Do you love reading about royals as much as I do? If so, check out my 2020 royal reading list - all the research books I bought, borrowed, and re-read are listed here. I’m adding books as I read them, so check back to see if your picks made the list.
Just scroll down to get the info for each book, including my comments. Or use the table of contents below to jump straight to a book you’re already interested in.
Want to suggest a book for me this year? I’d love to know what titles you recommend. Click here to drop me a line.
Last updated: February 21
Some book links below may be Amazon affiliate links. If you choose to buy through that link, it doesn’t change your price at all, but Amazon will give me a few extra cents for the tiara research fund.
Subtitle: Private Correspondence of Queen Victoria and the Crown Princess of Prussia 1871-1878
Editor: Roger Fulford
Publisher: Evans Brothers Limited London
Available at: Amazon (used)
The books containing Queen Victoria’s correspondence with her daughter Vicky are like Pringles - once you pop, you can’t stop. This is book 4 in the series of 6 - click here to jump down the page and see what I said about book 3. In this volume, we get to hear about Alfred’s engagement and marriage to a Russian grand duchess, Vicky’s in-law struggles at the Prussian court, the way each woman’s kids disappointed her, and tidbits about the doings of various German princely families (George of Meiningen’s shocking marriage - the scheming Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin - oh my!).
Here are a few highlights of this volume.
Early in this seven-year stretch, Queen Victoria and her daughter Vicky had a serious disagreement over Vicky’s role in her sister Princess Louise’s marriage. It had happened over a year ago, but old wounds were still festering. Vicky had wanted Louise to marry a Prussian prince, but Queen Victoria wouldn’t have it. Louise married a subject, much to Queen Victoria’s delight. (Check out my comments on volume 3 for more on Victoria’s surprisingly liberal beliefs on royal marriage).
The issue came up during the summer of 1872, leading to a serious cooling-off between our two leading ladies. Of course, by “cooling off,” I just mean they were less affectionate toward each other for awhile, and had to agree to disagree on the topic of Louise’s marriage. A portion of the correspondence has not survived (during the period when they were maddest at each other, presumably), so we just get echoes of it here. But it’s interesting as a contrast to the usually effusive demonstrations of sentiment between them.
But the marriage that’s the star of this volume is Prince Alfred’s to Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia. In the previous volume, Victoria despaired of Affie - his lack of discipline and respect for her, namely. Here, she and Vicky hope that marriage will settle him down. While Queen Victoria isn’t keen on the idea of a Russian marriage, she ends up liking Maria - and seems a little surprised that Maria likes Affie enough to say yes to the dress.
I’m always on the lookout for tidbits on other European royals. In August of 1874, we get a gem from Queen Victoria when she meets Empress Elisabeth of Austria, famous for her beauty: “The Empress insisted on coming over to see me today. We are all disappointed. A great beauty I cannot call her. She has a beautiful complexion, a splendid figure, and pretty, small eyes and not a very pretty nose. I dare say that in grande tenue with her fine hair seen to advantage she looks much better. I think Alix much prettier than the Empress” (145).
Contrast that with what Vicky had said about Elisabeth in 1873: “The Empress’s beauty seems more marvellous to me each time I see her; it is not the regularity of her face but the most picturesque and striking ensemble which I do not think one can see again, the complexion and colouring, the figure, and the extraordinary hair which is arranged without much taste” (90).
Royal Book Club
As in previous volumes, Queen Victoria and Vicky mention books and authors in passing. Vicky asks her mother if she’s read Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone and Shut up in Paris by Nathan Sheppard - an American’s account of being trapped in Paris during the siege at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. I kind of want to read Sheppard’s book now.
- On November 7, 1876, Queen Victoria wrote to Vicky to bitch about Bertie having invited the dissolute Prince of Orange to Sandringham. Bertie’s terrible friends are a pet peeve of Victoria’s, and she writes, “I often pray he may never survive me, for I know not what would happen” (231). HOT DAMN. I DID NOT SEE THAT COMING. That’s a serious remark and not one to take lightly. Also, when Victoria talks about being happy Prince Albert is dead because he would hate to see what's happened to some of their kids, this is what she means - Bertie and Affie having dissolute friends, and Leopold selfishly wanting a life of his own. This seems super harsh to me. I mean, who was responsible for teaching the kids to make good decisions in the first place?
- On March 7, 1877, Queen Victoria wrote that she met a man named Jonah Henson, whom she calls “the original of Mrs. Stowe’s 'Uncle Tom'.” He was an 88-year-old former slave who wanted to thank her for “all I had done for the poor, suffering slaves” (243-4). This made me wonder...what did she do for them? I know nothing about the fascinating subtopic of Queen Victoria and slavery.
- See if this scenario reminds you of anything in the news lately...On January 4, 1878, Victoria wrote to Vicky to scold her for reading The Times to get her news about British politics and perspectives during the Russo-Turkish War. Why should Vicky ignore The Times? “Surely you must have known long ago, that The Times is a mere tool in the hands of Russia, takes its inspiration from Count Schouvaloff, is, I believe, even bribed...” (274) Yowza. Talk about your fake news and Russian interference. That shit is old news, apparently.
