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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.
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Last updated: December 22
Subtitle: His Battle with Truth
Author: Gitta Sereny
Available at: Amazon (used)
Back in college, I took a class on the holocaust – one of the most goddamn depressing winters I’ve ever spent, but also one of the most interesting classes. I remember the class focusing heavily on Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich – I don’t remember Speer figuring at all, which is how I knew next to nothing about him when I picked up this book.
This book is a biography of Speer, but it’s also the story of its author, Gitta Sereny, and her struggle to figure out whether Speer knew what was happening to the Jews during his tenure as one of Hitler’s ministers.
Speer did not get the death penalty at Nuremberg – he got a sentence of 20 years, which he served and then became a private citizen again afterward. During those 20 years, he wrote thousands of pages for the book that would eventually become Inside the Third Reich. He also wrote several more books after his release – more memoirs and a book on Himmler’s SS. His claim to fame was being the only accused at Nuremberg who admitted guilt and remorse for Nazi atrocities – while still claiming he didn’t know Nazis were systematically exterminating the Jews. “I didn’t know,” he said, “but I should have.”
Gitta Sereny wrote this book to try and answer the question: Is that true? Was Speer truly ignorant, willfully ignorant, or lying?
Who Is Albert Speer?
Speer was an architect first, an admirer of Hitler second, a German third, and a Nazi last of all. When Hitler promoted him from his personal architect to Minister of Armaments in 1942, he gave up his first love because, well, when you’re at war and your boss and your country need you, you do what you’re told.
Speer’s relationship to Hitler was strange. It was more than friendship, but not quite a father/son relationship, either. There was an element of love on each side, although it’s pretty clear that neither man actually knew what that was. Their relationship was somehow all of these things at once. That’s what made it such a shock when, in late 1944 and 1945, Speer began disobeying Hitler’s orders to destroy the industry and infrastructure of German in a “scorched earth” policy, once he knew the war was lost.
But the crux of the book – what did Speer know and when? – boils down to the events of a single day: the Gauleiters’ conference in Posen in October of 1943. At that conference, Himmler straight-up told a group of Nazi officials (Gauleiters) what their plans were for the Jews. Once they knew, Himmler’s thinking went, they were complicit and thus bound to help the plan succeed. If Speer was there, he must have been lying about not knowing what was happening to the Jews. Speer was at that conference, but did he attend Himmler’s speech? That becomes the crucial question underpinning Speer’s denial. But that denial (spoiler alert) doesn’t hold up to the historical record. There’s no smoking gun, but there’s also nothing that proves Speer’s version of the story.
Of course, there’s a ton more info in this book. I’m boiling down a 750-page book to a few paragraphs, which isn’t fair. But I’m keeping this short because it didn’t end up revealing anything helpful about the tiara story I’m working on next.
I read the whole thing because I’m a fan of Sereny (we were assigned her Into That Darkness in my college holocaust class) and because Speer is interesting. He was a narcissist, intensely preoccupied with himself, his success, and his image. Once he accepted guilt for the horrors of the Nazi regime under the banner of “I didn’t know, but I should have,” all those traits were deployed to serve him once again. In the book, you’ll find out how hard he worked to prove he wasn’t present for Himmler’s speech on that day in October 1943. His entire post-war identity hinged on his claim that he didn’t know, so he spent the rest of his life upholding it. The moments where he faltered or doubted became health crises or – surprisingly – the only romantic episode in his entire life.
So…what’s my verdict? I think Speer knew about all the murders, from the extermination of the Jews to the Einsatzgruppen murders on the Eastern front early in the war.
I think he prioritized his own position and the desire for success over doing the right thing. So he clung to the idea that he didn’t know, but when they showed him the film footage from concentration camps at Nuremberg, he realized exactly what it was he'd helped happen. And that was the guilt he spent the rest of his life working to reconcile. His repentance was real, I think, but as with everything Speer, the need to publicize it constantly was driven by his never-ending narcissism.
Subtitle: 500 Years of Lies
Author: Hayley Nolan
Publisher: Little A
Available at: Amazon
I picked this up through my Kindle Unlimited membership. I’m not studying the Tudors or Anne, but I was curious about the author’s arguments. Anne Boleyn is a famously slippery figure to get a hold of, on paper and in one’s own mind. We have so little original writing from her that we have to interpret and interpolate major events in her life based on the writings of others, which often leads to questionable conclusions. That being said, I know there’s been an explosion in high-quality material on Anne in the past 20 years or so.
Does Nolan actually have new info for us?
About that new info…it’s a bait-and-switch. There’s nothing new here that I could discern. Granted, I’m just a casual reader.
On the surface, Nolan’s arguments make sense. She claims Anne and Henry’s story is not a love story, never was, never could have been because you don’t murder the love of your life and get engaged to someone else the next day. Also, it wasn’t a love story because Anne Boleyn tried to get out of the relationship numerous times, which she probably wouldn’t have done if she were head over heels for Henry. Okay, point taken. (Also, this view of Anne reminds me a bit of Wallis Simpson, who tried to leave Edward VIII several times, but he threatened to kill himself if she did, so it never stuck.)
But that’s not her whole argument. And that’s when things start to fall apart.
Was Henry a Sociopath?
She also argues that Henry was a sociopath and thus incapable of feeling real emotion. He was, however, capable of mimicking real emotion when other people clued him into what he should be feeling. This is where her argument falls flat for me. Let’s leave aside the whole issue of armchair diagnosis 500 years after the fact and how impossible that is. But supposing we could, does Nolan’s argument hold up?
First, because although Nolan skims over Henry’s shitty childhood, she doesn’t actually talk about any specific incidents, behaviors, or conversations that show any sociopathic behavior until he meets Anne. If she really wanted me to believe this angle, she should have demonstrated his sociopathy *before* he met Anne. She does not.
The other reason I didn’t buy this argument was because she defined a sociopath as someone unable to feel genuine emotion, unless prompted by others. But later in the book, she says almost everything Henry did was motivated by fear. Fear is an emotion. So which is it? Was Henry a narcissistic coward or a true sociopath? I think this question needs a book of its own to be taken seriously, not a brief subplot in this one.
Who Killed Anne Boleyn?
Nolan does her best to add layers to the story of who killed Anne Boleyn and why. In her view, it wasn’t all about Henry and his need for a son and heir. It was Cromwell who convinced Henry to agree to it, ably supported by people who wanted Anne gone for their own reasons, with an assist by Anne herself because she often didn’t know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.
Nolan argues that Anne made herself too problematic in several ways. She was a religious reformer making too many waves. She was pushing an alliance with German Lutheran princes when Cromwell was desperate for an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. And Anne was trying to use some of the money generated by secularization of the monasteries to help the poor, when Cromwell wanted all of it to fund national defense.
Overall, I buy this explanation. Historical events rarely have a singular cause…lots of factors can influence the people making decisions. So sure, it makes total sense that Cromwell’s greed and ambition caused him to want Anne gone. And yes, it makes total sense that Henry’s need for a male heir still factored into the decision (although Nolan wants to pretend this wasn’t the case at all). I’m less convinced that Charles Brandon (Henry’s best friend) had a hand in Anne’s destruction – her argument needs a lot more heft for me to take it seriously. It involves some nebulous accusation of incest, and Nolan tries to argue that Anne knew what had really happened and Brandon never forgave her for it. But there’s zero hard evidence on either side that this was really a thing.
The book is doing a service in pointing out the complexity of factors that led to Anne’s death, but at the same time, it’s not a very in-depth examination of any of them. Mostly she summarizes other author’s evidence and viewpoints.
- This book is written in a chatty, I’m-sitting-right-next-to-you-talking-to-you kind of style. I thought I would like this, but it ended up getting on my nerves.
- There is A LOT of soapboxing. I skimmed most of these parts. Although the author has a valid point (women have been misportrayed and held to double standards throughout both history and our attempts to document history), I don’t need to read the same diatribe more than once per book.
- Nolan tells you that she’s the first person to bring you Anne’s true story, clear of bias or varnish. Her exact words are, “After four years of rigorous and exhaustive research, the archives have begrudgingly revealed that, contrary to popular belief, Anne Boleyn was not the smarmy and smug, cold-hearted scheming seductress we’ve so often been assured she was, in everything from 16th century propaganda to modern day mass-market history.” But then she doesn’t cite any original archival research. Most of her points come from other authors’ works. Eric Ives, for example, is referenced many times. In the bibliography, it says she consulted documents from an archive, but when you’re reading the text, it’s impossible to tell where her scant original research fits in. If I’d done original research in an archive and found something to support my opinion, I’d make damn sure you knew about it – especially in an opinionated, the-author-is-a-character kind of book like this one.
- She attacks other writers. She never names them in the text, but you can figure out who they are by reading the footnote. I’m not sure what she thought she’d gain by coming at other Tudor researchers in this aggressive style. By all means, be enthusiastic, persuade me your viewpoint has merit…but don’t use brief 2-3 word quotes out of context from someone else’s book and then throw them under the bus, saying they misinterpreted Anne’s whole story and are part of the problem. That’s not cool.
- One of Nolan’s most-quoted sources is Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador to Henry’s court. But then, toward the end of the book, Nolan says he never met Anne, in all his years at court. Wait, what? So why lean so heavily on him for evidence to support your version of events? Also, is that true? Surely he observed her across a crowded room at court ceremonies. Does “met” simply mean he wasn’t formally presented to her and thus never spoke to her face-to-face? There’s something fishy about this statement, and I need clarification.
Should You Read It?
If you’re looking for a light, fast read to whet your appetite for a real biography of Anne, maybe.
If you’re already interested in Anne, go straight to any of the good recent works on her by, say, Susan Bordo or Claire Ridgway.
Subtitle: Private Correspondence of Queen Victoria and the Crown Princess of Prussia 1886-1901
Editor: Agatha Ramm
Publisher: Alan Sutton
Available at: Amazon (used)
This is the sixth and final volume of the letters between Queen Victoria and her eldest daughter, Vicky. It’s heartbreaking because you know both women die in 1901 – they’re facing the vicissitudes of aging, including watching friends and family members die. As for Vicky, she’s also battling painful spine cancer in the later years of this volume, so any moment of joy or levity is a superhuman effort for her. She’s an amazing human being who still has warmth, verve, and intelligence to spare. I miss her and I only ever knew her through these letters.
A New Editor
You might have noticed a new editor name – Roger Fulford, who’d edited the five previous volumes, died before this one could be put together. Our new editor is Agatha Ramm, and she does things a little differently. The most visible change? Endnotes instead of footnotes to explain the occasional esoteric reference, unfamiliar name, or family event referred to in the text. I’m sure there was a reason, but I HATED this. It’s so much easier to read the note at the bottom of the page than it is to bookmark the notes in the back, flip there, find your number, read it, and flip back. If an editor actually wants you to read the notes, they should be in the easiest possible spot for you to do so – on the damn page. Also, there were a couple mistakes in the editorial inserts (an incorrect anniversary of the battle of Sedan noted, getting Empress Augusta’s relationship to the Grand Duke of Baden wrong): super nitpicky stuff I feel bitchy even bringing up, but if I noticed them, someone way more versed in 19th century history is gonna notice them, too.< /rant >
I also wasn’t a fan of this editor’s introduction. Fulford kept his short and sweet – only the briefest of summaries of British politics, German politics, and world events. Ramm’s introduction…got boring. And I’m interested in Balkan politics in the 1880s. She gave a very thorough explanation of the troubled relationships between Britain, Russia, Italy, Germany, and Bulgaria, but it was pretty dry reading and I skimmed it.
I also have the feeling that this editor chose letters and selections a bit differently than Fulford. For the first quarter of the book, I felt disconnected from both Queen Victoria and Vicky. The letters were very dry and political – little warmth, insight, or family gossip. Later in the book, we get more of this, as if the editor realized that’s what makes the letters so fun and readable. Overall, this volume made me really miss Fulford – and respect his talent as an editor.
Okay, boring stuff over. What do we get in this volume?
Main Events & Themes in This Volume
- The beginning of the end for poor Sandro of Battenberg in Bulgaria. In the very first letter of the volume (January 23, 1886), Queen Victoria writes, “And the stupid Tsar cannot depose Sandro who am sure will never and ought never to desert his people; that after all is his first duty and object” (28). Well, the stupid tsar didn’t exactly depose Sandro—he kidnapped him and forced him to abdicate. Unfortunately, this didn’t help Vicky’s daughter, Moretta, who still hoped to marry Sandro. The previous volume showed us the beginning of this relationship, and this volume covers its excruciating drawn-out death. Poor Moretta. Even Queen Victoria finally recognized this as a lost cause, writing in May of 1888, “…I feel if you and Vicky really love him, you ought to set him free and spare his honourable name being assailed as it is now being, even by his friends” (72).
- The courtship and marriage of Vicky’s son Henry and Victoria’s granddaughter, Irene of Hesse. Apparently, there was a bit of a kerfuffle over this relationship. Empress Augusta of Germany didn’t think Henry really loved Irene! Later, after the wedding, Victoria had to remind Vicky that as he continues to grow up, Henry will become “softer and kinder” (78). I get the sense he was overly influenced by Wilhelm, who was a total dick to Vicky.
- Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It’s interesting to read Victoria and Vicky’s letters talking about the guest list and lodging arrangements. Vicky’s son Wilhelm (the future Kaiser) and his wife almost didn’t get invited due to their rudeness to the Battenberg princes (one of whom was now Queen Victoria’s son-in-law). Vicky played peacemaker, requesting they be invited. Victoria agreed, but said she couldn’t put them in Buckingham Palace – there was no room at the inn.
- Unfortunately, this is the volume that covers the death of Vicky’s husband, Fritz. This is such a sad story. I won’t linger on it here – read Hannah Pakula’s excellent An Uncommon Woman to get the whole story. I’ll just contribute one quote from Vicky as she adjusts to her widowhood and position as dowager empress: “The strain on my feelings would require almost superhuman strength to resist. I am so utterly alone. To live always with a gag on one’s mouth is very difficult after thirty years of happy married life” (80).
- The courtship and marriage of Vicky’s daughters: Moretta, Sophie, and Mossy. Sophie married Prince Constantine “Tino” of Greece, and Mossy married Prince Friedrich Charles “Fischy” of Hesse-Cassel. Moretta married Prince Adolpf of Schaumburg-Lippe – but her mom and grandma tried to find other eligible gents and failed. These references are all somewhat mysterious in the letters, but it looks like they were after Prince Charles of Sweden, a nameless young grand duke, and a widower whose first wife was nicknamed Mia. If you know who this is, please let me know!
- The courtship and marriage of several of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren: Alix of Hesse, Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein, Marie and Victoria Melita of Edinburgh,
- Lots and lots of deaths. Lenchen’s son Christle, Henry of Hesse, Alfred (Victoria’s second son), Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Henry of Battenburg (“Liko,” her son-in-law), and Sandro of Battenburg, to name a few.
Other Interesting Tidbits
- Queen Victoria bought back letters her father had written and burned the ones that had info she didn’t want the world to know.
- After the mysterious murder/suicide at Mayerling, Crown Prince Rudolf’s widow, Stephanie of Belgium, wrote a letter to Vicky. Vicky forwarded that letter to her mom to read. Victoria was like, WTF…based on the way Stephanie wrote about the incident and Rudolf, it made Victoria think she didn’t love him. Contrast this with Vicky’s glowing report of Stephanie just after her marriage to Rudolf, which I quoted from the previous volume.
- In a total WTF moment, Prince Arthur, Queen Victoria’s third son, accidentally shot out the eye of Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, QV’s son-in-law (Lenchen’s husband). It’s not just Dick Cheney these things happen to, apparently. Victoria explains it all to Vicky: “…but the poor eye…had to be removed yesterday. It is most extraordinary for he was very far off. The bird was killed and yet the whole charge lodged in his left eye and he has got shots in the forehead above the other eye and on the side of his chin!” (137)
- Vicky had a strange fondness for King Charles I. “My poor Charles I – how often you used to laugh at my affection for his memory. It is quite unaltered to this day. He is a martyr in my eyes…” (240)
Interesting Quotes I Picked Just for You
- Queen Victoria, crossing her fingers that a packed program in England wasn’t what killed Franz Liszt: “…I also forgot in each letter saying how grieved we were at old Liszt’s death. Such a distinguished man and so sad that he should be taken after all his successes. But I fear his visit here and all the parties he was asked to killed him” (38).
- Queen Victoria apologizing for not writing to Vicky because she was busy with Hindustani lessons: “…I take a little lesson every evening in Hindustani and sometimes I miss writing by post in consequence. It is a great interest and amusement to me. Young Abdul…teaches me and is a very strict master and a perfect gentleman” (63).
- Vicky, complaining about her daughter’s thinspiration: “You would indeed make me most happy and do me the greatest favour, if you could induce Moretta not to be so foolish about her food. Her one craze is to be thin. She starves completely, touches no milk, no sugar, no bread, no sweets, no soup, no butter, nothing but a scrap of meat and apples which is not enough. She will ruin her health” (88-89).
- Queen Victoria, wondering where Vicky gets her love of tourism and sightseeing: “You are doubtless going about everywhere [in Paris] with an activity and love of seeing things which you certainly have not inherited from me” (123).
- Vicky, critiquing a photo of her mother that wasn’t done well: “…as I admire my dear Mama and want others to see her as I see her, I feel vexed when a portrait does not do her justice or when there is a little fault in the arrangement which spoils the picture or the likeness…There is no reason why a photo should not be a good portrait and a work of art to be quite successful and satisfactory” (194). This goes hand-in-hand with previous quotes I’ve pulled from Vicky where she makes recommendations about showcasing particular pieces of artwork at Hampton Court or Buckingham Palace. She would have made a fantastic museum curator!
Subtitle: Private Correspondence of Queen Victoria and the Crown Princess of Prussia 1878-1885
Editor: Roger Fulford
Publisher: Evans Brothers Limited London
Available at: Amazon (used)
This is the fifth of six volumes of the correspondence between Queen Victoria and her eldest daughter, Vicky. I’m plowing through the rest of the series, to the complete confusion of my husband who can’t quite understand why I’d rather read dead women’s letters than watch Netflix. But I adore these letters. They’re hilarious, they’re touching, they’re informative...and they’re like an unintentional political history seminar of the late 19th century, all at the same time.
This book covers the years 1878-1885. In this volume, we get marriages among the queen’s older grandkids, and the marriages of her two youngest sons. It ends mid-year in 1885 with Princess Beatrice’s wedding to Prince Henry of Battenberg.
Beatrice was Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, the one she wanted to keep with her forever as a companion and secretary (read: unpaid servant). The wedding caused a rift between Victoria and one of her oldest friends, Empress Augusta of Germany. The protocol-loving Hohenzollerns loathed the Battenberg family. According to them, Prince Alexander of Hesse’s morganatic marriage to Countess Julie Haucke (later Princess Battenberg) should have made their kids nobodies on the European royal scene. Instead, the kids’ charm and good looks made them pretty much universally admired and respected. Except at the Prussian court, where they were snubbed and gossiped about for, oh, all eternity.
If you need a modern equivalent, imagine a Democrat (Battenberg supporter) trying to talk politics with a Trump supporter (the Hohenzollerns).
Yeah, it was that ugly.
And Beatrice wasn’t the only royal lady who found herself in love with a Battenberg prince. Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Victoria of Hesse, was the first to marry one. Then her cousin, Moretta (Vicky’s daughter) fell HARD for Sandro Battenberg. But her father, grandfather, and uncle were dead-set against the marriage and even the combined power of Queen Victoria and Vicky couldn’t make it happen. You get an earful in this volume about the absurdity of the Prussian hate for the Battenbergs. I side with Queen Victoria, who wrote, “...if the queen of England thinks a person good enough for her daughter what have other people got to say?” (179).
You Also Get:
- Details on the marriage of Vicky’s oldest son Wilhelm (the future kaiser) to Princess Augusta Victoria (Dona) of Schleswig-Holstein, an underwhelming match. The women praise Dona during the engagement, but it doesn’t take them long to change their tune about her.
- Thoughts on Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Ella of Hesse, marrying Grand Duke Serge of Russia. Queen Victoria loves Ella to pieces, but hates the idea of sending her to Russia. Vicky tells her she’ll love Serge, but Victoria isn’t so sure. Later, after the wedding, Victoria and Vicky keep tabs on Ella from afar, mentioning rumors of her unhappiness and squashing them.
- The marriage - and subsequent death - of Victoria’s fourth son, Leopold. His wife, Helen, Duchess of Albany, gave birth to Leopold’s son after his death. Victoria is unstinting in her praise for Helen and the way she kept herself together, didn’t give into obsessive grief, and calmly began raising her two kids without a father. I wonder if Victoria praised Helen so highly because she compared Helen’s version of grief with her own...and knew Helen was doing a way better job with it?
- Vicky’s despair when the Duke of Hamilton put his library up for auction at Christie’s. She wanted a particularly valuable copy of a Dante manuscript illustrated by Botticelli to stay in England. She practically begged her mom to do something to get the British Museum to acquire it. It didn’t happen, and the German government bought the manuscript. Were she a modern working royal, I think Vicky would have loved running a museum. She would have loved arranging exhibitions and acquiring new pieces...and I suspect she would have kicked ass at it.
- Queen Victoria’s feelings on what it feels like to give away a daughter in marriage. (Hint: she freaking hates it.) She compares it to a trap, mostly because the poor young bride has no idea what’s coming for her on the wedding night. This is bullshit, because, um, I dunno, you could always, like, TELL HER HOW THAT SHIT WORKS. As much as she raged against the unfairness and horror of it all, Victoria didn’t feel strongly enough about it to try and raise her girls differently.
Amusing Quotes I Picked Just for You
- Vicky, on what it means to her to be a liberal: “My idea of a liberal is simply a commonsense view of things, and a wish to be fair, and tolerant and charitable, and to improve at all times that which wants improving; in fact to try and raise each branch of existence into something as good as it can be made, not to change and destroy things because they are old and traditional nor to preserve what is no longer useful merely because it is old” (93). If I have any sort of political manifesto, which I don’t, it would be something like this.
- Queen Victoria, after an assassination attempt in 1882: “...I literally spent the whole of Friday and likewise of Saturday merely in opening telegrams of which 138 were received on the former day and 68 on the latter; and letters. Anything like the enthusiasm, loyalty, sympathy, and affection shown me is not to be described. It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved” (115-116). Contrast this with Russia, where Tsar Alexander II had been assassinated one year earlier, and it definitely didn’t bring the people and the monarchy closer.
- Vicky, reporting on Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his new wife, Stephanie of Belgium: “She has grown up into such a tall, handsome creature, with a splendid figure, loads of fair hair, a complexion like milk and roses, lips like coral and such an intelligent expression...She is very lively and wonderfully well-informed and wise for her age reminding me of her poor dear Aunt Charlotte” (125). This is NOT how most people describe Stephanie. Her mother-in-law (and most of the Austrian court) thought she was dumpy, selfish, and boring. Why did Vicky see her so differently? Was Stephanie having a really good day? Was everyone else wrong about her? Or was there one shining moment, while Rudolf might have still been in love with her, where the bloom of reciprocated love turned Stephanie into a stellar example of a future empress?
- Queen Victoria, still justifying the publication of volume 2 of her Highland Journal to Vicky, who still showed little interest: “But second and certainly not least of all - people write about anything now and the amount of false reports, accounts and 'lives' is such that it is not only better but absolutely necessary to give the truth simply and only as much as is thought desirable” (160). In other words, if you want something written right, you have to write it yourself.
- Queen Victoria, on Empress Augusta’s badmouthing Sandro Battenberg: “...I could not understand how she could object so much to the family when she remembered that the father of her own son-in-law and his brothers and sister were the children of a Fraulein Geyersberg, a very bad woman, and that they had been acknowledged by the whole of Europe as Princes of Baden” (180). People, that is a BURN. That is some SHADE THROWN. Of course, Victoria and Vicky would never say that to Augusta’s face. Well, Victoria might - but she’d say it in private, and she’d find a tactful way to do it. I really wish that had happened.
As with every other volume in the series so far, I highly recommended this one.
Author: Marie Vassiltchikov
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Available at: Amazon (used)
I read this book for insight into the aristocratic community in Germany during World War II. It gave me that in spades, but it also blew my mind with how stoic and resilient the people of Berlin were during the Allied bombing campaign. There are images here that will haunt you for days...oh, who am I kidding...probably the rest of your life.
Born in 1917, Marie “Missie” Vassiltchikov was a White Russian émigré to Berlin. She and her sister, Tatiana, moved there in 1940 to look for work. Thanks to her language skills (German, Russian, English), Missie found work at the Foreign Ministry’s Information Department (the A.A.).
Among Missie’s friends and co-workers? Several of the conspirators who planned to kill Hitler in 1944, including Adam von Trott zu Solz. Missie knew about the July 20 conspiracy – this book proves that. But once that plot failed and the conspirators were rounded up, Missie showed amazing courage in trying to help them once they were imprisoned. It was futile – most of the conspirators were tried, convicted, and hung with piano wire. In early 1945, she left the A.A. to take up nursing in Austria, just in time to survive the bombing of Vienna. We do get a happy ending, though - about a year after the war's end, Missie married an American army officer.
During the war, she kept a diary that she later transcribed, retyped, and intended to publish. After her death in 1978, her brother George found a few more diary entries, added content from some surviving family letters to flesh out missing sections, and published them.
I read an academic’s review that attempted to trash this book as a viable source, in part because the family has never let anyone see Missie’s originals. He also doesn’t think it’s likely that Missie (a) recorded verbatim conversations with anti-Nazis because of what would have happened had someone found it, or (b) schlepped around hundreds of pages of printed material throughout the entire war.
But Missie herself explained that she destroyed parts of her diary, and hid other parts at a friend’s country house. Parts of the diary are also missing – everything from late 1941 to early 1943. And after the failure of the July 20 plot, she started writing in shorthand because she knew how dangerous the contents could be.
This all seems reasonable to me.
What’s not reasonable is to expect a perfectly intact document with impeccable provenance to emerge out of the situation Missie described. I mean…did he read the book? I lost count of how many times she got bombed out of an office or a residence. Of course the diary was written in fits and starts. Of course it wasn’t a cohesive single document. It was war. Shit burned down. Shit got destroyed. She wrote what she could while scrounging for food and trying not to be killed by the falling walls of burned out apartment buildings.
To me, it's pointless to nitpick the provenance when what the diary contains is so interesting and moving.
And as for the verbatim conversations with anti-Nazis being unlikely, his implication is that Missie filled these in later. But if we’re going to talk about the veracity and fallibility of sources, what would this critic say about the firsthand testimony of a wartime survivor delivered one, five, ten, or twenty years later? The memory plays tricks. We don’t always know what we think we know. People have always lied in letters, lied in their diaries, and lied to each other’s faces. Even when you have documented provenance, you have to evaluate the veracity of a source. I do agree with him on that point. But I want to know what he’d consider infallible in terms of a firsthand source. I bet you could poke holes in that, too.
Long story short, that guy can suck it. Anyone who overlooks this book as a source for life in wartime Berlin is missing out.
A Few Representative Tidbits
- Monday, 15 January 1940: “A new government decree: no baths excepting on Saturdays and Sundays. This is quite a blow, as one gets amazingly dirty in a big town and it was one of the few ways to be warm.” (4)
- Thursday, 14 March 1940: “Later, a lot of Italian ladies came around [to Elena Bennazzo’s]. They are, apparently, knitting tiny garments for Goering’s baby. Seems a bit much.” (7)
- Tuesday, 13 August 1940: “This evening C.C. Pfuel, two other guests and I managed to consume 120 crawfish. (26)
- Sunday, 29 September 1940: “Air-raid…people are beginning to distrust cellars. A few nights ago a bomb landed on a house nearby, hitting it from the side. Though the house itself remained standing, in the cellar the pipes burst and all the inmates were drowned.” (31)
- Wednesday, 11 June 1941: "Albert and Dicky Eltz dropped in. On their way home later, they stumbled over a man lying dead in the street. He must have been hit by a bus but, owing to the blackout, nobody had noticed.” (55)
- Saturday, 5 September 1942: “Mamma read out a letter she had just received from Irena in Rome, who gives a perfectly dreadful description of Hugo Windisch-Graetz’s death. Apparently he was trying out a new plane which promptly disintegrated, hurtling him out into space.” (75)
- Tuesday, 23 November 1943: “The air pressure was dreadful and the noise deafening. For the first time I understood what the expression Bombenteppich [‘bomb carpet’] means…At one point there was a shower of broken glass and all three doors of the basement flew into the room, torn off their hinges.” (106)
- Wednesday, 23 February 1944: “A large bomb hit the Hotel Bristol, one of the few surviving hotels in town, during a big official dinner. Sixty people were buried alive, including several well-known generals. It took fifty hours to dig them out and by then most of them were dead.” (150)
- Tuesday, 27 June 1944: “A 1 a.m. that night another raid. I hurried Tatiana and Paul a little, as the shooting was already violent. At last they were dressed and we got down to the cellar, a dismal affair, rather like an old dungeon, narrow and high and full of hot-water pipes, which gave one nasty thoughts of being drenched, if hit, in boiling water. I am getting more and more nervous during air-raids…Sprechen verboten [no talking] was plastered all over the walls, probably so as not to use up oxygen should we be buried alive.” (183)
You get the picture.
