes, Napoleon was quite the jerk.  The book rotates in chapters through the voices of Marie-Louise herself, Pauline (Napoleon’s sister), and Paul Moreau (Pauline’s “black chamberlain”).  These voices give a fascinating, widely varying view onto Napoleon and his reign.  I  recommend this book (especially to readers who love Philippa Gregory and Allison Weir) — and when you’re done, pick up Moran’s Nefertiti and Cleopatra’s Daughter.  But then, look into some of the reviews to see how the novels differ from the actual history.  Moran’s website explains some of the liberties she has taken . . . but not enough.  Advance readers copy provided by the publisher on 


About Cheryl McNeil
I am the User Services Librarian at the Orangeburg Library in Orangeburg, NY

4 Responses to The Second Empress by Michelle Moran (Aug 2012)

  1. Luisl says:

    I’ve read the book. Most of the facts are fictional, from the name of the heroine – who never was called Maria-Lucia – to her being Neipperg’s lover before her marriage to Napoleon. I don’t deny this novel is an entertaining read but please don’t think is accurate or close to historical facts at all.

    • Cheryl McNeil says:

      She was baptized Maria Lucia. I’m not sure it’s important whether she was called by that name on a regular basis, because the point Moran is making by fictionalizing that, is that Napoleon did what he could to mold Marie-Louise into the woman he wanted. This larger truth could probably not be disputed. As for Neipperg not being her lover until 1814, Moran probably played with that fact for dramatic effect: to emphasize the personal sacrifice and tragedy marrying Napoleon entailed. The great thing about historical fiction is that it reveals larger truths. And it gets people interested in finding out the “real story”, the actual historical record — a lot of people who read historical fiction also look up the “real story”. I have an MA in History, so I care about historical accuracy. But I also care about making history relevant. So if historical fiction gets at the larger truths of an era or a person . . . I don’t really care to pick apart the particulars. I like to know that an author has done her or his research, has adhered to the historical record in the most important ways, and has noted the most obvious ways in which the historical record has been fictionalized. Michelle Moran has done that. Visit her website at: When you claim that her book isn’t “accurate or close to historical facts at all”, that seems a wild overstatement. From what I can see, she has adhered to the facts in the most important respects.

  2. Luisl says:

    About the name: she was baptized Maria Ludovika Franciska Therese Josepha Lucia. Her family called her Luisl. Napoleon called her Louise. Her letters to her intimate friend the countess Colloredo were signed ‘Louise’, before, during and after her marriage to Napoleon. This is the first time I read her being called ‘Maria Lucia’. I supose I’m very particular about these and other details. I’ve read several books about Napoleon, Marie Louise and their era so changes – the name, her relationship with Neipperg and other things like making Hortense her Mistress of Robes – and the liberties taken bothers me. Thank you for your response and for the link.

    • Cheryl McNeil says:

      Well, I’ve taken more time to look into this book, since you’ve commented on my review. And I’m going to do something of a reversal. Now I’m annoyed, too, at all the inaccuracies. There are just too many — and quite a few are of the sort that really should not have been made, even in historical fiction. I believe the genre as a whole should stick as closely to the facts as possible, making changes for dramatic effect if needed, but always accounting for those changes. And they need to make sense. The changes Moran made, however, don’t seem to make sense. I read and enjoy historical fiction primarily for it’s entertainment value. But it’s hard to be thoroughly entertained when one is aware that the facts have been dealt with carelessly. I still like The Second Empress. But not as much. And I’ll be more careful about looking into the veracity of historical fiction in future. Thanks for your participation in all this! Best, Cheryl

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