Amusing Quotes I Picked out for You
- Victoria: “I don't dislike babies, though I think very young ones rather disgusting, and I take interest in those of my children when there are two or three...but when they come at the rate of three a year it becomes a cause of mere anxiety for my own children and of no great interest” (40).
- Vicky: “What thin-skinned, sensitive, imaginative people suffer mentally and bodily is not to be told - and only to be understood by those who are so organized - for to others their sufferings appear all as mere caprices” (159). AMEN, SISTER.
- Victoria: “But you will find as the children grow up that as a rule children are a bitter disappointment - their greatest object being to do precisely what their parents do not wish and have anxiously tried to prevent” (202).
- Vicky: “We were snowed up [on the train] for 5 blessed hours not far from Borsum, and had to be dug out with shovels...The eau de Cologne in my bag in the bottle was frozen to a hard lump!” (172). Pretty sure I would die if were ever that cold. Props to Vicky for not only not dying, but for treating this as simply an amusing anecdote.
I highly recommend getting a hold of this book. You could have some stellar drinking games, were you so inclined. Every time Queen Victoria is disappointed in one of her sons, drink. Every time Vicky despairs about the terrible influence of old-fashioned Wilhelm I on her sons’ education, drink. Every time Queen Victoria mentions her distrust of the Russians, drink. You’d be hammered pretty fast.
Author: Nancy Goldstone
Publisher: Back Bay Books (reprint edition)
Available at: Amazon
I picked this up because I’ve read two other titles from Goldstone and enjoyed them both. This one is my favorite, though. It’s an easy read that goes into just enough depth on the four women portrayed. Even better? It’s a history book that’s written to be (gasp) enjoyed.
Setting the Scene
Let’s start by introducing the Winter Queen. She was Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of King James I of England. Her brothers were the unlucky Stuart kings Charles I and James II. She was married off to a minor German princeling, Friedrich V of the Palatinate, with the expectation that he might someday become King of Bohemia (long story).
The Bohemian adventure (read: fiasco) didn't work out the way Elizabeth and Friedrich wanted - which meant their four daughters grew up in exile in The Hague. Goldstone tells their stories in chronological order, so you get plenty of background on their mother before alternating chapters take you through the sisters’ lives. It’s all done very well, with lots of reminders and cues, so don’t worry about being confused. It’s easy to follow and written in a very relatable, almost chatty style.
An Interesting Discovery
In its early chapters, this book makes one chilling point about King James I: he was a dick.
He’d promise anything to get what he wanted (yeah, kiddo, I’ll totally help you and your husband take the Bohemian throne...all in, rah rah Protestantism, screw the Holy Roman Empire). But when it came time to make good on that promise, dude was nowhere to be found (erm, yeah, well, you know, they’re doing a Sopranos marathon on HBO, and I’m kinda busy right now, so maybe later we can talk again about that whole Bohemian throne thing and gosh, it’s such a pain in the ass to do things like send soldiers and money and I didn’t really think you’d actually ever press me on this, so let’s just pretend you never said anything, mmmkay?). He cannot be trusted.
Meet the Cast
And now, I’ll introduce you to Elizabeth Stuart’s daughters. If you’re at all interested, Goldstone’s book is a winner as a starting point to learn more.
- Elizabeth became a scholar, striking up a heartwarming friendship with René Descartes. The excerpts from their letters to each other are so charming. It made me wish I had a pen pal. It’s a cross between the intellectual connection of Heloise and Abelard and the playfulness and affection of Carrie Bradshaw and Stanford Blach.
- Louise Hollandine became a painter of renown, trained by Gerard van Honthorst. Plagued by scandalous rumors and hating the empty, vapid life of her mother's court, she struck out on her own in a way that her mother considered a betrayal.
- Henrietta Maria doesn’t get much play in this book because she died young. But she made a significant marriage that sprang from her parents’ efforts to recover the throne of Bohemia. Who knows what she might have done or become had she survived?
- Sophia is the wittiest and liveliest of the sisters. She wrote memoirs that Goldstone quotes liberally, so she feels the most alive and knowable as a character. She was whip-smart, a dedicated wife through a turbulent and strange marriage, and eventually became the heir to the British throne. She missed becoming queen by a matter of days. That kills me, you guys. Sophia would have kicked ass at being queen of, honestly, anything. Queen Elizabeth II is Sophia’s 8x great-granddaughter (if I did my math right!).
Aaaand, because I’m me, you know there were a couple small things that bothered me. There always are. None of them are dealbreakers in terms of enjoying the book. I only mention them for the sake of completeness.
- Those witty authorial asides? I got a little tired of them. Some of them started feeling forced.