This book is INTENSE.
For me, it was impossible to put it down. As the trajectory of the war took Missie and her friends deeper into danger, I just had to know that they were okay before I turned off my Kindle. But a lot of them weren’t, and I felt Missie’s fear, despair, and hopelessness. I was so relieved when the war ended, but incredibly sad for the destruction and loss of life.
Should You Read This Book?
An unqualified yes.
Subtitle: Napoleon’s Marshal, Sweden’s King
Author: Alan Palmer
Publisher: Lume Books (eBook)
Available at: Amazon (free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers)
Alan Palmer is a really enjoyable writer. Like Theo Aronson, he gives you an accessible narrative and doesn’t get too bogged down in politics or battles. Heresy to many of you, I know!
I was glad to see a fair amount of info on Bernadotte’s wife (and Napoleon’s ex-girlfriend), Désirée Clary…although I’m not sure I’m her biggest fan. Homegirl found herself Crown Princess of Sweden and then refused to go there for health reasons. I call bullshit on that, since she spent the last two decades of her life there, cold weather be damned. It reminded me of Victoria of Baden, a later queen whose health issues also caused her to bail for warmer climes.
Since I know nothing about Bernadotte coming into this, I can’t tell you if Palmer has a “position” on him. Yes, he served with and under Napoleon. Yes, he later fought against Napoleon at the Battle of the Nations (as Crown Prince of Sweden). I imagine that begs the question for Napoleonic fanboys and fangirls…is he a traitor? Or did he get lucky and take advantage of a fantastic opportunity?
Palmer doesn’t lionize Bernadotte, but he’s not very critical of him, either. He treads a light middle ground. I’d be interested in seeing perspectives on the far right and far left after reading this. Here’s a representative sample of how that middle ground turns out: “His political opinions defy easy analysis: he was a staunch Jacobin in early years, a persistent legend maintaining that his arm was tattooed with republican imprecations, and yet by 1813 he was able to convince himself that his homeland needed a constitutional monarchy and that he was himself called to become King of the French.”
I love that his last chapter is a look at Bernadotte’s legacy. Too many biographies end when the subject dies or is buried, and it’s one of my pet peeves. That’s NOT the whole story. How did their loved ones react to their death? How were they perceived after their death? Did that opinion change over time? What influence did they have? Palmer’s last chapter answers all those questions, and I really appreciated being able to put a mental bow on Bernadotte’s story by connecting Karl Johan’s legacy with Folke Bernadotte.
Not much to bitch about here!
- There are no maps in the text of this eBook (not sure if the paper version has one?). It would have been SUPER helpful for the descriptions of Wagram, Leipzig, Jena, and a few other battles to have one. Especially since Bernadotte’s timely arrival (or lack thereof) played a role in some of these outcomes.
- There are no footnotes. If you want to figure out where a quote came from, you’re on your own. The Notes and Sources chapter gives information in paragraph form, explaining where he got particular information from, but not at the individual quotation level. He used a 3-volume English-language biography by Sir D. Plunket Barton, as well as a 3-volume Swedish language biography by T. Tson Höjer, among other sources.
Should You Read This Book?
If, like me, you want an answer to the question of how a French soldier became a king, yes. It’s entertaining, it’s a fast read, and if you want to delve further into Bernadotte’s character, the sources here are your next best bet, I’d imagine.
Translator: David A. Hackett
Publisher: Westview Press
Available at: Amazon (used via the Marketplace)
This book is a compilation of reports made by prisoners in the immediate aftermath of the camp’s liberation. To report on what had happened there, an intelligence team from the Psychological Warfare Division of the US Army asked prisoners to document what had gone on – how and why they were imprisoned, the atrocities, how the camp had been run, and more. They compiled this information into a report, which was later published as a book.
That’s what makes this book so unique. The prisoners hadn’t even left the camp yet, and they documented everything they knew while it was still fresh. None of their testimonies were influenced by later research or revelations, or what people said or did during the Nuremberg trials. Everything here was put down in mid-late April of 1945, mere days after American tanks rolled through and the SS staff fled.
That’s why you can’t “review” a book like this. It’s historical documentation, not someone’s personal manuscript. It was such a wrenching read, but well worth the emotional effort.
Here are just a few of the tidbits I learned, aside from what I’ll put in Mafalda’s post later:
- The camp had a library, a cinema, a bank, and a brothel. Most of the books in the library came from the prisoners, who asked their families to send them reading material. Both prisoners and the SS guards borrowed books. One guy, Adjutant SS Captain Schmidt, read 38 adventure/crime novels in a month. The brothel had a 2-mark entrance fee, FYI.
- The prisoners were remarkably well organized. They had secretly smuggled arms into camp after the 1944 air raid, and created an underground military unit. When most of the SS staff fled in April of 1945, these military units took control of the camp before the Americans arrived. They overpowered the remaining guards in the watch towers and took them into custody.
- The camp didn’t start out with a crematorium. Before 1940, corpses had to be taken into nearby Weimar or Jena for cremation. Once time, as the hearse was traveling through central Weimar, a coffin fell out in front of a coffee shop. Two emaciated bodies tumbled out of the coffin.
- Major Höffner, an Austrian, was imprisoned for having a Jewish wife. Other people told him get divorced and solve the problem, but he refused. Even when threatened, he refused. Eventually, he was “shot while trying to escape,” which was Nazi code for “we killed this guy for no real reason.”
- The arts were alive among prisoners in Buchenwald. They staged concerts in the cinema building, put on plays, ran a writing contest, and arranged an exhibition of graphic art produced in the camp.
- Sometimes a miracle happened. In 1938, a man in roll call square collapsed as the SS guards kicked him. He got up and ran to the Commandant nearby. “You can shoot me, but I will not let you beat me,” he said. He pointed to the “pour le mérite” medal he wore around his neck and explained that he was WWI aviator Kurt Wolff. The commandant released him the next day.
If you’re at all interested in World War II, Jewish history, or the political history of Germany in the 1930s and 40s, this is worth your time and money. Plus, if you live in a bubble like me, this book will make you realize everything you think is a problem is not. Everything you complain about is not worth complaining about. Anything that seems wrong is actually a cakewalk compared to what these people went through.
Subtitle: Jewels of Sovereigns Since 1780
Authors: Christophe Vachaudez and Stéphane Bern
Available at: Amazon
The text here actually offers more information than a few other exhibit publications I have (not many, so this is a small sample size). The opening essay, “The Symbolism of Tiaras” by Stéphane Bern, focused on the Swedish cameo tiara as a segue into a brief history of tiaras beginning with Greece and Rome through high society in the 19th century. It’s not designed to be comprehensive, but it’s a nice entry point for the exhibition. “Majestic Chaumet” by Christophe Vachaudez gives you an in-depth history of the house of Chaumet itself, which is interesting background info I didn’t have before.
What I enjoyed most about this book was the range of objects included. Yes, you have plenty of tiaras and jewels. But you also have sculptures, paintings, photos (which, in the case of the Yusupov tiara, is all we have left), drawings, clothing, jewelry boxes, and the actual wedding basket that contained Josephine’s presents from Napoleon.
I don’t know if these objects were also part of the real-life exhibit, or just included in the book for the sake of completeness. Either way, I loved seeing some paintings of Empress Josephine I’d never seen before. And there’s a GORGEOUS painting of Caroline Murat wearing amethysts big enough to choke a horse.
If there’s a drawback to this book, I’d say it’s the uneven amount of information we have on each jewel.
Some, like the Luxembourg art deco tiara and the Bourbon-Parma tiara, have up to a full page of information about them. Others have very little information – there’s a gorgeous ribbon bowknot tiara on page 137, for example, that has a paragraph of generic information about the sentiment of love expressed in jewelry, and only one line about the tiara itself (telling us it has floral garlands, which isn’t especially helpful). This might not bother anyone else, but I’m nosy. Enquiring minds want to know.
Still, for the price - less than $30 on Amazon - this is worth adding to your collection.
Subtitle: The Triumph and the Tragedy of European Monarchy 1910-1918
Author: Theo Aronson
Publisher: Thistle Publishing
Year: 1986 (original), 2015 (digital)
Available at: Amazon
As always, Aronson’s books focus on the people instead of the politics. I love that about his books – it played really well in The Coburgs of Belgium, for example. But I think my problem with this book is that it’s too big a topic. There are too many families and characters to do justice to, and the book ends up feeling like a college survey course (and you’re the bored senior finally getting around to taking it).
It’s obvious that plenty of research went into this book – in the opening note, Aronson thanks the Queen Mother and Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone for their memories and impressions. He thanks librarians at a bunch of national libraries and archives. A ton of work went into this book. I respect and admire that, of course. But something in the scope is lacking. As a former boss of mine used to say, the goal of good content is “depthness.” But a survey, by nature, precludes depth. Where does that leave us?
Should You Read This Book?
If you’re brand-new to late 19th and early 20th century history, yes!
If you’re well-versed in the falls of the Hohenzollerns, Habsburgs, and Romanovs, probably not. You’re probably not going to get enough new info to make it worth your time. Unless you’re looking for info on the harder-to-research royals. You know, the ones without a ton of English-language sources, like Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria and King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and King Peter of Serbia. You’ll get a general outline of what happened to them during the war, and a few interesting quotes and tidbits.
The Main Problem with This Book
Overall, I think this book is best for people who know little or nothing about the royal families of Europe during World War I. You get such a cursory look at each one that you won’t get bogged down in the details.
On the other hand, because you don’t get a complete picture of any sovereign’s life, you’re plunged into the story with an incomplete understanding of them as people.
That’s a bit problematic when the storytelling approach focuses on them as people. You don’t get the nuances and the struggles that help explain, for example, why Tsarina Alexandra of Russia kept Rasputin around long after virtually everyone at court was scheming to get rid of him. If you don’t understand Spala, you don’t understand Rasputin. It’s one thing to know that she believed Rasputin could help ease Alexei’s attacks of hemophilia. It’s another to read accounts of what happened at Spala in 1912, when Alexandra had to listen to her child screaming in pain, begging to be put out of his misery. Then you understand why she would never send him away, no matter how many family members advised her to. See the difference?
That being said, there are always interesting tidbits we can glean from Aronson’s good research. Here are my favorite juicy nuggets:
- Just gonna give you the quote and let you absorb the full impact of this: “One poor princess of Saxe-Weimar, on being told that she could not possibly, as a member of a royal family, marry a Jewish banker, promptly shot herself.” Holy shit, right?
- Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria was all set to give a valuable armaments contract to Krupp. But while in Potsdam, Kaiser Wilhelm II slapped him on the ass. Ferdinand was so disturbed by the incident that he gave the armaments contract to a French firm instead.
- According to a British consul-general, King George V couldn’t speak German and could barely speak French. With French being the lingua franca of nobility and royalty, especially in the 1870s when George began his education, I’m surprised at this. Well, okay, maybe only a little surprised. His mom was pretty lax when it came to things like schooling and discipline for the kids.
- Victor Emmanuel III of Italy was kind of a brainiac. Aronson uses an unsourced quote describing him as “the single really learned monarch in Europe.” For example, he talked to a visiting Greek scholar about “some abstruse point on Homer.” He talked to a British Naval Intelligence officer about the Royal Navy and made it clear he knew a lot about them. He was informed, he was easy to talk to, and I kind of wish I could have met him. He probably would have kicked ass at Jeopardy!. OMG, now I can’t stop wishing I could see that.
- This quote about World War I from Count Czernin, Austria’s foreign minister, killed me: “We were bound to die. We were at liberty to choose the manner of our death, and we chose the most terrible.” Gets you right in the feels, doesn't it?
- This vignette matches my feelings about the kaiser’s obsession with military ceremony. Wilhelm II, in an attempt to get Ferdinand of Bulgaria to declare for the Central Powers, said, “If he doesn’t come to his senses, I’ll strike him off the rolls as Honorary Colonel of the Regiment.” What did a member of the Kaiser’s suite say? Pretty much what I would have said: “That would, of course, make him see reason.” HA.
Author: Daisy, Princess of Pless
Publisher: E.P. Dutton & Co.
Available at: Archive.org (free)
Daisy was born to a poor but noble British family in 1873. Her older sister, nicknamed Shelagh, would go on to marry the second Duke of Westminster. I say “poor,” but that’s only compared to other noble families; Daisy grew up in a castle, and her parents took her abroad so she could learn to sing.
During her very first London season, she received a proposal from Prince Hans Heinrich XV of Pless. He was a wealthy sovereign prince with large estates in Silesia (modern-day Poland). When she left England for Germany in 1891, one of her first stops was to see the Empress Friedrich (Vicky), Queen Victoria's oldest daughter. Vicky asked her son, Kaiser Wilhelm II, to look after Daisy. As another English woman who had trouble adapting her liberal thoughts and actions to conservative Germany, she knew Daisy was going to need help.
For the next fourteen years, Daisy met everyone worth knowing in Edwardian society. She and her husband made frequent trips to England, Paris, Berlin, and the French Riviera. Her descriptions of these years are immersive – like the series Downton Abbey, they give you the feeling that you’re actually there. That’s because she doesn’t skimp on details about ordinary things like transportation, food, and clothing.
But as tensions grew between Great Britain and Germany, she made it her mission to try and stop the two nations from going to war. But as a society beauty, the most she could do was try to get important people in the same room and get them to talk to each other. It wasn’t enough.
According to her diary, being an Englishwoman in Silesia during World War I wasn't easy. The German High Command suspected of being a spy, and they opened and read her mail to make sure she wasn't sending secrets to England.
Daisy didn’t exactly make things easy on herself – a theme in this book. She tries to sidestep several scandals, but it’s pretty obvious that she didn’t handle them in the best way. Case in point – while in Belgrade nursing, she heard about the suicide of the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. They were good friends, according to Daisy, but a Berlin newspaper printed a story that he’d killed himself over her. She wrote to Wilhelm II to say it wasn’t true, that it was libel. Wilhelm had his ADC write back to her saying he believed her, but that he wanted her to go work in Germany and stay away from foreign hospitals. Did she do it? Nope. She wrote to Hermann Hatzfeldt to ask whether she should go back to Belgrade, or take the next nursing job she’d already accepted in Romania. Note that neither of these two options are what the Kaiser asked her to do. The optics here? She used him when he could help her, but had no intention of fulfilling a reasonable request.
There are a lot of episodes like that.
She describes herself as wholly British in body, mind, and soul, and often refused to bend to the strict German etiquette. On one hand, I get it – she married young, she didn’t know what she was getting into, and no one warned her. She wasn’t capable of making a good decision when she accepted her husband’s proposal and, as a result, life in Germany. However, she also seems to willfully cause trouble by disobeying orders and doing things her way.
And being known as a party girl and a flirt didn't exactly help Daisy's reputation. I lost count of how many times she had to sweet talk someone (usually the Kaiser or her husband) into believing her instead of the press or society matrons, who said she’d done something wrong. Again, much of that gossip arose because she didn’t conform to German etiquette. Pre-war, this wasn’t a huge deal. But during a war, it’s a really bad idea. It marked her as a target, and she was kicked out of at least two nursing positions because of it.
How Reliable Is She?
That depends. About other people, I think she’s pretty reliable. About herself…erm…less so.
For example, she’s 100% clear that Queen Sophie of Greece (a Prussian by birth) did not encourage her husband to join the war on the side of the Axis Powers. When Greece did declare for the Axis Powers and lost, Sophie was an easy scapegoat. Because her brother was the Kaiser, it was said she pushed her husband to join the war on her brother’s team. Nope, says Daisy. Not true. And she’s right.
As another example, let’s look at Kaiser Wilhelm II. She admits he was largely responsible for the war, thanks to his posturing and competition with his uncle, Edward VII. But during the war, she realizes that he had absolutely no control over anything…and wonders what it must have been like for him when he had that same realization. She also points out the times he was kind to her, separating his private persona from his public one. In other words, she presents him as a flawed and believable human being. Where Wilhelm is concerned, I think we can believe her.
But she won’t admit when she herself has made a mistake, or when she’s covering something up. It makes it hard to believe her when she insists that every scandal involving her was made up. Did the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz commit suicide over her? She says absolutely not, and that’s believable.
But did she ask for (or simply allow) a luxurious saloon coach to be put on her nursing train specifically for her accommodation? She says no, claiming it was just a third-class carriage that functioned as a storage room as well as accommodation for herself and her maid. She says she had the same accommodation as the doctors, accountants, and the military escort. But were those guys traveling with a maid? How many of them slept to a car? Her protest just doesn’t ring true in this case. YMMV.
- “I did not like being told that I was ugly; no one does, not boys – or even men, as I found out later.” (16)
- “Either of my parents would have done anything in the world for me – except tell me the truth. (28)
- “It is not difficult to be good looking in Germany.” (109)
- A sick burn for Empress Augusta Viktoria of Germany: “For a woman in that position I never met anyone devoid of any individual thought, or agility of brain and understanding. She is just like a good, quiet soft cow that has calves and eats grass slowly and then lies down and ruminates.” (166)
- Praise for Grand Duchess Augusta of Mecklenburg-Strelitz: “If I had one-tenth of the intellect that she has, I should be thankful.” (415)
- “If I cannot say what I want to say I just shut up.” (285)
- “Royalties are very nice to meet occasionally but difficult to life with…difficult as it is when the family is actually a reigning one, it is far more so when it is not.” (289)
What I Liked
- The fascinating tidbits about daily life as a German noblewoman. For example, in October of 1901, she and her husband went to Wolfsgarten, the Hesse family’s country house near Darmstadt. There, she and the other guests played Consequences – a game where someone asks abstract questions and everyone has to answer. At the party were the Grand Duke and Duchess of Hesse and by Rhine (Ernie and Ducky), Lady Georgiana Buchanan, Ruth Mercier (an artist), and Prince Nicholas of Greece. When Daisy asked, “Would you rather have a great love that might die, or an everlasting affection?”, Prince Nicholas said he hadn’t experienced either. Royal fans will get a kick out of Ducky’s question: “Why does one so often hurt the person one loves best?”
- The letters she includes from others, including Princess Margaret (Mossy) of Hesse, Queen Sophie of Greece, the Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Crown Princess Cecilie of Prussia, Grand Duchess Augusta of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and others. There are no bombshells in them, but it provides a more complete picture of what people were thinking and feeling.
- The long, in-depth description of her movements and activities during the war. In January of 1914, we’re on page 287…with three hundred more to go. She has so much to say about the run-up to the war, whose fault it was, and who tried to stop it. It’s a topic that’s been covered extensively, but it was still interesting to get her perspective.
- The letters she includes from her husband, who was an ADC to the Kaiser during the war. Either this dude was lying to her to make her feel better, or the Kaiser (and Hans, who was with him constantly) thought they were going to win right up until the end. Every letter from 1917 through 1918 is like, “Okay, we’re just about to win. Things are going really well. Just another battle or so, and France will surrender.”
- The Pless family owned a rope of pearls that was seven yards long.
- Daisy hung out with Grand Duke Mikhail Mikhailovich and his morganatic wife, Sophy Torby. One time, they went to see Mikahil’s father, and the old man said he remembered Daisy’s husband’s palace, Fürstentein. He said his mom, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna (born Princess Charlotte of Prussia), had shown him photos of it as a boy. She had gone to a spa nearby. Daisy said that place was Salzbrunn, and that her husband’s family still had the box of silver toys the tsarina had given her father-in-law when he was young.
- I wrote about Archduchess Maria Christina (Maria Anna’s sister) in this post. Her mom, Archduchess Isabella, wanted her to marry Franz Ferdinand. It didn’t happen. But in this book, we get a glimpse of what her later life was life. Christa, as Daisy calls her, married Prince Emanuel of Salm-Salm. In 1914, when World War I broke out, they were big game hunting in Africa (presumably in a British colony). Emanuel, a member of the Prussian army, was interned at Gibraltar until February of 1916, when he was exchanged for a prisoner of war. Christa stayed there with him, and was only allowed to see him for a couple hours a day.
- According to Daisy, Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia told her that before he got married, he didn’t know anything about the birds and the bees. Prince Salm (and Christa, too) had to explain it to him. Wilhelm was a huge flirt, so I don’t believe this for a hot second.
- She “had almost written” to Princess Eleonore of Reuss to tell her not to marry Ferdinand of Bulgaria. (272)
- She thought her brother George would marry Nancy Leeds. “She was very much in love with him and made no secret of her feelings.” But she doesn’t say why it didn’t happen…only that her brother married someone else. Unrequited love? (289)
- One time, she sent the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz a muffler. He wrote her back, thanking her for the shawl. In the book, she had to correct him: “By the way, it was not a shawl I sent him, but a muffler; men never seem to know the difference.” (357)
- There’s a lot she’s not telling us. Based on the number of times society gossip got her in trouble, I get the feeling she wasn’t always the innocent party, as much as she makes it sound that way in this book. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
- This book ends extremely abruptly. I thought my device had malfunctioned when I turned the page and discovered the index. It leaves off in the throes of revolution, sweeping across Bavaria, Austria, and Berlin. She’s giving us her son’s description of marching into Berlin in early December, where he says all the soldiers coming back “now find, instead of a home, a manure heap which one formerly called Germany” (539). Then, two sentences later, it’s all over. We don’t get any closing lines from Daisy. Nothing about how she fared in the aftermath of the revolution. I can’t believe a publisher was okay with this odd ending. I had to go back and re-read the introduction, where [name] does say it “ends dramatically” in November of 1918.
Should You Read It?
Absolutely. It’s a fascinating look at life during the waning years of the Belle Epoque, and a look at the German homefront through the eyes of an Englishwoman. And did I mention it’s free?
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’ll 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: Diana Scarisbrick
Publisher: Thames Hudson
Available at: Amazon
Diana Scarisbrick is well-known for her books based on jewelry exhibitions as well as books on specific jewel topics (portrait jewels, rings, Tudor jewels, etc.). The draw? The pictures of the amazing jewels and the chance to learn more about them.
This book on diamond jewelry should have been a grand slam, right? But it left me disappointed, feeling like I might not pick it up again.
What went wrong?
You guys, I’ve been staring at this review for twenty minutes, struggling with what to say. Why didn’t I like this book? Why did it leave me bored? Why do I feel like I didn’t learn anything from it, even though it’s full of facts? And why the hell can’t I figure out how to explain any of this? Have I lost my mind?
This is a brief history of diamond jewelry from medieval times to the present day. Scarisbrick describes how gem cutting advanced from simple table cuts to rose cut to the gorgeous multi-faceted brilliant cuts we know today. She shows us paintings of medieval and Renaissance rulers with diamonds on their hats, bodies, and clothes. There are gorgeous photos of paintings, jewels, accessories, and more. She tells us how jewel styles evolved from simple geometric shapes to neoclassicism to romanticism to art deco and modernism.
This should all be fascinating, right? But the book left me cold. I started it on a Sunday and it sat on my couch, untouched, for a week. UNTOUCHED. On Amazon, there are 24 reviews as of this writing. 86% of them are 5-star reviews. I can’t help feeling like I’m wrong or being a total bitch, but at the same time, I know myself. If I couldn’t bring myself to pick this up for a week, something’s wrong.
So What’s the Problem?
For me, the book was missing some animating spark. It’s clearly a coffee table book, not an academic tome (although there is original research cited). But the text has this dry, verging-on-academic feel that robs it of enjoyment.
There’s no personality, either of the author or of any of the historical figures mentioned. And because the book is a survey, we’re not with any historical personage or particular diamond long enough to build any dynamic interest. Even the quotes from historic diaries or manuscripts all felt the same after awhile; notables describing other notables at events: “People wore lots of diamonds. It was spectacular.” The quotes were rarely from the notables wearing the jewels or purchasing them – i.e., they were not particularly illuminating.
Especially toward the end (the 19th century onward), it starts to read like a laundry list of royal houses who owned jewels. For example, poor Queen Elena of Italy gets one line, saying that she patronized the jeweler Musy, sandwiched in between Kaiser Wilhelm II and Princess Marie Bonaparte. Why mention her at all if that’s all you have to say about her? What purpose does a one-line mention serve?
I would much rather have seen a limited scope with more depth. Use one or two royal houses or specific diamonds as through lines, and have them resurface throughout the book in a meaningful way. The Sancy and several “mirror” diamonds (Mirror of Naples, Mirror of Portugal, etc.) make more than one appearance, but there’s no cohesive attempt made to show how their use changed with fashion or cutting techniques, or even what happened to them.
As another example, several times Scarisbrick mentioned that, as jewel styles changed, royals and the wealthy had jewelers recut or revamp their stones into more modern pieces. But we’re never shown a before and after. That’s just one tiny example, and maybe it’s because it’s super hard to find a before and after, but it’s something that would have added greatly to the book. It takes a concept from abstract into reality. And who has better access to find these things out than Scarisbrick?
There’s also a problem with the dry style of the text. Good academic text makes an argument or contains a point. This text doesn’t. For example, Scarisbrick doesn’t explain why she’s featuring the jewels or people she does.
For example, in the 20th century chapter, she name-checks some actresses and heiresses who bought a crap-ton of diamonds. But there were many more…so why name-check Mona Bismarck with no further detail? Why mention Evalyn Walsh McLean several times, but without any mention of what intrigued her enough to buy the Hope diamond, for example? Just mentioning she bought it feels anti-climactic. Why not illuminate the history of diamond jewelry with a bit of perspective from the people who made that history? That’s part of the spark, the soul that’s missing from this book.
If you shelled out $60 for this book, like I did, it’s because you love diamond jewelry. Why not include more of the words of others who love it, too?
What I Liked & Learned
There are good things here, too!
- The illustrations are gorgeous and numerous. The captions provide lots of detail, and every image is referenced in the text by number so it’s easy to pair the written description of what’s going on with the relevant image.
- There are footnotes! OMG, it’s so nice to have footnotes. Bless Diana Scarisbrick and her editors.
- There’s an ongoing discussion of the development of the idea of crown jewels as opposed to personal property, which I found interesting.
- Scarisbrick is excellent at pointing out what she wants you to see in a painting. Usually, I looked at the painting first and then read her description of what to look at. I almost never noticed what she was pointing out, whether it was the cut of a jewel or something going on in the background of the painting. It was like reading alongside an art historian, at times…and that’s a good thing.
- In medieval and renaissance painting, those stones that look black, even when they’re on a white background? Those are diamonds. Maybe I’m just slow, but I never realized those were diamonds. Always figured they were dark sapphires or emeralds. Who knew! Maybe everyone but me, but still.
- Many jewels that we’ve only seen the front of contain beautiful enamelwork on the back. I never knew that! There are some beautiful front-and-back photos of corsage ornaments that show diamonds on the front, and colorful enamelwork on the back.
Should You Read This Book?
I’m clearly in the minority by being disappointed, if you read the online reviews. Most people absolutely love this book. Maybe it’s because I’m comparing it to books I learned much more from (Geoffrey Munn’s Tiaras book or even Leslie Field’s The Queen’s Jewels, for example). Or maybe I’m just losing my mind. It’s mildly diverting, but if you can’t spare the $60, don’t feel bad. Ask your library to get it, or wait for a used copy to show up online.
Subtitle: The Uncommon Life of Wallis Simpson
Author: Greg King
Publisher: Citadel Press
Year: 2011 (digital edition)
Available at: Amazon
In a nutshell, this book presents a revised look at Wallis’s life. Instead of the golddigger motif, we see her as an abused spouse (courtesy of her first husband, Earl Winfield Spencer), a woman whose head got turned by high society and powerful friends (courtesy of the Prince of Wales), and finally, as a woman who had to take sole responsibility for a man who’d grown up expecting a great destiny, with every moment of his life guided and filled for him. Even if you love someone, that shit is exhausting.
So, here’s the million-dollar question: was the abdication Wallis’s fault?
Not in King’s version. When shit got real, she left England, she left David, and she told him that no matter what he did, he should NOT abdicate. She had never planned on marrying him. She didn’t want to marry him. Being a royal mistress would have been fine for her, until David got bored and moved on.
But Wallis didn’t count on David’s stubbornness – or the depth of his love for her. In this version, David stubbornly refused any sort of compromise that didn’t end with their marriage.
