Marking the Bicentenary of The Entrance of Marie-Louise, Duchess of Parma Into Her Duchies in 1816

I love man as my fellow; but his sceptre, real, or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man.”

Mary Wollstonecraft, A vindication of the Rights of Woman, written in the year of Marie-Louise’s birth

Today, we stand united by the French tricolour flag against tyranny. Two hundred years ago, Europe stood united against it.

In March 1810, Habsburg Archduchess Marie-Louise, eighteen-year-old possessor of the most eligible uterus in Europe, set out against her will to marry the most powerful man on earth.  Napoleon Bonaparte, now self-proclaimed Emperor, was at the apogee of his reign, having subdued virtually all of Europe.  Though Marie-Louise did not know it, her sacrifice would save Europe from his tyranny. Confident that he would cement his hegemony with his union to a dynastic bride, he organised the most sumptuous wedding, held on 2 April, in the Musée du Louvre in Paris.  From the moment the Emperor Napoleon I set eyes on Marie-Louise, he was infatuated and doted on her. Yet at his defeat and despatch to St Helena, she set out to forge a life for herself in the Duchies of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla granted her on his abdication. Fiercely independent, she defied conventional morality and her father’s chancellor, Count Klemens Metternich, and established herself as the most enlightened sovereign of her age, spreading consternation among the imperial dynasties of Europe. 

When I set out to write the tale of the life of Napoleon’s Other Wife I wanted to tell it straight, without extrapolation and without inflicting my reading of her inner self. I wanted the reader to draw her or his own conclusions. Marie-Louise’s thought processes were not so very far from our own. Politically and socially aware, Marie-Louise would have been quite at home in the 21st century.  She loved literature, music, theatre, opera, entertaining, painting, dogs, horses, going out for long walks in the country, romance, sex, children, fashion, good food and chocolate, and generally having fun, though nothing could match having her loved ones around her. She was highly intelligent, witty and an excellent conversationalist when in relaxed company. She spoke eight languages and played the harp, guitar and piano to concert standard.

The theme which constantly recurs, is that of heroism. For Marie-Louise was undoubtedly a heroine of her age. She is a beacon and an inspiration still today for the modern woman.

Heroism presents itself in a myriad of ways. We are inclined to proclaim the easily identifiable act, the dogged persistence and courage of a Nelson Mandela or an Aung San Suu Kyi.  Marie-Louise’s heroism is founded on many of the same attributes of these giants.  She was devoted to her loved ones and to her subjects, she was persistent, courageous, selfless and brave. Her heroism is about maintaining a rational outlook and preserving dignity, however tumultuous and humiliating the circumstances. It is about having the mental strength to accept change and reality. It is about shunning fantasy, self-pity, indolence and boredom. It is about the preservation of self-esteem and a sense of dignity.

By Deborah Jay – the rest of this editorial will be published at a later date. Deborah Jay is the author of Napoleon’s Other Wife available as paperback, hardback and eBook, is about the life and times of Marie-Louise, the lesser known wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, Habsburg Archduchess, Empress of France and Duchess of Parma, published by Rosa’s Press; for more information see Deborah organises private guided tours to Parma.