- Goldstone tries hard to get Mary, Queen of Scots (the Winter Queen’s grandmother) into the story, but Mary has little-to-nothing to do with her great-granddaughters. The book begins with Mary’s execution, and in the final chapter, Goldstone says the Winter Queen’s daughters carried on Mary’s legacy. But since the book isn’t about Mary, there’s no discussion of that legacy other than the accident of a shared bloodline...and like I said, three of these four ladies outshone Mary in terms of their intellect, behavior, and life choices. You could make a case for Louise Hollandine carrying on at least a part of Mary’s legacy - once you the read the book, you’see why. But overall, Mary seems like a dead weight to the story. These women have remarkable achievements. Let them stand - and shine - on their own.
For Writers and Historians
There’s one more thing I want to mention about this book, although it really only matters to writers. It doesn’t look like Goldstone did any archival research for this book. There are plenty of primary sources in the bibliography, but they’re all previously published and readily available to anyone with the patience to (a) find them and (b) sift through them.
This makes me very happy.
Why? Because I’m trying to do the same thing. This book proves you can write a compelling, entertaining, and thoroughly researched book without doing archival research. Me, because I’m just an amateur and have zero connections. Goldstone, because she didn’t need specialized archival research to in order to write this accessible, popular history.
Note to self: If Goldstone did it, so can you.
Author: Christian Ludwig Herzog zu Mecklenburg
Publisher: Stock & Stein
Available at: ABEBooks.co.uk
I bought this book when I decided to dig into the history of Grand Duchess Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin’s diamond and aquamarine tiara. Her son, Christian Ludwig, wrote this memoir about his youth in Mecklenburg, his experience in World War II, his years in Soviet captivity after the war, and his return visits to Mecklenburg in the ’80s, ’90s, and beyond. It’s a fascinating story, with lots of information about the family...and some crazy wartime and post-war experiences (Dunkirk, the plot to assassinate Hitler, and capture by the Soviets, to name a few). And in one hilarious moment, when his Soviet captors ask him to sign his own sentencing document, Christian Ludwig refuses. “Let’s call Stalin,” he says.
“That is impossible,” his captor says.
And Christian Ludwig slays with his response: “Oh, I assure you it’s possible - such a call can be made quite easily over the telephone.”
HA. Can’t you just imagine the movie version of this scene, with Tom Hiddleston or Benedict Cumberbatch as Christian Ludwig?
Like with many family histories, this book only happened because a younger relative stuck a tape recorder in an elderly man’s face and asked him to start talking. Christian Ludwig, born in 1912, was in his 80s when his nephew, Prince Ludwig of Baden, asked him to tell his story. Later, in 1990, those memories became the rough draft of a book with the help of Dr. Liselotte Davis. But it wasn’t until 1996 that the book was finished. I think it was worth the wait.
Yes, this book is in German. No, I don’t read German. I scanned it and used AI translation, so although I got the gist of the story, any verve or poetry in the original language was probably garbled away. So I can only tell you about the bare facts, not whether it’s a work of literary achievement.
Christian Ludwig’s Story
Christian Ludwig was only six years old when his father, Grand Duke Friedrich Franz IV of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, abdicated. But after a brief exile in Denmark, the family returned to Mecklenburg, where they stayed through World War II. If you’re wondering what it was like to grow up in a princely family, you get plenty of detail about palaces, servants, hunting lodges, governesses, holidays, schooling, and more.
In 1939, at the outbreak of World War II, Christian Ludwig was called up for military service. He was sent on the march through Poland to Warsaw, then dispatched to the Western Front, where he ended up chasing the British Expeditionary Force to Dunkirk. Then, after a stint as an instructor at a cavalry school for officers, he was sent to the Eastern Front.
He marched with the army across the Soviet border in 1941, when Hitler pulled a sneak attack on Stalin. He was still on the Eastern Front in 1944, when the men behind Operation Valkyrie failed to assassinate Hitler. No longer trusting aristocrats in the Wehrmacht, Hitler ordered all royal officers out of the army.
Christian Ludwig went home to Ludwigslust...where he stayed through the Soviet invasion in the spring of 1945. I’m not sure why he didn’t flee with the rest of his family - he only mentions a vague need to wait out the situation and see what happened. Inevitably, he stuck around too long and the Soviets arrested him. Thus began an 8.5-year captivity that took him from Ludwigslust through a cavalcade of Soviet prisons: Lubyanka, Butyrskaya, Vladimir.
Finally, after Stalin’s death, he was released. He returned home to the family who’d been told he was dead. He married Princess Barbara of Hesse and by Rhine, a granddaughter of the kaiser’s brother. Later, as the communist East German republic began to crumble, Christian Ludwig was able to go back and visit his childhood homes, doing what he could to help preserve and protect them. It’s a wild story - one that seems ripe for a movie script. Get a load of some of these highlights.
The Most Interesting Tidbits
Honestly, this book is full of interesting bits. But here are ones that really stuck with me.
