Friday, November 27, 2015

Napoleon's Other Wife

Marie Louise

Napoleon’s Other Wife
Deborah Jay

Eighteen-year-old Habsburg Archduchess Marie-Louise leaves Vienna in 1810 to marry Napoleon, Emperor of France, her father’s arch-enemy. Like her great-aunt Marie-Antoinette forty years earlier, she believes her marriage will secure peace between Austria and France. But others, unbeknown to her, intend to use her marriage to bring down Napoleon for good. Unexpectedly, she finds Napoleon, an adorable, loving, romantic husband and duly produces a dynastic heir. Married to the Austrian throne, Napoleon believes himself impregnable and decides to conquer Russia. But the Russians outwit him, and forge an alliance with Austria and Britain, among others, to bring him down. Marie-Louise’s loyalty to her husband and to France is heroic. The Allies capture Napoleon in Fontainebleau and get him out of the country as fast as they can, leaving Marie-Louise and her son to the Allies. Learning that she has been deceived by both her father and husband, Marie-Louise decides to go directly with her son to the Parman duchies promised her by the Allies on her husband’s abdication. But her claim is hotly contested by the Spanish Bourbons. When Napoleon stages a return to Paris from Elba and demands his wife and child, the allies unanimously declare war on him. Having despatched Napoleon to St Helena after defeating him at Waterloo, the allies grant her Parma, but there is a sting in the tail. In Parma, she alleviates her misery by devotion to her subjects, who keep silent as regards her private life. Remaining ever loyal to her husband, she introduces her own legislation, placing Parma at the vanguard in terms of women’s and children’s rights, and creates an oasis of enlightenment, resisting pressure from all other reactionary rulers on the Italian peninsula to root out dissident elements. 

Europe is scandalised when the truth about her private life is revealed upon the premature death of her chief administrator. Marie-Louise tries in vain to protect her son by Napoleon from the vengeance that his enemies want to exact as she fights to retain her Parman throne against the French and Spanish Bourbons and against the forces of Italian patriotism, which Napoleon has inspired. In the meantime, she works to achieve her offspring’s dreams and to combat the impact of cholera, drought, floods and famine in her duchies. Disastrous mismanagement in her absence of celebrations to mark the new liberal Pope’s election precipitates her collapse. Within a fortnight of her death, revolution spreads across the Italian Peninsula, engulfing her duchies.

Marie-Louise’s battle against adversity and pursuit of happiness outside conventional morality, compellingly narrated in Napoleon’s Other Wife, are both relevant and inspirational to the woman of today. Napoleon’s Other Wife is also ideally suited as recommended reading for  ‘A’ and higher level studies in the French Revolution, Napoleonic period and the Italian Risorgimento.


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