Some book links below may be Amazon affiliate links. If you choose to buy through that link, it doesn’t change your price at all, but Amazon will give me a few extra cents for the tiara research fund.
Do you love reading about royals as much as I do? If so, check out my 2022 royal reading list - all the research books I bought, borrowed, and re-read are listed here. I’m adding books as I read them, so check back to see if your picks made the list.
Just scroll down to get the info for each book, including my comments. Or use the table of contents below to jump straight to a book you’re already interested in.
Want to suggest a book for me this year? I’d love to know what titles you recommend. Click here to drop me a line.
Last updated: July 5
2022 Royal Reading List
in alphabetical order
Becoming a Romanov | Caught in the Revolution | Darling Loosy | Grand Duchess Maria Nikolayevna and her Palace in St. Petersburg | The Lost Tudor Princess | Love, Power and Revenge | Metternich | Nicholas I | Prince Alfred and Grand Duchess Marie 1874 | Queen Mary | Queen Victoria and the Discovery of the Riviera | Queens of the Crusades | The Quest for Queen Mary | Return of the Swallows | A Royal Experiment | Royal Subjects | Society’s Queen | Storms over Luxembourg | Sunlight at Midnight | Talleyrand | Thunder at Twilight | Die württembergischen Königinnen
Read but not reviewed (fiction, out of my usual range of study, etc.)
Subtitle: Grand Duchess Elena of Russia and her World (1807-1873)
Authors: Marina Soroka and Charles A. Ruud
Available at: Amazon
Elena was born Princess Charlotte of Württemberg, a daughter of Prince Paul and granddaughter of King Friedrich I. The Württemberg royals are dysfunctional as all get out, so let’s just say she had a shitty childhood. She was proud and she was smart, two things that the world didn’t really want or need in a princess. But thanks to her Württemberg blood, she was selected as a bride for Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich by his mother, the Württemberg -born Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna. Upon conversion to Russian Orthodoxy, she was rechristened Elena Pavlovna.
Unfortunately, her marriage to Mikhail was a disaster. They were just temperamentally different, and although there’s a lot to like about each of them separately, it was a trainwreck when they were together. Still, they had three surviving daughters: Maria, Elizaveta (Lilli), and Ekaterina (Catya). They functioned best when Elena and Mikhail lived separate lives, so that’s what happened for the next couple decades.
After Mikhail’s death in 1849, Elena was free to pursue more of the interests she’d kept under wraps: science, education, religion, and politics. She became a famous society hostess, with a knack for putting the right people together to get shit done. Behind the scenes, she was influential in pushing the agenda to liberate the serfs in her nephew Alexander II’s reign. Although she couldn’t be seen to be involved, she made sure the right people were in the right place at the right time. And if they weren’t, she used her social skills and soft power to steer things back on course. She supported the liberal agenda, insisting that the serfs must be freed and given land to have the best chance of success.
There’s a lot to like about Elena, but she’s definitely a flawed character (as we’d say about a TV show heroine). This book gives you the good and the bad about her – her haughtiness, her pride, and her selfishness along with her energy, her enthusiasm for reform, and her desire to do good things for Russia.
Keep in mind this isn’t a popular history; this is more of an academic biography. As a casual reader, the first half of the book was much more entertaining than the second. That’s where we get the scandalous details of Elena’s childhood and marriage to Mikhail, all of which feel as much like a soap opera as real history. The second half of the book is about her involvement in nursing programs, the abolition movement, religious issues of the day, and the establishment of a musical conservatory in Russia. Worthy causes and definitely worth knowing about…but these later chapters, although they contain the bulk of her cultural and political achievements, make for dry reading.
An incredible amount of research went into this book, and my hat’s off to the authors for bringing this little-known woman into the English-speaking public sphere.
- Young Charlotte didn’t think highly of her grandmother or her governess. She supposedly told a friend her grandmother, born Princess Charlotte of Great Britain, was an alcoholic, and later described her as “of limited intelligence” and “despotic.” Remembering her governess later caused her to write: “submission to stupidity ever since has seemed unbearable to me.” (7-8)
- Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich was in love with someone else. Before his marriage, he fell for one of his mother’s maids-of-honor, Princess Praskovia Hilkova. He felt he had nothing to offer Praskovia and didn’t pursue her. Instead, he let his mom badger him into marrying Charlotte.
- During a stay in England, there were rumors Elena flirted too much with the king’s illegitimate son. Elena met King William IV, and apparently, caused a firestorm of gossip by spending time alone with William’s illegitimate son, the Earl of Munster.
- Elena founded a community of nurses that became the basis for the Russian Red Cross. At the start of the Crimean War in 1853, she founded the Holy Cross community of nurses. She organized and recruited women who were trained as nurses and deployed to the war zone under the supervision of a male doctor – but not the War Department, which meant Elena’s nurses could move fast and break things, in startup parlance. The community was a success, eventually including a roll of 236 names. Of these, 30 died from disease or wounds during the Crimean War. They worked in camps and hospitals in Perekop, Belbek, Bakhchisarai, Kherson, Simferopol, Odessa, Nikolaev, and Finland. (205, 211)
- She co-founded a Russian school for music with pianist Anton Rubinstein. After meeting him in 1852, she hired him as her court musician – but Rubinstein chafed at the requirements of being at society’s beck and call. Elena and Rubinstein had a productive but fractious relationship (at least, that’s how his memoirs seem to describe their working relationship). The tidbits quoted in this book make it seem like he disliked her intensely. He quit in 1864 when they had a difference of opinion over regulations for their music school.
Should You Read It?
If you’re interested in 19th century Russia, yes.
If you’re interested in Romanov women, yes.
If those two things don’t float your boat, you might find this a little dry. It’s a specialty topic, for sure.
Subtitle: Witnesses to the Fall of Imperial Russia
Author: Helen Rappaport
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Available at: Amazon
This book is the story of Russia’s two revolutions in 1917, as seen and documented by foreign visitors and residents of St. Petersburg (renamed Petrograd during World War I). Some of these accounts come from published sources, but others are new because the author tracked them down in archives. The author tells you what you need to know to understand the eyewitnesses’ writing…without drowning you in detail, which I really appreciated. She has woven their writing into the bigger picture, so to speak, so you get as much of her storytelling as you do their primary source material.
Some of the eyewitnesses include:
- Lillie Bouton de Fernandez Azabal, Countess Nostitz – I read her memoir and reviewed it here, in the 2021 Royal Reading List
- John Reed and his wife, Louise Bryant – American journalists and socialists
- The Buchanan family – British ambassador George, his wife Georgina, and their daughter Meriel
- Julia Dent Grant, Princess Cantacuzène-Speransky – Ulysses S. Grant’s granddaughter, married to a Russian prince
- Rheta Childe Door – American journalist
- Arno Dosch-Fleurot – American journalist
- David Francis – US Ambassador to Russia 1916-1918
- Florence Harper – Canadian reporter
- Philip Jordan – David Francis’s Black valet
- Somerset Maugham – English novelist & spy
- Emmeline Pankhurst – English suffragette
- Leighton Rogers – American employee of National City Bank’s Petrograd branch
- At the time of the revolution, French was the primary language used among both the aristocracy and government employees. The Journal de St-Pétersbourg was “the semi-official organ of the Russian Foreign Office…” (3)
- French war correspondent Ludovic Naudeau’s description of how Russia affected writers: “You fall under a spell. You realize you are in another world, and you feel you must not only understand it: you must get it down on paper … you will not know enough about Russia to explain anything until you have been here so long you are half-Russian yourself, and then you won’t be able to tell anybody anything at all about it … You will find yourself tempted to compare Russia with other countries. Don’t.” (28)
- Immediately prior to the February revolution, people were so cold – and supplies of firewood so limited – that people snuck into cemeteries at night to steal wooden crosses from graves to use as firewood. (63)
- Also just prior to the February revolution, the French ambassador – Maurice Paléologue – had been reading the letters of an exiled 19th century philosopher, Petr Chaadaev, who wrote, “The Russians are one of those nations which seem to exist only to give humanity terrible lessons.” (47)
- During the February revolution, rioters burned the District Court. But more than criminal records got burned – we also lost archives that dated back to Catherine the Great. (87)
- The British ambassador – Sir George Buchanan – was so well-known and respected that, as he passed down the street, fighting factions of the Pavlovosk regiment put down their guns and waited until he’d passed to keep shooting at each other. (107)
- The nine-man American delegation, called the Root Mission, came to Petrograd after the February Revolution with $600,000 to spend. They were housed in the Winter Palace, and given access to the wine cellar. One diplomat heard that the Russians dug around in the cellar and managed to find “some rye whisky ‘that had been laid in for the visit of General Grand in 1878’.” (190)
- Prince Felix Yusupov gave visiting suffragette Emeline Pankhurst and her colleague, Jessie Kenney, a tour of his mansion and showed them where Rasputin had been murdered. (201)
- Some of the members of the American Red Cross Mission who arrived in July 1917 got to see the inside of the Winter Palace. Many of the imperial family’s things were still there. Orrin Sage Wightman saw Alexei’s French workbook, where he’d written in French, “The French lesson is very hard today.” (233)
Should You Read It?