- His mom never passed a driving test. Other forms of transportation were no problem. She could ride side saddle, and drove her own horse and dog carts. But cars? Nope. Christian Ludwig says she ended up in the bushes every time. Not so her sister-in-law, Queen Alexandrine of Denmark. Alexandrine drove a car on her own, no chauffeur, no lady-in-waiting, no nothing. Rock on, Alexandrine.
- His cousin, the future king of Denmark, loved to conduct. He “conducted” his mom, Queen Alexandrine of Denmark, at the piano. Later in life, he conducted several Wagner operas in Copenhagen.
- He was part of the invasion of France in 1940. His division crossed from Germany into Holland, invaded Belgium, and followed the retreating English forces to the channel coast. According to my DeepL translation, here’s how he tells it: “Gradually we came close to the channel coast, where the English had retreated to in order to save themselves on their island. All the English troops had gathered there. Strangely enough, we were ordered to proceed only up to a certain line. We were also not to shoot at the English in this cauldron on the beach and the small town that lay in the area. Later it was claimed that Hitler had tried to persuade England to conclude a peace treaty by this gesture.”
- It’s a small world after all. Christian Ludwig was transferred to Poland with the 131st Infantry Division in anticipation of Hitler’s sneak attack on Stalin. On the day of the attack, he met Christa Salm’s son, First Lieutenant Prince zu Salm-Salm (you know “Christa Salm” as Archduchess Maria Christina of Austria-Teschen - I wrote about her sister and their family in this post).
- He was still on the Eastern front in July of 1944, when a group of officers tried to assassinate Hitler in Germany. A few days later, he heard that his Chief of Staff, Major General von Tresckow, had been killed at the front. It made no sense because the Commander-in-Chief and the Chief of Staff weren’t allowed to be at the front at the same time...and the Commander-In-Chief was already there. What gives? According to a report filed by Major Joachim Kuhn (who’d recovered the body), the two men had gone to the front and stopped on a hill to observe a battle below. Von Tresckow got shot, so Kuhn brought the body back to headquarters. But Tresckow’s injuries didn't match that story - his head was blown to bits, and there wasn’t a bullet hole in him.
Well, turns out, von Tresckow was one of the conspirators in the plot to kill Hitler - he’d tested the explosives used at Hitler’s headquarters. Out there, on the hill, von Tresckow had killed himself with grenades. Kuhn lied about there being a battle to cover up the suicide.
Later, as a Soviet captive in Butyrskaya, Christian Ludwig was imprisoned with Kuhn for a few days. Kuhn told him that his original plan had been to flee with von Tresckow to Poland or Scandinavia. Von Tresckow had refused and killed himself with grenades. After bringing back the body, Kuhn learned he was about to be arrested...and ran. He hid with some friendly Poles, but was eventually captured by the Soviets. (Kuhn later said that by fleeing and running across the front line, he was trying to commit the war version of suicide-by-cop.)
If Christian Ludwig escaped, he promised to contact Kuhn’s previous fiancee, Countess Marie Gabriele von Stauffenberg (a cousin of the main conspirator...Tom Cruise’s character in Valkyrie). Christian Ludwig was true to his promise, and went to see Marie Gabriele after his release. Kuhn was released in 1955.
What I Wish the Book Had More Of
Thoughts. Feelings. Emotions.
It’s a very readable recap, with lots of dates and details that I crave as an amateur historian. I mean, dude, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but Christian Ludwig can remember the half-dozen places he was held captive and the dates for each one.
On the other hand, there’s very little about his motivations, his thoughts, his fears, etc. For example, why the hell did he stick around in Ludwigslust so long after the Soviet arrival? Once their commanding officer moved in, it had to be clear they weren’t going to just hand back the schloss. What was to be gained by sticking around? He doesn’t tell us.
He doesn’t even mention the death of his mother, even though that was 9 years after he was released from captivity. The death of his father rated a line or two, but he was in the Soviets’ clutches by then and clearly had bigger problems. His mother is a strangely distant figure in the entire story. She’s there, but not there, if you know what I mean. So although this book helped me make an outline of Grand Duchess Alexandra’s life, it didn’t tell me much about who she was. Like so many royal women, it’s frustratingly hard to find her voice and get a sense of the woman behind the tiara.
But considering what a wild ride Christian Ludwig’s life was, I’m grateful he wrote this book. And totally glad I struggled with the scanning and AI translation. It was worth it.
Author: Deborah Jay
Publisher: Rosa’s Press
Available at: Amazon
I read this book because - let’s face it - that’s an awesome cover. Yes, I can be that shallow. I read Michelle Moran’s novel about Empress Marie-Louise years ago and enjoyed it, so I was anxious to dive in and see what else I didn’t know about her.
What You Need to Know
First off, let’s start with the facts: this is not a true biography. Well, okay, it is - but it’s a hybrid that includes brief dramatizations and dialogue. It’s meant to bring Marie-Louise alive, to get you to feel like you’re right there with her. The people who’ve reviewed this book on Amazon so far loved this about it. I...didn’t. YMMV.
