The Second Empress
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An attempt—only sometimes successful—to pull into the foreground of European history the relationship between the diminutive general and his second wife, whom he married by proxy, sight unseen.

Palmer (Victory 1918, 2000, etc.) has hopes for Marie Louise: “She is a more complex and interesting person than her detractors allow.” But there is little here to convince. The author begins with the birth of Marie Louise in 1791, shortly before her father became Francis II, the 54th Holy Roman Emperor since Charlemagne. Then he picks up Napoleon’s rise to power. For a while Palmer whisks us back and forth between the two, and he does manage to enliven Marie Louie’s story with some amusing detail—e.g., to keep her ignorant of sexual relations, her family permitted her to have only female pets. But the first half of the story covers well-trod ground (Napoleon’s career) and pays only a few dull visits to Marie Louise (one of which depicts the alarm she felt upon first learning that her father was considering her marriage to the notorious French devil). But Palmer does full justice to their dramatic first meeting—in a rainstorm the emotional young Corsican leapt into Marie Louise’s carriage and embraced the startled young woman. He also quotes Napoleon’s famous comment (made years later) on their first night together: “She liked it so much that she asked me to do it again.” They did indeed grow fond of each other: She bore him one son (whose remains the Nazis moved in 1940 to Paris to be with those of his father), but their relationship began to cool in the disastrous Russian campaign—and after Waterloo (which merits only part of a single sentence) they never saw each other again. She spent most of her life thereafter in Italy, where she died in 1847.

Palmer can write compelling popular histories—but in this case he is a bit like a pet owner who tries to interest you in his caged canary while an eagle soars around the room. (16 pp. b&w photos)

Pub Date: July 24th, 2001
ISBN: 0-312-28008-4
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2001