Yes. Even if you don’t have much interest in the revolution, it was fascinating to see how the Americans, British, and French reacted to events in St. Petersburg. It brought a whole new perspective to hear these events described by outsiders. The book feels like a novel at times – there’s a plot, characters, and suspense as to what’s going to happen next. It’s well-written and fast-paced; overall, I enjoyed this quite a bit and think you will, too.
Subtitle: Letters to Princess Louise 1856-1939
Editor: Elizabeth Longford
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Available at: Amazon
This book includes a biographical sketch of Louise by Elizabeth Longford (mother of Lady Antonia Fraser). It’s just under 100 pages, so you get a lot of info there, supplemented by selections of letters addressed to Louise from her childhood through her death. Note that there are no letters from Louise – this collection only includes what people wrote to her.
It’s interesting, if a bit of a one-sided read. In a few places, where correspondence between other people can illuminate something referred to in the letters to Louise, Longford has included those letters. Examples include Lord Granville to the Queen, and Dean Wellesley to the Queen in 1870, when Louise’s marriage was being debated.
Her most frequent correspondents include:
- Her mother, Queen Victoria
- Her favorite brother, Prince Arthur
- Her other favorite brother, Prince Leopold
- Her oldest brother, Prince Edward Albert (later King Edward VII)
- Her sister, Princess Victoria
- Her sister-in-law, Princess Alexandra
- Her husband, Lord Lorne (later Duke of Argyll)
- Her nephew, Prince George of Wales (later King George V)
This collection was interesting, but there were fewer interesting tidbits than I expected. And most of the letters are from her youth. In 311 pages of content, we hit 1920 on page 291. The last 19 years of Louise’s life are represented by a whopping 20 pages. Is that because her correspondence thinned out? I wish I could tell you. I can’t remember which letter it was, but one letter to her mentioned how she hated writing. So the lack of interesting letters might be because she just didn’t enjoy writing them the way her mom and sister did, for example. Or it might be because Longford chose the least controversial letters for the collection. Again, I wish could tell you.
Although this was enjoyable to read, I don’t feel like I know Louise any better or learned anything new about her. Let that be your guide if you’re deciding whether or not to get a copy for yourself.
- Prince Arthur to Louise, 12 August 1869: While in Canada with his regiment, Arthur wrote home to his favorite sister, Louise. “I hope you liked your stay at Invertrossachs, and that you smoked in your bedroom to any amount. I am very glad I was not there…” (110)
- Queen Victoria to Louise, 26 January 1872: Apparently, the queen wanted to console Louise for not having any kids yet. She said there was nothing worse than having kids early in marriage. “ANY, ANY thing is preferable to have all destroyed by wicked children – and how far more (in the higher classes) this latter position is far the most common. And you will both admit that any thing is better than that.” Geez, Victoria, tell us how you really feel. (164)
- Queen Victoria to Louise, 19 September 1874: With regard to Alfred’s wife, Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, Victoria says about Maria’s pregnancy: “May God carry her safely through the great trial which awaits her, and which luckily for her she knows nothing of!” JFC, people, how about lending a girl a little support? And by support, I mean any inkling of what childbirth actually is. It’s horrifying the way women – girls, really – were expected to go through a wedding night, a pregnancy, and childbirth with absolutely zero input or education beforehand. (184)
- Sir Arthur Sullivan to Louise, private letter dated between 1894 and 1900: Apparently, Sullivan tried to be a good influence on Louise’s brother Alfred before his marriage, but wasn’t able to see him as much after he married. He blamed Alfred’s wife, Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, for Alfred’s ongoing alcoholism: “…I saw there was a distinctly hostile element risen up against me, which made me feel very uncomfortable, and always embarrassed. I saw that in any effort I made even to hint or indicate what I thought was judicious or discreet, I got no help whatever from one to whom I desired to be a faithful servant and ally.” (242)
- Prince Arthur to Louise, 5 May 1912: “…I am sorry to say that one of our mails went down in the ‘Titanic’ and I believe a letter of yours in it. What an awful catastrophe that was, and to my mind there was no need for it had only proper precautions been taken as soon as news had been received of icebergs…” (272)
Should You Read It?
If you truly enjoy royal correspondence, go for it.
If you aren’t already into that sort of thing, this probably isn’t the best place to start. I’d suggest Roger Fulford’s compilations of the letters between Queen Victoria and her eldest daughter Vicky first. They’re much more likely to suck you into this world.
Full Title: Grand Duchess Maria Nikolayevna and Her Palace in St. Petersburg
Author: Zoia Belyakova
Publisher: EGO Publishers
Available at: Amazon (used)
What's unique about Maria and her palace? As with princesses in other countries, Russian grand duchesses were expected to marry outside of Russia. Unless something went wrong, they were never expected to live in Russia and need a household of their own there. Grand dukes, on the other hand, had palaces built or bought for them as adults, usually as a precursor to marriage (so they'd have a place to start a family).
But Maria was different.
The oldest and most headstrong daughter of Tsar Nicholas I, she refused to marry outside of Russia and leave her homeland. So when she married Maximilian, 3rd Duke of Leuchtenberg, he settled in Russia with her. When that happened, she needed a palace of her own. As Nikolai Karamzin notes in the introduction, there were 23 Romanov grand duchesses - of whom, only 8 remained in Russia. Maria was the first.
Because Maria was Nicholas I's favorite daughter, he built her a spectacular palace facing St. Isaac's Square, called the Maryinsky Palace. It was the only Russian palace built for a grand duchess.
This book isn't a biography - it's more of a coffee table book full of gorgeous photos of Maria's palace, with chapters that briefly cover her life, family, and descendants. To be honest, the first used copy of this I found online was around $70 and I passed. About a year later, I saw another copy for $40 and pulled the trigger with some Christmas money. When I posted this in January of 2022, there was a used copy on Amazon available for $25. Score!
The photos are amazing. The book includes historical photos (pre-WWII) as well as modern photos, so you can see the changes that have been made to the palace since it was built for Maria in 1839-1844. The author includes paintings, engravings, photos – anything available to show you what the Maryinsky Palace looked like when it was built, after the Revolution, and now. The beginning of the book also includes images of other grand ducal palaces for comparison’s sake (the Marble Palace, Michael Pavlovich’s Palace, Nicholas Nikolayevich’s palace, etc.).
None – this book is exactly what is says it is: an in-depth look at a particular palace, gorgeously illustrated with supplementary information about Maria’s family and descendants. It’s not in-depth biographical information, but that was never the book’s intent. Enjoy it for the amazing photos and the story of the only palace built for a Russian grand duchess.
- Of the 23 Romanov grand duchesses, 8 remained in Russia: Maria (the subject of this book), Nicholas I's niece Maria (who died young and unmarried and I don't think should count, as her mother would have married her off eventually - trust me on that one), Nicholas II's sister Olga Alexandrovna, Nicholas II's sister Xenia Alexandrovna, and Nicholas II's four daughters.
- Maria’s trousseau was sewn by Russian girls attending Sunday trade schools under the auspices of the Patriots’ Society, founded by Empress Elisabeth Alexeievna. They earned 9,000 rubles for the job. (18)
- One time, Maria and her father, Nicholas I, had a staring contest. Nicholas was known for his intimidating gaze – but Maria inherited his ability to stare down an opponent. According to Alexander Herzen, the contest was a draw because Maria matched him glower for glower and neither would give up. Nicholas walked away first, realizing no one was ever going to win. (31)
- When Nicholas I commissioned the palace in 1839 (as soon as Maria and Max got engaged), the cost was estimated at 700,000 rubles. That was considerably less than the palace built for Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich in 1819, which had cost 6 million rubles. It didn’t mean Maria’s palace was less fancy – just that the construction was able to re-use part of the Chernyshev palace that was originally on the site selected. (50)
- Construction took a few years, so by the time the palace was open and ready for them to move in, Maria and Max already had 3 kids.
- After the family moved in, Nicholas I came for a visit nearly every day – according to the memories of Maria’s son Nicholas. (189)
- After Nicholas I’s death, a statue was put up to honor him in St. Isaac’s Square. The statue depicted Nicholas on horseback – but because of the statue’s placement, the view from Maria’s balcony was the horse’s butt. “A groundless rumour circulated that Maria Nikolayevna either disliked her palace or liked it less after the monument had been raised, because of the new window view onto the horse’s tail.” (196)
Should You Read It?
If you're interested in the Romanovs, Russian palaces, or 19th century architecture, absolutely! If that's a subject you can come back to over and over again, the money is worth it. I drooled for hours over the photos and know I'll come back to look at them again before too long. I call that money well spent.
Subtitle: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas
Author: Alison Weir
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Available at: Amazon
Margaret Tudor was, at times, a hair’s breadth away from both the throne of England and execution for treason. That’s the big takeaway from this book. How many times did she get thrown in the Tower of London? Three. How many monarchs felt her behavior was treacherous enough to send her there? Two. Did either monarch (Henry VIII or Elizabeth I) have justification for doing so? Elizabeth – yes; Henry – not so much. It depends on whether you think falling in love and getting engaged counts as treason.
The daughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret, our Margaret was born to a non-royal father with royal pretensions. Her mother, Princess Margaret Tudor, married King James IV of Scotland and gave birth to the future King James V of Scotland. But after James IV’s death, Margaret fell in love with and married Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus. Their daughter, Margaret, is the subject of this book.
Now you can see why her genealogy was both a blessing and a curse.
As the Tudor line struggled to produce heirs, there Margaret was – the granddaughter of the dynasty’s founder, Henry VII. Although Henry VIII seems to have been reasonably fond of her, he kept a watchful eye on her and was determined to control who she married. That’s how she booked her first stay in the Tower – by falling in love with Thomas Howard, a relative of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Henry VIII did not want any more Howard connections within his extended family, and clapped both of the lovers into the Tower, where they wrote poetry to each other and bemoaned their fate. Only one of them made it out alive; Howard died of illness during his imprisonment.
Although Margaret eventually made a happy marriage to Matthew Stuart, the Earl of Lennox, the rest of her life wasn’t nearly as happy. Without going into too many details, nearly everyone in her immediate family died young or was murdered. She was the sole survivor, always plotting, always scheming, always trying to advance her bloodline’s claim to the English and Scottish thrones. She was a staunch Catholic and firm friend of Queen Mary I. You can guess how her Catholicism went over with Edward VI and Elizabeth I.
Still, despite her non-stop scheming, you have to admire her for her sheer determination. For her agency. And for never giving up, no matter what obstacles life threw at her. Until the day she died, she believed in her family’s destiny to succeed to the throne…and history proved her right.
None, really. My only “meh” comments make me sound like a total asshole:
- Weir includes many poems presumed to have been written by Margaret Douglas and her lover, Thomas Howard. These poems come from the Devonshire Manuscript, 124 pages of handwritten poems copied down by 19 or 20 different people. According to Weir, Margaret wrote at least 2 (but probably more) of these poems; 16 of the included poems are in her handwriting. That manuscript is a bit of a mishmash, with some original poems, some fragments of poems from famous men like Thomas Wyatt, and some general notes on other famous poems. The poems are intended to make the story deeper and richer, giving us possible evidence of Margaret and Thomas’s feelings for each other. But how much of what they wrote was autobiographical and how much was poetic license in the vein of courtly love? Since we can’t be sure, I started skipping over these poems…and there are A LOT. I felt like a jerk skimming and, eventually, skipping these…but I just don’t feel having more than a couple lines added anything to our understanding of Margaret, Thomas, or their relationship.
- Weir includes quite a few complete letters and lengthy quotations from source documents. I have to admit I started skimming and/or skipping these. Any good researcher MUST consult these source documents, but as a casual reader not particularly interested in this time period, my attention wandered during the paragraphs between Margaret and Cecil, Margaret and her servants, etc. Full credit to Weir for including them. I’m sure Tudor aficionados were in heaven.
Should You Read This Book?
If you’re a Tudor fan, yes – and you probably have already read this book.
If you’re wondering how the English and Scottish royal families and thrones were connected, this book – well, Margaret – is the key. You have to understand her, her parents, her husband, and her kids to make sense of it all. This is the best way to get a feel for the entire Tudor era plus get an understanding of what happened in 1603.
Subtitle: Imperial Triangle of Napoleon III, Empress Eugénie and the Intriguing Duke of Sesto
Author: Nancy Becker
Publisher: Outskirts Press, Inc.
Available at: Amazon
The premise of this book is that Empress Eugénie’s secret true love – the Duke of Sesto – influenced her decisions to such an extent that he changed the course of history. As a young woman, Eugénie fell in love with José Isidro Osorio y de Silva, the 8th Duke of Sesto…but he was in love with her sister, Paca. When Paca married the Duke of Alba, Sesto refused to give her up – he continued to visit her, claiming he was there to see Eugénie.
And although Sesto wouldn’t marry Eugénie, she held out hope he’d fall for her someday – even after she married Napoleon III. Supposedly, her intense and undying love for him influenced her thinking on Italian unification and the Papal States (Sesto had property in Bologna and an Italian title), as well as Franco-Spanish relations (she wanted the two countries to be closer).
The book doesn’t support its own thesis. The strongest evidence the book can muster is twofold:
- A photo of a “young Spanish man with a noble face” found among Eugénie’s possessions after she fled the Tuileries in 1870, with the words scrawled on the back in Spanish: “One must know how to love in secret.” (9) It’s likely Sesto, and the author includes a letter where Eugénie mentions Paca gave her a favorite photo of Sesto. Unfortunately, we have no idea who wrote those words (Sesto? Paca? Eugénie?) or for whom those words were intended. The picture has disappeared, so we will never know.
- A few surviving letters from Eugénie to Sesto over the course of the years – none of which contains a smoking gun (“I love you madly, I’ll do anything for you,” etc.). The warmest they get is Eugénie telling him “I would redouble my affection for you” if he came to Paris in the wake of her sister’s death. (205)
This despite the claim in the introduction: “This is the most exaggerated case in history of a quixotic sovereign performing deeds on an international scale in behalf of the man she esteemed. The Empress literally made changes on five continents for the Duke of Sesto…Integrating the Duke of Sesto’s life with Eugénie’s corrects previous versions of French and Spanish history so irrevocably that future researchers will wonder how their entanglement had ever been overlooked.”
But it hasn’t been overlooked – this relationship has been addressed by many historians and writers, some of them name-checked in the introduction.
Those authors did not find material to support any widespread political influence of Sesto’s in Eugénie’s life. This author claims they were all either mistaken or didn’t use enough French- and Spanish-language resources. I’m all for new angles, but it feels like hyperbole to claim that every other historian who’s written about Eugénie in English, Spanish, or French just missed this connection.
For example, there is little to no support for the author's premise that Eugénie supported the continued existence of the Papal State in Italy because Sesto had property in Bologna, an area controlled by the Pope. In the book, the author says: “Many observers, knowing nothing of the Duke of Sesto, merely equated Eugénie’s devotion to the Catholic Church to her roots in Spain.” (143) But the fact that Sesto held property in the Papal States is circumstantial at best. The author introduces no further evidence to support this conclusion.
Similarly, when it looked like the Papal States were going to fall in favor of a unified Italy, the author says: “All the while, it was obvious that Eugénie was working behind-the-scenes with Queen Isabel [of Spain] and Sesto.” (159) But there’s zero evidence provided of what that work entailed. We’re told that Napoleon III heard that Isabel II wanted to send soldiers to help the Pope, but that her government refused. There is no evidence presented that Eugénie influenced this decision at all. So attributing Isabel’s outreach to her doesn’t work without anything more substantial, such as a letter from Eugénie to Isabel.
Now, Eugénie was 100% emo. She felt things intensely, so I buy the fact that she carried a torch for Sesto for the rest of her life. But I don’t buy the idea that her love for him changed how she acted as Empress of France – at least not with the flimsy evidence presented here. And neither does historian and professor Nancy Barker, quoted here in her very dismissal of the author’s thesis (written in 1967, decades before this book’s release in 2011). The author implies Barker has a “prejudice against romanticizing history.” (Introduction)
But that’s not the only problem.
This book is also a meandering general history of the years 1854-1868. The author covers at various points Eugénie, Sesto, French politics, Spanish politics, art, politics, Queen Isabel II of Spain, and more. This means what little evidence there is gets lost in 400+ pages that veer into completely unnecessary territory (Princess Victoria of Great Britain’s wedding to Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia; how Edouard Manet’s paintings were received, etc.).
Another problem is the lack of original research. The thesis is original, but it’s only (vaguely) supported with previously published sources. There are no new archival finds, no new material to shed light on the topic. Which, for me, begs the question: can there really be smoke where there’s no fire? In a forest that literally hundreds of historians have already combed through? If it’s possible, I need ironclad proof of that fire – and this book can’t deliver that.
At many points, this book also feels like a compendium of extremely long citations. I kid you not – some quotations are many pages long. The author’s text sometimes feels like a connect-the-dots exercise in getting you from one quote to another. This gives the book a disjointed feel.
Should You Read It?
If you’re a die-hard fan of Eugénie or Sesto, you’ve probably already read many of the sources this book cites. However, if you haven’t ventured outside of English-language sources, you’d probably enjoy the tidbits from French- and Spanish-language texts provided. But if you’re not a die-hard fan of Eugénie or Sesto, I fear the lack of organization is going to turn you off, so probably not.
In this case, as much as I want to be Mulder, I have to be Scully. Without more hard evidence, this author’s interpretation is by no means the only one possible, let alone the most likely.
Subtitle: The First European
Author: Desmond Seward
Publisher: Lume Books (digital edition)
Available at: Amazon
First things first. This isn’t a comprehensive biography of everything Metternich did in his life. It does cover his whole life, but it’s more like a survey course than the deep-dive seminar course. (It’d be a thousand-page book if it were the latter.) That’s not a bad thing. I like survey-type books because they give you enough to know what your next step is in terms of research. If, like me, you know only tidbits about Metternich, this book will give you a fuller picture (for free, if you have Kindle Unlimited).
So…did this book pay off in terms of information about Metternich’s views on Grand Duchess Olga?