And you know what? It feels right. David was a selfish man, raised with a belief in his own importance. I find it totally believable that he walked away from a throne for two reasons: love, natch, but also because he couldn’t get his way. The prime minister at the time, Name, also had a fair hand in shutting down any sort of compromise David offered, including a morganatic marriage.
Okay, so I totally buy King’s revised version of the abdication story.
Which means the true tragedy of this book isn’t the fact that Edward VIII didn’t get to remain a king.
It’s the fact that – in this telling – the blind hatred of Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, and to a lesser degree, Queen Elizabeth II, basically ruined David and Wallis’s chances for purpose, fulfillment, and the life they could have led.
Mary and Elizabeth refused to receive Wallis. They prodded King George VI to take illegal action to deny her the style of “Her Royal Highness.” Because that was basically David’s condition for returning to England after a suitable period of exile, his mother and sister-in-law effectively barred him from his homeland forever. David was never able to return to England for more than a quick, unofficial visit. Or have a normal relationship with any of his other brothers (especially his favorite, George).
Of course, if he’d gotten over the sticking point of Wallis’s HRH, maybe things could have loosened up a bit. But he couldn’t. And neither could Mary and Elizabeth. Everyone dug in their heels, refused to see the other side’s argument, and tore apart a family for, oh, decades. It’s not a good look on anyone. They all come off looking like jerks, honestly.
It’s interesting that Wallis doesn’t rate much of a mention in Shawcross’s official biography of Queen Elizabeth. The woman herself is pushed down below the official version of history, to keep Shawcross out of uncomfortable territory. But according to King, Elizabeth held Wallis personally responsible for her husband becoming king – and the accompanying stress that aged him and, in her mind, killed him. Never mind the non-stop chain smoking. That had no effect. It was Wallis. Totally all Wallis.
If you believe King’s version, Queen Elizabeth’s anger became a cold hatred that was passed down to her daughters. And since Elizabeth outlived David and Wallis, it meant they never got any hint of human warmth from the royal family as long as they lived. It’s a sad story. It feels so petty. Mary and Elizabeth’s hatred of Wallis gave her and David such superhuman importance. As if by letting him back into the country, the power of his potential popularity would undermine George VI’s rule and destroy the monarchy itself.
News flash: If the monarchy is that tenuous, you’re in deep shit. Deeper shit than can be caused – or fixed – by one person.
It sounds like this is all about David. What about Wallis?
It’s not all about David, don’t worry. You just can’t explain the great tragedy of their lives without him and his family. There’s plenty about Wallis here – how she evolved her look, what influenced her style, what she felt about that infamous trip to Germany, what she did in the Bahamas during David’s posting there.
That last bit is where Wallis shines, almost in spite of herself.
King really goes to bat for her here. He describes her 12+ hour days, working to establish canteens and hospital facilities for soldiers. She was always working on something, whether it was soup kitchens for the poor of Nassau or buying Christmas presents for soldiers and staff. Unfortunately, it’s hard to disguise the reason for Wallis’s manic public service – she and David hated the posting in the Bahamas so much that the only way not to get through it was to stay so busy there wasn’t time to hate it.
Not the greatest optics there, but the general public didn’t know how they felt, so it seemed genuine. It was genuine, to a point.
That’s how so much of this story feels – David and Wallis did a lot of good things, but there’s also a fair amount selfishness and cluelessness behind it. A lady I used to work with once told me, “Oh, honey, you never really grow up until you have kids.” As someone without kids who does not want them, I have to wonder if there’s some truth to this regarding David and Wallis. I wonder how their lives and feelings might have changed if they knew they were leaving something – someone – behind in this world. One of the unanswered “what ifs” of history…
<h3>Should you read this book?</h3>
Even if you have no stake in the pro-Wallis or anti-Wallis argument, it’s a fascinating look behind the scenes at the 20th century’s most famous love story.
However, I do have one caveat.
As much as I enjoyed this book and respect King, I think there’s a bit we’re not being told. For example, toward the end of the book, he tells us about an incident where Wallis fired one of the staff – Sydney Johnson, a black man who’d been with them since he was 14 years old, hired during their posting in Nassau during World War II. His wife had recently died and he had to take care of the kids after work. One day, he asked if he could leave early since he hadn’t been able to find a babysitter. Johnson said that Wallis told him if he left, he shouldn’t come back. So he left, and didn’t come back…after 32 years of working for her.
This incident is typically used to show how selfish and heartless Wallis was. King tries to add some complexity to the event – but what he tells us only makes me think worse of her (in this particular incident) and adds a layer to her personality that’s not flattering.
So what’s this extra layer of complexity? Apparently, Wallis was already upset with Johnson over his marriage. He, a black man, had married a white woman and Wallis didn’t approve. So there had already been some tension and maybe even some harsh words in the household over this. When Wallis told him not to come back, it might have been the culmination of a longer issue with Johnson (or the product of Wallis’s increasing forgetfulness and erratic behavior).
OH, OKAY. Is that supposed to make me think better of her?
I’m harping on this one issue because it’s the one that sticks out most in my mind. The issue of race didn’t really come up in the book, and it made me wonder what King left out that was unflattering. I totally get that his point with this book was to correct bad information about Wallis, but unless I have full confidence that he’s giving me an honest, three-dimensional portrait, I have to be as suspicious about King’s work as I am about the worst of her detractors. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it does make me wonder what King found but left out because it was unflattering.
That being said, this is a very entertaining and engaging read. Well worth your time.
Author: Prince Michael of Greece
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly press
Available at: Amazon
I have a complete book hangover after this one. I sat on the sofa for hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings…until it wasn’t morning anymore. I finished it Sunday at 1 pm and couldn’t do anything but stare out the window for awhile. This story is that powerful. There are still so many unanswered questions about Charlotte and Max. This book presents possible answers to them, but it doesn’t hit you over the head with an opinion…or, honestly, enough facts to make up your own mind. Prince Michael sees the high drama and tragedy as compelling enough, and he has a point. However, in a story this riddled with questions, I wish he’d dug a little deeper.
So What’s It About?
This is the story of Princess Charlotte of Belgium, who married the charming and idealistic but ultimately weak-willed Archduke Maximilian of Austria. When Napoleon III cooked up a scheme to put a European ruler on the throne of Mexico, Max fit the bill. There were a million times it almost fell through, but because history is a bitch, it didn’t. Max and Charlotte sailed for Mexico to rule a country that wasn’t theirs.
They had good intentions – I firmly believe that. But it was a doomed enterprise from the start. Max had asked that there be a general referendum among the Mexican people to make sure they really wanted some rando from Europe to come rule them. A small cadre of advisors cooked up some fake results indicating that yes, the average Mexican peasant wanted an Austrian archduke as their emperor. So there are believability problems right away, and don’t think Max and Charlotte didn’t realize this. They clearly did. But although they knew this was the world’s sketchiest endeavor, they were all in.
And for a few months, it looked like they were gonna pull it off.
But there was always a contingent of “rebels” (Juarez’s forces, opposed to any European intervention) that seemed to crop up and remind them how tenuous their hold on the throne really was. And then, when the French soldiers propping up their regime were called home by a bored and exhausted Napoleon III, the shit really hit the fan. No soldiers meant no way to fight the rebels and take back the towns Juarez had been steadily retaking over the past year.
Charlotte went to Europe to beg for support from Napoleon and Eugenie, the Pope, and Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. It didn’t go well. Charlotte had showed signs of a mental break before departing on her trip, but the real break came in the Vatican. She believed she was being poisoned (which might have been true) and her erratic behavior shocked everyone. She would only drink the pope’s hot chocolate, believing anything served to her to contain poison.
Long story short, Charlotte was essentially put under house arrest by an Austrian contingent. Her Belgian family, suspecting she was being mistreated, came to rescue her and take her home. She lived in Belgium for 60 more years, suffering periods of absolute batshit-craziness interspersed with periods of lucidity.
What I Didn’t Know Until I Read This Book
I have so much respect for Queen Marie-Henriette of Belgium after reading this book. I didn’t realize the role she’d played in rescuing Charlotte from the Austrian entourage keeping her prisoner.
There are A LOT of unanswered questions about the man in charge of her captivity, Bombelles. Prince Michael of Greece floats the theory that he had dirt on Franz Josef, because the emperor pretty much let him do whatever he wanted, even though he was clearly treating Charlotte terribly (she later said she’d been strapped to a bed at one point). Later, Bombelles would serve Archduke Rudolf, and probably knew a hell of a lot more than he let on about what really happened at Mayerling. It’s a frustrating part of this story, for sure, because there’s so much we still don’t know. Why was he so intent on keeping Charlotte under his control? Did he hope to score part of her enormous fortune? We don’t know.
But let’s get back to the real heroine of the last third of the book, Marie-Henriette.
She volunteered to go rescue Charlotte and by God, she did. Bombelles tried at every turn to get rid of her and thwart her plans to remove Charlotte from Trieste. He lied, he schemed, and did everything short of physically assault her to try and keep Charlotte his prisoner. Marie-Henriette refused to put up with his shit. She was brave, determined, and stubborn and I kind of love her after reading this book.
For starters, there are no footnotes, endnotes, or bibliography. Prince Michael uses direct quotes from Max and Charlotte’s letters, but without source notes, nothing can be retraced or double-checked. It’s a bit of a WTF because even high-school students have to provide source citations for direct quotes.
There are also some odd bits of made-up dialogue between characters. These may be lifted from letters, but again, without proper sourcing, it reads as a bit of fiction in the middle of a biography. I went with it because I was enjoying the book, but it did get a little annoying.
Prince Michael also leaves many questions unanswered. There’s an ongoing controversy about whether Max was gay, whether he and Charlotte ever consummated their marriage, and whether Charlotte might actually have been poisoned in Mexico before she ever left to beg for help in Europe. He touches on all these issues, but doesn’t spend much time on them and doesn’t dig very deeply to give us answers or a new perspective.
Should You Read This Book?
Yes. History doesn’t treat strong women well, and this story is no exception: Charlotte goes mad, and Marie-Henriette had a miserable marriage with Charlotte’s brother, Leopold II. But I love seeing them have some agency in their lives – the proud, introverted Charlotte who ruled better than Max ever could, and the brave, empathetic Marie-Henriette who refused to back down to archdukes or the emperor of Austria.
My book hangover continues. I just want to be immersed in this story all over again. I might re-read the Haslip biography just to stay in Charlotte’s world.
Author: Christine Sutherland
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Available at: Amazon
Who Is Marthe Bibesco?
Born Marthe Lahovary, the future Princess Bibesco had a very interesting lineage. Her father’s family, the Lahovarys, were bureaucrats and businessmen who looked to France for inspiration when it came to education and style. Originally from Antioch, they’d learned how to do business in Constantinople. A cousin was appointed Hospodar of Wallachia, sending the family from the big city into the Romanian countryside. When the Ottoman Empire lost its grip on the Balkans, the Lahovarys made a killing in the newly independent country of Romania (now ruled by a Hohenzollern). Her mother was a Mavrocordato, another family with roots in Asia Minor. More recently, Alexander Mavrocordato had befriended Byron and Shelley during the Greek War for Independence. Bottom line, Marthe came from a rich, cultured background – not royal, not even noble, but full of people who knew how to use their brains and make money.
At the ripe of old age of sixteen, Marthe was married to Prince George Bibesco – dashing, handsome, rich, and apparently, an asshole. He had hoes in different area codes, as the song says, and had no plans on changing his lifestyle just because he’d married. According to Sutherland, he pretty much raped Marthe on their wedding night. “The physical union of two people is like murder,” Marthe later wrote. “All at once is obliterated; no identity remains except pain” (26). It hurts just reading those lines.
Despite this rocky beginning, Marthe became one of the most celebrated women of her time. Aside from being drop-dead gorgeous, she was a renowned writer, a sparkling conversationalist, a great party guest, and an even better hostess. She had a knack for making connections – befriending Crown Princess Marie of Romania (a granddaughter of Queen Victoria), and later, Marie’s husband, the future King Ferdinand of Romania. She hobnobbed with duchesses, became pen pals with prime ministers, and generally held her own among the top writers of the early 20th century. All of this played out against the personal backdrop of a turbulent marriage (with its share of tender moments) and the larger historical backdrop of two world wars.
Enchantress is a fascinating read – there are TONS of tidbits about Marthe’s interactions with royals I’m interested in. She was one of those women who charmed the socks off men, but had a bit more trouble forming close female friendships. She never got along with Romanian hostess/writer Helene Vacarescu or her French cousin, Anna de Noailles. Her friendship with Queen Marie of Romania turned a little sour after World War I, when Marthe used her German connections to get in and out of Romania safely. Since Romania had sided with the Allies, Marthe’s coziness with Germans and Austrians didn’t look good on the Bucharest social scene. All of these aspects make her personality fascinating – but lead me to the one major caveat I have for this book.
What You Won’t Find in This Book
So, let’s talk about the elephant in the room – this biography isn’t giving us a balanced viewpoint of Marthe. It’s definitely putting Marthe in the best light possible.
How can you tell? Because Sutherland doesn’t criticize her – the most you’ll see is something like “admittedly, she could have made a better decision” or “she had no choice.” She does admit that Marthe was not an engaged or caring mother when her only daughter, Valentine, was little. But then she blames it on Marthe’s horrible wedding night and the trauma of having a baby so young. There’s a lot of trauma there, I agree – but Marthe’s own mother was distant when she was a girl, so she knew what that was like, and how damaging it was to a girl’s psyche. She still couldn’t overcome her distaste for motherhood, despite knowing the effect it would have on her daughter – which is an unflattering aspect of her personality that we don’t get a lot of info on here.
Similarly, when Marthe does stuff like flirt and hold hands with married men, it’s painted as a harmless situation because there was probably no physical affair. Sutherland pretty much ignores any emotional carnage that followed Marthe across Europe. We’re given brief one-line hints that, say, Crown Princess Cecilie is getting a little worried, or that Marie of Romania has publicly shrugged off the gossip about Marthe and her husband. I can’t help but wonder if there’s more to the story.
To be fair, Sutherland admits that she and Hannah Pakula (who wrote about Marthe in her biography of Queen Marie of Romania) see Marthe differently. It makes me want to go back and re-read Pakula’s book to get that different viewpoint. I think hearing some criticism of Marthe would have made this book stronger, not weaker.
To get an idea of what kind of emotional carnage I’m talking about, let’s go through a quick list of dudes she had affairs with (platonic and/or physical):
King Ferdinand of Romania
King Alfonso XIII of Spain
Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany
Charles-Louis de Beauveau-Craon
Henry Bertrand Léon de Jouvenel (Colette’s husband)
Ramsay MacDonald (prime minister of Great Britain)
Don’t tell me there wasn’t more fallout from each of these. I would have liked to know more about this – not to slut-shame Marthe (far from it). I just think that information would have let us get to know Marthe and her world even better.
UPDATE: So, after a bit of Googling for something else entirely, I stumbled on a letter Katherine Mansfield wrote to Marthe in 1921 - asking her to stop writing love letters to her husband. You can see that letter here - it’s a doozy. Also, Katherine Mansfield tells Marthe she is very young. Marthe was 35 years old. This made me smile. But this is exactly what I’m talking about. This book doesn’t tell us anything about this incident - or how Marthe reacted. I’d really like to know.
So...Should You Read This Book?
It’s the only English-language biography of Marthe, so if you’re at all interested in the beau monde of the early 20th century, this is a great resource. It’s also a great read – I tore through this in 2 or 3 sittings because it was so interesting.
A Few Interesting Tidbits
Honestly, this book is full of interesting bits. But here are ones that really stuck with me.
- Marthe’s cousin-by-marriage, Antoine, lived in London – and fell in love with the Duchess of Westminster, Edwina Cornwallis-West (I wrote about her and the Westminster kokoshnik tiara here). It didn’t work out – but Antoine would later marry an Asquith.
- The Russian ambassador to France, Alexander Izvolsky, asked Marthe to try to help arrange a marriage between Prince Carol of Romania and one of Tsar Nicholas II’s daughters. Marthe passed the suggestion to her father, got Crown Princess Marie of Romania on board, and generally helped make the Russian visit to Constantsa happen…where the grand duchesses (all of them) realized they didn’t want to marry Carol and it ended up being a big waste of time.
- Between the world wars, in need of money, Marthe turned to writing pulp fiction to make a quick buck. She wrote potboiler romances under the name Lucile Decaux. Her most popular book as Lucile? Katia, about Tsar Alexander II of Russia’s morganatic wife. In 1938, it was made into a French film starring Danielle Darrieux and John Loder.
- Marthe met and liked Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who at the time had just written a memoir. Marthe and Alice spent a weekend hanging out in Oyster Bay. Seeing how people hung on Alice’s every word, Marthe straight-up asked Alice why she didn’t run for the Senate. “I can talk, but I cannot speak,” Alice said (226).
- In 1936, the French magazine Illustration asked Marthe to attend the funeral of King George V and write an article about it for them. A few months later, she was back in London and had dinner at Philip Sassoon’s house with King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. “He would rather abdicate than be separated from her,” she told Sassoon that night (235).
Other Interesting People Marthe Knew
As if you needed more reason to read this book...
- Marcel Proust
- Maxim Gorky
- Wilbur Wright
- Howard Carter
- Edith Wharton
- Winston Churchill
- Sir Philip Sassoon
- Aristide Briand
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
- Lady Londonderry
- Charles & Anne Lindbergh
- Charles de Gaulle
See? I told you this was a who’s who of Europe's beau monde.
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. When he asks to talk to an ambassador, a lawyer, anyone, all his requests are met with refusals. So he goes for broke... “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: Antony Beevor
Available at: Amazon
Okay, so my preconceived idea about the race between the Allies and the Soviets wasn’t quite right. Diplomatic wrangling behind the scenes had already made the physical race somewhat moot - the Allies had divided Germany up into future occupation zones. And because the Allies knew Berlin would be in the Soviet zone, they weren't keen on provoking conflict by racing the Red Army to its prize. Beevor expects you to know this already - and you won't hear anything from the Allied side until at least a quarter of the way through the book. As a casual reader, I would have appreciated a teensy bit more background to correct my preconceived notion before diving into this.
What I Liked
- Beevor didn’t shy away from the topic of rape. You can’t, not with this subject matter. World War II showed us the most dark and dismal parts of humanity. Talking about rape is a painful necessity when you’re covering the German armies that invaded Russia in 1941 and 42, and the Red Army when it repaid the favor in 1944 and 45. There was enough coverage of the subject to make you aware of how systemic rape on the eastern front was, but at the same time, Beevor didn’t let it take over the entire book. Not all reviewers feel this way, however- the Atlantic reviewer specifically mentioned how Beevor “goes on and on about this.” Imagine how the women raped multiple times felt about it, dude. All you have to do is read about it. They lived it.
- I liked the glimpses we got into Nazi leadership. We see Hitler’s insane orders to treat cities like Breslau as “fortresses” – i.e., defend them to the death, no matter how impractical, no matter how much loss of life such an order entailed. We see how utterly unrealistic Nazi expectations were in terms of evacuating civilians. We see the Nazis forming last-ditch defense squads, the Volkssturm, which included mostly teenage boys and old men. It’s heartbreaking to read how many lives the Nazis threw away in a last-ditch effort to win an unwinnable war.
- I also liked the glimpses of rivalry Beevor showed us between the Soviet generals – Zhukov, Maslov, Klochkov, Rokossovsky, and others. But it was a little unclear whether that rivalry was all competition for Stalin’s approval, or whether there was genuine dislike or bad blood there. I wish we had a bit of biography on these leading generals to add a bit of depth to the story. For example, Maslov – who apparently thought all Germans were total monsters – was surprised that German kids cry the same way Russian kids cry. How was Maslov so unaware of, oh, humanity? Or was he being facetious? This is where even a paragraph of backstory would be helpful in evaluating character.
- Beevor does drop in a few moments of black humor, which were much appreciated. For example, the book opens during the Christmas season of 1944/45. Beevor tells us Berliners joked, “Be practical: give a coffin.” Another humorous moment came late in the book, when the Soviets were already in Berlin. An officer held up a map, trying to orient himself. He told another officer that the Reich Chancellery was dead ahead, but he couldn’t see where because of this big stupid building in the way. That is the Reich Chancellery, the other officer said. The first officer simply didn’t believe they’d advanced so quickly as to already be there.
What I Didn’t Like
- At times, the book felt like a laundry list of troop movements. In certain sections, like the Soviet approach to the heights outside Berlin, it was sentence after sentence of so-and-so moved troops here under this commander, so-and-so moved elsewhere, so-and-so flanked so-and-so, etc. And without a map, those updates are relatively meaningless for the average reader. I was hoping for more of a narrative. What you get is a flat summary. It made my eyes glaze over and I started skimming.
- To truly understand what’s going on in most of this book, you need frequently updated maps alongside the text. This book doesn’t have that.
- I wish Beevor had fleshed this out as a narrative. A narrative needs characters – and we have them, but not once is there any sort of character sketch given for the Soviet generals. I don’t need the life story of people who make brief appearances. And most of us know enough about Hitler and Himmler and Göring and Goebbels to not need more background on them. But how many readers are going to know a damn thing about any of the Soviet generals, like Zhukov? The rivalry between officers would mean more if we knew a little more about these men.
- There are lots of topics Beevor references and expects you to know about. Poland, for example – he makes many references to Soviet hostility for the Polish militia that heroically resisted the Nazis. It’s a big topic, I know, but we’re never given even a one-paragraph summary of the fraught relationship between the Poles and the Soviets. Little pauses like this would make his casual references much more meaningful for the average reader.
- As I read this, I found myself wishing it were a different kind of book – a social history instead of a military history. There are so many moments and incidents he flies by with a one-sentence mention that beg for more coverage. Many of these moments come during the civilian evacuation of Berlin. The Nazis delayed it as long as possible, and then when they finally allowed it, millions of civilians fled all at once. Many tried to flee aboard the ship Wilhelm Gustloff, which the Soviets sank, killing 7,000 innocent civilians. But something so tragic just gets a simple mention, and Beevor moves on. Did the Soviets know it was full of refugees? Did they care? Did anyone argue against the need to sink it? We don’t know – this is a fly-by reference in the narrative because it didn’t impact the larger military strategy of either side. I think there are lots of missed opportunities to create a more impactful story here; granted, Beevor didn’t set out to write that kind of book, but his Stalingrad book had many more details about personalities and civilian anecdotes.
These points make it seem like I had more dislikes than likes. That’s not necessarily true. This is still a very valuable resource – I just think Beevor missed a great opportunity to present a true narrative instead of a summary.
Author: Edward Crankshaw
Available at: Amazon
This book is a mixed bag in terms of subject matter – and this is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a political history of the Habsburg empire during Franz Josef’s long reign (1848-1916), with a few pages to sum up what happened after FJ died. It’s not a biography of FJ, although he’s the central through-line of the book. You meet FJ’s ministers, from Schwarzenberg to Taaffe to Beck. You meet European ambassadors and politicians of the empire’s territories, like Andrassy and Dimitrijević. But this isn’t a character-based history. Crankshaw dips in and out of narrative history, character analysis, political history, and his own opinion at will. That’s what I mean about this being a mixed bag of subject matter.
Crankshaw’s opinions are entertaining and, honestly, refreshing. That’s not to say they’re all correct, or even well supported. One thing this book lacks is support. There are frighteningly few endnotes, no bibliography, and few quoted sources. In an afterword, Crankshaw admits he used mostly published materials to create this – the benefit being the German-language source material he’s interpreting for an English-speaking audience. I’m okay with that, but I really wish he’d footnoted more so you know where to go to follow up on what he tells you.
My interest was in the royals in the story. Crankshaw has a soft spot for Franz Josef, which I’m not sure is justified. I don’t know enough about him yet to make that call. Some royals who knew him, including Princess Louise of Belgium, describe him as cold and heartless. Crankshaw presents him as a canny politician utterly dedicated to maintaining his inheritance; his fatal flaw was not wanting smarter men around him. Is this accurate? Now I want to read a few biographies of FJ and find out.
Crankshaw doesn’t like Empress Elisabeth (neither do I, honestly), and he doesn’t like Franz Ferdinand, although he suggests he might have made a good emperor. He also argues that turn-of-the-century Vienna wasn’t as decayed and decadent as popular imagery suggests, and the empire itself was actually modernizing at a rapid pace.
While I enjoyed reading this, it’s by no means a comprehensive or even reliable last word on any of the subjects covered. My suggestion? Read it, get a feel for the subject, then decide where to go to read up on the topics or people that interest you.
- Crankshaw’s opinions are always entertaining, even if you don’t agree with them. For example, he says Britain’s Disraeli was the only statesman in Europe “fit to hold a candle to Bismarck” (192). Similarly, he says no 20th century statesman is more “persistently underrated and treated with more unmerited contempt than Aehrenthal” (328). I’m nowhere near qualified to know whether these statements are true, but I like knowing where Crankshaw stands.
- Crankshaw blames the Magyars for, oh, everything. It’s a painfully clear bias he holds throughout the book, with little justification. Just a taste: “…the Magyars blocked all useful reforms…the fact that the Hungarians offended against the spirit of the Compromise with every action, and against the letter of the Compromise with most, was neither here nor there…” (294) And also: “They ruled over half the Empire, in which they occupied a position of extraordinary and indeed disastrous privilege, under a King to whom they professed romantic loyalty while doing their best to stab him in the back. They paid less than their share of everything…They contributed nothing but some dashing regiments of cavalry, a large number of surpassingly beautiful women, and an infinity of woe.” (299) My note in the margin? “Ouch.”
- He compares Franz Josef’s talent for ruling to Newton’s intellect. I’m not sure I buy this comparison, but here we go. Crankshaw writes that the talent of ruling is as rare as any other talent, and FJ had it in spades. But, he notes, men of these giant talents can also have lapses of logic, as illustrated by a story about Newton. When his cat had kittens, Newton took a look at his cat door and realized he needed to cut a small hole next to the big one for the kittens to go through (78-9). When a ruler like FJ has a lapse like this, the consquences are “apt to be more serious” (79).
- On that fateful day in June 1914, Franz Ferdinand’s car wasn’t supposed to go down the Sarajevo street where Gavrilo Princip stood with a gun in his hand. The amended route called for them to go straight down Appel Quay, but the driver effed up and turned right onto Franz Josef Street as per the original plans created before a bomb had been thrown at FF earlier that morning).
- The Austrian ultimatum delivered to Serbia on July 23, 1914 was the last ultimatum drafted in diplomatic French (399).
- Crankshaw blames the start of World War I in part on statesmen who didn’t understand that, once started, mobilization couldn’t be stopped. That hadn’t always been true, he says, and that misunderstanding made them more likely to use mobilization as a tool in their diplomatic arsenal. Before standing armies comprised hundreds of thousands of men, it was easier to call your army up and disband it in a matter of days or even hours. But when the process involved a long chain of command, intense supply wrangling, and commandeering transport networks, it took on a life of its own. Even with faster methods of communication (telegraph and telephone), you couldn’t shut it on and off the way diplomats thought they could.
Should You Read It?
Yes – but with the knowledge that it’s a mixed bag of intuited conclusions and narrative history. Enjoy it as an introduction to a place and a period, and use it as a springboard to tell you where to go next.
Author: Queen Alexandra of Yugoslavia
Available at: Amazon (used) or Archive.org (borrow for free)
Reading this book felt like watching a train wreck. It’s surprisingly well written, probably due to Alexandra’s ghostwriter, Joan Reeder. The ghostwriter enforced a theme on the book, which was Alexandra’s passionate longing for a home and family of her own.
To understand why that theme means so much to Alexandra – called Sandra – you have to know a little about her life. Here’s the story in a nutshell.
Born five months after the death of her father, King Alexander of Greece, Sandra grew up with quasi-royal status since her father’s marriage had been morganatic. A new law formally recognized her as a Greek princess when she was 18 months old, but because of Greece’s unstable political situation, her family teeter-tottered between life as monarchs and life as exiles.
When Germany invaded Greece during World War II, Sandra and her mother fled to London. That’s where she met King Peter II of Yugoslavia, who’d fled the Nazi takeover of Yugoslavia. They fell in love and, despite the objections of his mom and political counsellors, married in 1944.
Blissfully in love, Sandra and Peter understood nothing about the reality of exiled royal life. Over time, that love withered and wilted under the strain of wanting different things. Sandra wanted a stable home and family. Peter, frustrated at being dethroned by Marshall Tito, spent and schemed and plotted in multiple failed attempts to get his kingdom back.
Long story short, these two crazy kids just couldn’t get their shit together. Neither one was good with money. They were both selfish. Neither one seemed to care much about their only child. Their marriage disintegrated into an on-again off-again lightbulb relationship.
