Deborah Jay uncovers the forgotten story of Napoleon’s other wife

Deborah Jay, author of Napoleon's Other Wife

Deborah Jay, author of Napoleon's Other Wife - Credit: Archant

Zoe Paskett talks to the Hampstead solicitor-turned-biographer who spent years researching the little known life of the Austrian Archduchess Marie-Louise.

Her portrait hangs beside the Pope in almost every house in Parma, but beyond the city borders, Marie-Louise de Habsburg-Lorraine is largely unknown. Napoleon’s second wife has been overshadowed by his infamously tumultuous relationship with first wife Josephine, but a Hampstead biographer is hoping to change all that.

Napoleon’s Other Wife by Deborah Jay follows the life of the Habsburg Archduchess, Empress of France, Duchess of Parma from her marriage aged 18 to her death in 1847.

Jay, who has a Masters in translation in French and Italian, was surprised to find no comprehensive account of her life available to translate, so set out to write one herself.

“I was stunned the history books had left her largely undiscovered. People have focused on her history with Napoleon and of course that is what made her initially interesting, but what is more interesting is the impact he had on the rest of her life.”

She adds: “In books I read in France and Austria she was portrayed as a victim; weak and passive. The feminist in me railed against this typical presentation of women by men in historical reports. I was sure there was another woman behind this.”

The eldest child of the Habsburg Emperor, Marie-Louise married Napoleon as part of a sort of peace treaty after he divorced the childless Josephine. It was a happy marriage and from 1810 until Napoleon’s exile to Elba in 1814 she was Empress of France and bore him a son, who briefly became Napoleon II.

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After his death she ruled the duchy of Parma and went on to have two further marriages and three children.

It was on holiday in Parma that Jay met an Italian journalist at a dinner party, who introduced her to the city’s Mayor and director of museums.

“I had contact with the Habsburg family. I actually spoke to Otto von Habsburg who would have been emperor if the Habsburg Empire still existed. A nice Jewish girl from Hampstead, how did she run into a Habsburg?”

Motivated by female biographers before her, including Antonia Fraser, Jay had a clear idea of what she wanted.

“The last thing I wanted was to pollute the readers’ minds with my own hypothesis. We are all selective because we have to be, but I’d like to think that I haven’t told the reader what to think.”

Her debut biography reads like a novel, the material and personal details make it appear that Jay had interviewed the Empress in person. This was thanks to the extensive bank of material including Marie-Louise’s diaries and correspondence with family and friends.

“I can’t imagine how many letters I’ve read. In 2010, I went to Parma thinking I was practically there but I found three volumes of letters which were each four inches thick. Then I found a footnote in a book saying there was a collection of 130 letters in New York. I just had to go.”

As Jay uncovered more about Marie-Louise, she also spent time in Vienna and Paris, but eventually conceded she couldn’t read every letter. She wrote much of the book in a Primrose Hill cafe.

Married to high court judge Sir Robert Jay, widely known for his role as counsel for the Leveson Inquiry, they have a 15 year old daughter. Jay grew up learning languages; her uncle was adopted aged nine by her grandparents after coming to England on the Kindertransport, leading her to learn German.

“Through my love of languages, I was interested in the history of France and Italy. I grew up in a family where there was a great love of art and I think all those things are interconnected.”

After studying Italian and German, Jay graduated with a Law degree and enjoyed a career as a commercial solicitor but now has a host of material up her sleeve for future biographies, including one of Giovanni Battista Lusieri, the watercolourist who worked with Lord Elgin in Constantinople.

“There’s not a huge amount of documentation on Lusieri and it would be really interesting to tell his story.”

Deborah Jay launches Napoleon’s Other Wife tonight at Burgh House at 7pm.