What do I mean by brief dramatizations? We’re told what she’s thinking and feeling, which of course no one can know without a primary source cited to prove it. For example, we’re told she “perspired under the heavy ermine cloak and iron crown” during the marriage ceremony to Napoleon. (Chapter One) That’s totally likely, but it’s also kind of an intrusive detail inserted to set the scene.
Here’s another example: “Marie-Louise wept at the words she had written. Never had she imagined when she set out on the road to Braunau from Vienna as a dove of peace that her fate would unravel this way.” (Chapter Five) Yes, it’s likely she felt that way - but without a citation or direct quote, it’s little more than historical fiction. It’s a minor thing, but if you just want the facts, these little authorial insertions can be grating.
Good Things about This Book
Before I get into a couple other caveats, I want to tell you what’s GOOD about this book.
Good Thing 1. The sources. The author used primary sources, including letters from Marie-Louise from the Staatsarchiv (among other places), as well as Marie-Louise’s diaries, medial records, and more from the Museo Glauco-Lombardi in Parma. Among secondary sources, very few are in English, which I appreciate. It means we might get more tidbits unknown in the English-speaking world!
Good Thing 2. I love the way this book gives you a closer look at the Habsburg family dynamics. Marie-Louise and her father had a very loving relationship, proven by the letter snippets the author includes. I had no idea Marie-Louise had such awesome relationships with some of her aunts and uncles, too - Archduke Rainer really had her back, and that’s a detail I’d never have known without this book.
Caveats about This Book
Okay, if you’re still with me, it means you’re probably pretty interested in Marie-Louise. In which case, you should skim this book. But I do have a few more caveats you should watch out for.
Caveat 1: The Mary Sue Effect. In this book, Marie-Louise can do no wrong. She’s an enlightened ruler who modernizes Parma’s rules to make life easier for women (specifically, for unwed mothers). She has a modern take on love, romance, and family life. Nothing is ever her fault, and at no point does the author seriously look at what she could have done to avoid being duped, lied to, treated like a pawn, etc. Maybe the answer is nothing, but I’d have felt better if the issue had been carefully examined rather than glossed over.
Caveat 2: The Dialogue. Or are those primary source quotes? It was sometimes hard to tell what was invented dialogue (creative non-fiction elements) and what was an actual quote from a primary source. Not much is footnoted, so you can’t be sure. Also, dialogue from multiple speakers routinely appeared in the same paragraph, causing frequent confusion, like this:
Upon Napoleon’s second exile, Marie-Louise had told the Duke that his father had been sent a long way away to a remote island because he had misbehaved very badly, and that it was unlikely that they would ever see him again.
“Was my father a criminal?” he asked Captain Foresti. “That is not for us to judge: continue to love your father and to pray for him.” (Ch 14)
Caveat 3: The Structure of the Book. It begins with Marie-Louise as she arrives in France to marry Napoleon, and follows a linear timeline through Napoleon’s fall, her flight from Paris, her life in Vienna, and then her time in Parma as its duchess. Then we take a giant step backward and we learn about Marie-Louise’s second husband and her two illegitimate kids with him. That love story began in 1814, but we’re in about 1820 before the author tells us about it. I would have preferred to learn about Marie-Louise’s life in full, as it happened, rather than being fed tidbits at a time and then having to piece it all together later.
Caveat 4: The Editing. From missing words to extra words to repeated sentences to inconsistent naming to pages-long paragraphs to paragraphs that contained dialogue from multiple speakers, there were many issues with the book’s fundamentals. Because I’ve self-published books, I know how hard it is. And because the author did so much research, bringing in primary sources in foreign languages, I congratulate her and want to emulate her in that respect. But at the same time, I can’t help but warn you that this is not polished, elegant writing. If you’re okay with that and just want to read for the historical info (like me), you’ll be good to go.
Author: Christina Croft
Publisher: Hilliard & Croft
Available at: Amazon
There are plenty of books about Queen Victoria’s daughters, sons, granddaughters, and grandsons...but cousins? This sounded way more interesting to me. Her Belgian and Cambridge cousins were the only ones I could name instantly, which meant I needed the crash course this book provided.
This book was really fun to read. It’s organized in chronological order, jumping between the family groups of Queen Victoria’s cousins. It begins with Princess Charlotte, George IV’s doomed daughter, and her husband, Queen Victoria’s beloved Uncle Leopold.
At least one Amazon reviewer didn't like this chronological organization because it admittedly gets confusing for the reader - you have to keep the family groups in your head as the chapters jump between them. Each chapter begins with a cast of characters to help you, and trust me, you need it. The book ends with the death of Queen Victoria’s last surviving cousin, Grand Duchess Augusta of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1916.
The main family groups included in this book are the Belgian cousins, the Cambridge cousins, the Cumberland (Hanoverian) cousins, the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha cousins, the Saxe-Coburg Kohary cousins, the Mensdorff-Pouilly cousins, and the Wurttemberg cousins.
