Napoleon and his Women

I am always thrilled to hear when Michelle Moran has another new book out. After enjoying Madame Tussaud so much just a year or so ago, I was excited to see that Moran has already written another book set in France.

The Second Empress (Crown, U.S. August 2012) is about Napoleon’s short second marriage to 18 year-old Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria, after his first marriage to Joséphine Beauharnais ended in divorce. Although Napoleon and Josephine were still in love, Josephine was unable to have any more children. She had married Napoleon at the age of 32, and was already the mother of two teenagers from her first marriage. By the time of Napoleon and Josephine’s divorce in 1810, Josephine was 46 and her daughter Hortense was 27. Napoleon had to have an heir, and within a year of his second marriage, the young Marie-Louise had given birth to their son Napoleon II. Okay, enough history – just wanted to give some background.

The Second Empress is not only about Napoleon and Marie-Louise, but it is also about Napoleon’s strange power-hungry sister Pauline. The chapters told from Pauline’s point of view are ridiculously good. The story alludes to the innuendo of incest between Pauline and Napoleon, which adds an extra creepy layer of intrigue. I also enjoyed the way Moran developed a relationship between Josephine’s daughter Hortense and Marie-Louise. The two women, who were close to the same age, actually learned to like and respect each other. It’s clear that Marie-Louise can’t stand Napoleon, and that all she really wants is to have his heir and get the hell out of France. In the meantime, Napoleon keeps writing love letter to Josephine, who was awarded her beloved Chateau de Malmaison in the divorce.

Last spring I visited Chateau de Fontainebleu and Chateau de Malmaison, two of the homes in which Napoleon and Josephine had lived in the outskirts of Paris. Here are some photos and comments to help you enjoy The Second Empress even more.

The Cour d’Honneur at Fontainebleau, also known as the Cour des Adieux in memory of Napoleon’s farewell speech before his departure to Elba in April 1814.

The Diana Gallery at Fontainebleau, the large ballroom decorated with works depicting the myths of Diana, as mentioned in Chapter 13 of the book. Hortense takes Marie-Louise on a tour of Fontainebleau, and they stop here. Marie-Louise looks out the windows and reflects: “Only twenty years ago Marie-Antoinette walked these paths. I imagine my great-aunt in her flowing chemise, and I wonder if she can see me now . . . . An entire revolution left half a million people dead, and for what? This ballroom is just as lavish, this court just as full of greed and excess. Nothing has changed except the name of France’s ruler, and now, instead of an L on the throne, there is a golden N.”

In the meantime, Josephine is living on the other side of Paris at Malmaison, the home she had found and decorated in 1799, while Napoleon was in Egypt. Napoleon gave Malmaison and all of its contents to Josephine in the divorce. Josephine died there in 1814.

Salon at Malmaison

Napoleon’s billiard room at Malmaison

Josephine’s bedroom at Malmaison.

The cedar tree that Napoleon and Josephine planted in 1800 to celebrate his Italian victory at Marengo. It’s called the Marengo Cedar, and it still stands on the grounds today.

What I believe are Josephine’s shoes. Dainty!

The library at Malmaison. Awesome.

I absolutely loved my trip out to Malmaison and took about a million more photos. I feel like I need to spare you from a vacation slide nightmare, otherwise I’d just post them all here. I enjoyed Fontainebleau as well, but there is something much more intimate about Malmaison. If you’re interested in more, you can take your own virtual tour on the Chateau Malmaison website. If you are planning a trip to Paris, I recommend the minivan tour with the folks at Paris Vision, who will take you to Malmaison, Petit Malmaison and the church where Josephine is buried all in one afternoon. Paris Vision also offers a minivan tour to Fontainebleau.

Before you go, whether online or for real, you really should read The Second Empress by Michelle Moran. Definitely a recommended read for French history fans.

Disclaimer: I purchased my own copy of the book and paid for my own tours. I received no consideration for my recommendations. If I like a book I tell you, and the same goes for the tours.

Stumbling into History: Square Louis XVI

When you walk the streets of Paris you just never know what you’re going to stumble onto next. Back in November, I was walking in the Malesherbes neighborhood on my way to Galleries Lafayette and I passed a pretty little square, so I went in and sat down to read for awhile. It was only later that I realized what kind of history I had stumbled into.

I’d been sitting on top of a mass grave dating back to the French Revolution.

Square Louis XVI was a cemetery for the nearby Madeleine church back in the 18th century. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were buried here after their execution by guilloutine at Place de la Concorde. They were buried in a mass grave along with about 3,000 other victims of the French Revolution. Twenty-one years later, King Louis XVIII exhumed their bodies and moved them to the Bascillica of St. Denis for a proper royal burial.

There is some debate whether the King and Queen’s bodies were properly identified when they were exhumed. There is some evidence that the King and Queen’s bodies were the only bodies actually placed in coffins, or that their burial places were marked with trees and hedges. However, some claim that their bodies, like all of the others, had been covered with quicklime, so that their remains would have been too decomposed to identify some twenty years later. Enjoy some of the debate and discussion at author Catherine Delor’s blog.  Either way it’s pretty creepy.

Louis XVIII built the Chapelle Expiatoire in the square to commemorate the first burial place of the royals. I didn’t go in the chapel (it’s only open Thursday-Saturday afternoons), but for some great photos and more information about the sculptures and a crypt inside, go to Travel with Terry’s Paris blog. The crypt contains a black coffin that supposedly marks the original site of the King and Queen’s burial plot.

If you know me, you know that’s all I needed to get inspired to do some reading about the French Revolution. I highly recommend Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran (Broadway, 2011, now available in paperback), which I hear is going to be turned into a television miniseries by the same folks that brought us The Tudors. Count me in for that – the book was fascinating. Gruesome, but in a good way – did you know Madame Tussaud was compelled to make death masks of the key players of the French revolution? Ewww.

I need to add Mistress of the Revolution (NAL 2009) by Catherine Delors to my reading list now too. Check out Delors’ blog post  called “La Chapelle Expoatoire, and Marie-Antoinette’s smile” to learn about the connection between Square Louis XVI and her book.

Oh-oh, I can tell I’m going to get on another one of my “reading rolls.” Please leave some comments and let me know what French Revolution era books you recommend, whether fiction or nonfiction.









With thanks to Travel with Terry’s blog, here are the details you will need to visit the Chapel inside Square Louis XVI:

Chapelle Expiatoire
29, rue Pasquier – Square Louis XVI
Open Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays 1-5 pm; entrance fee 5 Euros (free to holders of the Paris Museum Pass)
Closed January 1, May 1, November 1, November 11, December 25.
Métro: St-Augustin