Not really. I got a summary that I already knew: “In December 1845 the Tsar came to Vienna to discuss the proposed marriage of his daughter, Grand Duchess Olga, to Archduke Stephen , the Palatine of Hungary’s son; the Austrians insisted that the girl should abandon her Orthodox faith and become a Catholic, which at once put an end to the match. Metternich may well have wished to prevent it taking place; he had no desire to see a Hungarian pretender - in - waiting who could count on Russian support.” (259) I already knew that much – and Seward skips over the part where Metternich led Nicholas on, making demands regarding the treatment of Catholics in Russia as some sort of implied precondition for Olga’s engagement.
I’ll keep digging for more info elsewhere, and I don’t regret taking a few days to read this book. As you’ll see from the tidbits below, there are lots of interesting moments here. It was also interesting to see the way the author compared Metternich’s vision of pan-European conferences and agreements to today’s E.U. Reviews will tell you this book may treat Metternich too favorably. I don’t have a horse in that race; I don’t know enough about him to have a solid opinion yet. So it was easy to avoid the judgment and just read for the sake of learning and enjoying.
- Clemens von Metternich was the ancestor of Tatiana Vassiltchikov’s husband, Paul Metternich. I reviewed her memoir here.
- At a ball to celebrate Emperor Franz I’s coronation, Metternich opened the dancing with a friend, Princess Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Later, Louise would become queen of Prussia…and go down in history as the beloved queen who tried to save her country from Napoleon.
- He had a famous affair with Princess Catherine Bagration, wife of a famous Russian general. She wore such low-cut gowns during the Congress of Vienna that she earned herself the nickname “the naked angel.”
- He also had an affair with Wilhelmine, Duchesse de Sagan – the sister of Dorothea, who I wrote about here.
- He also had an affair with Princess Catherine Dolgoroukaya, wife of Tsar Alexander I’s aide-de-camp.
- He also had an affair with Napoleon’s sister, Caroline Murat, and “wore a bracelet made from her hair.” Eww. (53)
- He also had an affair with Laure Junot, the Duchesse d ’Abrantès (the wife of Caroline Murat’s lover).
- He did NOT have an affair with Mme de Staël.
All these affairs…all I can think is that there must have been SO MUCH VD circulating at the time.
Should You Read It?
If you’re interested in the life of someone who had a front-row seat to the turbulent first half of the 19th century, yes. This isn’t an academic read, so you don’t have to worry about getting too bogged down in politics. They’re a big part of the story – they have to be – but you also learn about his marriages, his children, his ideals, his properties, and his legacy. Worth the time as an introduction.
Subtitle: Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias
Author: W. Bruce Lincoln
Publisher: Northern Illinois University Press
Available at: Amazon
Prior to reading this book, I knew very little about Nicholas. His daughter Olga’s memoir paints an adoring picture of him as the perfect emperor, the perfect dad, the perfect husband. Obviously, no one is perfect; as much as I love Olga’s memoir, you have to take the worship with a grain of salt.
After reading this, I have a more nuanced opinion of Nicholas. A lot of what Olga said about him was true. I doubt there was anyone with better intentions in the entire Romanov dynasty…but it all went so, so wrong. In a nutshell, Nicholas came to the throne determined to keep the turmoil of the French Revolution and its aftermath the hell out of Russia. Whereas Catherine, his grandmother, wanted Russia to be part of Europe, Nicholas wanted the exact opposite.
His first job was to keep revolt and revolution at bay. Yep, he did that.
His next job was to sort out the myriad of problems facing Russia: arbitrary laws, serfdom, financial collapse, and an alarming lack of industry, among others. And boy, did he give it the college try. He had his aides create the first ever written collection of Russian laws – no small task. His finance minister stabilized the currency. And he tried to ameliorate the living conditions of state peasants (serfs that belonged to estates owned by the state).
But the way he accomplished these things came at a price. He surrounded himself with men he trusted – men he’d grown up with. He created independent bureaus to solve problems made up of his trusted aides rather than working through traditional institutions like the Russian Council. The infamous Third Section (secret police) grew out of Nicholas’s system of government: give important jobs to your trusted associates. Every decision no matter how small had to go through him. He literally worked himself to death, unwilling or unable to delegate. What the hell did he think would happen when he died? That’s what I want to know, and one question this book doesn’t answer.
Over Nicholas’s thirty-year reign, the men serving him aged. They grew jaded. They told Nicholas what he wanted to hear. They created an echo chamber around him and themselves. Younger men entering the bureaucracy were stifled, stymied, censored, watched, and harassed. In the end, most ended up so disenchanted they lost faith in the entire system. The censorship tightened and got worse after the 1848 revolutions brought chaos to Russia’s front door. And Nicholas couldn’t see what was happening, let alone stop it.
When he died in 1855, he left a system that literally could not function without him…but barely functioned with him. This sucks because it’s not at all what I think he intended. But the phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” could have been coined to describe him.
So…is the villain many (like Alexander Herzen) make him out to be?
That depends on what you believe makes a villain. Things got a hell of a lot worse on his watch – that’s indisputable. And he failed to see what was going wrong in time to stop it. But if you believe a villain requires an intent to do evil things, Nicholas didn’t have that. To me, that’s what makes this story tragic and compelling.
None. As long as you know going in this is a scholarly work, you’ll be fine. Don’t expect gossip, and don’t expect much information on his wife or children. This is mostly about the evolution of the Nicholas system and the politics of the reign. This book delivers exactly what it promises.
Should You Read It?
If you’re interested in Russian history or the Romanovs, yes. If you want to understand the turning point in Russia – where things started to go so wrong no one and nothing could fix them – this book will tell you how it happened.
Author: Julia P. Gelardi
Publisher: Julia P. Gelardi
Available at: Amazon
Like I mentioned, this is a short book – Kindle places it at about 108 pages, but 23 of those are endnotes, picture credits, and bibliography. Plus, there are 33 images, some of which are full-page illustrations. All told, you’re looking at 55 – 60 pages of actual text. It’s a really fast read; I read it in one sitting on a Sunday morning. It’s the story of a wedding, which naturally begins with the engagement and ends with the couple leaving Russia to start their new lives together in London.
I won’t do a traditional review for this since it’s not a traditional book. It’s not a biography of either Alfred or Marie – it’s a snapshot of a particular piece of history at a very particular moment. If you’re interested in how British newspapers described the wedding ceremony (held in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace), you’ll get a lot of that detail here. Gelardi must love the British Newspaper Archive as much as I do!
If you don’t have much time to read or just want a snippet of royal history, this book will entertain you. If you’d rather have the complete story of a life, this will leave you wanting more. It all depends on what kind of reader you are and the kind of book you want (or have time for).
Author: James Pope-Hennessy
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year: 2019 (eBook edition)
Available at: Amazon
This is the official biography of Queen Mary, consort of King George V of Great Britain. In many (okay, most) cases, official biographies are informative but stuffy. Unpleasant details and scandals get swept under the rug. It’s not obligatory, but many official biographers practically canonize their subjects. You read them because, well, there’s a ton of good information there – but it’s not always the truest picture of the person described.
This book is different. Oh, sure, negative aspects of Mary’s life and personality are still kept dutifully in the shadows…but on the whole, it feels like Pope-Hennessy was committed to telling as much of the truth as humanly possible in this situation.
And the book is amazing. Stylistically, it’s light as a feather. You feel like the author is just telling you a story during afternoon tea. It’s entertaining, it has highs and lows, and literary winks here and there just to make sure you’re paying attention. It’s absolutely delightful – and I know I didn’t fully appreciate this when I first read this book in my early 20s. Now, having dabbled in some history writing and gotten a master’s degree in creative writing, I can better see what a stellar job he did in creating an official biography that’s – gasp – still fun to read.
Here’s the kind of relaxed, inviting style you’ll find: “It is not altogether the kindest moment to approach Princess May, since she is in the midst of drastic dental treatment…The roots were painlessly removed under laughing gas, and Princess May’s birthday presents (which we will look over in a moment) compensated for that nervous anxiety inevitable up on any visit to any dentist, at any age.” (158)
- Grand Duchess Augusta of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (Mary’s beloved aunt, born Princess Augusta Caroline of Cambridge) remembered a tiff with Queen Victoria that stemmed partly from a ball during Tsarevich Alexander of Russia’s visit…where Alexander paid more attention to Augusta than Victoria. (34)
- Queen Sophie of the Netherlands on Augusta of Mecklenburg-Strelitz: She “is one of those who keep themselves in hot water about their rank and cannot bear the second place…I always wonder when clever people dwindle away their lives with such petty preoccupations.” (34)
- The Duchess of Edinburgh (born Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna): “Nothing is more hopeless than a Princess who never opens her mouth.” (89)
- Princess May (Mary’s nickname) during a visit to Wurttemberg in 1892: “I certainly do not like Germany…I think Württemberg a primitive place, they have no idea of comfort & are so narrow minded – Thank God I belong to a great Nation!” (98)
- During Princess May’s stay in Italy with her spendthrift parents, she met some flashy Russian expats, including Princess Voronzoff, “who had a collection of jewels believed to be unique in the world, and who appeared each day wearing twelve ropes of perfectly matched pearls which reached down to her knees.” (149)
- Said of Princess Mary in 1902: “She never ought to be photographed, as they do not do her justice.” (158)
- In about 1886, May’s grandmother, the Duchess of Cambridge (who had married a son of King George III) wanted May to marry Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich. (198)
- Sometime prior to 1891, according to Queen Victoria, May had a marriage proposal from Prince Ernst Gunther of Schleswig-Holstein. She turned him down flat. He eventually married Louise of Belgium’s daughter, Dora, and if I remember correctly, was not a super nice guy. Victoria referred to him as “odious Gunther.” (220)
- “Princess May distrusted her mother-in-law’s love of speed. She had never got over her fright at being driven by Queen Alexandra in her pony trap along the winding Princess’s Walk at Sandringham, for the Queen, who had exceptionally fast ponies, would drive round the bends like the wind.” (458)
- Mary didn’t like bikes. When riding bikes became a thing and her sisters-in-law took it up, she refused. What did she do instead? “On wet afternoons when these latter would bicycle round and round the ballroom at Sandringham House, Princess May confined herself to pedaling a large tricycle.” (458) That’s about my speed, too, so I love this about her.
