Q&A about the novel The Second Empress:
Q&AQ: What inspired you to write THE SECOND EMPRESS?
I knew I wanted to write something that would chronologically follow my fourth book, MADAME TUSSAUD. Toward the end of TUSSAUD, the narrator is imprisoned with a woman named Rose Beauharnais. Those who are familiar with French history will recognize this name, because she later becomes Napoleon’s wife, the empress Joséphine. Originally, I was interested in writing on her. Then I discovered that after Napoleon divorced Joséphine, he married a nineteen year-old Austrian archduchess who was equally fascinating. I wanted to know what it must have been like for this young girl to arrive in France with the expectation that she fill Joséphine’s shoes and command a small army of servants and courtiers. At the time, the French court was a wild place, and Marie-Louise—Napoleon’s second wife—was young, shy, and politically inexperienced. Her arrival shocked many, but no one was a shocked as she was herself.
Q: Why did you tell the novel from three different points of view?
A: I wanted readers to come away with a clear sense of just how powerful Napoleon really was. He was the sun around which all people orbited, whether those people were family members or servants. For this reason, I chose to tell the story from the points of view of his sister, his wife, and a young Haitian chamberlain. With all three people providing commentary, I felt the reader would be better able to judge Napoleon for his/herself, since the three narrators each have slightly different views of this man.
Q: Are the characters true to life? In other words, did Pauline really want to marry her brother?
A: I tried to remain as close as possible to the historical record, especially where personalities were concerned. This means that, yes, Pauline Bonaparte was really as wild and unpredictable as she is in this book. There is very good evidence that she wanted her brother to conqueror Egypt and reign as Pharaoh—with her as his queen. There are a variety of explanations for this, and I try to cover them all in the novel.
Q: Many letters exist in which Marie-Louise praises Napoleon. So why is she portrayed in the novel as being vehemently against her marriage to him?
A: For the purposes of the book, I took the position that Marie-Louise was simply writing what Napoleon’s spies wanted to hear. There is very little chance she would have criticized Napoleon in her letters to her father, knowing that each one would be read as soon as it left her hand. Napoleon conquered her nation, then took her hand in marriage without telling either her or her father. Unless Marie Louise was uncommonly naïve or dense, I don’t believe that any woman in her situation would be happy about it. Especially given Napoleon’s reputation with women.
Q: What is the one thing you hope your readers will take away from this book? A: An understanding of Napoleon’s court, and an appreciation for how difficult it was to be in his sphere of influence and not succumb to his magnetism. Ambition and drive in a leader is intoxicating. People want to believe that bigger and greater things are just ahead. Napoleon was highly skilled at rallying his troops, and this magnetism extended into his personal life as well. Here was a man who regularly insulted women and behaved abominably toward his political equals. Yet people still gravitated toward him, and not just because of his power or influence. They were attracted by his vision of the future in which the entire world belonged to him. It was radical and insane and somehow appealing, especially for those who imagined themselves as being part of his quest.
Q: What kind of research did you do for this book? Did you visit France? A: France is like a second home to me! For more than ten years, I spent every summer in Paris, and I was fortunate enough to be able to visit each of the locations written about in the novel. Napoleon’s life—and the lives of those around him—was very well documented, and I drew mainly from the letters and memoirs of the people who feature most heavily in this book. The letters between Joséphine and Napoleon were especially useful, since they showed a side of Napoleon which he rarely displayed in public. For me, research is the best part of writing a book. There’s nothing like visiting Napoleon’s library in person, or seeing the heavily embroidered gowns that Marie-Louise, or her predecessor, Joséphine, once wore. As an historical fiction author, those are the things you try to capture in a book—a sense of place and style. A well-researched novel can have the power to transport someone through time, and I hope that’s what THE SECOND EMPRESS does for my readers.
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