But because it was written in 1955, the book has a happy ending – Sandra published it during a period of reconciliation. But it didn’t last, of course, so if you look her up online, you’ll find out that Peter died in 1970 after a liver transplant operation (he was a heavy drinker) and Alexandra pissed off the British royal family by writing a second book about her cousin, Prince Philip.
Why It’s a Frustrating Read
The problem with this book is that you end up wanting to shake both Sandra and Peter for being so…dim. Peter behaved very badly toward Sandra, having multiple affairs and turning to alcohol to cope with the loss of his kingdom. Sandra behaved badly, too – she had no real life or interests of her own. Every breath she took was so wrapped up in Peter that she suffocated him. Then, after she’d driven him away, she pestered him to come back, which as anyone who’s been through a breakup knows, is the worst possible thing you could do. Her friends and relatives told her to get a life (nicely). She just couldn’t. That’s what led to her suicide attempt. There’s only one attempt covered in this book, but in the years ahead, there would be several more.
This poor girl…it’s just so upsetting. It’s only hinted at in this book, but she also had health issues (kidney problems), a probable eating disorder (anorexia), and ongoing depression. With all that going on, it feels unfair to blame her for her inability to get her shit together. If she didn’t have the help she needed to get her own mind and body “together,” how was she supposed to create a decent life for herself and her husband? But the book hammers home the point that a stable home was all she ever wanted, so we’re forced to judge her by her inability to achieve that goal. See why it’s depressing?
Toward the end of the book, it became very hard to continue reading with compassion. Both Peter and Sandra just shot themselves in the foot over and over and over again and didn’t seem to learn from their past mistakes. That’s why this could only be nonfiction – if a fiction writer produced this, people would leave 1-star reviews because the characters never improved or grew as people.
The ghostwriter did her best to fix this, making it look like both Peter and Sandra had finally grown up before the last reconciliation described in the book. But when you know they didn’t, when their story just went on with more of the same, the book rings hollow.
Should You Read It?
Yes. Despite all the drama and the heartbreak (for the people in the book and for you, the reader), there are some interesting tidbits. These are just a few:
- Prince George of Greece and his wife, Princess Marie Bonaparte, are the comic relief, both adorably eccentric old folks. As they fled from Athens prior to the German invasion during World War II, George went through the countryside shouting, “You remember me, I’m GEORGE” (referring to one of the Balkan wars fought before World War I). Marie gathered some sort of local fruit and stewed it, serving it proudly to her family members….and giving all of them dysentery.
- King George VI of England (“Uncle Bertie”) was best man at their wedding. He and Sandra’s cousin, Marina (Duchess of Kent), had helped Peter and Sandra thwart the cabal opposing their marriage.
- Peter’s mom, Queen Maria of Yugoslavia, opposed their wedding. She seemed to be okay with it at first, but when push came to shove, she refused to see Sandra or reply to her later letters. Why? It’s never made clear in this book (Sandra shied away from politics of any sort), but my guess is it’s because Sandra brought no money or prestige to the marriage and none of her relatives could help Peter regain his throne. She bore the stigma of her parents’ morganatic marriage, although she really downplays that in the book. But her New York Times obituary delivered a damning blow when they called her “barely a princess, never a monarch.” Ouch.
Despite the shitty feeling the book left me with, I’m glad I read it. I know more about Sandra, Peter, Queen Maria of Yugoslavia, her Greek royal family, and even the British royal family. If you’re a true royal fan, you’ll devour this. Just have a glass of wine handy because Sandra’s story will make you want to drink.
Subtitle: The Story of the Bonapartes
Author: Theo Aronson
Publisher: Thistle Publishing
Year: 1964 (digital edition: 2015)
Available at: Amazon
The book begins with a little background on Letizia Ramolino and Carlo Bonaparte. We meet each Bonaparte sibling as they’re born and follow them throughout their lives. As their generation dies off, we follow their kids and grandkids through the Second Empire and beyond.
For once, I don’t think I have any caveats. This book was exactly what I expected it to be, and it entertained me thoroughly. My one wish – and I say this about all popular histories – is to see footnotes so I can find out where particular quotations came from. But that’s because I’m nosy and have research interests that dovetail with some of the Bonapartes. The casual reader probably doesn’t need or want footnotes, and they won’t miss them.
It’s amazing how much information Aronson dug up from previously published sources. That’s partly because so many relevant primary sources have been published, including volumes of Napoleon’s letters and memoirs of the subsequent generations. I never felt like information was missing – it was just the right about of detail without getting too bogged down on any one person.
I also appreciated the emphasis Aronson put on the American Bonapartes, descendants of Jerome through his first (illegal) marriage to Betsy Patterson.
What Part of the Book Affected Me Most?
The section describing the Prince Imperial’s death during a skirmish with a Zulu patrol in 1879. I’d never read such a detailed account, right down to the detail about the paper-backed bridle strap that broke as Louis tried to escape the approaching Zulus.
The one question I had about this section is who reported all these details. If Louis’s commanding officer had already fled and the couple other men on patrol were already riding hell-for-leather away from the attack, who was there to report Louis’s actions for all posterity? Are these from some sort of inquest? Were they logical deductions based on the position and condition of the body? A teensy bit of clarification would have made this section more complete. But as it stands, this section is so tense and full of horror that it reads like a novel. Kudos to Aronson.
A Few Interesting Tidbits
- What Napoleon told Metternich about his family: “My relations have done me more harm than I have done them good.”
- What Napoleon said about his family, later in life: "I love no one, no, not even my brothers. Joseph, perhaps a little; and if I do love him, it is from habit, and because he is my elder."
- There is apparently a school of thought (or was in 1964) that Louis Bonaparte was a closeted gay man. He adored Napoleon as a boy, but when Napoleon’s attention wandered to girls and armies and empires, Louis become bitter and morose. Josephine said Louis loved Napoleon “as a lover loves his mistress.”
- One time, Pauline Bonaparte was determined to outshine her sister-in-law Josephine. She came to St. Cloud for a visit in a gaudy carriage drawn by six horses and liveried outriders, complete with flaming torches. Her dress was green velvet and she wore a crap-ton of diamond jewelry. But Josephine was one step ahead. She’d found out what dress Pauline was going to be wearing, and redecorated her salon in a shade of blue that clashed with Pauline’s green dress. She wore a super-simple muslin dress and no jewelry, the epitome of elegance. Josephine FTW.
- On her coronation day, Josephine had her face painted by Isabey. Is this the first use of a professional makeup artist for a coronation?
- After Napoleon divorced Josephine, his family wanted to keep the crown within the family. They wanted Napoleon to marry his niece, Charlotte (Lucien’s daughter). EWW.
- Napoleon’s youngest brother Jerome comes off as a worthless human being. As a kid, his nickname was Fifi. He spent money like water, and was generally a terrible human being. He abandoned his first wife (questionable as their marriage was). He cheated on and tried to divorce his second wife. He cheated on his third wife, too. There were also crazy rumors about his short-lived but extravagant court as king of Westphalia. As Aronson notes, “It was stated that every morning he took a bath of rum, and every evening a bath of milk. His servants, they said, put up the liquor in bottles, and sold it at a rebate . . . . " The Countess , one may be sure , was exaggerating ( although there was a story of his having invented a bath of Bordeaux wine) , but his frivolous behavior tended to encourage this sort of story.” And all that money he spent? It was either his second wife’s or Napoleon’s.
- Jerome’s annulled first marriage to Betsy Patterson of Baltimore produced a son, whom she called Bo. Much later, after Napoleon’s fall, Betsy brought Bo to meet his father. Bo was not amused. He thought his father’s family was idle, extravagant, and boring. All they did was kill time and spend money, he wrote to his American grandfather.
- Aronson believes Napoleon III, Hortense’s third son, was her husband’s (Louis Bonaparte). This is not what the author of Secrets of the Gotha believed. This is probably a rabbit hole I could go down if I wanted…
Should You Read This Book?
Yes. If you have even a passing interest in Napoleon’s family, this is a must-read.
Author: John Julius Norwich
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
Available at: Amazon
First things first – I don’t know what rock I’ve been living under, but I had no idea John Julius Norwich is Lady Diana Manners’s son. Lady Diana featured in The Secret Rooms, about a family mystery involving her father and grandmother. Later, she married Duff Cooper, and lo and behold, in this book, Norwich talks briefly about his father in his role as ambassador to France. As such, there are a few insider tidbits when you get to the chapter on World War II.
About the Book
Think of this book as a college survey course. It gives you all the highlights of French history, but without much depth. That’s okay because depth isn’t the point here. As Norwich says in his introduction, “This book is not written for professional historians, who will find nothing in it that they do not know already” (Introduction). All he wants to do is fill in the blanks for people who know a bit about Joan of Arc and Napoleon, but not much else.
In that, this book succeeds.
For example, if you’re hazy on the details of the Hundred Years War, you’ll get a great summary here. If you’re not sure what the hell happened between Napoleon I and Napoleon III, you’ll find out how the Bourbons got restored (and dethroned) in between the Bonaparte rulers. He does tend to gloss over major events that have a ton of coverage elsewhere, like the Belle Epoque, World War I, and World War II. I’m okay with that, seeing as this book was never meant to be comprehensive.
Norwich has an eye for character and detail, and will happily gloss over a major historical event if there are no amusing anecdotes or quotes to share. I think that’s acceptable for a book of this scope. If you’re keeping a timeline in your head, you’ll see 1,500 years fly by pretty quickly, from Julius Caesar to Francois I. The coverage slows down once you hit Louis XIV, and ends after World War II.
Norwich’s writing style is breezy and entertaining, as are the footnotes.
What I Liked
- Norwich injected his personality and opinion into the book. He’ll tell you who he thinks was a good king or a bad king, a good royal mistress or a terrible one. Philip the Fair? A dick (my words, not his). Madame de Pompadour? Sublime. Surprisingly, he describes Louis-Philippe as “almost forgotten today but probably the best king France ever had” (Introduction). It made the book a bit more interesting to get his take on famous figures in French history.
- He also includes some fascinating what-ifs. For example, returning to his favorite Louis-Philippe, he describes how important his sister Adelaide was to him…and tells us she may be a much-overlooked power behind the throne. Adelaide died on the last day of 1847. Louis-Philippe lost his throne in 1848, but Norwich writes, “For eighteen years he had relied implicitly on her wisdom, her courage, her unfailing political instincts; now, just when he was to need them most, they were gone. He was still in shock when, just six weeks later, the storm broke” (Chapter 16). This would be a great area for further research.
What I Didn’t Like
I can’t complain about uneven coverage in a survey-style book like this. There were only a couple moments where I frowned while reading:
- Occasionally, he’ll hint at an anecdote that sounds super interesting but stops short of telling us exactly what happened. For example, in chapter 3 (covering 1151-1223), he mentions Philip Augustus’s sister Agnes-Anna of Byzantium, “twice widowed in hideous circumstances before she was sixteen.” That’s it. That’s all we get. Enquiring minds want to know. It would have been nice if he’d included at least a sentence with a quick summary or a footnote in situations like this.
- He has a tendency to refer to events and people as “mildly ridiculous”: Adrian VI, the Duchesse de Berry, Philippe Fabre, Plon-Plon (who, admittedly, is mildly ridiculous). Every writer has little phrases they become overly dependent on. It’s not a problem; it’s just something I noticed.
- There’s next to no source attribution. I harp on this all the time. I’m always looking for good source documentation so I can retrace an author’s steps. This book doesn’t have a formal list of works cited, just a list for further reading. It also doesn’t attribute quotes. Occasionally, he’ll credit books or authors for the material in a chapter, as he does with Christopher Hibbert in his chapter on the French Revolution. But for the most part, if you want to know where he got a quote or an anecdote, you’re out of luck. The good news? Because there’s no original research or archival sources, you’ll be able to find anything you want pretty easily with a quick Google search.
Again, these are nitpicky and didn’t affect my reading of the book at all.
However, there is one large caveat:
- If you’re looking for the kind of history book that ventures outside Paris, talks about the (gasp) peasants, or covers societal and economic issues, this ain’t it. This is a mad dash through the headliners of history, with no coverage of art, culture, society, economics, or science. In this case, I think that’s okay. The book was never marketed as such, and Norwich makes no claims to any of these subjects. He’s very clear about what it is, and that’s exactly what he delivered. Still, if you’re expecting to hear about the development of Impressionism in the Belle Epoque chapter, for example, your hopes will be dashed. If you want to hear about the role of women in the Resistance, for example, your hopes will be dashed. But if that were the case, my guess is you’d be reading a different book, so no harm, no foul.
Should You Read This Book?
If you’re interested in French history (and not a master’s or PhD candidate), yes. There’s enough here that you missed or have forgotten to make the journey worthwhile.
If I had to pick just one survey history to recommend, it would be Alistair Horne’s La Belle France. But I don’t have to pick just one, so read them both!
Edited by: Helen Azar
Publisher: None listed
Available at: Amazon (free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers)
First off, massive kudos to Helen Azar for undertaking a transcription and translation. I’ve been working on transcribing some letters in French from the Georgian Papers Programme, and holy crap, deciphering someone else’s handwriting in another language is crazy-hard. I have mad respect for researchers and translators. I don’t take that hard work for granted – not anymore.
Here are some of the interesting things that struck me about this book:
- Like several other Amazon reviewers, I had a mistaken impression of the girls being super-isolated (like, nearly 24/7). That’s not the case at all, at least not in 1913. Olga’s journal is full of trips, visits to the opera and ballet, social events, meals with relatives, a few parties and balls, and tons of games and time with officers of the navy and military. Granted, all these people are within the tsar’s milieu, so it’s not like she was chatting with peasants and getting a feel for what ordinary life was like. But her life was a lot less isolated than I previously thought. I’m glad to be corrected.
- Olga had a good memory. When a family member was sick (siblings or mom, usually), she reported their exact temperatures, sometimes a string of three or four temperatures taken throughout the day. It’s such a small detail, but I’m pretty sure at the end of the day I’d be unable to remember four numbers in sequence to a tenth of a decimal point.
- Empress Alexandra had a rating system for how bad her heart felt each day on a scale of 1-10. Most days it was a 1 or 2, occasionally as high as 3. Throughout the whole year, I think there were maybe 2 days where Alexandra felt well – no headache, no heart trouble, no pains. Imagine that – two days per year where you feel well enough to get out and about. I knew she was unwell frequently, but I don’t think I understood how bad it was.
- Olga’s crushes will break your heart. This is the year she fell in love with Pavel Voronov – but she started the year with a crush on AKSHV (probably Alexander Konstantinovich Shvedov, according to Azar). It’s so interesting to see how her emotions rise and fall based on whether she’s able to see and talk to her crush. On days AKSHV or Pavel are missing, she’s bummed out and doesn’t have much fun (“AKSHV was not there. I was angry” – 27 January). But if she can sit with them for tea or dictate the ship’s log entry to Pavel aboard the tsar’s yacht, she’s on cloud 9. It made me remember what I was like at 17, when just seeing the boy you like in class can make your whole day. That’s a universal feeling, apparently, and it’s both charming and heartbreaking to read.
- There are a few mentions of Rasputin, but he’s not playing a big role in the girls’ lives at all. At least Olga’s diary doesn’t indicate as such. On February 15, he was in the large sitting room with the family. As Olga reports: “Everyone sat together with Grigori Yefimovich. Papa was also there of course. He kept patting Aleksei’s head and said that I could rule like the tsarinas did in the past.”
- These were simpler times. The girls played games with each other, officers, cousins, and courtiers. Games with names like dobchinsky-bobchinsky, all-of-Petersburg, cat and mouse, turkey, slap-on-hands, falcon, rope, and the ring. And those old classics, hide and seek and tag.
- Tidbits you might not expect. Olga smoked. She cheated at cards. She got bored by certain family members. She played hide-and-seek in the dark with officers, sisters, and family members. She went kayaking. She used a telescope to spy on her crushes from palaces and yachts. She played A LOT of tennis…and probably sucked at it (she reported on winners and losers, and it seems like she mostly lost).
These will give you a good idea of what the journal is like, and what kind of tidbits you can find if you’re looking carefully.
- February 10. “After that we went to the circus. Aunt Olga, K. Gagarin, Nadya, Klyucharev, Kulikovsky and 3 Cossacks. I sat with AKSHV the whole time and fell deeply in love with him.”
- May 18 (during travels for the Romanov tercentary). “Beautiful surroundings – masses of people. Went to bed at 11 o’cl. We were learning to curtsy in Mama’s cabin. It was very funny.”
- June 29 (on board the imperial yacht). “The deck and the board were being washed, the water was pumped out. It was so nerve-wrecking to be at breakfast without Papa and to thank the musicians. Went ashore at 2 o’cl. 15 min. as usual. Played 7 sets with Pavl. Al. Won only 1 set, because T and Rodionov played well, but I stank.”
- October 3. “We 2 and Olga Yevgenievna finally rode horses with AKSHV and Zborovsky. Rode through Livadia, ‘mon jardin’, a farm and Eriklyk. [We] sat in a gazebo there for a while, and I really enjoyed it. SH was sweet as usual. He was [wearing] my favorite dark jacket and [riding] a red horse named Boy, but it was not his. [We] rode down a trail. I enjoyed it profoundly.”
- December 1. “We 4 and Papa went to the yacht saloon for dinner. S. was on duty, [I] saw him through the hatch. Then [we] watched a cinematograph in the dining room. Nice and funny. Then S. came in at the last moment. I was very happy, kept waiting for him so long but then, I don’t know, [I] got nervous.”
Overall, these are minor – but you know me, I always have something to say.
- I read this as an eBook through Kindle Unlimited, and the formatting is seriously mangled. There are artificial line breaks everywhere, the footnotes appear several pages after the note indicator, and the red text color applied to the footnotes sometimes bleeds over into the non-footnote text. If you like footnotes (as I do), prepare to do a LOT of flipping back and forth. It’s distracting, but it’s not a deal-breaker. I imagine most of this could be fixed with a little CSS and manual HTML cleanup.
- The footnotes are fantastic when they apply to people, but when they apply to places or things or definitions, they’re inconsistently applied and not always as helpful as you might want. Sometimes they don’t tell you anything more than you could have intuited by context. I adore footnotes, so that’s why I’m harping on this.
- For example: On July 9, Olga is aboard the imperial yacht, the Standart and noting her activities for the day. She says she and Papa went onto “The Kazanetz” and “The Strashny” and inspected them. The footnote says these are the names of two ships. Maybe it’s just me, but that seems obvious. Later in the same entry, she notes that the Volodei No. 2 came to unload cargo. This doesn’t get a footnote, even though it’s also clearly another ship? I’m not sure why one sentence merits a footnote and the other doesn’t, especially when there’s no further information to share about the Kazanets or Strashny.
- Another example, relative to definitions: “Afterdeck” gets a footnote to tell us its “an open deck toward the stern of a ship) but “quarterdeck” doesn’t get a definition at all. And the names of dances – polonaise, mazurka, quadrille – get no definition at all. All of these are clear in context (parts of a ship, a dance), so why does only one get the footnote?
- Another example, relative to a place: When Olga went with her family to “the Fortress” to visit her grandfather’s grave, there’s no footnote. I imagine some readers might not know we’re not talking about your average military fortress. This is the cathedral inside the Peter & Paul Fortress complex, where Alexander III and most of the Romanovs were buried.
Should You Read This Book?
If you’re a Romanov fan, absolutely.
If you’re not a Romanov fan, you might find the entries a bit tedious. If you’re a Kindle Unlimited member, though, you can read it for free so there’s no reason not to dive in and read as much or as little as you want.
Author: Virginia Cowles
Publisher: Sharpe Books
Year: 1964; this digital edition, 2018
Available at: Amazon.com (free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers)
This book is exactly what is says it is – a cradle to grave biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.
It’s definitely more focused on the political aspects of Wilhelm’s life than, say, his personal history. I prefer personal accounts because the political ones tend to make me snooze. This book kept me interested, although the period between 1910 and 1914 did get a bit bogged down in political back and forth. (I get it, it was the lead-up to the biggest war ever at the time, but it made for some dry reading.)
Cowles doesn’t pull any punches in this book. But she’s not mean or unfair, either. I liked the way she called Wilhelm on his bullshit, but never did so in a way that felt like she was muckraking or scandalizing the issue. She was clear about where she felt blame should be assigned: Wilhelm, his political staff, his military staff, another country’s political staff, etc. I appreciated this – I felt like I could trust Cowles as an author.
For example, she gives Bulow as much blame as Wilhelm for ruining the chance for an alliance with England: “It was a disaster of the first magnitude for Germany that Count Bülow should have been more interested in ingratiating himself with the powerful men who surrounded him than in selecting a prudent course for his country…If William II had been encouraged by Bülow in the autumn of 1899 there is little doubt but that he would have set in motion the machinery for an agreement” (153).
In the final accounting, Cowles makes no bones about it: Wilhelm II was a failure. Here are a few representative quotes that sum up her view of him:
- The failure of his personality: William rarely sustained the effect of his stupendous first impressions. Those who came into regular contact with him soon discovered that his desire to fascinate vanished at the first twinge of boredom. Indeed, his good humour was as transient as an ocean breeze, for the smallest irritation could turn it into a tempest leaving in its wake a wreckage of wounded feelings and bitter resentment (158).
- The failure of his family life: The Kaiser’s sons were just as frightened of him as his courtiers. Although William was often praised as a model husband and father his family life, in fact, was almost non-existent (224).
- The failure of his political rule: The most striking differences between the two regimes was that Bismarck’s rule was competent and William’s was not (93).
- The failure of his military leadership: Some of his officers believed that the war had wrought an appalling change in him, while others seized on the Crown Prince’s explanation that the Daily Telegraph incident had destroyed his self-confidence. The truth was that he was the same man that he had always been but since the demands made upon him were greater than in peacetime, his faults stood out in sharper outline; unstable, excitable, egotistical, in fact wholly unfitted for the critical position in which he found himself. “The contrast,” wrote General Freytag-Loringhoven, the Quarter-Master General, “between the masterful personality which he tried to assume (and indeed was obliged to assume) and the absence of any real force of character, grew daily more glaring until the bitter end” (335).
I agree with her.
But I think it was worse than that.
I also think he was a dick. Here’s just one reason why: When Wilhelm’s best friend, Prince Philip of Eulenberg, was falsely accused of being gay and got caught up in the accompanying media circus, Wilhem just dumped him. He didn’t try to save his friend. He didn’t even try and help. He just distanced himself immediately. The snippets from Eulenberg’s letters are painful to read – he’s literally writing to people saying he hopes he dies because it would be easier than dealing with the dishonor and publicity of the false allegations. Wilhelm did nothing.
What You’ll Get in This Book
- A detailed description of the whole dick-swinging dreadnought arms race with Great Britain. Cowles also wrote a book on Edward VII, which is probably why he figures so prominently in Wilhelm’s book. This was a little on the dry side for me, but necessary to understand one of the causes of the war.
- A really interesting (and practically minute-by-minute) description of the diplomatic failures in the two weeks before war was declared in 1914. It’s intense and in-depth…Wilhelm and Nicholas II begging each other to do everything they can to stop the war, messages flying furiously between prime ministers and chancellors, and the ultimate failure of anyone to do anything useful to stop the war.
What You Won’t Get
- An examination of his personal relationships. There’s a bit of analysis about his changing relationship with his mother, as no account of Wihelm is complete without it. But since she died in 1901, we’re adrift after that. We don’t really know who, if anyone, Wilhelm felt close to – especially after the scandal that distanced him from Eulenberg. This begs the question: did he HAVE any real relationships? Ones not founded on him being the Kaiser, chosen by God, blah blah blah? Maybe, maybe not (I haven’t read Röhl’s two last volumes)…but you won’t find out here.
- Much detail about the war itself. This is fine for me, because there are SO MANY other books that cover battles and military strategy. Just know that you won’t get more than a summary of major movements and battles here (Verdun got, like, a sentence). Of course, that’s also fitting because Wilhelm – the country’s Supreme War Lord – had nothing to do with military strategy.
- This book is REALLY heavy on the political back-and-forth between German and Britain, Germany and Austria, Germany and Russia. If hearing about that back-and-forth between prime ministers and chancellors bores you, this is not the book for you. You’ll just end up skimming the entire middle.
- If you’re looking for lots of detail on his life in exile, you won’t find it. There’s only one chapter that covers his exile, and it’s sparse. I couldn’t tell if the author was a little tired of her subject, or if maybe I was tired of reading about him. Either way, the revolution and exile seemed rushed, based on the intense amount of detail about the arms race, buildup to war, telegrams before declaration of war, etc.
Should You Read It?
It depends on how deep a dive you want to take into German politics. It’s all readable and engaging – not academic in style at all. But still…it’s a slog at times unless you really want a good understanding of who was in charge and whose fault it was when things started to go horribly wrong for imperial Germany. If that’s you, full steam ahead.
Author: Lennart Bernadotte
Publisher: Bonniers Grafiska Industrier
Available at: Archive.org
In my never-ending search for tidbits on Fritz and Hilda of Baden, I decided to look for this memoir by Fritz’s grand-nephew. I Googled it and, lo and behold, there was a copy available to check out from the Archive.org lending library.
I know there’s a huge controversy in the writing world about this lending library. The argument from authors? It’s essentially piracy, robbing us of profits from our hard work. The argument from, well, me? The author never gets paid when you buy a secondhand book, so if a book is no longer in print and can only be purchased secondhand, why not make it available to borrow for free in digital format? That lets you figure out if it’s a book you want to buy and keep forever.
I didn’t mean to turn this into a political statement. It’s supposed to be about Lennart – and his fantastic book. Even with a shitty AI translation, his prose shines.
The book opens with Lennart’s recurring nightmare. He finds himself alone in creepy-ass Stockholm Castle. He has to make his way in the dark through the entire winding castle, toward a room he knows well. A sense of horror builds as he enters a long, dark hallway. Suddenly, a wheelchair slides through the doorway and heads straight for him. There’s someone in it – the dead, decaying body of an old woman. He jumps aside to avoid the wheelchair and ends up in a room with a body on the bed. It’s his grandmother’s dead body. But then she’s not dead – she’s trying to get up and open her eyes. Lennart screams – and wakes up in Schloss Mainau, his home.
No wonder he had nightmares – his early years sucked.
His parents were Prince Wilhelm of Sweden and Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia (the Younger). He was born in Stockholm in 1909. But Marie bails in late 1913, so he’s raised by his grandmother, Queen Victoria of Sweden. And boy howdy, was she strict. Sometimes terrifying. Always stultifying. There were a few bright spots and moments of levity, but overall, poor Lennart was always being told what to do, what not to do, how to think, how to behave, and everything he was told runs counter to what a lonely little boy probably should be doing. No loud playing, no outside friends, that sort of thing.
This memoir is the story of his life up to his marriage. If you want to know what it’s like to grow up royal, this is a good example.
Dad. Wilhelm, second son of King Gustav V and Queen Victoria. He was a naval man who refused to ever get on a horse. He said, “the horse is a square animal with an unstable leg in every corner.” I find this hilarious. Later, he developed a close relationship with Lennart based on shared love of nature and writing.
Mom. Maria Pavlovna, daughter of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich of Russia. She’s…interesting. I want to like her so bad, but I just…can’t. I know she had a shitty childhood (her father abandoned Maria and her brother to make a morganatic marriage). I know she put her heart into nursing during WWI and escaped with nothing and worked hard to start her Russian embroidery business in Paris. But she was also ridiculously self-absorbed. She cared very little for anyone else’s feelings, with the sole exception of Dmitri, her little brother. She does not come off well in this book.
Nenne. His nanny, Olga Sjöberg, who stayed with him until her death in 1942. At first, she represented calm and security; later, she came to represent the court’s strict hold on him.
Amama. Lennart’s grandma, Queen Victoria of Sweden. Lennart writes about it almost as a tragedy, being raised by someone 25 years older than his parents who didn’t understand how the world had changed and modernized. He never doubted her good intentions, but her rigid, unbending rules did him more harm than good. She was glacial, distant, unbending, unfailingly correct – but out of a sense of strict duty, love, dignity, and Christian faith. She was also a surprisingly good artist and a damn good piano player. Lennart wrote, “When I relive my grandmother like this in the long run, I'm not really sure if I liked her or was just afraid of her.”
Grandpa. King Gustav V of Sweden. An inveterate chain-smoker who refused to quit, even to help his wife’s chronic emphysema. He liked man-jewelry, red wine, fast cars, slang, tennis, hunting, and winning at card games. He got pissed if anyone but the grandkids beat him.