What You Won’t Find
- There is almost no detail about Britain’s involvement – or lack thereof – in discussions or attempts to rescue the captive Romanovs in 1917-1918. Entire books have been written about this subject in the decades since, but since the discovery of the Romanov murder gets just a few sentences here, that tells you two things: (1) It didn’t affect George and Mary, or (2) It did, but in a way that’s unpleasant and best left out of this official biography. Make of this what you will.
- There’s very little detail about Mary’s relationships with any of her daughters-in-law. There are a few mentions of Elizabeth, a few for Marina, and almost none for Alice. I was hoping to get a little more insight into these relationships, but they’re glossed over to the point of being a non-entity in Mary’s life. Is this accurate? Or did Pope-Hennessy keep this to a minimum on purpose?
- There’s very little detail about Mary’s last son, Prince John. He was believed to be epileptic and lived away from the family, with his own establishment. None of the family was with him when he died in 1919. To modern sensibilities, this is a black mark against George and Mary’s already sub-par parenting skills. Pope-Hennessy says very little about John, either because in living apart from the family, he had little effect on it…or because he knew that any attention given to John wouldn’t reflect well on his subject. Again, make of this what you will.
Should You Read It?
This one’s a no-brainer: absolutely. There’s something for everyone: scandal in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, scandal with the Duke of Windsor, and emotional pathos with Mary and George’s epistolary love story. They were both shy people who had trouble expressing their emotions, but what they wrote to each other reveals a deep love and commitment to each other.
Author: Michael Nelson
Publisher: I.B. Tauris
Available at: Amazon
This book is organized in chronological order. The author takes you through Victoria’s nine visits to the Riviera in 1882 (Menton), 1887 (Cannes), 1891 (Grasse), 1892 (Hyères), and 1895-1899 (Nice). Due to bad press and potential political instability relative to the Boer War, she cancelled the trip planned for 1900. She took that first trip at age 62 and fell in love with the area, describing it as a “paradise of nature.” (1) And as she lay on her deathbed in January of 1901, she whispered, “Oh, if only I were at Nice, I should recover.” (1)
But what did she do there? And why did she love it so much? Like the rest of us, Victoria seemed younger and carefree when she was on vacation in the Riviera. She still had work to do, and still met with and corresponded with her ministers (some of whom came to see her there). But overall, her days were about what was fun: taking rides, going for little walks, touring gorgeous gardens, meeting locals, and enjoying events like the Battle of Flowers. She was treated with enormous respect by the locals, who were able to separate her from her country’s policies (in the case of the Fashoda incident, for example). Who wouldn’t love the chance to escape from the cares of the world in such a beautiful setting?
I enjoyed the way the author pulled in quotes from a variety of sources: local newspapers, British papers, Marie Mallet (the queen’s lady-in-waiting), Dr. Reid (her physician), and Victoria herself (from her journals). It’s interesting to see the queen’s perspective juxtaposed with that of the people who had to serve her and make her visit a fun and stress-free one. It made the book much more enjoyable than, say, a simple catalog of happy events like Victoria’s visit to the Rothschild gardens.
- While in Cannes in 1887, Queen Victoria heard such loud rumblings coming from below her room that she wondered whether it was an earthquake. She asked a footman about it, and the footman said it was just Henry Ponsonby snoring. Everyone had a good laugh about this the next day…except Ponsonby, who was teased mercilessly. (48)
- Victoria and her daughter Beatrice went to visit the Monastery of the Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble – the first Protestant women to be allowed inside. During her visit, she passed the distillery where the monks made Chartreuse (liqueur) from their secret recipe. Later, they offered her wine but she asked for Chartreuse instead. As she wrote in her journal, “…by mistake he gave me some of the strongest.” (49)
- It was in Hyères in 1892 that she supposedly said, “We are not amused.” A groom-in-waiting, Alick Yorke, told a dirty story to a German man seated next to him – but their laughter made Victoria ask what was so funny. When Alick repeated his story, she didn’t find it nearly as funny and supposedly made her most famous remark. Maybe he told a watered down version of the story that made it unfunny? (78)
- Queen Victoria gave Empress Eugénie fertility advice when the French monarchs came for a visit in 1855. When Eugénie had had a fall during a prior pregnancy, she took a hot bath afterward which was followed by a miscarriage. She told Victoria, who told her she shouldn’t have had the bath. (Anyone know why?) Eugénie consulted with Victoria’s doctor, and Victoria reminded her to “remember my plans” with regard to conceiving. Eleven months later, her only son, the Prince Imperial, was born. (88)
- In Nice in 1889, Victoria’s lady-in-waiting Marie Mallet wrote about the arrival Victoria’s daughter-in-law, Alexandra, and her daughters. They looked “very seedy” according to Marie and “Princess Maud has dyed her hair a canary colour which makes her look quite improper and more like a milliner than ever.” (143) Ouch.
Just a slight quibble with the title. This book doesn’t really argue that Queen Victoria “discovered” the Riviera – but it does show how her visits affected local trade and commerce. It’s far more of an exploration of her time there than any sort of argument that tourism picked up after she started visiting there. That may be true, but that’s not actually what the book covers, let alone proves.
Should You Read It?
Yes. This was a fun, fast read I enjoyed a lot.
Subtitle: England’s Medieval Queens Book 2
Author: Alison Weir
Available at: Amazon
This book covers Eleanor of Aquitaine, Berengaria of Navarre, Isabella of Angoulême, Eleanor of Provence, and Eleanora of Castile (from 1154 to 1291). Because of the proliferation of women named Eleanor, Weir uses variations on the name to help readers keep them straight: Eleanor of Provence is Alienor, for example. The different spellings actually kind of annoyed me, but since this book is for the general public, I understand why that choice was made.
I was looking for a modern, well-rounded picture of these women. When I started reading biographies of the queens of England, my local library had a few of Agnes Strickland’s dusty volumes, along with lighter-weight coverage like Queens of England by Norah Lofts and (heaven forbid) Romantic Royal Marriages by Barbara Cartland. But I’ve come a long way from my hometown library and historical scholarship has advanced a long way since then. What more do we know? What old canards had been disproven? Was there any new light to shed on these women?
This book didn’t disappoint.
It tells the story of England though their eyes, in chronological order. Weir does a very good job of not repeating information. Each woman’s story is woven though the timeline, rather than creating artificial break points and re-telling events that already happened from the next queen’s point of view.
I especially appreciated more information on Berengaria than I’d come across before. I loved the tidbits about Berengaria and Joanna’s excellent adventures during the Crusades, and in a different world, their adventures would make a great movie.
Isabella of Angouleme was a firecracker – an extremely selfish firecracker who seemed to piss off just about everyone at various points in her life. That was actually refreshing, because it meant she was DOING THINGS and had ambition.
And I was previously unaware that Eleanora of Castile wasn’t the passive, perfect medieval queen of legend. Nope. She was a land mogul in the making, and she didn’t care whose toes she had to step on to build her own mini-empire within England. This is the level of detail I wanted – something that shines a light through the fables that have become entrenched in histories provided by those less willing or able to question everything.
I especially enjoyed the emphasis on gifts people gave, what people wore and ate, and the brief histories of their burial places and effigies.
Should You Read It?
If you have any interest in medieval England or medieval queenship, yes.
If you’re not already interested in these topics, this might be too detailed to sustain your interest. Check it out from a library to see if it floats your boat.
Author: James Pope-Hennessy (edited by Hugo Vickers)
Publisher: Zuleika & Hodder & Stoughton
Available at: Amazon
James Pope-Hennessy’s biography of Queen Mary is the gold standard of royal biographies. It’s well-written and interesting, but there’s also a lightness to it – it’s actually fun to read. Without injecting himself into the narrative (too much), Pope-Hennessy makes you feel like he’s your friend. Like he’s telling you a fascinating story, rather than documenting what many presume to be the story of a cold, grumpy old lady.
But how did he pull it off?
That’s the subject of this book, composed of Pope-Hennessy’s transcribed interviews and notes, edited by Hugo Vickers.