This book is valuable as an intro to the lesser-known batches of cousins. The caveat? It’s like a college survey course - you’ll learn just enough to pique your interest, but you’re not going to get much depth. That’s fine, because the book isn’t meant to be more than a survey.
My Favorite Cousin
The cousin that stood out most to me is Princess Augusta of Cambridge, who married into the Mecklenburg-Strelitz family. Augusta was a firecracker - always ready with a pithy comment and a strong opinion about everything from Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (“Why is she thanking God in the street?”) to her granddaughter Marie, pregnant with an out-of-wedlock child. Augusta was one of the only people to support Marie and treat her like a human being instead of an embarrassment. I wish there was a full-length biography of her in English, but there isn’t. We have to read between the lines and get glimpses of her in books like Pope-Hennessy's biography of Queen Mary.
My Favorite Tidbit
Another interesting tidbit I enjoyed was about George, the future King of Hanover. He contracted scarlet fever, and was almost given up for dead. The doctors sent for his father, who jumped up from the dinner table with a glass of Steinberg wine still in his hand. Dad forced the glass of wine down his sick son’s throat, and to the doctors’ surprise, George started to get better right away. Every year afterward, on George’s birthday, the family raised a glass of Steinberg wine.
What, you ask, is Steinberg wine?
The Steinberg vineyard is in Germany, near Eberbach Abbey in the Rheingau. Most of the wine produced there is riesling, but they also do a bit of rosé.
What I Learned
Before reading this book, I knew literally nothing about Queen Victoria’s Mensdorff-Pouilly cousins - children of Queen Victoria’s maternal aunt Sophie and her husband, Emmanuel Mensdorff-Pouilly.
Beautiful, cultured Sophie fell in love with Emmanuel, son of a noble family who’d fled revolutionary-era France. They married in 1804 and settled in the Austrian empire. A young Queen Victoria called their sons “the nicest cousins we have.” (Chapter 7)
The author takes a detour here, telling the story of Sophie’s sister Juliane, who made a disastrous marriage into the Russian imperial family. Strictly speaking, this vignette has nothing to do with the book since the marriage produced no kids who would have been Queen Victoria’s cousins. But you know what? I’d rather have the information than not, so I agree with the author’s decision to include the most entertaining information about these families.
Overall, I recommend this book as a general-interest survey of the people involved. Want to learn more? Go dig into the specific characters who interest you. This book fulfills its role perfectly as an introduction. Read it with a glass of Steinberg riesling or rosé...you know, for authenticity's sake.
Author: Charlotte Zeepvat
Publisher: Thistle Publishing
Available at: Amazon
I picked up this book through Kindle Unlimited because I’d read that Hilda of Nassau was considered as a bride for one of Queen Victoria’s sons. But which one? And how seriously? If it was Leopold (my guess, based on their ages), I was hoping to find mention of it in here.
I really enjoy Charlotte Zeepvat’s writing. Her Romanov Autumn has a place of honor on my shelf, and this book was also extremely engaging. All I knew about Leopold prior to reading it was that he had hemophilia, had an unexpectedly successful young life (married and fathered children), and died young. That’s it.
Zeepvat’s original research in the Royal Archives brought out so many new facets of Leopold’s life.
Here are a few highlights:
- His close relationship with his sisters, Louise and Alice. Because of their ages, Leopold and Louise grew up together in the same nursery and developed a bond that never wavered. (BTW, Leopold’s tutor was the one Louise is rumored to have fallen in love with as a young girl - and possibly more.) As for Alice, Leopold shared some of her fatalism and, after her early death, really bonded with her widower, Louis, and their kids. As three of the four kids who were most at odds with Victoria over the years, it’s not surprising Louise, Leopold, and Alice had deeper and more supportive relationships with each other. Little-known heart-breaking fact: When Empress Alexandra of Russia was murdered in 1918, she was wearing two bracelets that Uncle Leopold had given her as a child.
- The protective (okay, smothering) nature of Queen Victoria’s relationship with him. It’s understandable that a mother wants to protect her child, especially before he’s old enough to understand his condition and guard against accidents that could kill him. But Victoria’s parenting style went beyond protective. When he was still little, she asked his governors and tutors to monitor everything about his health and activities. His doctors fed him a diet of laxatives, so afraid that “straining” would end up triggering a bleeding episode. OMG, can you imagine being a five-year-old boy and having to be watched or interrogated about your bathroom activities? It’s a crap life (pun not intended), and honestly, I’m surprised Leopold came out sane. As he grew up, Victoria never wanted Leopold to leave her, both for his safety and because she wanted him to serve as a sort of private secretary for life. To achieve that, she denied him chances for travel, adventure, higher education, and jobs he would have kicked ass at. It was downright painful to read Leopold’s letters to his siblings and friends, expressing his frustration at not being able to have the same opportunities they had.