Uncle Gusty. Oldest son of King Gustav V and Queen Victoria, the future Gustav VI Adolf. He and his wife, Daisy (Princess Margaret of Connaught) took care of Lennart for two summers during World War I while Victoria was traveling. Later in life, Gustav would try to keep Lennart from marrying a commoner, the woman he loved. He does not come off well in the second half of this book.
Karin Nissvandt. His wife, a commoner – and his childhood sweetheart. The couple got engaged in 1931 and were married despite pressure from the Swedish royal family to break up, and eventually moved to Mainau Castle, which had been left to Lennart by Victoria. Turns out, they got divorced…but in this book, she’s the woman he loves who behaves honorably towards his family even when they don’t repay the favor.
- In the middle of her wedding dinner, Maria Pavlovna took off the heavy-ass diamond earrings all Romanov brides wear and hung them on the edge of a wine glass.
- The new residence for Wilhelm and Maria – Oakhill – was built using Maria’s money. Its construction and maintenance had to come from her dowry - that much was included in the marriage contract. It later became the Italian embassy.
- Lennart hated pearls his entire life. Why? He thought it was because, as a very young child, Maria used to sit in a chair and lean over him to read to him at night. Her long pearl necklaces were always in his face. He said pearls remind him of “disgusting mucus balls.”
- Maria was a little too wild and undisciplined for the strict Swedish court. Exhibit A – she used to ride a silver tray down the stairs at Oakhill. Once, she came flying out of the hall and almost ran Lennart over. Another time, she tried to push a lawnmower while the gardener watched, embarrassed.
- Maria took Lennart to Russia in 1913, for the Romanov tercentary. His only memory of the imperial family was of the four girls. When he was playing with them, they suddenly all took off their hair – and stood there laughing, completely bald. They had all had typhus and lost their hair. Their heads had been shaved and they were all wearing wigs.
- Wilhelm brought Lennart back a lion cub after he took a hunting/safari trip to Africa for Christmas 1913. Lennart befriended the cub, named Simba, and says he loved the water…but then he also decided he liked climbing onto people’s backs. Nope. They had to donate Simba to the Copenhagen zoo.
- In the family, Lennart’s great-grandparents had nicknames. Grand Duchess Luise of Baden was “Aunt God-Commanded” and Grand Duke Friedrich I of Baden was “Uncle As-You-Wish-Luise.”
- Amama (Victoria) was a control freak and a backseat driver. Plus she was tall - she had a specially built Mercedes with an elevated ceiling so she could sit in the back seat while wearing a big hat. That Mercedes also had special signaling buttons she could control from the backseat. It was the driver’s job just to drive and obey her signals.
- Victoria had chronic pulmonary emphysema and was subject to intense coughing fits at any moment. Her husband refused to quit smoking around her. The doctors even recommended that she try to smoke a little so her lungs could get used to the smoke. It didn’t work.
- Because Victoria’s hands often hurt, she had a typewriter for composing letters. She let Lennart play on it, and he hammered out silly letter combinations to make fake words. They used one of them as a greeting for years afterward. “Quits maghé” - how sweet is that?
- Victoria was a wonderful storyteller. She had a running serial, a sort of never-ending fairy tale, that started one winter evening at Stockholm Castle and lasted for years. She also loved Alice in Wonderland – but Lennart hated it, not always able to distinguish between fact and fantasy and thus terrified by the Red Queen and her frequent executions.
- In April 1915, Victoria took Lennart to visit her mother in Baden, during World War I. They went again in 1916, and Lennart wanted to go to the circus for his seventh birthday. So they got him tickets for a Sunday matinee. But on Friday, he was so sick that the doctor said he wasn’t allowed to go. Well, that Sunday afternoon, there was an Allied bombing raid and two bombs hit the Karlsruhe circus. About 100 kids were killed.
- After World War I, Prince Wilhelm built a house in the south of France in Eze – that’s exactly where dowager Grand Duchess Anastasia of Mecklenburg-Schwerin also had a house at this time.
- Much later in life, Lennart and his mother formed a sort of tenuous relationship in Argentina. She told him her life story from her perspective, which basically made herself out to be a blameless romantic heroine (dudes just wouldn’t stop falling in love with her and women just wouldn’t stop being jealous of her, according to Maria). But there’s something more serious here, too. She claims that Victoria’s doctor-friend Axel Munthe assaulted her. What does “assault” mean in this case? All interpretations are terrible, but Lennart (and possibly Maria, when she told the story) draws a deliberate veil over the end of that particular story. Understandably so. But that means we don’t know whether the assault consisted of groping, a kiss, an attempted rape, a rape, etc. It doesn’t excuse her behavior – at least not for me. But it’s a horrible thing that could clearly push someone over the edge into leaving a situation she already wasn’t happy with.
Should You Read This Book?
Yes, 100% – if you read Swedish.
If you don’t (like me), it’s a long slog but I think it’s worth it. You have to really want to keep going once you cut and paste your thousandth sentence.
I translated this book using a combination of Google Translate and Microsoft Translate. It’s weird how the sentences one AI mangles, the other can often untangle. It’s no way to get a sense of literary merit – it’s just a way to read for comprehension and facts. That being said, some of Lennart Bernadotte’s artistry shines through. I think he would have been a fun guy to have a beer with.
Author: John Van der Kiste
Publisher: A&F Publishing
Available at: Amazon (free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers)
I have to admit…Dona is not one of my favorite royals. Like, at all. But she had the respect and admiration of millions of Germans before and during the war, for her good works and moral support. That’s worth something, isn’t it? I wanted to find out what I was missing about her.
She was born a princess of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg in 1858. Like my research subject, Hilda of Baden, her father lost his title when Prussia said, “Yeah, this is mine now.” She was tapped as a potential bride for the future Wilhelm II by his mom, Crown Princess Victoria of Prussia (who wanted to quash his crush on Elizabeth of Hesse). Victoria got her way, and Wilhelm eventually proposed to Dona. But Dona didn’t repay the favor. She was profoundly Anglophobic, and didn’t become the friend and ally Victoria had been hoping for…quite the opposite, in fact.
Did she and Wilhelm have a happy marriage? Define happy. They didn’t separate. They produced 7 kids. Dona loved him to distraction, but he got bored of her pretty quickly and kept his distance. He wasn’t faithful. He never stopped asserting total control over her, which to be fair, Dona expected and was fine with. Van der Kiste argues that it was only later that she became the strong one, the one Wilhelm depended on. Although she was xenophobic, profoundly anti-Catholic, and small-minded, she was devoted to her kids and her charity work. Since these were the public face of the monarchy, her devotion earned her the respect and admiration of the German people.
There’s something to be said about the fact that all her kids had nothing but glowing praise for her as a mother. Whatever her flaws, she showered them with affection and devotion.
She also supported women’s right to vote, which is unexpected based on her overall conservatism.
During World War I, she became the dominant partner in the marriage. She was the one reprimanding society ladies for throwing lavish parties when there were food shortages. She was the one protecting Wilhelm from bad news and monitoring his increasingly erratic behavior. She entertained him, their family, and his entourage, keeping spirits high and running their royal residences smoothly behind the scenes. But then she refused to intervene on behalf of the English nurse, Edith Cavell, arrested for helping Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium, even when King Alfonso XIII of Spain personally asked her to help. She let Edith go to the firing squad without a word. Cue the Madeleine Albright quote about there being a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women...
The abdication broke her. Her health had already deteriorated to the point where she was a near-invalid. She joined Wilhelm in exile in Holland, and died in 1920. When her coffin made its way through Berlin, about 200,000 people came out to watch it pass by and pay their respects.
Before she died, she told Wilhelm that he should marry again…and this surprised me. I’m sure she was thinking of a possible restoration, and wanted the position of German empress to be filled. In her world, an emperor needed an empress. Without that belief, what would her life have meant?
Interesting Tidbits & Connections
- Her uncle Christian is the one who married Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Helena.
- Her mom, Adelaide of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, suffered from mental illness. She sank into depression after Prussia took Schleswig-Holstein, leaving her husband a duke in name only. That depression turned into something worse, something that couldn’t be hidden. Encephalitis, hallucinations, headaches, and a strange tendency to attack dinner companions for no reason: because her condition wasn’t understood, she became an embarrassment to her family.
- In 1881, when she made her entry into Berlin to marry Wilhelm, her procession was interrupted by a Singer Sewing Machines publicity stunt. They sent a sponsored float into the parade in what might be the first instance I can recall where royalty and guerilla marketing intersect.
- She took diet pills to stay thin because Wilhelm didn’t like chubby women. Apparently, he constantly scrutinized and criticized her, and was the one who got her the diet pills. I knew I didn’t like that guy. What a dick. According to Van der Kiste, “…her slim figure was said to be legendary in royal and imperial circles.” I never thought of Dona as a slim woman at all. I guess I only pictured her as she appeared in later photos – plump and white-haired.
- Wilhelm designed many of her outfits himself, down to the hats. Suffice to say that Dona wouldn’t have been on People’s best-dressed list. Fashion design was not one of Wilhelm’s strong suits.
- Almost all her kids had unhappy marriages of almost all her kids. Out of 7 kids, only two were happy – Princess Viktoria Luise (who married Ernst August of Hanover) and Prince Adalbert, happily married to Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen.
- Before leaving Germany for exile (in November of 1918), most of the German crown jewels were sent to Queen Victoria of Sweden (Wilhelm’s aunt). What happened to them all? Did she get them back in exile? Where are they today?
Should You Read This Book?
Yes – if you already have an interest in the German imperial family. Otherwise, this probably won’t hold your interest. Van der Kiste, as always, is a solid writer. But I’m not sure Dona is a subject most casual readers will want to spend much time with…at least not without a focus on the family and charity work, which brings out the best in her character.
Author: Norman Eisen
Subtitle: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House
Publisher: Random House
Available at: Amazon
This a delightful book to read. Although it deals with some very dark times in history, its focus on the people who lived in the Petschek mansion keeps it from becoming too depressing. The writing is casual, not scholarly, which I enjoyed.
The book melds Eisen’s own story as ambassador with his mother’s, who fled Czechoslovakia a generation earlier during World War II. Because of what she saw there, she deeply distrusts the government there and is hesitant to accept her son’s invitation to come stay in the beautiful Petschek palace. Her story is woven in among those of the others who occupied the house.
After the Petscheks fled to America, in moved a German general, Rudolf Toussaint (not the name you expect, I know). He fell under the house’s spell and worked to save it (and Prague) as the Allied armies neared Prague. Eisen did a good job with this balanced portrayal – he made it clear Toussaint was loyal to the Wehrmacht, the German army, not necessarily the Nazi party. It’s a fine line, I know, but at its heart an important distinction.
In 1945, the Red Army liberated Prague, but only because the approaching General Eisenhower held his troops back – a special agreement with Stalin. Despite the Soviet influence, for a brief few years, it seemed like Czechoslovakia was going to pull through as a democracy. During that time, Laurence Steinhardt was the U.S. Ambassador to the country. He needed a place to live, and negotiated his stay in the house with both Otto Petschek’s son (who hated the house) and the Czechoslovakian government – and fought to save the house when it looked like that deal would collapse, and the house might be taken over by the Soviets.
Our guide to the next episode in Czech history? Shirley Temple Black, who arrived just in time for the 1968 Soviet smackdown. Her account of seeing the tanks roll through the streets – and the unforgettable image of a Czech woman murdered on the street – is mesmerizing. Later, she would return as the U.S. Ambassador.
Finally, the book wraps up with Eisen, and his ongoing effort to get his mom to come and visit the country of her birth once more. He almost effs it up by telling her he found a Nazi inventory labels on the underside of a table – this really creeped his mother out, understandably so. I won’t spoil the ending and tell you whether he finally convinced her to come for a visit – you’ll have to read this for yourself.
There aren’t many – this was a really enjoyable read.
- It could have been a tad shorter. Some of the sections started to drag, especially the long segment devoted to the riot that became the 1989 Velvet Revolution. It’s interesting, but doesn’t necessarily merit the turn-by-turn route the main characters take through the streets.
Should You Read This Book?
Yep. It’s easy to read, and provides fascinating insight on the strange post-WWII period when the Soviets consolidated their power in Eastern Europe. There are so many what-ifs here that you’d go nuts contemplating them all – what if the U.S. hadn’t let the Red Army liberate Prague? What if they’d tried harder to assert influence in the post-war period? These questions are bigger than the scope of this book. This isn’t a political history per se, but you can’t help but get an education in the tangled web of Czech politics, as seen through the eyes of the palace’s residents. Recommended.
Author: Cristina Siccardi
Available at: Amazon (used)
Cristina Siccardi wrote this book with the cooperation of Mafalda’s son, Heinrich. There is also a foreword by Prince Victor Emmanuel of Savoy, Mafalda’s nephew. This book clearly had the blessing of Mafalda’s family – it is, shall we say, an authorized biography. Which is all well and good – it needed to be written because Mafalda’s story deserves to be told.
That being said, I think there’s room for a lot more information. There were parts of Mafalda’s life that Siccardi skipped over – either because information was scanty, or because it was easier to skip in the authorized version. More on that later.
First, let me tell you what I really liked about this book.
The section that covers Mafalda’s trip to Bulgaria for Boris III’s funeral through her return to Rome reads like a suspense novel. The fiction writer in me perked up, big time, as Siccardi described trains, delays, floods of refugees, mass confusion after the armistice, and officers begging Mafalda not to go back to Rome. In this section, Siccardi gives enough detail about everything - Mafalda’s movements, who she met and what they said to her, and what she replied – to make you feel like you’re there with her. I was absolutely riveted.
But that was probably the only part of the book that felt complete in that way.
The rest had significant gaps that turned this book into an elegy, not a biography. Which brings me to the caveats.
- Loose focus. In her introduction, Siccardi tells the reader she’s going to both trace Mafalda’s life and explain the history of what was happening in Italy at the time. A little of that detail is definitely called for – you have to set the scene. But this book wandered waaaaay off topic at times. There were at least five whole chapters – one fifth of the entire book – where Mafalda never made an appearance or was name-checked once. If I weren’t doing a paragraph-by-paragraph translation, I don’t think that would have frustrated me. I would have just skimmed until she reappeared. But since I couldn’t do that, I was hyper-aware of how much the middle of this book devotes to the general cultural situation in Italy between the world wars. There’s a whole chapter on Pavolini and the Ministry of Culture. Why? I can’t really tell you. Siccardi quotes extensively from soldiers’ letters at the outbreak of war, as well as from Ministry guidelines on what should and should not appear in the newspapers. Why? How did this affect Mafalda? There’s absolutely no effort to tie it all together. It baffled me.
- Some odd organization and time jumps. For example, in a section devoted to anedcotes about Mafalda, there’s suddenly a paragraph reminding us: “Modern times by Charlie Chaplin and Una notte all'opera by the Marx brothers come out in theaters. Margaret Mitchell's popular novel Gone with the Wind is published. Meanwhile, King Edward VIII of England abdicates the throne, preferring love for the divorced Simpson to monarchical responsibilities.” And then it’s right back to Mafalda, with no explanation as to why or how those things relate to her. It was super weird, and not the only example of jumps like this.
- Lack of depth. For example, there’s nothing here about Philipp’s reputation as a maneater. Nothing about his previous relationship with Sassoon. Nothing about him being bisexual at all…and nothing about whether Mafalda knew, didn’t know, or didn’t care. Nothing about whether Philipp’s love for Mafalda narrowed his sexual preference, or if his entire character changed. There’s not much about Philipp as a person at all, other than his love of the arts. This book just doesn’t dig deeply at all. Which may be part and parcel of the authorized biography, but it left me wanting more. Not in a prurient way…just in a more complete, fully honest kind of way. Similarly, in one line, Siccardi mentions that Axel Munthe dedicated his famous History of San Michele to Mafalda – and then doesn’t mention anything else about their relationship. Considering Munthe’s sketchy history (Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia accused him of assaulting her), it seems like more info on this relationship is called for. But it’s a throwaway one-liner. That’s it.
- Lack of detail about the years 1930-1940. This is the part where Siccardi depends on a generalized history of Mussolini and Hitler and their respective states. I was hoping for more detail on how Mafalda interacted with her in-laws, how Philipp interacted with her parents, and more detail about schlepping between Italy and Germany. Was there ever a strain in her relationship with Philipp when her doctors recommended she avoid Germany during the winter? How did Philipp convince her to become a member of the Nazi party if, as he later said, everything about Hitler disgusted her? Did he play the husband card? When and in what circumstance(s) did she meet Hitler? He had derogatory things to say about her looks and her intellect, so presumably they met. This book doesn’t mention their meeting at all. Also, Siccardi mentions in one line that Mafalda took a trip to Vienna with a cousin in 1938 and they were paranoid they were being watched and followed the whole time. Why? Had she already noticed this in Germany or Italy? Did she write to anyone about this? Did she tell anyone? There are still so many unanswered questions prompted by throwaway lines like this.
- Lack of detail about her life in Buchenwald. Understandably, maybe this detail is next to impossible to find. We get a lot of detail about her death and the final operation, however. It made me want to know more about the rest of her life in the camp. For example, were the privileged political prisoners exempt from roll call? No idea. What did they do all day? They weren’t forced to labor, were they? I don’t think so, but I’m not sure. We just don’t know much…but I’m not sure if that’s because the info isn’t out there, or Siccardi didn’t go and track it down. I suspect it was the latter.
- Lack of original research. This book relies heavily on previously published sources: Heinrich’s memoir, Der kristallene Luster, and several other books on Mafalda by Renato Barneschi and Dino Campini. There is no archival research (maybe the Savoy archives aren’t open to researchers?). There is no archival research in Germany that might illustrate how Philipp’s colleagues and friends there felt about Mafalda. Late in the book, Siccardi quotes Philipp as saying the Gauleiters and other high-ranking Nazi officials in Germany knew Mafalda didn’t like the Nazis, and suspects they informed on her to the Gestapo. Wouldn’t it be exciting to go look for that evidence? Siccardi just lets it drop. Her German friends and in-laws are barely present in this book, and I’m left wondering: does that mean they were barely present in her life? Or is Siccardi leaving out a huge chunk of her life? We don’t know, and that’s frustrating.
Should You Read It?
If you read Italian, yes.
I harped on a lot of stuff above, but I don’t want to make this sound like a bad book. It’s not. It’s necessary. I’m glad I got the chance to read it. I’ll probably track down Siccardi’s books on Queen Elena (Mafalda’s mom) and Giovanna (her sister).
But, in addition to a flood of tears, if you’re also left with some questions, just know you’re not alone.
Author: Geri Walton
Publisher: Pen & Sword History
Available at: Amazon (free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers)
The Princess de Lamballe was born Marie Thérèse-Louise de Savoy-Carignan. If you’ve heard of her at all, it’s probably in the context of her friendship with Marie Antoinette or her horrible murder during the 1792 September Massacres during the French Revolution.
The single most interesting part of this book for me was the relationship between the princess and her father-in-law, the Duc de Penthièvre. Her husband, the duke’s son, was a douche-bag who died young of what appears to be syphilis. But it looks like Lamballe and her father-in-law had the real love story in this book. Whenever he was ill (and he was old, so he was ill a lot), she’d drop what she was doing to be with him. When she was imprisoned during the revolution, he sent an agent to keep track of her in prison – and whisper advice into her ear during her sham trial. That was the part the tore at my heart the most.
I also appreciated the descriptions of places the author included - especially the Shell Cottage (this sounds amazing).
That being said, it’s still hard to get a feel for who this woman was. As the author notes, most of the material we have on her has to be filtered through perspective: was it written by someone who hated her? Someone jealous of her? Someone who never even knew her? Short of direct quotations from letters and diaries, we can’t really know what she was like, what she felt, or what others felt about her. There’s a fair amount of that here, but I wonder what archival sources might add to the story.
A Few Caveats
As always, I’m a nitpicky reader – blame it on a prior job as an editor. I have a few issues with this book. None were deal-breakers – I read the book all the way through. But they’re big enough issues that I have to tell you about them.
Caveat #1: The Scope
There’s a reason the woman named in the title of the book is Marie Antoinette, not the Princess de Lamballe. Quite a bit of the story is focused on her. On one hand, this is understandable – you can’t understand Lamballe’s life at Versailles without understanding the woman and the place. On the other hand, I feel like the material on Marie Antoinette is a filler because this book doesn’t contain any archival research that could deepen what we already know about the Princess de Lamballe. For example, we get a lot of detail about the Diamond Necklace Affair. The Princess de Lamballe had nothing to do with this episode, but we get an entire chapter about the set-up, the scam, the denouement, and the perpetrators. It’s interesting, but it’s not part of Lamballe’s story – and there are more complete sources out there if you’re interested in the Diamond Necklace Affair.
Caveat #2: The Proofreading & Style Choices
There are quite a few typos and grammatical errors (usually inconsistently placed possessive apostrophes) throughout the book. And one glaring mistake that almost kept me from reading the book – this one happened right off the bat, in the list of characters. Gustav III is labeled a “Swiss king.” But I conquered my inner pedant and kept reading.
Also keep in mind that the author uses French rules for capitalization. If you’re used to English spelling and capitalization (the Princess de Lamballe, Madame de Tourzel), you’re gonna think names in this book look weird (the princesse de Lamballe, madame de Tourzel). I was under the impression “Madame” was always capitalized when used to denote a specific person, though, so this threw me. Maybe it’s correct, maybe it’s not…but the visual oddity kept me on edge throughout the book. I think “Abbé” is the only consistently capitalized title/honorific.
Should You Read This Book?
I’m on the fence. If you’re new to the subject of Marie Antoinette or the French Revolution, there are better options. If you know about those subjects already, you’ll find a lot of this book repetitive. I’m tempted to dig into some of the biographies of Lamballe listed in the notes section and see if there’s something that sticks with her story more completely. YMMV.
Editor: Princesse Radziwill (née Castellane)
Publisher: Charles Scribner’s Sons
Available at: Archive.org (free)
Although this volume opens in Paris in 1831, it mostly covers her time in England while her great-uncle/lover Talleyrand was the French Ambassador to the Court of St. James. And the word “memoir” is a little misleading in this case. These three volumes are compilations of notes she made and fragments of letters she wrote to Adolphe de Bacourt, later compiled and edited by her granddaughter.
What Do We Learn about the Duchesse de Dino?
Well, she’s no feminist. I realize it’s unfair to use that word since neither the word nor the concept existed in the early-mid 19th century. But it’s hard to escape her sense that women have little to no place in the political scene of the day.
Rather than harp on this, I’ll just show you what I’m talking about.
Here's a direct quote: “A propos of the state of England, and of the complications which will arise there owing to the age and sex of the heir to the throne, His Majesty [William IV] said, ”What a deplorable thing it is to see all these little girl Kings in a time like the present!” He went on to a dissertation full of real eloquence on the disadvantages of female rule, then suddenly stopped with a polite phrase and a sort of apology which was quite unnecessary. So I said that I thought that what M. de Talleyrand said of wits was true of women, “they were useful for anything but sufficient for nothing” (167).
So…Who Did She Write About?
Lots of people! Here are a few highlights:
- Her frenemy, Madame de Lieven, the wife of the Russian ambassador. Madame was convinced of the infallibility of her charm and appeal, but was a great source of gossip for Dorothea and for us. Her husband was recalled in 1834 when Tsar Nicholas I appointed him governor to his son, Grand Duke Alexander Nikolaevich (Sasha). They had been in England for 22 years.
- King William IV: “…he made several remarkable speeches in French, and I hear that, when the ladies had gone, the grossness of his conversation was beyond belief” (4).
- The Duke of Wellington: “...he forgets nothing and never exaggerates; and if there is something a trifle abrupt, a little dry and military in his conversation, what he says is nevertheless attractive owing to its naturalness, its fairness, and the perfect good manners with which he says it. His manners are indeed excellent, and a woman has never to be on her guard against a conversation taking an awkward turn” (39).
- King Louis-Philippe: “The King is an admirable guide to his palaces. I wondered during all our conversation how a man could know the traditions of his family so well and be so proud of them, and yet…However!” (26). I really wish she had completed that sentence.
- Princess Victoria: “The young Princess Victoria struck me the moment I saw her as having grown a little and as being paler and thinner. By this she is much improved, though still too small for the fifteen years which she will complete in three weeks time. The little queen that is to be has a fine complexion and magnificent chestnut hair. In spite of her small stature she is well made; she will have pretty shoulders and fine arms, her expression and her manners are sweet and kindly, she speaks several languages fluently, and it is said that she is being very carefully educated” (42).
Big Events She Covers:
- Court intrigue surrounding King William IV. In 1832, at a party, he told the crowd he had no intention of dying anytime soon so there’d be no need for a minority – a direct slap in the face to Victoria’s mother, who hoped to be regent for her underage daughter. There are lots of little burns like that described in this book.
- Speculation on William IV’s mental state - namely, was he losing his mind? “Among his strangest remarks I must quote his inquiry addressed to Prince Esterhazy, ‘whether people married in Greece?’ ‘I ask,’ he added, noticing that the Prince was rather astonished, ‘because, as of course you know, there are no marriages in Russia’” (50).
- The troubles King Louis-Philippe has in marrying off his daughters. “...the Orleans Princesses — pleasant, well-mannered, well-dowered great ladies as they are, are none the less difficult to marry. There is about them a faint aroma of usurpation which deters certain princely families from an alliance with them. It is curious that King Louis Philippe, who has for his children the sort of affection which it is the fashion to call bourgeois, is so stiff about helping the Princesses, his daughters, out of their difficult position by the large dowries to which they are entitled” (44).
- The ongoing Carlist war in Spain. Ferdinand VII is still alive when this volume opens, but as soon as he dies, Spain erupts into civil war. Some support Ferdinand’s chosen successor, his daughter Isabella, while others who don’t believe a woman can rule will back his brother, Don Carlos. Queen Maria Christina, her daughter's regent, tries to hold things together for her daughter. Dorothea corresponds with General Alava, who tried to use some British troops to quell the revolt: “You were right, my dear Duchesse, when you once said that to enter Spain with foreign troops was to tempt Providence” (274). Does that quote remind anyone else of Vizzini in The Princess Bride (never get involved in a land war in Asia)?
My Favorite Tidbits
- This wack story about Lady Holland faking her own daughter’s death: “…she gave out that her eldest daughter was dead in order not to be forced to surrender her to her first husband, and when she had ceased to care for this child she brought her back to life again, and to prove that she was not buried she had the grave opened, and the skeleton of a goat was found in the coffin. This is going a little too far!” (73-4). Pure WTF territory here, folks.
- This funny story about the King of Sweden and his hair: “The Swedish Minister, M. de Bjoerstjerna, who is always singing the praises of his sovereign even in the most trifling matters, was boasting to M. de Talleyrand the other day of the strength, the grace, and the youthfulness which King Charles-John has retained at his advanced age. He was particularly enthusiastic about the thickness of his Majesty's hair, which he asserted was all ‘as black as jet.’ ‘That seems indeed wonderful,’ said M. de Talleyrand, ‘but is it not possible that the King dyes his hair?’ ‘No, I assure you,’ replied the Swede. ‘Then it is indeed extraordinary,’ said M. de Talleyrand. ‘Yes, indeed,’ continued M. de Bjoerstjerna, ‘the man who every morning pulls out the white hairs from his Majesty's head must have sharp eyes.’ This is worthy of the popular reputation of Sweden as the Gascony of the North” (55).
- How she delivers a burn to a dude she hates: “M. de Montrond talks of returning to Loueche to put his poor body in a bath. It would be a good thing if it were possible to put his soul in also. His visit here was an even worse failure than that of last year. When you have survived yourself, your fortune, your health, your wit, and your manners, and when there does not even remain the faintest reflection of your past glories to give you a little consideration in the world, the spectacle which you present is deplorable. I said one day to M. de Talleyrand that in my opinion nothing was left to M. de Montrond except to blow out his brains” (106).
- The state of the King of Belgium's marriage: “The eldest of our Princesses, the Queen of the Belgians, had so little inclination for the King, her husband, that she refuses ever to return to Compiègne, where her marriage was solemnised; and it is chiefly for this reason that the Court is arranging to go to Fontainebleau. However, this disinclination on the part of Queen Louise has been transformed into a conjugal affection so intense that she lives almost shut up with the King in a tete-a-tete which is hardly interrupted even by her ladies or the Master of the Household who receive all their orders in writing. The King and the Queen occupy adjoining rooms, the doors of which are left open. The King, who is timid and domestic in his habits, likes this sort of life very well, and it is much to his wife's taste, for she is only loved by her husband, while he is adored by her. I have these details from her brother, the Duc d'Orléans” (261).