Queen Mary died in 1953 at age 85. In 1955, James Pope-Hennessy was commissioned to write her official biography. Now, if you know one thing about official biographies, it’s that there’s a trade-off to them. In return for unparalleled access to family papers and interview subjects, the writer has to produce a finished product that the subject (or the subject’s family, if she/he is deceased) approves of. Easier said than done for royalty, who are always anxious to censor unflattering episodes or tidbits – the tidbits that would most amuse many readers.
And that’s why Pope-Hennessy initially turned down the commission. He had no interest in writing a boring book that only said nice things about someone, a book that didn’t truly attempt to tell the whole story of that person’s inner life, loves, and fears. He only changed his mind because his brother explained that “royalty…were an endangered species, and this was an occasion to establish, through close inspection of a single life, the nature of the phenomenon.” (Introduction)
This book is the story of Pope-Hennessy’s odyssey to uncover the full story of Mary’s life, as told by his collection of research notes and interviews. It’s not a polished narrative – it’s a year-by-year snapshot of a work in progress. It ends with Pope-Hennessy’s completion of what Hugo Vickers calls “one of the best royal biographies ever to have been published.” (Introduction) And it was a hell of a good read in and of itself.
- Notes after Pope-Hennessy’s interview with Sir Alan Lascelles: “That my view of Queen Mary’s intense egotism was correct and well-founded. He thinks she can never have been in love in her life. On this point he again stressed King George’s physical repulsiveness. He was much worse than most strictly ugly people can ever be. It sounded indefinable but very positive.” (16-17)
- Notes after his interview with Lady Cynthia Coleville: “C.C. thinks she was not in love with either Prince Eddie or King George: ‘It seemed ambitious; and in a way it was’ – the new engagement. She was in love with Prince Henry of Battenberg, who reciprocated: they agreed to behave well and stop seing [sic] each other. She was much attached to ‘her cousin the Cardinal Otto something, and always enjoyed seeing him.’ (Who was this ?)” (56)¶
- Hugo Vickers’s note on Queen Louise of Sweden (born a Mountbatten): “Queen Louise had nursed in the First World War, where she learned to swear like a trooper.” I have a fondness for historical figures who swear. (77)
- Notes after his interview with Hon. Margaret Wyndham: “She hated Princess Margaret.” (126) I believe that feeling was mutual.
- Transcription of Pope-Hennessy’s interview with Lady Juliet Duff: “Q: ‘Didn’t Queen Alexandra and her daughters make fun of P.M.[Princess Mary]’s clothes, thinking her less elegant than themselves?’ A: ‘Well they weren’t elegant at all, just one mass of sequins, they looked like Liberace.’” (142)
- Notes after his interview with the Duke of Gloucester, Mary’s son: “My mother hated the wind. She used to use the most bloody awful language in a wind, bloody awful.’” (194) As awful as Queen Louise of Sweden during WWI? 😉
Should You Read It?
Yes. Even if you haven’t read Pope-Hennessy’s biography of Queen Mary, you’ll want to after you read this. It’s a fascinating look at the process of putting together a royal biography, so it’s of interest to writers as well as history buffs. Plus, there are lots of hidden gems here, like the story of Duchess Marie of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and her unwanted pregnancy.
However, if you get the eBook like I did, be aware there are some formatting weirdnesses. These include typos, missing words, and large portions of the introduction appearing in italics for no good reason. I suspect this is because Vickers’s introductions to many of the interviews are italicized. But the formatting got out of hand, and stray HTML tags seem to have wreaked havoc with italics in unintended places.
Which leads me to a rant…
<rant>WHY, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DO PUBLISHERS NOT PROOF, TEST, OR PRESUMABLY EVEN READ THEIR OWN EBOOKS? I’ve published eBooks, and JFC, I bought a used Nook, Kobo, and iPad to test the damn thing on MULTIPLE DEVICES on MULTIPLE PLATFORMS before publishing. It’s not hard. I’m one non-techy person and I figured it out. I’m getting really tired of shittily produced eBooks with bad formatting. And lord knows I know who’s at fault…and it’s not the author. It’s a publisher eager to cash in on eBook sales all while showing rampant disregard for the consumer reading said eBook. I’ve seen books so badly formatted that it’s clear the publisher had no idea what they were even creating – a book? Well, it’s not really a book…it’s not even made of paper. I don’t know what it is, really, but it’s not a book and we really only care about actual books. Just click the buttons and hope for the best. Who cares? Well, I care, assholes. Anytime you put your name on a product that you expect someone to pay money for, you should at least LOOK AT THE FINISHED PRODUCT IN ITS DIGITAL FORMAT before asking for money for it. To quote Sebastian Maniscalco: “Aren’t you embarrassed?” If you’re not, you should be.</rant>
Apologies to the spirit of James Pope-Hennessy and Hugo Vickers for my rant appearing in the segment of this page that was only supposed to talk about their work. Your work is admirable. It's the publisher who has let you down.
Author: Dorothy, Countess Praschma (compiled & edited by Ilona Praschma Balfour)
Publisher: Ilona Praschma Balfour
Available at: Amazon
I discovered this book by doing a deep dive into the offerings on Eastern Europe in Kindle Unlimited and I’m so glad I did. It’s a beautiful memoir and a harrowing tale that focuses on the last days and immediate aftermath of World War II in Czechoslovakia and Germany. The author’s daughter put this book together, and I really hope more people find it because it’s a fascinating look at what it was like for Czech and German nobility toward the end of the war. I’ve read and reviewed a few other books that cover similar territory – the havoc wreaked on a royal or noble family during the end of World War II:
- Missie Vassiltchikov’s Berlin Diaries
- Tatiana Metternich’s Tatiana: Five Passports in a Shifting Europe
- Archduchess Ileana’s memoir, I Live Again
- Catherine Bailey’s A Castle in Wartime
- Eleanor Perenyi’s More Was Lost
This book deserves a place on the shelf next to them.
Dorothy Ferreira was born in South Africa in 1900, during the Anglo-Boer War. There, she met Engelbert Count Praschma, Baron von Bilkau, who had come to live with the family of one of his father’s employees.
The handsome German aristocrat fell for Dorothy when she helped kill a mamba snake in the house during his welcoming party. He asked her to marry him and she converted to Catholicism to do so.
But his family back home wasn’t pleased at all. His older brother had renounced his inheritance and moved to America. The family wanted Engelbert to marry a suitable wife, not a regular person from South Africa.
So his siblings tried to disinherit him. To try and set things right, Engelbert brought Dorothy to Germany, despite a letter from his father urging Dorothy to stay in South Africa. This was autumn of 1935, and by now, Dorothy was pregnant with their third child. They boarded a ship to Hamburg, and this is where the diary picks up.
Engelbert got a job working for a newspaper in Hamburg, and they rented an apartment from Frau Goebbels, some relation of the infamous Reichs Minister. They didn’t stay long, though; Engelbert’s father died that November. She brought their two sons to the family estate, Falkenberg, in Upper Silesia.
But when World War II broke out, Dorothy and the kids took shelter with her husband’s aunt and uncle, Count and Countess Stolberg, at Kyjovice in Czechoslovakia. During and immediately after the war, it was Dorothy’s bravery, know-how, and ability to stand up to German and Russians thanks to her South African flag and pre-nuptial agreement that saved their literal and metaphorical bacon many, many times.
Dorothy’s courage is inspiring. At one point, she set out to retrieve her two oldest boys who had been left with a group of nuns for boarding school during part of the war. With little more than a gut feeling, she set out alone to find them – and I won’t spoil what happens, but her courage and determination are awe-inspiring.
Later, friends asked her to help do everything from confront the terrifying Red Army soldiers in the next room to retrieving relatives in hospitals hundreds of miles away. And she did what they asked her to because her motto, through it all, was: “My heart must never be too small for a woman.”
There are a few familiar names in this tale:
- Friedrich Prince Salm-Salm (Uncle Friedrich) and his son, Francois. However, I’m not sure how he relates to the two Salm-Salm men I’m familiar with: Prince Felix of Salm-Salm (who tried to help Emperor Maximilian of Mexico escape) and Prince Emanuel of Salm-Salm (who married Archduchess Maria Christina of Austria-Teschen, the sister of Archduchess Maria Anna).
