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Book Talk: The tale of Napoleon's second wife

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - Marie-Louise is 18 years old in 1809, the cherished daughter of the Austrian king, when she is forced to make a horrible choice - leave her nation to become Napoleon Bonaparte's second wife, or see France attack her country.

So begins "The Second Empress" by Michelle Moran, her fifth novel and the latest in a collection of tales about strong women throughout history, from ancient Egypt's Nefertiti to Cleopatra and Madame Tussaud.

Moran, who is currently working on a book about an Indian warrior queen, spoke with Reuters about Napoleon, his second wife, and why she likes to write about history.

Q: What got the book going?

A: "Each of my books has been inspired by actually either seeing the place where my characters live, or seeing something that was important to them. So for my first book, 'Nefertiti,' it was seeing her iconic bust in Berlin. For my third book, 'Cleopatra's Daughter,' it was when I was doing an underwater dive in Alexandria. This one is a lot less glamorous. I was standing in Fontainebleu, just outside of Paris. It was there that they showed us Marie-Louise's bedroom. I had never really thought about Marie-Louise, she was an 18-year-old girl from Austria and she took the place of (first wife) Josephine. Josephine was really, really well liked by the public at that time. She was considered his good luck charm, and it was only less than 25 years before that another Austrian - Marie Antoinette - had come over to marry a French king. So she was also filling (her great aunt) Marie Antoinette's shoes, in some ways, and that didn't end too well for her great aunt.

"I thought what would it be like to arrive in a country that had beheaded your great aunt, only 25 years later. Many of the people who were involved in that are still living. You're this man's second wife, the church did not recognize his divorce to Josephine so he was considered a bigamist. This was really shocking to her - she was really religious. He had recently conquered her mother's country of Austria, he had humiliated the country and her father, and he didn't give her a choice. He wanted her because of her blood line. In fact, the marriage was made without even asking her permission."

Q: What did you do to get yourself into her head?

A: "The book is actually told by three points of view. One is a Haitian chamberlain, and it was much more difficult to get into his head because I'm not Haitian, I'm not really religious, and writing from the male point of view is much harder. He was desperately in love with Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon's sister, who was wildly outrageous - and she was the second narrator. The third narrator is Marie-Louise. To really try and get into their heads, I tried to read anything that was available, many first hand accounts of people who had actually met them."

Q: What were the challenges and interests of this particular period for you?

A: "The challenges were definitely trying to show a different side of Napoleon, since many people are attached to him as a military genius. There's no doubting the man was a military genius. He would sit in his tent and write literally thousands of letters from the front. While he's managing a massive campaign, he knew the fountains in Paris had stopped working. He knew everything that was going on, he was a micro-manager. That was incredibly impressive. So the challenge was to show a different side of him without angering people too much.

"The different side I found was a man who was a misogynist, a man who was literally, truly cruel to women. The first time he had sexual relations with his favorite mistress was when she fainted at his feet and he raped her. He was incredibly crass and enjoyed insulting women. He would go up to them at a soiree and he would hint that he knew about their husband's infidelities, even if they had never cheated, just to see them squirm. Or he would pinch them and imply oh, you're getting a little fat there. And women had to put up with this, because he was Emperor. So maybe that was the challenge.

"What made it easy was that there were so many resources to draw on. Some are reliable, some not. I read them all."

Q: There's quite a jump in the places where you set your books. What is it about these places that appeals to you?

A: "What appeals to me are the stories of women... and it doesn't matter what time, what place. Stories of women whose lives were unbelievable, and whose stories really went untold. They had a larger than life existence. They maybe were rulers, like Nefertiti. Maybe they were wives of rulers, like Marie-Louise, or maybe they were artists, like Madame Tussaud. It doesn't matter. These are stories that got lost.

"Not many people know about Napoleon's second wife, thousands of people visit Madame Tussaud's across the world every day but not many know how unbelievable her story was, that she struggled between royals and revolutionaries and lived to tell the tale, which was true of nearly no one else.

And now, in India, a woman whose tale was untold in the West... a woman very much like Joan of Arc. She went into battle against Queen Victoria's men, she rode into battle with her adopted son behind her, in some cases, and she lost."

Q: You must enjoy research.

A: "I do. It is one of my favorite parts about writing a book. That's not to say that everything is necessarily historically accurate. Historical fiction is fiction, and so in the parts where I've had to change the history slightly, I admit to it always in the afterword. I think people read historical fiction because they want to learn, so I try to stick as close to the history as possible."

(Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by)

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