- Ye Olde Presidential Limo: “The fact that eight horses were attached for the first time to the King’s carriage attracted attention. The real reason for this is unknown to the public, and is as follows. For greater safety the King (without his knowledge) was given the carriage formerly used by the Emperor Napoleon, which is lined with iron throughout to protect it from shots; it is extremely heavy, and requires eight horses” (285).
Should You Read This Book?
Yes, I recommend skimming it. Volume 1 wasn’t quite as lively as volume 2, but there are still plenty of choice tidbits for royal watchers.
There’s a LOT of information about French ministerial crises...and you know what, I just don’t care. Grown-ass men bitching about who they will and won’t work with isn’t my cup of tea.
But you know what is? The Duchess of Cumberland’s ghost story. And the Duchess of Devonshire’s ghost story. And the descriptions of English castles and gardens she toured. And the friendship she struck up with Queen Adelaide. And the machinations of the Duchess of Kent leading up to William IV’s death. It’s good stuff - you just have to wade through a bunch of stuff you’re probably not interested in first. Be brave. The good tidbits are worth it.
Editor: Princesse Radziwill (née Castellane)
Publisher: Charles Scribner’s Sons
Available at: Project Gutenberg (free)
Let’s start with the question everyone’s probably asking right now.
Who the Hell Is the Duchesse de Dino?
Dorothea von Biron, Princess of Courland was born in 1793. Her father (well, maybe) was the last duke of Courland; her mother was the duke’s third wife, Countess Dorothea von Medem. Mom became something of a European celebrity, befriending everyone from poets to kings and princes. One of the men she had an affair with? Talleyrand, the famous French diplomat. Put a pin in that, because we’ll come back to him shortly.
Fast-forward to 1809, when Mom’s former lover Talleyrand was looking for a rich wife for his great-nephew, Edmond. He picked Dorothea. He was so keen on adding her to his family that he asked Tsar Alexander I to put in a good word with her mother about the marriage. It worked, and Dorothea married Edmond in 1809. She and her mom both moved to France.
But Dorothea hated Paris. She felt out of place, and during the Napoleonic wars, her Germanic heritage made her an outcast. Although she and Edmond had three kids, the marriage wasn’t happy.
But then 1815 happened, and suddenly, Dorothea’s fortunes were looking up. The Napoleonic wars were over, and her great-uncle Talleyrand was off to Vienna to help put the world back together. So she went with him, acting as his hostess. Gossip says she started acting like a lot more than a hostess, too. By 1818, she separated from Edmond. In 1820, she was pregnant – possibly with her great-uncle-by-marriage’s baby. (Ew.) That same year, the aging Talleyrand left Paris to live on his country estate, Valençay. Dorothea went with him. They lived together for the rest of his life, including during his stint as French ambassador to London.
You may be wondering why she’s called the Duchesse de Dino. In 1817, as a thank-you for his efforts at the Congress of Vienna, the King of Sicily granted Talleyrand the duchy of Dino. He gave it to Edmond and Dorothea. After he died, she became the Duchesse de Talleyrand.
So…What Did She Write About?
Everything: people, current events, life in the country, life in the city, politics, world events, her fears, her hopes for her kids…literally everything. She was a smart cookie who loved intelligent conversation but struggled with the idea of being an outsider. In France, she was too German. In Germany, she was too French. In London, she was either too French or too German. She loved the quiet of the French countryside, but she kept in constant contact with political movers and shakers. And she reported their doings in her letters, which are the basis for these memoirs, compiled by her granddaughter. You also get snippets of letters from others that she quotes to her pen pal. For example, we hear frequently from her frenemy, the Princesse de Lieven (wife of the Russian ambassador).
The book opens in the middle of a French ministerial crisis. To be honest, I skimmed most of the parts that dealt with dry political bits like ministers’ speeches. I’m here for the royal tidbits, not the inner workings of the government under King Louis-Philippe.
But before too long, the pace picks up – we get the story of two Orléans princes who go on a European tour. Then one of them gets married. Then the Prussian king dies. Then we’re on bump-watch as everyone waits for the new French princess to get pregnant. In short, it’s freaking fascinating.
Big Events She Covers:
- The marriage of the heir to the French throne, the Duc d’Orléans. Vienna turned down his suit for Archduchess Therese, but he lucked out when Princess Helena of Mecklenburg-Schwerin said yes. Turns out, she was the right person for the job and charmed the socks off pretty much everyone at the French court.
- The relatively regular assassination attempts on the French king’s life. Bombings, stabbings, you know - that sort of thing.
- The ongoing Carlist war in Spain. Ferdinand VII died leaving only a baby daughter behind - so of course his asshole brother had to try to usurp the throne, leading to decades of unrest, civil war, and the general decline of a once semi-functioning country.
- The death of King William IV and the ascension of Queen Victoria. There was a ton of intrigue swirling around Victoria’s mom, the Duchess of Kent, and society gossips were keen to repeat it. She wasn’t well liked, but her daughter was - and once she became queen, people were impressed with how she took control in a ballsy yet gracious way.
- The death of her great-uncle-probable-lover-and-possible-baby-daddy, Talleyrand. This dude was a dominant figure in her life - and when he passed away, it tore her world apart. But she was also responsible for Talleyrand’s return to the church before the end. It’s interesting to hear about the last years of someone who not only saw, but participated in such momentous historical events.
- The death of King Frederick William III in Prussia. Dorothea was passing through Berlin at the time, and stopped for royal chit-chats with the heir to the throne, his wife, and most of the rest of the Prussian court. Totes interesting.
My Favorite Tidbits
- Ever wondered how to tell how many people showed up at your ball? The easy answer, courtesy of Marshal Maison’s wife: Put your chambermaid behind the door with a big bag of beans. Tell her to move a bean from the bag to her handbag every time someone comes in the door. Dorothea and the Princess de Lieven almost choked on their champagne, so I’m guessing they saw this as a ridiculous answer.
- Crazy rumors about the Duchess of Kent (Queen Victoria’s mother). From the letter dated June 12, 1837: “The King of England is most seriously ill, and is only kept alive with curacoa and raw meat. He knows that he is dying, and is calling his family round him: the FitzClarences, and even Lord Munster. Mr. Caradoc is said to be taking Sir John Conroy's place with the Duchess of Kent. He sends for presents for her, the cost of which is paid by the Princess Bagration…” (113) Apparently, this Mr. Caradoc was married to Princess Bagration, but using her money to buy presents for the Duchess of Kent, hoping to gain some influence with her and/or her daughter, knowing that King William IV was about to die. I love a good scheme!
- Her description of what it was like to live with someone widely considered a political genius. “My long intercourse with M. de Talleyrand has made it difficult for ordinary people to get on with me; I meet minds which seem slow, diffuse, and ill-developed; they are always putting on the brake, like people going downhill; I have spent my life with my shoulder to the wheel in uphill work. In M. de Talleyrand's lifetime I took more pleasure in the society of others, because I fully enjoyed my own society with him; perhaps also because I sometimes felt the need of rest at some lower elevation.” (184-5)
- The story about Prince Christian of Demark’s first wife. “Prince Christian's first wife was a mad woman with dreadful manners. She went to Rome for refuge and to join the Catholic Church, and there she plunged into the most ridiculous mummeries. Her husband adored her, and if the King of Denmark had not insisted upon a separation Prince Christian would have remained under her yoke. He still corresponds with her, and has never ceased to regret her loss.” I want to know more about her!
- The story about Marshal Richelieu, as told by his son-in-law at a dinner party (summarized): Louis XIV thought the 14-year-old Richelieu was flirting with his granddaughter-in-law and forced him to get married. That wife later died, and he married Mademoiselle de Guise. She died too. One day, at the age of 80, Richelieu had a carriage accident and was helped out by a Mr. and Mrs. de Roothe. He thought Mrs. de Roothe was hot, so he kept coming over to visit her. When Mr. de Roothe died and she found herself a poor widow with four kids to feed, he hooked her up with an apartment in the Tuileries. She wrote to thank him, and when he saw her next, he proposed. She accepted, they got married, and she got pregnant! Unfortunately, Richelieu’s jealous eldest son “induced a chambermaid to give his mother-in-law a draught which brought on a miscarriage.” Dude. What a story! (273) Dorothea was trippin’ on the fact that she was sitting next to someone whose father-in-law had been ordered to get married by Louis XIV – already such a distant historical figure in 1838. That would be like talking to someone today whose father-in-law was there when the phonograph or telephone was invented.
Should You Read This Book?
I recommend it, yes.
I skimmed maybe 25% that dove into the nitty-gritty details of ministerial politics. Anytime I saw the names Thiers, Molé, or Guizot, I kind of tuned out. But Dorothea didn’t - she had one-on-one meetings with all these guys, and they were the power brokers during Louis-Philippe’s reign.
There’s also plenty of interesting stuff to keep you tuned-in. I especially enjoyed her trip through Germany to Silesia – she happened to be in Berlin when the king (Frederick William III) died, and had a privileged visitor’s access to the whole thing. She had one-on-one tea time with “Princess William,” aka Augusta of Saxe-Weimar, the future empress. She gives you interesting tidbits and impressions on most of the Prussian royal family, from Princess Albert to Princess Charles to the future Queen of Prussia (Elisabeth of Bavaria).
Her impressions of life in London versus Paris versus Silesia versus the French countryside are also pretty interesting. She’s an introspective person who thinks deeply but is also aware of her mental limitations. She hated Paris and loved London. Why? Because in Paris, “there is no leisure, constant worry, and a continual sense of want.” In London, on the other hand, “I had time for my own occupations, for reading, working, writing, and thinking, nor was I pestered by every idle person. If calling is a tax upon one’s time, calls can be paid at London with an empty carriage and with cards; in short, life there was a pleasure” (5). As a rabid introvert who gets exhausted by a single conversation, dude, I can relate. Maybe Dorothea and I could have been pen pals.
Since I mistakenly started with volume 2, now I’m backtracking to volume 1. I’ll report on that soon!
Editor: Princesse Radziwill (née Castellane)
Publisher: Charles Scribner’s Sons
Available at: Google Books (free)
If you’re not familiar with the Duchesse de Dino, click here and here to read my summaries of the previous two volumes. In this volume, she’s on her own – her great-uncle/lover/babydaddy Talleyrand has been dead for several years. She’s still absorbed by French politics (and I’m still not interested in the goings-on of Molé, Thiers, et al in the ministerial cabinet). I mostly skip those parts.
She still has trouble making female friends. The best she can do is meet up with long-standing acquaintances, and sometimes she comes away with good feelings about them…other times she doesn’t. The Princesse de Lieven is her #1 frenemy, and she’s usually on good terms with Grand Duchess Stéphanie of Baden (except for a visit in 1841, after which Dorothea basically says Stéphanie got on her nerves big time).
Dorothea does a lot of traveling, though, which I find fascinating. I love reading her summaries of who she met, had lunch with, what they talked about, and what she remembers about them. She travels a lot in the time period covered by this volume: we see her in Mannheim, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Vienna, Silesia, and Nice. And she has friends in high places, like Stéphanie, the king and queen of Prussia, and Prince Metternich.
But here’s the bummer about this volume.
There’s a huge gap in her correspondence during these years. We jump from February of 1843 to January of 1844, get a couple pages, and then jump again to December 1847…just in time for all hell to break loose in 1848. So, while I missed out on any gossip she might have had about Adolph and Lilli’s marriage, she gives fascinating and in-depth reports on what it’s like to live through the revolutionary year of 1848 on a country estate in Silesia while Prussia and Austria are going to hell in a handbasket.
Big Events in This Volume:
- Death of the duc d’Orléans. If you didn’t know this was coming, it would be pretty shocking. The young, vibrant heir to the French throne died because of a…carriage accident. Dorothea tried her best to get a handle on what actually happened, but since she was in the country at the time, she had to relying on secondhand reports and newspaper clippings. So here’s what went down. On July 13, 1842, one of the duc d’Orléans’s carriage horses bolted. He stood up in the carriage to see if there were any obstacles in the path ahead, but there weren’t. Then he looked behind him to see if the footman was okay, but he didn’t see anyone. The prince then jumped out of the carriage, but was hurt so badly in the fall that he died. Not how you want to go, right?
- The fall of the Orléans dynasty. Dorothea was in Berlin when it went down – she got the news by telegraph. On February 28, she said the last 48 hours had brought news of events no one was prepared for. Louis Philippe abdicated, and for fifteen minutes, the Duchesse d’Orléans was regent for her young son, the heir. When she first found out, she had no idea what sparked the abdication. In Berlin, Princess Augusta was overwhelmed and kept Dorothea with her for emotional support. Little by little, they got the news that the king and his family were in London, but that the Duchesse d’Orléans and her kids were in Germany. This was the first hint that there was a rupture in the Orléans family.
- The 1848 revolutions. It’s weird to be reading this during the coronavirus pandemic. You can feel the tension, the fear, the uncertainty…kind of like how we’re all feeling now. Except we’re not in mortal danger from peasant uprisings. The first hint that something was wrong outside of France came from her Berlin letter of March 14. Popular disturbances are expected, she wrote, and the troops had been confined to their barracks. The king made things worse by refusing to convoke the Diet. Then, in late March, there were attacks on town halls and garrisons in Silesia. Dorothea hurried home to Sagan, not far from where the attacks took place, in the hopes that her presence might keep her property safe. Here are a few choice quotes as shit hits the fan:
- March 24: “Meanwhile the financial crisis is at its height: there is no money in the country, no one can pay, bankruptcies are declared on every side, while panic and agitation are paramount. Pandora's box has been overturned upon Europe” (242).
- April 12: “The state of affairs, as we see it, is utterly inexplicable; forecast is impossible. We must live from hand to mouth and be satisfied when every twenty-four hours have passed without some unusual shock. We see many bands of police passing through the town on their way to Posen or Cracow. The Polish land owners are giving their peasants full liberty, to avoid the danger of massacre at their hands” (245).
- April 30: “We have now reached the end of the second month of this upheaval, the shocks of which are, I fear, far from reaching their conclusion. At the present moment Europe is divided between electoral passion and the flames of civil war. Human passion is displayed in all its hideousness during the rivalry aroused by the elections: citizens fight with citizens blindly and furiously, while anarchy, disorder, restlessness, poverty, despondency and despair is the picture to be seen everywhere, with a few slight differences” (248).
- May 28: “Great excitement continues to prevail in the streets of Berlin, and the return of the Prince of Prussia who is expected daily at Potsdam, will probably produce an explosion. Meanwhile Berlin is practically surrounded by a force of sixteen thousand men who can be used if necessary” (251).
- August 13: “Every evening there is some small excitement in the streets which is fomented by the deplorable proceedings of the assembly; moreover, the financial Minister, Herr Hanseman, is proposing laws destined to conclude our ruin. Claims are being laid by the former provinces which may degenerate into revolts and lead to civil war” (256).
- Assassination of Princess Windisch-Gratz. Okay, so that’s not a big event, but I wanted to include it anyway because it shocked me. Writing from Sagan on June 18, 1848, Dorothea says, “And what can be said of the frightful scenes at Prague, and the assassination of poor Princess Windisch-Graetz.” The helpful footnote says: “After a bombardment and some street fighting which lasted from the 12th to the 17th of June, Prince Windisch-Graetz was able to overcome the insurrection at Prague. During these struggles his wife was treacherously shot near the window of her drawing-room, while standing between her listen, from the other side of the street.” Yikes!
So Where Does She Leave Us?
This volume takes us through 1850, when things are still in a serious state of flux. The Russian army helped Emperor Franz Josef put down a revolt in Hungary. Things in the Low Countries (Holland) are unsettled – the monarchs are distinctly unpopular. Louis Napoleon (the future Napoleon III) was elected President in France, while factions for the Orléans and Bourbons still schemed in the background.
There was a full-on parliamentary crisis in Prussia when the king refused to take an oath to the Constitution. He finally did it in February of 1850…so he could then ask the legislative branch for money to prep the military for the next time people started feeling like revolting. It really looked like war between Austria/Bavaria and Prussia in November of 1850, when an unplanned clusterfuck at Fulda led to several deaths. But since no one really wanted war, they managed to save face for the time being…and save all that aggression for the War of 1866.
My Favorite Tidbits
- She thinks people of the 19th century are worn out and dead inside. “Deaths of this [sudden] kind in the time of Louis XIV. would have produced sudden conversions, but nothing can effect the worn-out emotions and the dead consciences of our age, where everything is flat and dull, at home and abroad” (43). The context here? She’s upset by the news that a young and vibrant woman, the Duchesse de Vallambrose, died of puerperal fever a few days after having her second child. Dorothea remembers that the schoolmistress of Rochecotte (where she lives) was cured of this disease by country doctors, but the poor duchess died despite having access to theoretically better care.
- Princess Marie of Baden finally gets married. Dorothea was friends with Grand Duchess Stéphanie of Baden, and in volume two, she witnessed Stéphanie’s distress over a couple failed marriage attempts for her daughter, Marie. Stéphanie got upset every time an eligible bachelor got swept up by some other princess. Poor Marie was still single when Dorothea swung by in 1841…and Stéphanie was super worried that she’d die before her daughter was settled. Then, in late 1842, a marriage is finally announced – to the Marquess of Douglas (later the Duke of Hamilton). As Dorothea says, “The marriage of Princess Marie of Baden is officially announced: her position will not be entirely agreeable to the English court which has resolved to treat her only as the Marchioness of Douglas. The poor Grand Duchess has negotiated the whole business with her usual carelessness” (170).
- Books she read and liked. “Since leaving Paris I have been reading a great deal, first a novel by Bulwer, Night and Morning; it is not uninteresting, but not equal to the early works of the same writer; then a short but delightful book, The Letters of the Princesse de Condé, sister of the last Duc de Bourbon, who died in the Temple as a nun. These letters were written in her youth to one who is still living, and of whom she was very fond, and quite unselfishly so. This was M. Ballanche, the friend of Madame Récamier, who published the letters without appearing as the hero of them. They are authentic, marked by simplicity, tenderness and loftiness of thought, full of devotion, delicacy, sentiment, reason and courage, and written at a time and in a society when the author, her style and her sentiments were quite exceptional. The book is most delightful.” She also greatly enjoyed Custine’s book on Russia: “M. de Custine's book is the only thing which seems to suit me; in spite of the affectation of the style and the brilliancy which is obvious even where it rather diminishes than heightens the effect, and a constant attempt at display, the book amuses and interests me” (195).
- King Ernst of Hanover and Prince George mourns his wife. Ernst was widely detested – he’s usually described as the wickedest of Queen Victoria’s wicked uncles. But he loved his wife, and when she died, he and his son were devastated. Dorothea heard of Ernst’s grief from Madame de Perponcher, and the description of poor George made me tear up: “…For a long time he was under a delusion concerning the state of her health and when the doctors told him that there was no hope, he was completely crushed... The Queen heard the terrible news with the utmost firmness and received the communion with the King, her daughter, the Duchess of Anhalt and poor Prince George. The despair of the latter was heartrending; as he could not see his mother [he was blind], he could not be persuaded that she was dead and insisted that he should be allowed to touch her body. As soon as the father put the mother's cold hand in that of her son, the poor blind man was overcome with a kind of madness. He has since been sent to the seaside. These details are cruel and really most heartrending” (75-6).
- Louis Philippe’s sister, Adélaïde, despairs at the poor marriages her nieces are making. When Dorothea visited Adélaïde in May 1843, news had just broken of Princess Clementine’s engagement to a duke of Saxe-Coburg. “Madame Adelaide seems to be quite in despair at the marriage of Princesse Clementine which will not provide her with a brilliant position, while the Prince is a nonentity. Madame told me it was very embarrassing and ‘even worse than the Duke Alexander of Wurtemberg.’ Madame and the King explained their consent to this marriage on the ground that it was impossible to refuse to a daughter aged twenty-six a marriage which was not absolutely unsuitable, when no other prospects were in view” (190).
- The Empress of Russia and the Duchesse d’Orléans not getting along. “The following is a curious little anecdote: Upon the death of the Duc d'Orléans the Empress of Russia and the Prince of Prussia, who were at St. Petersburg, attempted to persuade the Emperor to take the opportunity of writing directly to King Louis-Philippe; he refused, but told the Empress that he would authorise her to write to the Duchesse d'Orlé The two Princesses had known one another formerly in Germany, and were on such intimate terms as to speak in the second person singular; the Empress wrote in German, using this form; she received a somewhat cold answer in French from which it was absent. The Empress was much hurt, and complained to her aunt, the Princess William of Prussia, sister of the Dowager Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg; the Empress asserts that it is very rude to reply in another language than that used by the first correspondent, and that if the Duchesse d'Orléans thought it her duty to use only the language of her children's country, she, the Empress, would do the same next time and would write in Russian” (204).
- You spent WHAT? “Yesterday I visited the Lichtenstein palace, so fabulous for its magnificence. At the same time whatever income may be forthcoming, to spend eighty thousand florins upon a single chandelier is unpardonable. However, there is more to admire than to criticise in this fine work of modern luxury” (323).
Should You Read This Book?
If you’re looking for an eyewitness account of what it was like to live on a big estate while peasants nearby were rioting and killing landowners, yes.
If you’re looking for details on the downfall of the Orleans dynasty, probably – although she was in Berlin when the dynasty fell, so she’s not as primary a source as you want. But she knew the family firsthand, and visited the Duchesse d’Orléans in exile in Eisenach in August of 1848, so she was in a great position to form judgments and give you the tidbits you’re looking for if you’re an Orléans fan.
Author: Catherine Hewitt
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Available at: Amazon
This is a cradle-to-grave biography of Emilie Louise Delabigne, or as she later became known, Valtesse de la Bigne. A beautiful and ambitious youngster with zero positive examples in her life, she went from being an actress to a kept woman to one of the most famous courtesans in Paris. Her lovers included princes, statesmen, artists, and writers. She knew Zola, Flaubert, and Maupassant, for example.
Her famous red hair and milky skin helped catapult her to the top echelon of courtesans, but her brains and her wit kept her there. She read voraciously, wrote a novel, had opinions, and held her own in just about any conversation, including one about politics. That’s one of the key characteristics of a successful courtesan – she has to be beautiful, but she also has to be a scintillating companion. Valtesse scored high on all counts.
Courtesans, and Valtesse in particular, were also very good at branding (before anyone knew that was a thing). Some adopted gemstones as visual trademarks, some went by interesting or revealing monikers. Or if you’re Valtesse, you do all of the above – she was hyper-aware of the importance of branding. That’s partly what kept her in the spotlight (in a good way) despite being dragged into several very public court cases over the years.
As always, I have a few.
- This book was entertaining, but it stuck very closely to Valtesse’s life. I found myself wanting more context for the political events she played a role in. This could have been a much richer book with a little more background info. From French colonization in Indochina to the Dreyfus affair, Valtesse was involved in some truly historical events. But they’re only covered as they pertain to Valtesse. While staying away from heavy political detail keeps the book very readable, it also makes it feel like a “lightweight” in terms of historical biography. I feel like it could have been deeper and more meaningful with just a little more context.
- It’s never explicitly stated what the “secret” is she used to build her empire, as billed in the tagline on the cover. Presumably, it’s that she turned her name “Delabigne” into “de la Bigne,” the name of a noble family from Normandy, and let everyone assume they were her relatives. But that’s not a very big secret. And inventing a pretty new name was standard courtesan operating procedure (i.e., not shocking at all). Tacking on a fake Comtesse title doesn’t seem shocking or unexpected, either. And the real de la Bignes don’t make an appearance in this book, so it’s not like they played a role in Valtesse’s life or the unraveling of her “secret.” Plus, when it was unravelled, it didn’t seem to do her much harm. So that was a little misleading, but not a deal-breaker. BTW, this isn’t the only book where we’ve run into trouble with a cover tagline that writes a check the book can’t cash (see my write-up of The Secret Rooms).
- We don’t get a lot of negative viewpoints of Valtesse, which made this biography feel a little bit like a Mary Sue. Zola and a few critical journalists (who may never have met her) are the closest we get to a negative view. Other that a conflict (and legal case) with her mother and sister, we don’t know what people who didn’t like her thought. Were there any angry wives who hated her guts? We don’t really know, because this is a glossy, positive spin on her. Maybe her life really was charmed. But I feel like there’s more we’re not being told because the author wants to paint a positive, almost wholesome picture of Valtesse.
Here’s one quick example to show you what I mean about the Mary Sue thing.
One of Valtesse’s lovers was Alexandre de Kergaradec, the French consul in Hanoi. He wrote to her with lots of details about the people of Annam and their life under its tyrannical emperor, Tu Duc. She thought France should depose the emperor to save the people and make Tonkin a French protectorate at the same time. She wrote up her ideas on how and why France should liberate the people of Annam (a brief that was eventually published). One of the reasons she gave for military intervention? Protecting the people of Annam from man-eating tigers. I shit you not. The author is completely straight when detailing this part of Valtesse’s report. There’s no hint of irony, or understanding that this is downright silly. It’s pitched as a genuine stroke of inspiration on Valtesse’s part, in identifying something that would terrify the French people and inspire them to action. Man-eating tigers. This was a SMH moment for me.
- We don’t get a lot of negative viewpoints of Valtesse, which made this biography feel a little bit like a Mary Sue. Zola and a few critical journalists (who may never have met her) are the closest we get to a negative view. Other that a conflict (and legal case) with her mother and sister, we don’t know what people who didn’t like her thought. Were there any angry wives who hated her guts? We don’t really know, because this is a glossy, positive spin on her. Maybe her life really was charmed. But I feel like there’s more we’re not being told because the author wants to paint a positive, almost wholesome picture of Valtesse.
- There are moments where we’re told what people are thinking, but there are no supporting quotes from diaries or letters to prove it. Is the author fictionalizing? I’d prefer to hear the historical figures tell it themselves.
For example, when Valtesse goes to talk to Gambetta about Annam, we’re told both that she “regretted having agreed to an early afternoon meeting: the scent of garlic from a heart lunch lingered on Gambetta’s breath.” But there’s no footnote after this to indicate an actual source for this. Is Hewitt making up Gambetta’s garlic breath? Or did Valtesse really include this detail in a letter later? If so, why not let her tell it? Or why not footnote it so we know it’s a true statement?
As a second example in the next paragraph, we’re told that Gambetta was nervous when Valtesse started talking – “In the back of his mind, Gambetta recalled the case of Charlotte Corday, the infamous female assassin of Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat.” This time, we do get a footnote to an article in Le Gaulois, but that doesn’t quite seal the deal and tell us if Gambetta was really thinking this, or if this is a flourish of the newspaper writer in 1883.
- Looking for royal or noble connections? Two of her noble lovers were Prince Lubomirski and the Prince de Sagan. He’s the one who built her the luxurious palace at 98 boulevard Malesherbes, with a custom staircase by Charles Garnier. I was already familiar with the name – he’s the Duchesse de Dino’s grandson (I read 3 volumes of her memoirs earlier this year). His son is the one who married Anna Gould after her disastrous marriage to Boni de Castellane.
- There’s another interesting royal connection, but it’s a couple generations removed. Valtesse’s granddaughter Andree was a cinema star in the 1920s and 1930s. Later, someone by the same name took up with Prince Andrew of Greece, the father of Prince Philip (now Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband). That might be the same Andree, or it might be her niece. This Andree was with Andrew when he died in Monte Carlo in 1944. Prince Philip met her when he and his secretary collected his father’s possessions from her after Andrew’s death.
- Valtesse claimed to have slept with Emperor Napoleon III. Is it true? Obviously, Napoleon III was out of commission as soon as war with Prussia was declared in 1870, and Valtesse didn’t really hit the big time until after the war. Prior to 1870, she was still trying to find her way, as a wannabe actress and mistress of Jacques Offenbach. Is it possible? Sure. Do I believe it? Errm…not really.
- In the eBook version (not sure about the hardback or paperbacks), the illustrations are bunched together at the end. When I got to them, I was surprised how unflattering a lot of the portraits are. In particular, her portrait by her lover Henri Gerves is a beautiful painting, but it’s not flattering to her. Her portrait by Manet is also unflattering to the modern eye. They only vaguely resemble her photograph, also included in the illustration – which is beautiful.
- She was the model for the courtesan in Zola’s famous novel, Nana. Unfortunately, Zola only met her once and, according to people in the know, got a lot of details wrong about the life of a courtesan.
- Painter Henri Gervex included Valtesse as a spectator in his painting of a French civil marriage. The audience includes many French and international celebrities – it was a sort of propaganda piece commissioned to make civil marriages seem cooler and more glamorous than they were. Hewitt claims that another famous face in the audience is the future Tsar Nicholas II. But it was painted in 1881 and Nicholas II was about 13 at the time, so I doubt that.