- Archduchess Hedwig of Austria, granddaughter of Emperor Franz Josef
- Sophie, Countess Henckel von Donnersmarck
- Her husband's grandmother was Bertha, Princess Croy - we met Princess Isabella of Croy as Archduchess Maria Anna's mother (see link above)
- Dorothy got help from Leopoldine, Princess Lobkowicz in Prague - we met the Lobkowicz family in my post on Eleonora von Schwarzenberg, nee Lobkowicz
- A Princess Schwarzenberg in Prague was "not too friendly"
- In 1936, describing the nobility of Czechoslovakia: “Life is not easy for many of these people, especially the young people, but they face life in Hitler’s Dritten Reich (third empire) with warm-hearted courage. What surprises me is how well informed and what a clear idea of what is actually transpiring people seem to have. …Someone has said, ‘We must read between the lines and be wide-awake because we live in a world of invisible eyes and ears.’” (Ch 2)
- October, 1944: “Many people come and inquire from us what they should do…From us they learn the truth…as far as we dare give it to them; we try to tell the peasants that the Russians will show no mercy, and because we must consider our children, we are cowardly and therefore we think that the best thing will be to get across to the English or American lines…It is an inherent belief that the Herrschaften, the nobility, are expected to set an example for the people to follow …” (Ch 5)
- March, 1945: “Then I perceived that our way was blocked by what appeared to be an army of people marching up the bleak street. As they came opposite us, I saw that they were gaunt, dirty, starved-looking men. All were dressed in thin striped prison suits…I concluded they were Jews from one of the prison camps being evacuated before the Russian advance…[when she tried to give them bread] one lean fellow from the back of the sleigh fell over my shoulder – a guard tried to strike him with the butt of his rifle – I grabbed the gun. ‘Don’t hit him, please don’t hit him,’ I said, clinging to the gun until the unfortunate man had recovered himself.” (Ch 5)
- March, 1945: “We have listened to a radio broadcast; Goebbels is telling the German people that the Fuehrer is as certain of victory now as always. ‘What a sheep,’ I said. There was no response, until Aunt Toto said, ‘What characters! Pride comes before the fall.’” (Ch 5)
- May, 1945: “…it was clear why every woman was in mortal fear of being outraged…This had all along been quite our worst fear of the Russians. It was distressing that our door had no inside lock. We prepared to barricade it and spend the night together, but we had nothing to put against the door until I thought of my axe and nails. So I quickly spiked the nails all along the door frame and bent them over the door. Thus consolingly together, we presented a solid front.” (Ch 7)
Should You Read This Book?
Yes. This is an amazing story of hope, courage, and resilience. It’s deeply moving and very informative. I’m not a religious person, but Dorothy’s strong Catholic faith shines through – she trusted deeply in that faith in every trying moment. She describes instances where – on the verge of giving up – she would ask for divine assistance…and get it. If you share her faith, you will be inspired. And even if you don’t, you’ll be awed and humbled by the strength of Dorothy’s conviction and selflessness.
Author: Janice Hadlow
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
Available at: Amazon
This book is about the marriage and family life of King George III of England. It begins with a description of the married lives of the previous Hanoverian men: George I, George II, and George III’s father, the Prince of Wales (he died before he could become king). As you’ll find out, this was NOT a family with a long track record of successful marriages. Most of their marriages were trainwrecks, even the one based on genuine love (George II and Caroline of Ansbach).
The future George III grew up extremely aware of his family’s shitty marital history and he was determined to change it.
From a young age, he was very aware of his future as the king and how important it was to be a better man than his predecessors. His tutor, the Earl of Bute, helped solidify these ideas in his mind, convincing him that his job as king was to stay above politics and be a good example to his people. Being American, I know I’m supposed to hate George III, but you can’t fault the guy for his intentions. He decided he wanted a marriage based on trust, friendship, and companionship. In his mind, if he and his family could live their best lives, it would make him a better ruler for his subjects and a better example for them to follow.
What’s the “experiment” referred to in the title?
In short, George’s effort to create an intimate, rewarding, and casual family life…as casual as possible for a king, that is. Instead of focusing on being a good king to the exclusion of his family, he believed being a good family man would give him the emotional grounding he needed to do a better job of ruling. There were no fancy, expensive mistresses for George. He wanted a rock-solid wife who’d support him no matter what, and he found her in 17-year-old Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.
To a modern reader, it feels like he wanted to come as close as an 18th century sovereign could to a Leave It to Beaver existence: dad goes to work and handles business, mom runs the house and has kids and makes sure everything is perfect for dad when comes home from work. Everyone grows up happy and well-adjusted, right?
Not by a long shot.
About halfway through the book, George has his first “episode.” You know – the illness that is just as hard to diagnose today as it was in the 1790s. Was it porphyria? Was it bipolar disorder? We may never know, and that’s all right.
What we do know is how horrifying his manic episodes were for his family. I’m not going to spoil anything for you if you don’t know the story. Suffice to say, I wouldn’t have changed places with any of them for the world, despite the wealth and the clothes and the palaces and the jewels.
- George II believed in vampires. Although he wasn’t religious, he was superstitious and believed in the supernatural. As Horace Walpole wrote: “He had yet implicit faith in the German notion of vampires and has more than once been angry with my father for speaking irreverently of these imaginary bloodsuckers.” (26)
- George II’s wife, Queen Caroline, was WAY TOO NOSY when it came to her son’s sexual life. When George II’s son, Prince Frederick of Wales, announced his wife Augusta was pregnant with their first child, Frederick’s mother, Queen Caroline, refused to believe it. For some reason, she didn’t think Frederick was capable of either having sex with Augusta or getting her pregnant. When Caroline tried to talk to Frederick about it, he told her some weird stuff: that he’d had “an operation that he had had performed upon him by his surgeon” and that he had “got nasty distempers by women” (i.e., VD). (25) All this made Caroline even more nosy. She asked her courtier and confidante, Hervey, to talk to Lady Dudley, who “has slept with half the town” to find out what her son was like in bed. Hervey refused. So then Caroline asked Hervey if her son had ever asked him to impregnate his wife on his behalf. Hervey said no. Caroline went even further, asking Hervey how it would be possible to do such a thing. This is a mother talking about her son. WTactualF, right? This family is wack, I tell you, and I am so here for these nutty details.
- The future George III made snippy comments on his homework. When made to read Caesar’s Commentaries, he wrote in the margin of his translation: “Je vous souhaite au diable” (I wish you to hell). (102)
- The Hanoverian family jewels were an amazing sight. When George III picked Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz as his bride, he began gathering the Hanoverian family jewels for her to wear. The Duchess of Northumberland got invited to sneak a peek at the jewels before they were given to Charlotte. She wrote, “There are an amazing number of pearls of a most beautiful colour and prodigious size. There are diamonds for the facings and robings of her gown, set in sprigs of flowers; her earrings are three drops, the diamonds of an immense size and fine water. The necklace consists of large brilliants set around …The middle drop of the earrings costs £12,000.” (145)
- On her wedding day, Charlotte had a wardrobe malfunction. Not quite to the degree of Janet Jackson, but it sounds pretty bad. Apparently, Charlotte’s measurements had been sent ahead to England before her arrival. But when she arrived, the pre-made wedding dress didn’t fit at all. The dress was too big, and all the jewels on it dragged it down. After they plopped a purple velvet cape on her, secured with pearls, the whole ensemble “dragged itself and almost the rest of her clothes halfway down her waist,” according to Walpole. “The spectators knew as much of her upper half as the king himself.” ( 148)
- At her first official Drawing Room as queen, Charlotte had another wardrobe malfunction. This time, her heavy train “caught the fender [i.e., the grate in front of the fireplace] and drew it into the middle of the room,” wrote the Duchess of Northumberland. Luckily, the duchess unhooked Charlotte’s dress and all was well. Charlotte didn’t let it freak her out. She laughed, and said, one time, at band camp, a princess of Prussia had hooked her train on a burning log and pulled it out of the fireplace and all the way through the room “firing the mat all the way.” (150)
- Charlotte had a dog named Presto. That’s all. I just like knowing what royal people named their dogs.
- Charlotte was not an outdoor girl. George III loved to go outside and walk and ride…but his queen did not. She preferred to ride in the carriage. She wrote to her brother and said she much preferred “that which is called COMFORT.” (218)
Should You Read It?
Yes. I really enjoyed this book for several reasons:
- The writing quality. It’s so easy to read and well explained that I never feel like I’m getting bogged down in details, even though there are plenty of intricate details about politics, which usually put me to sleep. From the pacing to the deliberately brief source quotations, Hadlow has really tried to make this book readable for the general public, not just an academic audience. She hit a home run here, in my opinion.
- The unexpected depth of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. This is due to Hadlow’s quotations from Charlotte’s letters to her beloved brother in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, possibly the only person on earth she told the whole truth to. I have so much more understanding of and respect for Charlotte after reading the snippets quoted here. Of course, when I saw what Charlotte became during George III’s famous illness, I liked her less. She coped with that situation as best she could – by virtually destroying her daughters’ lives. It’s not a good look, although to her credit, she was trying to press pause on the entire family because it was all she could think of to do literally until the day she died.
If you’re looking for a fascinating royal read with a fair amount of gossip, this book fits the bill. Highly recommended!
Author: Theo Aronson
Publisher: Lume Books (eBook edition)
Available at: Amazon
This book is a very enjoyable look at Theo Aronson’s writing life in notes, flashbacks, and diary entries he made through the decades of his long career. As a kid, he became obsessed with Second Empire France and eventually went on to write his first book on the Bonaparte family, The Golden Bees. The John Steinbeck Library in Salinas had a copy, so I first read this in middle school in 1990. Most of his later books focused on the British royal family, including several that I’ve reviewed here (Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone and The Coburgs of Belgium, among others).
What I loved about this book is the view it provides of Aronson –a very human writer. We hear about his nervousness before his first few speaking engagements, his missing important deliveries from his publisher because he had to step upstairs to pee, phone calls from total strangers trying to convince him they’re the long-lost child of a royal…contrast these humdrum anecdotes with his interviews with the Queen Mother, Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone and Princess Margaret. It’s comforting and reassuring to see Aronson as a real person as well as someone who seems to have built a rapport with these royal ladies.
