The last six years of Napoleon’s empire, as witnessed by Bonaparte’s sister, her Haitian retainer and the Hapsburg princess Empress Marie-Louise, Joséphine’s successor.
Title aside, this is an ensemble piece in which the above three narrators carry equal weight. Marie-Louise, daughter of the Austrian Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, tries to avoid a match with Bonaparte, whose conquest of Europe has bankrupted her father’s kingdom. However, no one dares refuse Napoleon, even though he is not yet divorced from first wife Joséphine, who still has the title of empress. Brought to Napoleon’s palace in the Tuileries, Marie-Louise is shocked by the degree to which his large, squabbling Corsican family holds sway over the conqueror. His sister, Pauline, who may be suffering from the mentally debilitating effects of mercury treatment for gonorrhea, pictures herself as Cleopatra, surrounded by the spoils of her brother’s victory in Egypt, dreaming of ruling at his side as his incestuous consort. Although she initially befriends the young second empress, Pauline continues to machinate against her, particularly after Marie-Louise gives birth to Napoleon’s longed-for male heir, Franz. Pauline’s devoted chamberlain, Paul, son of a French planter and an African slave, is at first devoted, even infatuated with Pauline, who rescued him after his family was massacred during the Haitian revolution. However, her antics (she uses female courtiers as footstools, bathes in milk and is unabashedly promiscuous) and scheming erode Paul’s admiration. After Napoleon’s ill-fated Russian campaign results in his disgrace and temporary exile to Elba, all three narrators return to their true homes: Marie-Louise to Austria and her lover, Count Adam Neipperg; Paul to Haiti; and Pauline to her brother’s side to help him plan his short-lived return to power. With excerpts from Napoleon’s and Josephine’s (always cordial, even post-rupture) correspondence thrown in, the novel is mostly unfocused, other than to demonstrate how fortunate (and undeserving) Napoleon was to be surrounded by such loyal, or at least dutiful, women.
Richly detailed but diffuse.