- Valtesse was “close friends” with Liane de Pougy, a younger courtesan known for lesbian affairs. While the two women had an emotional affair, we don’t really know if they had a physical one, too. This subplot kind of comes out of nowhere toward the end of the book.
Should You Read It?
Probably. It’s a fast, easy read. If you’re interested in the literary or art world of post-Commune and Belle Epoque Paris, you’ll enjoy this.
Subtitle: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History
Author: Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter
Publisher: Center Street
Available at: Amazon
The Nazi elite were greedy collectors who stole a shit-ton of artwork for their own personal gain.
Sometimes they confiscated it, as they did from Jewish households in conquered territories like France. Sometimes they bought it (but my guess is the sellers didn’t have much choice when a Nazi shows up and wants your Rembrandt). Sometimes they hid it, and we’re still trying to figure out where.
They turned Europe upside down, sending some pieces straight to Hitler (he had first dibs), others to Goering, and still others to any of the dozen or so higher-ups who had next picks. Whether they appreciated art or not, it was a symbol of status and, in the event of an emergency, a form of currency.
So they took as much of it as they could.
Enter The Monuments Men
They were American and British soldiers with backgrounds as curators, historians, and museum directors, all tapped for a very specific purpose: find and safeguard Europe’s art. While the Allies pushed the Germans back from France, then Belgium, then Holland, and across the Siegfield Line, the Monuments Men worked alongside them to find and save paintings, sculptures, shrines, and more that were in danger of being destroyed (if not destroyed already).
You meet about a dozen of them, and follow their adventures during the last year and a half of the war. Because each army had 1-2 Monuments Men assigned, and the men had no independent leadership organizing transportation or supplies for them, you see them constantly struggle to round up packing supplies, trucks, and guards for important sites they want to protect. It’s amazing they got as much done as they did. The highlights of the book are the big caches they found, both at Altaussee and at a salt mine in western Germany.
A Few Interesting Tidbits
- The only Michelangelo sculpture sold outside Italy in his lifetime went to Belgium, the Bruges Madonna. Its whereabouts were downplayed because Michelangelo had originally had an Italian buyer. Then a Belgian merchant made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and it was best to (a) take the money, and (b) keep it on the down-low.
- Not all the Monuments Men survived the war. I won’t tell you which ones, but man, their deaths hit me hard as I read this.
- One of the Monuments Men, Harry Ettlinger, was born in Karlsruhe (the capital of the former grand duchy of Baden). His family owned a department store in the city. They emigrated to New Jersey after Kristallnacht in 1938, when it became obvious Jewish people were about to have a really hard time surviving, let alone making a living.
- Rose Valland is a hero. She was an unpaid volunteer at a museum next to the Louvre, and continued working for the museum under Nazi occupation. Why? So she could spy on them and figure out where they were sending French artwork, of course. When the Allies liberated Paris, Rose took her time choosing who to trust with her information about the dispersal of artwork she’d kept track of the whole time. She chose one of the Monuments Men, which ticked off some of her fellow French. Nevertheless, without Rose, tracking down many of France’s stolen treasures would have been much more difficult if not impossible.
Should You Read It?
Even if you don’t care about art, this is a heart-wrenching story.
You get to read letters these guys wrote to their wives, carefully censored but full of their amazing ability to care about culture and art for the sake of all humankind. I think that’s what impressed me most about these men. After the Allies liberated Buchenwald, you see them struggling with the idea of protecting German culture. But they carried on, driven by the knowledge that historic German art and manuscripts and sculptures were treasures that reflected the best of humanity, not the worst. And they deserved to be saved so future generations could see where they’ve come from and what their ancestors achieved. So they slogged on, through bombardments and sniper attacks, with the singular goal of protecting some of the most precious and beautiful objects humans have ever created.
I am amazed and humbled by everyone who fought it or simply survived World War II.
Author: Princess Victoria of Prussia
Publisher: A&F Reprints
Available at: Amazon
I was super stoked to find this book for just a couple bucks on Kindle...although my heart broke a little when I saw the terrible cover slapped on it. (I could do better, and I suck at Photoshop.)
About a year ago, I’d looked into buying a hard copy, but the used copies I found were all in the $40+ range, so I held off. Why? Honestly, I wasn’t sure there would be any revelations in it. I just wanted to read it out of curiosity. And $40+ shipping is a lot (for me) to spend on idle curiosity. In this case, my cheapness was rewarded.
Who is Victoria of Prussia?
Victoria – “Moretta” to her family – had a turbulent life. Daughter of Princess Victoria of Great Britain and Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia, she had the misfortune to fall for someone whose politics didn’t align with her family’s. She fell in love with Prince Alexander “Sandro” of Battenberg, Prince of Bulgaria.
Unfortunately, Sandro’s deteriorating relationship with Russia meant her grandfather, brother, and Bismarck heartily disapproved of the match. They wanted Prussia to maintain Russia as a friend and ally, so they sacrificed poor Victoria’s happiness on the altar of Prussian politics.
The problem? Her mom and grandmother (Queen Victoria) championed the match, creating endless family drama and pitting family members against each other. Long story short, the marriage never happened. Years later, she married Prince Adolf of Schaumburg-Lippe and, after being widowed, Alexander Zubkoff.
The Sandro story is Victoria’s claim to fame in most historical circles. But what else can we find in her memoirs?
Remember when I said I wasn’t sure there would be any revelations here? That suspicion was confirmed. There are no shocking confessions or moments that made my jaw drop.
What You Get
We do get glimpses of what it was like to grow up royal in Potsdam and the by-now very familiar story of her father’s death from throat cancer. There’s not much about the war, but we do get a chapter about what it was like in Bonn during the revolution and the war’s aftermath, which was interesting (Canadian and British soldiers were billeted at her palace).
She’s relatively tight-lipped about the Sandro affair, which I understand. It was clearly still painful to think about years later. I believe there’s still some question about whether or not they were actually engaged, however. According to Moretta, they were: “It was in 1883, when the young Prince Alexander was on his second visit to Berlin, that we became very much attached to one another and subsequently engaged, with the full consent of my parents.”
She’s entirely complimentary about her first husband, Adolf. The book ends when she falls in love with Alexander Zoubkoff, who became her second husband in 1927.
Zoubkoff is usually described as an adventurer or a con artist, thanks to the fact that Victoria filed for divorce a few years later, all her money gone. I wish I could remember where, but I’ve seen posts from a Zoubkoff relative online trying to rehabilitate his reputation. That argument doesn’t have a place in talking about this book, but I mention it so you can keep an open mind. The chapter of the book that deals with their courtship is entirely made up of her diary entries – nothing spicy or steamy. Just her happiness in doing normal things with him, like eating out or playing tennis.
What You Don’t Get
Most of her anecdotes don’t shed new light on well-known events or people. For example, when she describes her cooking lessons, she sums up by noting that “Uncle Fritz Carl…said he had never eaten better or better cooked spinach in all his life!”
If this kind of minute detail interests you…and I admit, I’m nosy, it does interest me…you’ll breeze through this book as light reading. If that kind of detail doesn’t interest you, I’m not sure you’ll be entertained at all.
Don’t expect any emotional recriminations against family members, either. She doesn’t have a bad word to say about her brother, Kaiser Wilhelm II, despite his vehemence in keeping her away from Sandro.
We don’t even get that much insight into Victoria herself. She describes herself as athletic and outdoorsy, and possibly even anorexic – she mentions always trying to sustain herself on as little food as possible to stay slim. She also describes herself as “rather independent,” with the result that she and the Empress’s lady-in-waiting, Countess Breckdorff, once had an argument over gloves.
But aside from deep love for her family members (even Wilhelm), she doesn’t really tell us what angered her, what moved her, or what motivated her. Those emotions must have been there, but she’s not of a generation that saw fit to leave those emotions in print.
One notable exception is when she takes a writer, Herr Ludwig, to task for mentioning the fact that she danced through half the night as her father lay dying. She calls his “a disgraceful perversion of the truth.” Her explanation? Her family couldn’t accept that he was dying – they were trying to deceive themselves rather than believe the worst was happening.
A Few Interesting Anecdotes
- Her governess, Mademoiselle de Perpignan, had knee-length hair. When asked how she got it so long, Mademoiselle said it was because she washed it in brandy. Moretta’s response? It “…struck me, even then, as being rather extravagant.”
- Her brother Waldemar had a small pet crocodile named Bob. No joke.
- While in Trient, Italy, she and her mom climbed a glacier. (Dad wasn’t feeling it, so he stayed put with her sister Sophie). Guides brought ropes and ice-axes, and tied the ropes around their waists. The guides cut out steps for them with the ice-axe. Moretta slipped at the side of a crevasse, but the guide hauled her back up “as though I had been a piece of luggage.”
- On her honeymoon trip to Egypt and Turkey, she met the Sultan and was invited to an official dinner at Yildiz Kiosk. The sultan asked her why she wasn’t eating very much. She didn’t want to tell him she always ate as little as possible, so she said: (1) she would feel disloyal to Germany if she enjoyed too many Turkish delicacies, and (2) she could eat anytime, she couldn’t always “have the pleasure of looking at Your Majesty.”
- In Bonn, she used to participate in student-run tennis tournaments. She stopped, though, because she realized she hated playing in front of people. She never played her best in tournaments, and eventually stopped entering.
- During World War I, there were extreme shortages of food and fabric in Germany. Moretta says, “A lady of my acquaintance got caught in heavy rain while wearing a skirt of the new ‘Papierstoff.’ The result was that it came to pieces and fell off before she could manage to get under shelter.”
- In July of 1927, her foot suddenly became painful and swollen. The doctor diagnosed blood poisoning from stepping on a rusty wire. The prescription? “I was ordered to drink a good deal of alcohol at the beginning as a counter-poison and I found it very unpleasant.”
Should You Read This Book?
If you’re a fan of Victorian royals or Queen Victoria’s descendants, yes.
If you’re a fan of her mom (Vicky), yes.
If you’re looking for insights or perspective on major historical events, probably not. I did find the chapter about her palace’s occupation during the revolutionary and post-war period interesting, but you’re not going to get any supporting info for your master’s thesis here.
As for me, I enjoyed it. It was a fast read, with a few moments that made me laugh and a few that tugged at my heart. If that’s all you expect, you’ll be happy.
Author: Princess Louise of Belgium
Translator: Maude M.C. ffoulkes
Publisher: Cassell and Company
Available at: Archive.org
First things first.
This book – and Louise – are still a conundrum to me.
For example, the book is dedicated to her father, King Leopold II of Belgium. You know the one: he personally owned the Belgian Congo, allowed (if not encouraged) all manner of atrocities in the name of making a buck. He was a shit husband and a shit father. He purposefully moved millions into trusts and shell companies to keep Louise and her sisters from inheriting it. At a time when she needed money more than anything else, he made sure she got as little as possible from him.
So why would Louise dedicate her book to him?
Because she believed he was the example of what a king should be. When I first saw the dedication, I thought it was ironic or sarcastic. But no – Louise believed Leopold was a great man because she believed he was a great king.
If that’s what makes royalty great – upholding their duty to their country, even at the expense of personal happiness – Louise didn’t follow her father’s example. Granted, she didn’t become a reigning sovereign. But there’s little in this book (if anything) about her charity, her helping others, her putting anyone’s needs ahead of her own. Not to mention the fact that she’s giving Leopold way too much credit as a human being.
At the same time, Louise's terrible upbringing and horrific-sounding marriage make you feel for her. She had so much personal trauma in her life that I can understand how her gaze turned entirely inward.
Why This Book Was Hard to Read
For starters, its tone is very “woe is me.”
It might have something to do with Louise’s translator (ghostwriter?), Maude ffoulkes. Maude also ghost-wrote the memoirs for Louisa of Tuscany…another scandalicious princess whose memoir has a similar tone. Without further research, I can’t tell you how much is Louise and how much is Maude.
In any case, the Louise of this book loves telling you how sinned against she is. She never lets you forget it.
But just when that self-pitying, self-righteous tone gets hard to take, she’ll drop a line that resonates so strongly it could have been written today. My favorite? “The world dislikes a woman who defends herself…” (174). Put this line in the context of Hillary Clinton or Christine Blasey Ford, and you see what I mean.
Granted, Louise’s grown-up life began horribly. Two weeks shy of her seventeenth birthday, she was married to a 31-year-old man, Prince Philip of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The wedding night was so horrible that she hid in a greenhouse, crying in her nightgown, the next morning. This is traumatizing, and it’s nothing to joke about.
I think she intended this book to highlight her resilience after that incident. But thanks to the style in which it's written, it feels more like a compilation of excuses.
- How much of her failed marriage was her fault? Her only fault was in believing in love. “Between love as we conceive it and love as we experience it, is there not very often an abyss? I have been culpable, criminal and infamous to fall into this abyss. Such is the real truth” (57).
- Why did the press harp on her spending so much? It’s an “exaggeration” (4). But when she did spend, she claims it was as a form of revenge on the husband she grew to loathe.
- Why was she so hated and gossiped about in Vienna? Why, because she spurned the advances of the emperor’s brother, Archduke Louis Victor. When he realized he couldn’t have her (but she hints that someone else could…and did), she “swore that he would force me to leave the Court.” His intrigues against her caused her to lose the emperor’s favor. (88)
- Why did her brother-in-law, Prince Ferdinand, and her husband not get along? Because Ferdinand had been in love with Louise and couldn’t have her, of course.
The few times she admits responsibility, it’s either for something inconsequential (showing up late to an event) or for big-picture personality traits, like being unable to quash her independent streak despite her husband’s best efforts. In the case of the latter, we’re clearly meant to think, “Oh, Louise, you’re wonderful and inspiring – don’t apologize for that!” Again, I suspect a fair amount of this comes from ffoulkes, so it's better suited as a commentary on the book's style than on Louise as a person.
Louise introduces you to a variety of royals and nobles she knew in France, Budapest, Germany, and Vienna. Her tongue isn't a sharp as Queen Sophie of the Netherlands, but she's also pretty good with the entertaining zingers.
Here are just a few highlights:
- Emperor Franz Josef: Louise blamed him for not defending her when his brother, Louis Victor, slandered her. “He was an emperor but he was not a man. He is best described as an automaton dressed as a soldier…I do not know anyone who remembers a single word uttered by Francis Joseph that was worth repeating.” (84) BURN.
- Her take on Mayerling: “Rudolph of Habsburg committed suicide! It is said that there is no proof of this. This is wrong; the proof exists. I am able to give it.” (101) That proof, incidentally, is the suicide note Rudolph left for his wife, Louise’s sister Stephanie. She also can't help passing on that Rudolph’s nickname for her husband, Prince Philip of Saxe-Coburg, was “Fatty.”
- Ferdinand of Coburg: Louise describes him as having a mystical bent, at least in his youth. She calls him a “modern necromancer, a fin de siècle magician. He was a cabbalist…he did not believe in God; he believed in the Devil…I ask myself to what fantastical sect, to what Satanic brotherhood he belonged in his early days, doubtless with the idea of furthering his ambitions and his extraordinary dreams of the future.” She believes his focus on the dark side of religion, in an attempt to gain power, turned at least partially mad. (119)
- Kaiser Wilhelm II: “The passing of centuries will be necessary to wipe out the stain of his murderous folly” (133). Louise held him responsible for everything from the sinking of the Lusitania to the use of mustard gas in the trenches. “William II was not human, like his grandfather...He had no depth of soul. A different wife might perhaps have supplied him with this quality” (133-4).
- Nicholas and Alexandra. Louise is actually dead wrong here. She says Queen Victoria wanted her granddaughter (whom Louise calls Alice, but is better known to history as Alix) to marry Nicholas and sit on the Russian throne. Nope. Queen Victoria’s letters make it clear that she had wanted to Alix to marry a cousin and sit on the British throne; barring that, she would have preferred Alix to marry pretty much anywhere but Russia.
Should You Read This Book?
It’s frustrating and exhausting, especially to a modern reader. But it’s also fascinating.
Beneath all the “why are people so mean to me?” speeches, Louise’s story belongs in a movie or a Netflix series. From her horrible marriage to her attempt to find love with a younger man to her legal struggles, everything here is big drama. The chapter describing her escape from the asylum could pass as a thriller.
Through it all, Louise is a flawed heroine. A modern interpretation would probably present her in a more sympathetic light than her own memoir does. I’d love to see that happen. If someone were able to sit her down and have her tell the story of her life – no justifications, no excuses – I think it would be much more interesting than this book. But we don’t have that (yet). So here’s where we start…while we wait for Netflix or a talented novelist to bring Louise to her best life.
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.
Subtitle: Vienna 1888-1889
Author: Frederic Morton
Publisher: Diversion Books
Available at: Amazon
In this book, Morton uses Rudolf’s suicide as a symbol of what had been happening in Austrian society at large. His thematic motifs include the city’s strange obsession with suicide, the powerlessness of the middle class, and Rudolf’s own impotence to change his father’s empire. Of course, it’s all meant to be a precursor to the destruction of the empire and emerging anti-Semitism. It’s no accident the book ends with Adolph Hitler’s birth. If this sounds depressing, it is – but it’s also positive, because of the artistic flowering we see as people like Freud and Klimt try to push through the established barriers of knowledge and creativity.
I really enjoyed seeing the city through non-royal eyes as a contrast to Rudolf’s rarefied world. The musicians, scientists, writers, and artists help give a much fuller and more realistic picture of Vienna than I had from previous Habsburg-centered books. For example, did you know that Franz Josef didn’t attend the premiere of Strauss’s Emperor Waltz, composed in his honor? Dick move, right?
Freud also used the term “subconscious” for the first time as he was struggling to discuss the condition of hysteria in mental and emotional terms, not just physical ones. Perhaps most shocking are the numerous descriptions of Viennese suicides during this period. Our modern take on suicide is that it should be prevented at all costs. In Belle Epoque Vienna, it could be a way of ending things on a high note, of controlling one’s own narrative.
Morton makes some sweeping generalizations in this book. I’m not convinced he’s right, but the presentation is so poetic that it’s easy to get swept along with his theories. For example, the fact that he ends his book with Hitler’s birth makes it seem like Austria’s drift toward anti-Semitism was inevitable. He also suggests that every suicide that happened after Rudolf’s contained an echo of Mayerling. Maybe. But that’s like saying every assassination after JFK contained an echo of Dealey Plaza. Maybe. But it feels like a stretch.
There was also at least one instance where he was WAY OFF in terms of the facts. In describing Princess Victoria of Prussia’s non-starter engagement to Prince Alexander of Battenburg, he mixes her up with her aunt, Princess Alice of Hesse.
Morton’s stylized prose would grate if this book were much longer. It helps to think of this as a creative non-fiction book. It’s not academic history, despite the interesting and useful information it contains. It’s a creative musing on a bittersweet bygone time. If that’s your cup of tea, you’ll love this. As an example, here are a couple quotes – note the alliteration, assonance, and repetition as stylistic devices:
- On Rudolf’s wife, Stephanie: “How was he to console himself? With his smug lump of a wife who studied folk singing while not caring a whit about the folk?” (141)
- On Rudolf’s mom, Elizabeth: “But to Rudolf this made her more like him – a fellow mutant. She, too, disliked Court etiquette. Her sensibility, too, rebelled against exalted emptiness.” (197)
- On today’s youth: “Under today’s system the young often appear to be a generation of Rudolfs: free and glamorous in theory, crushingly impotent in action; freely skeptical yet unable to establish one skeptic-proof premise; free to see themselves as unbounded individuals without ever arriving at successful individuality…” (348)
- At the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, Austrian artillery won the top prize for the most beautiful military uniform.
- Rudolf once wrote, “Hatred for the rich becomes as demoralizing for the poor as the struggle for their own survival.”
- In December of 1888, Empress Elizabeth returned from Corfu, Greece to Vienna with a tattoo of an anchor on her shoulder.
- Elizabeth’s nickname for hubby Franz Josef was “Megaliotis,” the Greek word for majesty.
- Rudolf called the Duke of Braganza (an admirer of Mary Vetsera, Rudolf’s mistress) by the nickname “Waterboy.” Apparently, “he sported neckerchiefs like the boys who watered horses at the cab stands.” In Mary Vetsera’s suicide letter, Rudolf added “Cheers, Waterboy!” to the end.
Should You Read This Book?
If you’re looking for something more focused on Mayerling in particular, I highly recommend Greg King and Penny Wilson’s Twilight of Empire. They analyze the evidence and go through a range of conspiracy theories in their usual no-nonsense style.
Subtitle: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy
Author: A.N. Wilson
Available at: Amazon
What You Need to Know
This is a biography of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg und Gotha, Queen Victoria’s husband. You probably know that they married for love and that he died young (at 42), leaving Victoria grieving widow for another 40-something years. This book will fill in a lot of the gaps and legends that have grown up around these two, but it’s not the kind of biography that traces his every move in detail. Instead, it’s a detailed look at his childhood in Germany and the effect he had as Victoria’s consort.
There’s a lot of detail about his dealings with the various prime ministers and politicians (particularly Palmerston, his enemy).
But there’s not a lot of detail about, say, his feelings for the kids. We don’t get quotes about how felt when each child was born. We don’t see his joy when any of them start walking or talking. We see his disappointment when the heir, the future Edward VII, has sex for the first time (outside of wedlock). And we see his loneliness when his favorite daughter, Vicky, leaves England to marry the future Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm. But for most of the other kids, they barely exist in his life as it’s depicted in this book. The largest role they play is as a reason for him to fight with Victoria, as they disagreed frequently on how to raise their brood.
Why the slant towards achievements?
Because of Wilson’s hypothesis that Albert was the most influential figure in English history. He didn’t prove it. Not in my mind, anyway. But what he did do is provide a fascinating, oh-so-readable book that shows us who Albert really was, including the truth behind the supposed fairy-tale marriage with Victoria. (After reading this, I doubt he ever truly loved her. I think he was fond of her, he tolerated her, and he had a physical connection with her. But I don’t think he respected her. I think he resented her, and transferred his affection to their firstborn, Vicky. He was too much of an emotional control freak to let himself be emotionally vulnerable to anyone except his daughter.)
Frankly, I’m not convinced that some of the things Albert did wouldn’t have happened anyway. He may have sped them up, but I have a hard time believing British science, art, and education are what they are today because of Albert.
For me, the problem with Albert is that nothing he did was on his own. He shepherded, he asked, he cajoled, he persuaded, he suggested…but he had the power to do very little on his own. Therefore, it’s extremely difficult to convince me that he single-handedly saved the monarchy, reformed British higher education, and made it possible for science and technology to become a bigger part of daily life, enriching and furthering Victorian life and prosperity. He did things in partnership with others. Therefore, I don’t think he deserves all the credit, but YMMV.
Here are just a few examples:
- He was chancellor of the University of Cambridge. He reformed the syllabus, making it possible for students to study a broader range of topics that included science and modern history. But can we really say this would never have happened without Albert? Despite being chancellor, surely his reforms had to be approved or at least have the support of the academic faculty and administration?
- He was instrumental in bringing the 1851 Exhibition to life. Okay, sure…but the exhibition wasn’t his idea. It was in the works before he got involved. He helped with fundraising, sure. But he was also on board with that horrific brick building design before an architect brought a different idea to the table, and he championed it. He was instrumental in getting shit done. But I’m not sure we can credit him with all of the benefits the exhibition brought to Britain. It would be like saying the head of the International Olympic Committee is responsible for the worldwide camaraderie generated by the Olympic games. They’re not…they help put together the event that makes that camaraderie happen. But one person is not responsible for it.
- He brought a sense of moral rectitude to the royal family, in stark contrast to the licentiousness of the previous generation. I think this would have happened anyway due to Victoria’s character. Even if she’d married a dissolute Prince of Orange, I think the country would have rallied around her and her children, the way they rallied around Princess Charlotte in the previous generation.
- He helped usher in the era of the modern constitutional monarchy, including the era of intentional royal publicity and photography. But Victoria was very clear on this – she retained the power (what little there was in the monarchy, that is). Decisions were hers. She was ultimately responsible. And she loved photography, too. And she loved sharing – she’s the one who, later, published excerpts of her Highland journals, to the horror of her eldest daughter, Vicky. And guess what? They were best-sellers. I think all the elements were there for Victoria to do what Albert did. It may have taken her longer without him. But I think it would have happened.
Really, my only caveat here is the lack of solid proof for the thesis. The book is very well researched, and well documented with sources and footnotes. The style is fresh and readable. In fact, the style was so readable that I went ahead and bought the companion volume, Victoria. My only quibble is with the far-reaching thesis that is ultimately unprovable.
Should You Read This Book?
If you’re interested in the truth behind Victoria and Albert’s love story, yes.
Ultimately, this book made me sad. Better informed, but sad. That’s because it gives us an unflinching look at the cracks in Victoria and Albert’s marriage, most of which were created by their personalities.
She was passionate and emotionally volatile. He was a wounded child who grew up seeking to fix all the wrongs of his childhood. But you can’t do that. No one can. So he remained an emotional shell of a person, albeit one with incredible work ethic, varied interests, and deep love for his children.
It makes me sad to think of Victoria being so in love with this man who was never going to return her passion. It makes me sad to think of Albert, having the unconditional love he so wanted his parents to have for each other but being unable to appreciate it. But I’d rather know the real story than believe a daydream. If you feel the same, I highly recommend this book.
Author: John Van der Kiste
Publisher: A&F Publications
Available at: Amazon
First things first – this is a brief book, not intended to be a comprehensive biography. As the author warns in the preface, this book is “unashamedly based almost completely on published sources.” I don’t have a problem with that…hell, it’s what I’m trying to do for Hilda, Lilli, and Augusta.
However, the book did feel a little lacking without more of Henry’s perspective on the events described. But that would be a different book, one written by someone with archival access to see what’s left of Henry’s letters or diaries (if anything).
This is not that book. See the problem here?
This book is everything it set out to be – a brief life of Prince Henry. But because it feels more like a summary or outline of events, without a lot of depth or perspective, I’m left feeling like I didn’t learn much about Henry himself.
Van der Kiste covered what he lived through, and the basic outline of his life – naval career, marriage to Irene, birth of hemophiliac children, his role in the infamous “George V said Britain will be neutral” controversy, fall of the monarchy, etc. But the human emotions that really bring a biography to life are all missing here. Why did he fall for Irene? How did he feel when his hemophiliac son, Henry, died? Did he have hopes, dreams, or fears for their other hemophiliac son, Waldemar? Did he have sympathy for Nicholas and Alexandra, dealing with that same fear? What were his post-war thoughts about the role he might have played in overestimating George V’s ability to sway Britain’s policies? We don’t know, because we don’t have Henry’s own words. He’s still an enigma.
As much as I hate to say it, I feel like this book is complete for what it is, but incomplete in terms of what the reader is going to want. I respect the hell out of Van der Kiste as a writer – he’s trying to fill a hole in the market. I just think, with this particular subject, something deeper is required to make the effort worthwhile.
That being said, there are still some interesting tidbits to be gleaned here:
- Henry straight-up asked Prince Alexander (“Sandro”) of Battenberg if he wanted to marry his sister, Victoria (“Moretta”). Sandro said no. But in Victoria’s memoir, she says Sandro full-on proposed to her, and parted after a later meeting with something like, “Let not man separate what God has joined together,” obviously replicating wedding vows. What gives? Did Sandro lie to Henry? Did Victoria lie in her memoirs? Nosy people like me want to know.
- Henry traveled to China and met the Holy Mother Empress Dowager Cixi at the Summer Palace in Peking. He also met the emperor as an equal, an honor not previous given in China. VDK says the Empress impressed Henry, and he saw that she was the true ruler.
- In 1902, Henry also traveled to America for an 18-day tour, during which he met President Roosevelt. In Chicago, he went to the Everleigh Club, a “dining establishment and brothel renowned for its high prices.” He had specifically requested to go there, so the owners staged a risqué revue just for him, which ended with dudes drinking champagne out of the shoes of the dancers. Later, when big brother Wilhelm heard about it, it was said he only asked about the vintage of champagne served.
- Princess Daisy of Pless hinted that Henry might have flirted (made out with?) Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III in 1903 when he disappeared with her below deck while on board the Vanderbilt yacht, North Star, for dinner.
Should You Read This Book?
If you know absolutely nothing about Henry or his parents, yes, it’s an okay place to start. If you’re already well versed in Hohenzollern biographies, this one probably won’t offer any illumination. Even reading for tidbits about Irene, I didn’t glean much. But it’s a short read, and available for free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers. I read it for the sake of completeness, and I’m glad I did.