- His ties to Oxford University and the scholarly community there, including Dean Liddell and his daughters (one of whom was the inspiration for Alice in Alice in Wonderland). There’s been some speculation that he was in love with one of the Liddell girls - but honestly, the evidence that it was romantic love seems sparse to me. Based on the info provided, it felt more like deep friendship and affection. He was in love with someone he called “the fair one,” but that’s all we know. Mrs. Liddell was satirized as hunting for a royal son-in-law, but that’s not proof Leopold was in love with one her daughters. Zeepvat makes the case that she would have known better than to believe it could happen.
- His American tour! I had no idea he was ever here. It happened in 1880, while visiting Louise in Canada (her hubby was Governor General of Canada). They saw Niagara Falls, met General Sherman in Chicago, and attended part of the Republican Party Convention (snoozefest). He didn't make it to California, unfortunately. This makes me want to go back and hit up the British Newspaper Archive and Newspapers.com to see what everyone said about him.
- The intensity of Leopold’s desire to make something of himself. You know, not everyone would have scoffed at the golden parachute Queen Victoria offered him: lifetime room and board in exchange for companionship and near-servitude. If all you want is an easy, relatively stress-free life, that’s what Leopold could have had. But that wasn’t enough for him. He remembered his father’s goals for his kids - to become educated and to make a difference in the world. He knew writing his mother’s letters wasn’t making a difference in the world and it ate away at him knowing that’s all she wanted for him. Toward the end of his life, their relationship had disintegrated to the point where they were barely speaking. It was painful to read, and as much as I sympathize with a mother’s love, I sided with Leopold here.
- The emotional strength of his wife, Princess Helena of Waldeck-Pyrmont. I want to know more about this woman. She barely knew Leopold when he proposed, but she accepted him despite the challenges his fragile health presented. Later, when they knew each other better, she understood and encouraged his need to make something of himself. Leopold can’t have been an easy man to live with. Because of his fraught relationship with Mom, he was moody and quick to anger. When she said yes to the dress, Helena walked into a powder keg that was ready to blow. But she handled everyone - Leopold, Victoria, his siblings - as gracefully as anyone could have done. She’s a model of patience, calm, restraint, and decorum. That makes her sound a little boring, but that’s not what I mean to convey. I mean all those things in the best possible sense. If you need someone at Queen Victoria’s court to have your back, you want that someone to be Helena. Or Marie, Duchess of Edinburgh. Or both.
- The controversy surrounding his cause of death. There’s not usually much question about what caused the death of a hemophiliac. Small bumps or bruises can lead to internal bleeding, which at the time, was impossible to stop. But was the knock Leopold took to the knee in 1884 really severe enough to kill him? In an endnote, Zeepvat raises the logical (and terrifying) idea that it was actually a combination of alcohol and opium that killed him.
And as to my original purpose in reading this book? Hilda of Nassau wasn’t mentioned at all, so my guess is she wasn’t considered seriously as a bride for Leopold.
Subtitle: Private Correspondence of Queen Victoria and the Crown Princess of Prussia 1865-1871
Editor: Roger Fulford
Available at: ABE Books (used)
I love reading the letters Queen Victoria and her eldest daughter, Vicky, wrote to each other after Vicky married and went to Prussia. That’s partly because I’m nosy, and partly because it turns them into real people, not cardboard historical figures. Despite the tiaras and the gowns and the palaces, here are ladies talking about ordinary things you or I would talk about: the shittiness of menopause, skin conditions, annoying relatives, annoying kids, underachieving relatives, underachieving kids, goals, hopes, dreams, and losses. It’s fascinating.
This is the third volume in the sequence, covering the years 1865-1871. If you’re familiar with Prussian history, you know these years cover two important events: the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The latter led directly to the unification of Germany, making Vicky’s in-laws Emperor and Empress of Germany, not just King and Queen of Prussia. Note: They would HATEHATEHATE that I used the word “just” to describe the roles of King and Queen of Prussia. (Suck it, Wilhelm - you did next-to-nothing to halt Bismarck’s aggression.)
Understandably, war and politics take center stage here. But I’m more interested in the human aspect: the snippy asides, the gossip, the praise, the rebukes, and the revealing comments.
Here are a few quotes to give you an idea of what it’s like to read these letters:
1. They talk about being a morning person vs. being a night person:
Vicky: “I believe nothing is better for the nerves than rising very early and having a walk before breakfast, and going early to rest - but this I think you do not like, and it does not suit you. For me it does wonders” (200).
QV: “Going to bed early and getting up early would be a total impossibility for me. The night is the only quiet time for me - and I feel able to work then and not in the morning early. Dear Papa was very different...” (201)
2. They clash over the value of children (Vicky loves them, the Queen kinda hates them)
QV: “Believe me, children are a terrible anxiety and that the sorrow they cause is far greater than the pleasure they give. I therefore cannot understand your delight at the constant increase of them!...Believe me a large family is a misfortune” (263). Said the woman who had nine kids.