Author: John Van der Kiste
Publisher: A&F Publications
Available at: Amazon
As with all Van der Kiste biographies, this one is extremely competent and well written. As a teaser, it works really well…except that there isn’t really anywhere to go after this. There hasn’t been much else written about Helena. As Van der Kiste mentions in his foreword, she didn’t rate an entry in the 1921-1930 supplement to the Dictionary of National Biography. He wrote Helena’s entry for the reissue as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
So why is Helena such a shadowy character?
It’s a good question. Her life wasn’t without drama. She had mental and physical issues, a possible substance abuse problem, and was accused of making up some or all of her ailments. Her marriage caused a rift in the family because her husband’s family played a role in the never-ending conflict over Schleswig-Holstein, about which Victoria and Helena’s sister-in-law Princess Alexandra of Wales already disagreed. Helena also had a stillborn son, lost a grown son, and despite having four kids total, never became a grandmother (to a legitimate grandchild). Her husband lost an eye due to a Dick Cheney-style hunting accident.
She also found meaningful work to do and did a great deal to advance to cause and prestige of nursing within the British Empire. A founder of the Red Cross, she was deeply involved in charity work and instilled those values into her two daughters.
It doesn’t sound boring, does it? But it’s close to reading that way because we don’t get many of Helena’s words and thoughts in this brief bio. As with several other Van der Kiste books I’ve read, it only made me want a closer look at the subject via letters or diary entries, if such a thing exists. He name-checks one, Seweryn Chomet’s Helena: A Princess Reimagined, but also describes it as “occasionally rather too imaginative.” I’ll put that one on my “maybe” list.
What I Didn’t Know (or Had Forgotten) about Helena
- As a girl, she was a tomboy – athletic, physically strong, always wanting to be outside.
- She had a crush (and maybe more?) on Carl Ruland, one of her father’s secretaries.
- She was sensible, discreet, and reliable. But she’s also described (by her mother) as having trouble with her figure and “her want of calm, quiet, graceful manners.” I’m guessing that’s the tomboy in her coming out? Because someone who is reliable and sensible seems like the *exact* type of person who’d be calm.
- She had a good relationship with her nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II. He married her niece by marriage, Princess Augusta Viktoria of Schleswig-Holstein. She tried to help ease the tension between Wilhelm and his mother (her sister Vicky).
- She had a literary career! She translated the introduction to a collection of her deceased sister Alice’s letters to her mother that had already been published in Germany. She fought for her mother’s rights as copyright holder of the letters, and wrote a preface to the finished book in 1884. The book was a best-seller. For a later edition, she wrote a 53-page memoir of her sister. She also translated Friedrich the Great’s sister’s memoir from French into English and wrote a new introduction.
- Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria called her “a highly intelligent, clever lady, but quite definitely an intriguer” after meeting her at Kaiser Wilhelm I’s 90th birthday party.
- She had inconsistent physical ailments and symptoms that made the doctors shrug and throw up their hands. Some said there was nothing wrong with her. Others prescribed treatments to try and fix these ailments that caused a sort of over-reliance (not quite an addiction). Depression was also in the mix, leading her to rely “perhaps more than was wise on opiates and other stimulants.”
- Queen Victoria opposed the idea of women training to become nurses, but Helena supported it in spite of her mother’s disapproval. She even published an article on its importance to the sick and suffering (probably, as Van der Kiste points out, knowing her mom would never see it).
Should You Read This Book?
If you’re already interested in Queen Victoria’s kids, yes.
If you’re not, this probably won’t pique your interest. I’d start with one of the more vibrant family members, like Vicky (Helena’s oldest sister). Then, once the family dynamics suck you in, you’ll want to know more about all of them.
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.
Edited by: Clarissa Campbell Orr
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Available at: Amazon (used)
It’s hard to judge this book as a whole, since it’s made up of essays that cover different women, written by scholars with very different writing styles. Some almost read like popular non-fiction, while others had the typical tangled syntax of academia, no translation of foreign source quotes, and proceeded on the assumption that the reader was intimately familiar with the genealogy of cadet branches of major royal families.
Also, because these are essays, they’re not comprehensive assessments of a woman’s life. You need to fill in the blanks yourself – these essays are just here to highlight each woman’s relationship to the subject of queenship.
That being said, overall, this is a fantastic resource that is only going to pique your curiosity about a lot of women. Let’s take a look at some of the hits and misses.
- Partner, matriarch, and minister: Mme de Maintenon of France by Mark Bryant. This was well-written as well as comprehensive. I get the sense that people either respect or hate Madame de Maintenon (John Julius Norwich, for example, thinks she’s terrible). This essay gives you a balanced view of what she did and didn’t affect during Louis XIV’s later years, so you can start making up your own mind. The first line tells you right away that Bryant cares about hooking the reader: “Late one night, probably in January 1684, Françoise d’Aubigné, marquise de Maintenon, the non-noble daughter of a convicted traitor and murderer was secretly married to Europe’s most glorified sovereign, Louis XIV, in his private chapel at Versailles, as witnessed by a handful of trusted friends and advisers.” (77)
- Piety and power: The Empresses-Consort of the High Baroque by Charles W. Ingrao and Andrew L. Thomas. This was the reason I bought the book. When I was writing my post on Eleonora von Schwarzenberg, the story expanded to include Habsburg Empress Elisabeth Christine, who was desperate to get pregnant at the same time Eleonora was. Elisabeth Christine’s Wikipedia page referenced this essay, which detailed some of the crazy things the court doctors suggested to help her get pregnant. Case in point: drink a crap-ton of liquor. Seriously. The essay doesn’t disappoint, providing an interesting and thorough comparison of Empresses Eleonore, Wilhelmine Amalia, and Elisabeth Christine.
- Catherine I of Russia by Lindsey Hughes. This essay was fantastic – compulsively readable, and about a woman who doesn’t get much press in any language, especially English. It’s heavily focused on Catherine’s rise and time as Peter’s wife – there’s very little about the two years she ruled. Since this book is centered on the role of the consort (not the ruler), this makes sense. Also, Hughes has written a book on Catherine, so this essay is like a teaser of sorts. This essay did its job in making Catherine an intriguing figure. From peasant girl to an emperor’s wife…what’s not interesting about that?
- The hidden queen: Elisabeth Christine of Prussia by Thomas Biskup. In the admittedly brief research I’ve done about Friedrich the Great, Elisabeth Christine is usually a footnote. A throwaway line here and there, underscoring the embarrassing truth that Friedrich ignored her for decades. But this essay makes it clear that although he had next to nothing to do with her, a great many court occasions (diplomatic, festive, and otherwise) were all about her. In other words, she set the tone for what other courts saw and thought about the Prussian court. I have a much better understanding of what she did – as opposed to what she didn’t do – after this essay.
Essays I Kind of Struggled With
- Maria Giovanna Battista of Savoy-Nemours (1644-1724) by Robert Oresko. This essay had interesting content, but was a victim of the flaws I mentioned above: tangled syntax, no translation of foreign language source quotes, and a need to already be familiar with the genealogy of the Savoy family. The names and dates come at you fast and hard, and unless you can keep them straight, this essay is slow going. As an example: “Two months after the birth of the future Vittorio Amedeo II, on 2 August 1666, Maria Giovanna Battista’s younger sister, Marie-Francoise-Elisabeth, now lusitanised into Maria Francisca Isabel, married Alfonso VI, King of Portugal, accompanied to Lisbon by their kinsman, Cesar, cardinal d’Estrees, who, as with Maria Giovanna Battista’s marriage, had played a key role in its negotiation.” (23) It’s not hard to understand, per se. It’s just slow going because I’m not familiar with the 18th century Savoy family. I had to stop after each name and parse out who they were before continuing.
- Queen Hedwig Eleonora of Sweden by Lis Granlund. There’s not a lot of material on Hedwig Eleonora, which means anything out there in English is a step forward. That being said, this essay felt thin compared to the rest, and seemed to devolve into a laundry list of building projects and items collected during her reign.
Should You Read This Book?
If you can get it from a library, go for it. Because of the pandemic, I decided to go ahead and buy this one, not knowing when I’d be able to get into a university library again.
I paid $60 for a used copy, and am happy with it. Still, it’s not a page turner, and it’s going to make you want more info about a lot of things. But it’s the only place I could find that info on Elisabeth Christine’s conception advice, for example. This isn’t a comprehensive source, but it’s a valuable one.
Author: Sarah Helm
Available at: Amazon
I’m usually pretty flippant with my summaries on this reading list, but I find myself feeling very uncomfortable as I struggle to figure out what to say about this one.
This book will horrify you. And then it will numb you into submission so you can go on turning pages without wanting to cry or throw up or scream or all of the above.
The horror comes in waves – mild at first, as the camp is constructed and the first commandant (a woman) appears to be a reasonable person. Stronger when the medical experiments begin on the unlucky Polish women, known in the camp as “rabbits.” Then mild again, despite the fact that the camp is filling up with more Russians, Poles, French, and Hungarians because you realize you’re a little numb to it all by now. Then stronger again as the Nazis realize the war is lost, and they redouble their efforts to clear the camp, often in the cruelest and way possible.
The absolute hardest part of this book for me was seeing how many women died days, even hours, before liberation. The worst I’d felt in a long time was reading about women being evacuated from the camp on Red Cross buses, then killed by Allied fire because the Germans sometimes painted their transports with red crosses, too.
The book is a linear history of the camp, from its creation in 1939 to its liberation in 1945 to its recreation as a historical site after the end of the war (and again after the fall of communism). Characters appear, take you through a particular series of events, and then fade away, either because they died, were transferred out of the camp, or because they didn’t play a role in the next big event in the camp’s history.
It was a good way to structure the book, but my one quibble near the end was that I didn’t know what had happened to, say, one of the women I’d met early on in the book because she wasn’t one of the women featured in the chapters about the camp’s liberation or the Red Cross evacuations. I wish there had been a list at the end of the book of all the women mentioned – it’d be long, I know, but as a reader, I wanted that closure.
I won’t pull out quotes or interesting facts in this brief summary, like I normally do. I can’t face going through those pages again.
There are a couple interesting things I’ll share:
- Yevgenia Lazarevna Klemm. This woman was amazing. She was a Red Army leader who became a sort of mama bear and leader for the entire troop of Red Army women held in Ravensbrü When the prisoners were tasked with making munitions for the German army, she led them in protesting that as combatants, they could not be forced to make weapons to kill their fellow soldiers. Flummoxed by the organized response of the Red Army women, the Nazis actually found other work for them (temporarily, at least). Klemm was indefatigable in supporting Soviet women in the camp. With encouragement, optimism, and practicality, she guided their protests and their actions for the entire period of captivity. It breaks my heart that later, after liberation, she was labeled a collaborator by Stalinist cronies – Stalin, you see, had said no Red Army soldiers (men or women) should be taken prisoner. You fight until you die, period. Prisoners would eventually collaborate just to stay alive, he believed. So when Yevgenia, a professor of history, was ostracized and then banned from teaching, it was because her term as a prisoner made her suspect as a Nazi sympathizer. She eventually committed suicide because – get this – all this happened without a word to her face. Her teaching load was just cut down and cut down and then she wasn’t offered any classes at all, and no one would hire her. No one said it was because they believed she was a collaborator. But that was the truth behind it. And so this amazing person who outfoxed the Nazis and inspired every Soviet prisoner in the camp to survive ended up taking her own life. My blood boils at the thought of this. I wish she had lived longer, to the point where she would be rightly celebrated as an inspiration and a survivor. She deserved that, and she didn’t get it. Life’s not fair, and her story proves it.
- The Swedish “White Buses.” In the spring of 1945, the Swedish Red Cross began a series of rescue missions to take prisoners out of Ravensbrück. They began by negotiating with Himmler to take out Scandinavian prisoners first. Then, as it all went to shit for the Nazis, the Swedes were able to get out French, British, and American prisoners, and then finally, everyone they could fit on a bus. The mission was organized by Folke Bernadotte, the grandson of King Oscar II of Sweden (his dad had made a morganatic marriage). It was the largest rescue effort inside Germany during the war. I really want to know more about Folke and his efforts during the war. Afterward, he was made a mediator during the Arab-Israeli conflict, and assassinated in Israel in 1948. There’s still controversy about the White Bus rescues, which I won’t get into here. There are questions about whether Bernadotte could have gotten more than just Scandinavian prisoners out earlier in the process, and whether he wanted to take Jewish prisoners out at all. I don’t know anything about him yet, so I can’t speculate on that. But my gut tells me that, without being there to know what the situation was like, we shouldn’t bitch at a dead guy because he might have been able to do more. He got out over 30,000 prisoners, and if someone wants to nitpick that and make it seem like he was a bad guy, I would ask them when was the last time they saved 30,000 people. Even if he was an asshole in his personal life, he saved people the Nazis were going to kill. That’s what I’m taking away from this, until and unless I find otherwise.
- The number of Ravensbrück memoirs. Yes, I actually read the bibliography – I love reading bibliographies. They’re road maps for where to go next, and I was amazed and overwhelmed to see how many survivors published memoirs. Reading this book was terrifying enough, but now I really want to pick up a couple of these and get the story straight from the survivors.
- Countess Karolina Lancorońska. She was the reason I picked up this book in the first place. I know very little about her, and this book added a tiny bit to my knowledge. But just like Folke Bernadotte, there’s controversy about her, too. From the beginning, she was an important prisoner, not subject to the same predations and horrific treatment meted out to others. There’s some question of whether she could have done more to save some women from being killed due to her influence with Nazi leadership. Again, until I research this more, I can’t hazard an opinion on this. I did pick up a copy of her book, Michelangelo in Ravensbrück, which hopefully I’ll be able to read and review for you soon. There was also a brief mention that the head of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (who refused to do a thing to help the prisoners in any of the Nazi camps) was in love with Karolina. I’d like to know more about that story.
- The gas chamber. Yes, the gas chamber – the Nazis built a new one at Ravensbrück in early 1945 because the chambers at Majdanek and Auschwitz were no longer available to them, having been evacuated as the Red Army closed in. They’d started on a gas chamber in 1944, but for some reason, never got around to using that building. They built a separate, smaller one in early 1945, but because it was destroyed and there are no building plans, some researchers don’t believe it existed. But both prisoners and former guards testified that it existed, and for the life of me, I can’t see why that wouldn’t be enough. The last gassings happened while the Swedish Red Cross was in the camp to collect the prisoners who were to be freed. I can’t even.
I feel very lucky to be reading this book seventy years after the events it describes. The strength, faith, and willpower of these women are things I can barely fathom. If you need a reminder that we have it so, so easy (even in a pandemic), this book is that wake-up call.
Author: Virginia Cowles
Publisher: Sharpe Books
Year: 2018 (orig. 1973)
Available at: Amazon
I was impressed with Virginia Cowles’s The Kaiser, so I picked up another of her books through Kindle Unlimited. I didn’t know anything about the Rothschild family other than what everybody knows: a shit-ton of money, that famous ball that Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn attended, and maybe something about wine. Turns out, it’s a fascinating story full of characters you couldn’t make up if you tried. I mean, there’s no other way to connect the Elector of Hesse-Cassel and a PhD-worthy study of fleas.
TL;DR: It’s a little too sprawling, there’s next to nothing about Rothschild women, and the first half is much more comprehensive and balanced than the second half. But it’s worth reading because Cowles makes this a story about a family, one full of hard-working, interesting people who affected historical events – and epochs – in ways you never realized.
The story begins with Mayer Amschel Rothschild, a Jewish merchant in Frankfurt in the late 18th century. Thanks to his friendship with the financier for Elector William of Hesse-Cassel, Mayer began making transactions for the Elector. Not all of those transactions were made with the Elector’s knowledge, but they ended up making him a great deal of money, so who’s going to complain? In time-honored fashion, Mayer took his commission and used that money to make more money.
As the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars disrupted European finance, Mayer’s five sons continued the family tradition of making money when the outside world went to shit. The true genius of the family, Nathan (Mayer’s son), had moved to London, so he was in an ideal place to pass funds, supplies, and information to his brothers on the continent. Other brothers lived and worked in Paris, Vienna, Naples, and Frankfurt.
An Austrian emperor granted them the title of “Count,” and later (after much persuading), Queen Victoria created Nathan the first Lord Rothschild.
The brothers’ amazing success was due to three things: (1) their unswerving loyalty to each other, (2) their private network of couriers, and (3) the raw financial talent that popped up about once a generation.
The brothers’ kids were able to spend a tad less time on banking and more time buying property and building houses. The next few generations continued the assimilation into the aristocracies of their respective countries. Charles Rothschild was an amateur zoologist who collected and studied fleas, for example.
Their rise wasn’t without challenges. At one point, for example, Napoleon III backed the formation of a rival state bank, Crédit Mobilier, just to reduce France’s dependence on the Rothschilds. But, long story short, the guys running Crédit Mobilier effed up and the Rothschilds didn’t.
Things started to change after World War I, however. The younger Rothschilds seemed to be more interested in academia and science than in finance. The last third of the book feels rushed as you meet the generations that took the family through World War II and beyond (the book was originally published in 1973). Then there’s that weird final chapter that’s a glowing do-no-wrong write-up of Lord Rothschild.
Things That Make You Go Hmm…
- Male Rothschilds married female Rothschilds. Cousins and nieces in the beginning, but later, when there were more to choose from, it might be a second cousin. This begs the question: why didn’t anyone in this family demonstrate any of the inbred characteristics we’ve come to recognize in, say, the Spanish Bourbons or Habsburgs?
- In 1833, when the British government abolished slavery, it borrowed £20,000,000 from the Rothschild bank to pay back slave owners.
- Nathaniel Rothschild left England for France in 1851. He bought what became the Mouton Rothschild vineyard. His cousin, James, bought the adjoining vineyard which became Lafite Rothschild.
- Eugénie de Montijo was good friends with James Rothschild and his wife.
- James Rothschild bought his spiffy Parisian townhouse from the Duchess of Dino in 1838.
- In 1853, Austria passed a law forbidding Jews to own property. Salomon Rothschild was exempt, but the law still pissed him off. So he and his brothers and nephews worked together to drive down the price of Austrian bonds on all other European markets. Austria repealed the law.
- The Italian branch of the family bank closed when the King and Queen of Naples lost their throne during the Italian unification.
- When a Viennese club refused membership to Anselm Rothschild (because he was Jewish), he bought a sewage disposal unit and installed it nearby. The club sent a membership offer, which Anselm sent back drenched with French perfume. I think I like him.
- When the Germans reached Paris as victors in the Franco-Prussian War, Bismarck recommended they stay at Alphonse Rothschild’s country house, Ferrières. King Wilhelm stayed in Alphonse’s rooms. Von Moltke stayed in Baroness Betty’s rooms.
- Hannah Rothschild became England’s richest heiress when she inherited her father, Mayer de Rothschild’s, £2,000,000 in cash. She married Lord Rosebery, later Prime Minister.
- Julie Rothschild (sister of Albert) was besties with Austria’s Empress Elisabeth. Julie and her husband lived on Lake Geneva and were the last ones to entertain Elisabeth on the night before her assassination.
- This isn’t a critical history – if you’re looking for criticism of the family, you won’t get it. In fact, in the last quarter of the book, all you’ll read is how awesome the Rothschilds are – particularly Guy. I skimmed. It was disturbing.
- As with most sprawling family sagas, this one gets too big. You get much more detail about the first three to four generations, and then it thins out and you start realizing you can’t keep up with who’s who anymore. Albert? Alphonse? Adolph? Who are we talking about again? By the time someone got kidnapped in the 60s or 70s, I had no idea who it was.
- This is really a book about the Rothschild men. There is next to nothing about the women of the family. Cowles will tell you they were beautiful, good hostesses, had good taste in decorating. But beyond that, they’re largely faceless, often nameless (“Mrs. Nathan”) entities.
Should You Read This Book?
Yes! I was looking for tidbits of royal trivia, and I found them. I enjoyed getting to know the older generations, and I skimmed the later generations where the coverage thinned out. I don’t regret it.
Author: Susan Ronald
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Available at: Amazon
I wish I could recommend this book, but there are several reasons why I can’t. The author did a ton of original archival research, which I respect to no end. Although she made huge leaps forward in piecing together the holes in the diamond’s six-hundred-plus-year history, the end product just isn’t very enjoyable to read.
What Went Right
Tracing the history of a fabulous diamond sounds fun, right? I thought so, too. And you do get an exhaustive history of the diamond’s peregrinations in this book, right down to quotes from renaissance-era sales invoices.
What Went Wrong
This book gets really bogged down in names, dates, and dollar values. I fell asleep quite a few times while slogging through it. You don’t get a feel for any of the personalities involved, so it feels like a bunch of dry details. Louis XV was amorous. Napoleon was ambitious. The Demidovs were rapacious. That’s all we get in terms of the characters we meet. It’s just not enough to sustain long-term interest as we’re bombarded with dollar values and invoices.
The books also veers off-topic a few too many times, ignoring the person who owned the Sancy in favor of loads of general detail about, say, Burgundian court politics or Portuguese exploration and the spice trade. It would have benefited from a very thick pen wielded by a very strong-willed editor. Ronald spends dozens of pages on its Burgundian and Portuguese owners, for example, and none on Maria Luisa of Spain, who (according to her) tricked Napoleon out of the diamond. All we’re told is that she is “avaricious and bitter” (270). What’s up with that?
There are also some serious mistakes in terms of historical events. Here are just a few:
- “…Empress Catherine the Great, who took the throne in 1725” (279). She wasn’t even born until 1729.
- “the palace [Tuileries] was stormed by a mob on August 17, 1792” (250). It was on August 10th. Seems minor, but this is a really well-known date in the story of the French Revolution.
- “All of the booty [of the French emigres, and later, the crown jewels] was stored in the garde-meuble at the Louvre…” (244). It was a separate building, not part of the Louvre.
- “…all those [paintings] in the Palace of Whitehall were destroyed in the Great Fire of London of 1661” (205). The Great Fire didn’t reach the palace. It burned in a separate conflagration in 1698.
And some dubious claims:
- “Napoleon’s meteoric rise to power was assured at Marengo – by the splendid Spanish horses acquired on a deferred payment plan using the Sancy as security” (257). Not an expert, but am pretty sure it wasn’t horses that assured his rise to power.
- “Philippe of Orléans had never been allowed to participate in public life under Louis XIV, not because the king had any personal misgivings about the duke but rather because Louis mistrusted all of his nobility. Deprived of any real role, Philippe was the perfect rake” (222). Erm…kind of, but not really. Philippe was the king’s nephew, not just some random courtier. And the king’s close relatives didn’t exactly have ministerial jobs – they were expected to be decorous and not much else. So it’s not like he had been refused any sort of role – he was actually fulfilling the role intended for him. Plus, like his father, Philippe fought in the army during the numerous wars of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
And just some strange quirks with sourcing:
- There are no endnotes or footnotes. Ronald uses in-text citations for direct quotes, but doesn’t do anything to source claims that aren’t a direct quote. For example, she describes a necklace that Napoleon gave Josephine, but doesn’t tell us where that info comes from.
Overall, the book fulfills its promise of giving you the history of the Sancy diamond. But it fails in making that journey an enjoyable or rewarding one.
Subhead: Private Lives of the Royal Families of Europe
Author: Ghislain de Diesbach
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Available at: Amazon (used)
I bought this because I kept seeing it turn up in bibliographies of other books I consulted. Does it live up to the title? Do we really get juicy secrets about royal private lives? I created a full Source Report for this one, available to Patreon subscribers.
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Subtitle: Letters of Liselotte von der Pfalz, Elisabeth Charlotte, Duchesse d’Orléans, 1652-1722
Translator: Elborg Forster
Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Available at: Amazon
If you’re nosy, like me, and love reading historical letters and diaries, this book is right up your alley. It has an excellent introduction, cast of characters, and footnotes to make sure you understand what the heck you’re reading.
One of the best parts? How quotable her letters are. I mean, we’re getting close to the meaning of life in this quote: “If we do not find happiness in ourselves, there is no point looking for it elsewhere.” (101)
Fair warning, though – parts of this will make you angry and sad. Liselotte didn’t have a swell time at the French court.
Why was that the case? Well, it started with her husband. Monsieur was homosexual, and spent his time and money on a series of boyfriends. He didn’t seem to care about her at all, except maybe as the mother of his children…but he didn’t seem to care too much about them, either, at least in these letters.
Because she was honest and forthright, Louis XIV liked her. That was well and good, until his pious mistress (and probable secret wife), Madame de Maintenon, decided Liselotte was a threat to her control of the king. She manipulated Monsieur and the king, putting Liselotte at a disadvantage – shutting her out, lessening her influence. There was no one left to come to Liselotte’s aid. She remained at court but was often alone and broke. Through it all, she had a fantastic attitude, but it couldn’t have been a fulfilling life.
From what we can see in these letters, Philippe d’Orléans (her husband) treated her like shit. After watching the TV series Versailles and falling for their version of Philippe, I kept looking for some redeeming value in the real-life Philippe we see in Liselotte’s letters. Nope. I found nothing…although Liselotte did. She took his tiniest action and magnified it into a reason he either trusted her or loved her deep down. I disagree. As he’s portrayed here, he was an asshole. As she says, “I must share all this troubles but am excluded from his good fortune. If he receives money, it is for his friends (my enemies); if he is in favor, he only uses it to harass me and to please them…” (41)
Here’s a quote that sums up her attitude towards court life: “I have become accustomed to so many dreadful things since my arrival in this country that if I could ever return to a place where falseness does not rule everything and where lies are neither the daily fare nor approved of, I should think that I had come to a paradise.” (34)
What Was Super Interesting
- Liselotte’s hatred for Madame de Maintenon. These two hated each other. Like, hated with the fire of a thousand suns. Maintenon feared Liselotte’s influence with the king, so she sided with Monsieur on everything, to Liselotte’s detriment. Later, Maintenon and Liselotte had a brief reconciliation (humiliating for Liselotte), which didn’t last. Not long afterward, Liselotte returned to calling her “the old trollop” and complaining about how she ruined France. But I’ll let Liselotte tell you how she really feels: “I do not believe that a more wicked devil can be found in the whole world…All the trouble comes from this slut…” (68)
- Her finances. She’s always broke, but when she explains why, it makes sense. Yes, she receives money from the crown. But her position also requires her to have a staff so large it costs more than what she receives. And she has no other source of income, so she has to borrow just to break even. She laments the fact that she can’t support her half-brothers and half-sisters because she literally doesn’t have two coins to rub together.
- Her enduring love for her homeland. Liselotte wrote in German to her family, and pursued every opportunity to speak German with visitors to court. For decades, she reminisced about the places she grew up, her memories of childhood, the food, the hymns, everything. She was a German through and through, and it’s painful to know that Louis XIV’s strict court rules made it impossible for her to return for a visit.
- Her modern sensibilities. She hated the emetics and purges recommended by court doctors...and blamed them for pretty much every death at court. She preferred good old-fashioned outdoor exercise. “…the people here are as lame as geese, and except for the King, Madame de Chevreuse, and myself there is not a soul here who can do more than twenty steps without sweating and puffing.” (7)
- Her descriptions of her son, the Regent. When Louis XIV died in 1715 (spoiler alert), his successor was his five-year-old great-grandson, Louis XV. Madame’s only son, the duc d’Orléans, became his Regent. She describes how hard he worked at his job, and why he had an uphill battle. When he took over, France was a shit show – no money, no international goodwill, and a court run by cabals. Or, as Liselotte would say, run by priests and old women. She describes him working at all hours of the day, with barely any time for breaks or meals. I didn’t know anything about the regent prior to this, and although Madame is probably a little biased towards her own son, it really does seem like he had the country’s best interest at heart.
Of course, this just a teensy tiny bit of what I found interesting. There are zingers for other royals, meditations on religion, child rearing philosophies, and the prank the Chevalier de Lorraine’s son pulled to avoid a beating at his Jesuit college.
Plus...you get tidbits of other stuff you didn’t know you wanted to know. Case in point: French court ladies referred to their period as "Mistress Catherine."
Should You Read This Book?
Absolutely. It’s fun to read, heartbreaking at times, and hilarious at other times, but always fascinating. The only complaint I have is that I want more of her letters.
She once wrote, “I think that when future generations read the history of our time, it will look to them like a novel, and they will be unable to believe it.” (163) But of course we will, Madame...because we have you to tell us what it was really like.
Liselotte comes across as someone you’d like to know today. I mean, she once got in trouble with Louis XIV for saying that even if she saw his son, the dauphin, stark naked, she wouldn’t want to have sex with him (or anyone else). You have to admire her honesty.
I’d like to sit down and talk about books and history with her. She doesn’t like tea or coffee, so you can’t invite her to Starbucks. But promise her a good cabbage and bacon salad, and I’m sure she’d accept your invitation.
Fair warning, you’ll also get a few fart and poop jokes in these letters. That’s just part of Madame’s informal charm.
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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