QV: “While children are small, they cheer and enliven a house very much and are an object of great interest and pleasure, mixed with anxiety. But when they grow up and you can no longer help them and they resist your advice and help - then you wish you had had none!” (264)
3. They disagree about Eliabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “Aurora Leigh.”
QV: “It is very strange, very original full of talent and of some beautiful things - but at times dreadfully coarse - though very moral in its tendency - but an incredible book for a lady to have written...there is much genius in it” (19).
Vicky: “I dislike it extremely...I looked for the genius and found nothing but eccentricity and the most disagreeable coarseness, which I suppose is meant to be force of language” (19).
See what I mean? They become real from the very first letter in the collection. Vicky, in particular, is a wonderful letter writer. You’ll want her for a pen pal, I promise.
More Interesting Incidents
Here’s a quick run-down of a few specific incidents I found interesting in this volume:
- Queen Victoria was super butthurt when Vicky basically ignored her book, Highland Diary. She gives Vicky all the details about being edited, the proofreading process, and getting reviews. Vicky, who didn’t approve of the book, did the tactful thing and just let the subject drop. But Victoria just kept bringing it up - new editions, sales, more reviews, always wanting Vicky to tell her she was proud of her. But that was something Vicky couldn’t do, at least not for this particular project. As an author, it was hilarious and touching to see a queen go through the same emotional turmoil I do when a book goes out into the world.
- Queen Victoria had some surprisingly liberal views on royalty marrying subjects. “A marriage here with a subject is just as good as with any other person, and the children born of such a union can just as well succeed to the throne as those born of one with a Prince” (302). At the same time, Victoria thought British aristocrats were debauched and useless, praising in contrast the working classes for their simplicity, loyalty, and work ethic. It’s a contradiction, for sure, because when she says “marry a subject,” I’m sure she really means “aristocrat.” That’s exactly what her daughter, Princess Louise, did when she married Lord Lorne - who Victoria originally didn’t like, but wrote about changing her opinion after chatting with him in person. Victoria had a hang-up about royal bloodlines producing unhealthy kids. She complains about her son Bertie’s kids and how puny and weak they are, and how she wished the family had some fresh blood. Non-royals were part of her answer to that problem. But only the *right* non-royals - no actresses or singers, like the ones her sons took as mistresses.
- Vicky and Victoria chat about potential brides for Affie and Arthur, Vicky’s younger brothers. It’s hilarious to hear what they think about some of the candidates. Elisabeth of Wied was a front-runner who just didn't pan out. Her name comes up over and over again, particularly in Victoria’s letters. At one point, she even bemoans the fact that Bertie (Edward VII) married Alexandra of Denmark instead of Elisabeth! Yowza! How’s that for a royal bombshell? In fact, throughout this whole volume, Victoria is surprisingly negative towards “dear Alix,” an aspect of their relationship I wasn’t familiar with, even after reading Georgina Battiscombe’s biography of Alix. It seems Alix disappointed Victoria because she wasn't a strict mother, capable of intellectual conversation, or regal enough to show Bertie off to his best advantage (gasp). Vicky is quick to defend Alix, which I was happy to see.
- It’s during this time that Victoria’s cousin, Charlotte of Belgium, goes mad. She and Vicky share the terrible news, and we get tidbits of the story as it’s passed from Victoria’s cousin, Leopold II of Belgium (Charlotte’s brother) to Victoria to Vicky. I already knew the story, but it was heartbreaking to see the drama play out among Charlotte’s cousins. It’s interesting as a side note that no one casts any of the blame onto the French for spearheading the Mexican travesty (a popular modern position). Vicky says she heard gossip that Charlotte’s madness started when her brother and sister-in-law refused to receive her upon her return to Europe, and when Napoleon III refused to send help for Max (who was still in Mexico). Victoria replies with a total WTF, saying that if Prince Albert had lived, he’d have prevented the entire thing! Also, she says Charlotte is the one who urged Max to accept the throne of Mexico, implying that this is partly her own fault. Vicky just can’t seem to absorb the truth - she writes back, “She who was so quiet and self-possessed, so calm and serious and yet of cheerful disposition I cannot understand how such a thing could happen. I love her so much” (104). Doesn’t that just break your heart?
Should You Read It?
In a word, yes. You’ll see Queen Victoria’s continuing friendship with Empress Eugenie, her difficulties with her daughter Alice and son Affie, and her grief over the death of her BFF, the duchess of Sutherland.
As for Vicky, you’ll see her troubles with the German press, Bismarck, her ladies-in-waiting, her in-laws, and pretty much everyone in Prussia. That girl had it rough. But through it all, she maintained an amazingly positive attitude. She was always there to play peacemaker between her mother and siblings. And always ready to give her mom the respect and love she deserved. I admire that tremendously.
Overall, I highly recommend this series if you want a fascinating perspective on Victorian royal life.
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