I get the sense that he was unfailingly kind and as honest as felt was proper to be when dealing with royal egos. He could be courtly without being a courtier. And I wish I could have met him, if only to ask for advice on writing about subjects you can’t interview.
- For his first publisher, Cassel, he proposed a book on various American women who’d married European royals. The departing editor-in-chief loved the idea, but his successor nixed it, wanting something more commercially viable. WTF, new editor-in-chief. I would have totally paid money for that book! (9)
- Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone “ate like a trencherman. ‘Sheer greed,’ she would say, helping herself to another slice of cake or another helping of pudding.” (23)
- In James Pope-Hennessy’s The Quest for Queen Mary, we find this in his notes after his interview with Hon. Margaret Wyndham: “She hated Princess Margaret.” Well, in this book, we find out what Princess Margaret felt about her grandmother, Queen Mary: “She was absolutely terrifying. She didn’t really like children and made no sort of effort with them.” (53)
- An expletive-filled description of Prince Felix Yusupov’s sexual preferences or lack thereof on page 56. No, I’m not going to tell you who said it or what they said. I want you read the book. But when I read it, almost did a spit-take with my morning coffee.
- Have you seen the many Helen Cathcart books on Amazon? They’re mostly about the royal family and/or their houses. They’ve recently been reissued (digitally, at least) with new covers. Well, Aronson tells us that “Helen Cathcart” is the pseudonym for Harold Albert, who wrote Queen Victoria’s Sister under his own name. “As far as the general public is concerned, Helen Cathcart is a publicity-shy maiden lady, living in some inaccessible part of the Scottish Highlands, who can be contacted only through her agent – Harold Albert. In ‘her’ book about Sandringham House…Helen Cathcart slyly thanks Mr. Harold A. Albert for ‘editorial collaboration.’” (80)
- As a child, Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester (who married Queen Mary’s son, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester) told Aronson that she remembered seeing a nursery maid washing the powder out of a footman’s hair in her grandfather’s house. She was born in 1901, so we’re talking about the very early 20th century – and powdered wigs or hair was still de rigeur for the footmen in her grandfather’s house!
- A man Aronson knew, Donald MacAndrew, collected material to write a biography of Franz Xaver Winterhalter, who painted gorgeous, dreamy portraits of European royalty in the mid-19th He collected material for this book his whole life but never wrote it. Aronson tells us: “I daresay that the result of those decades of research, shoved into wardrobes, suitcase and cardboard boxes, has all been emptied on to some tip.” (178) Doesn’t that just break your heart? I’d read the hell out of that book.
Should You Read It?
Yes. If you enjoy behind-the-scenes glances at the royal family and its entourage, this will entertain you. Or if you’re an aspiring writer, you’ll really enjoy the tidbits about trends in publishing, marketing, and how hard an author works behind the scenes to present you with a finished product.
Subtitle: The Life of Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry
Author: Anne de Courcy
Year: 2012 (eBook edition)
Available at: Amazon
Born Edith Chaplin in 1878, the future Marchioness of Londonderry grew up in wealth and privilege. When her mother died just a few years later in 1881, her father was grief-stricken. Edith was sent to live with her relatives, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland.
In 1899, at age 21, she married Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh. Their marriage is interesting, but also…confusing. Apparently, Charles was the hottest thing since sliced bread. Women threw themselves at him, and he didn’t always say no. But Edith was so in love with him that she’d be the one apologizing. Like, profusely. In page after page after page, blaming herself for so many faults and for driving him away.
Reading their letters is actually agonizing at times, because Edith refused to blame him or give him the bitch-slap he deserved. The author spins this behavior pattern as Edith simply accepting what she could not change and choosing to be as happy as possible. She had plenty of achievements in other spheres of her life, including being appointed the Colonel-in-Chief of the Women’s Volunteer Reserve in 1914, at the outbreak of World War I (which the author refers to as the 1914 war or the 1914-1918 war). She believed in suffrage for women, she was an author, she was well-educated, and could talk politics with the best of them. She had so much going for her – including plenty of male admirers. But she was so desperately, passionately, obsessively in love with Charles that she forgive his serial philandering.
In 1915, her father-in-law died and she became the Marchioness of Londonderry. For the next couple decades, she and Charles were among the leaders of inter-war society. One of her close friends was Princess Helena Victoria, Marie Louise’s sister. Also in the inter-war years, her husband Charles really got interested in flight and, subsequently, the need for Britain to have a strong Air Force. He was the Secretary of State for Air from 1931-1935. In his mind, there were two options as Adolf Hitler’s Germany began saber rattling in the mid-1930s: grow the Air Force or make friends with Germany. That’s it. And when he couldn’t convince the government to do the first, he decided to try and work on the second. That’s what led to Edith and Charles’s trip to see Hitler and Goering…and their subsequent branding as collaborators.
Charles died in 1949 and Edith in 1959.
- Edith inherited her father’s extravagance. This quote sums up his feeling about money: “All my life I have lived according to a very simple plan. It is always to have what I like, when I like it, and as much of it as I like.” (Ch 1)
- The house she mostly grew up in, Dunrobin, was supposedly the oldest inhabited house in Britain. (Ch 2)
- Her mother-in-law was the intimidating Theresa, Lady Londonderry. At the famous Devonshire ball, Theresa went as Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. She had a copy of Maria Theresa’s crown made, using her own diamonds (borrowed from necklaces and bracelets that were deconstructed for this single event). (Ch 3)
- Theresa was such a magnificent, imposing woman that the Shah of Persia offered to buy her when he visited England in 1889. (Ch 4)
- Charles had an affair with Fannie Ward, an American actress. Fannie’s beauty advice? “Avoid sugar, fats, white bread, use ice for your complexion and go to sleep lying on the right side.” The author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes said of her, “When a girl is cute for 50 years it really gets to be history.” (Ch 6)
- Edith had tattoos on both her legs. The tattoo on her left was a snake climbing upward. Later, when hemlines rose, both of these tattoos were visible. (Ch 6)
- Charles also had an affair with his second cousin’s wife, Consuelo Vanderbilt. They ran off to Paris, and his mother, Theresa, brought in the King and Queen to make sure Charles knew this was NOT okay. They returned and Charles went back to Edith. (Ch 7)
- King Alfonso XIII of Spain proposed to Ena of Battenberg during a ball at Londonderry House. (Ch 7)
- Edith and Charles’s daughter Maureen refused to date Prince Albert (the future King George VI), leaving him pining for her until he fell for Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. (Ch 21)
Should You Read It?
That depends how excited you are about late 19th and early 20th century British politics. If you have no interest in this, you’ll probably think this book is a little on the dry side. There are frequent digressions into Conservative, Liberal, and Labor party politics. I skimmed these as fast as I could.
I find myself a little perplexed by this book. It should have been enthralling, but it fell flat for me. Maybe it was because Edith’s character didn’t really change throughout her life. Once she married at age 21, her viewpoint and her behavior didn’t seem to change at all. So reading the portions of her letters quoted felt like more of the same. Also, we don’t really get much of a viewpoint on what others in society thought of her. Of course, we learn about her deep platonic friendship with Ramsay MacDonald. But what did other women say about her? What did men not in love with her say about her? It seems like there’s a missing dimension here that I kept searching for a never found.
Subtitle: The 1919 Crisis Genesis & Consequences
Author: Fausto Gardini
Publisher: Fausto Gardini
Available at: Amazon
The author is clearly vested (and well versed) in Luxembourg and its history. Born in Italy in 1950, Gardini’s father moved the family to Luxembourg a few months later. Decades later, living in America, he began contributing to the Luxembourg News of America. His research specialty is Luxembourg immigrants to the U.S. and their descendants, and he clearly knows his stuff.
In the foreword, he notes that most Luxembourg scholars skip over the WWI period and don’t talk or write much about Grand Duchess Marie-Adélaïde, let alone her vilification and abdication in favor of her sister Charlotte. Why? This book doesn’t really answer that question, unfortunately. It presents a range of essays and facts gathered, but without much analysis or conclusion. It feels more like a brain dump or an outline than a fully fleshed-out book.
That being said, I appreciated the brief discussion of whether Marie-Adélaïde was friendly with German forces after they invaded Luxembourg in 1914. For the record, Gardini says there is no evidence to support the legend that Marie Adélaïde's car blocked a bridge the German needed to cross to enter the country. And I agree with his statement: “Could she have refused to receive him? Undeniably not, besides a face-to-face meeting with the Kaiser would provide her with the fitting opportunity to voice her protest to the highest authority. Would she be vilified for it later on? Indeed, she would.” (Chapter: The German Emperor in Luxembourg)
- As mentioned, this isn’t a traditional narrative book. There is very little thread between chapters other than a chronological progression through the war years. And many of the chapters are purely informational, with no analysis. For example, there’s a chapter called “Grand Duchy of Baden – German Emperor – Nassau Dynasty Connection.” It explains that Grand Duchess Marie-Adélaïde’s aunt, Hilda, married the Hereditary Prince of Baden in 1885. And his mother was the only daughter of the first German Kaiser, Wilhelm I. That’s it. The chapter is about a page and a half. No explanation of how or if this relationship changed any of the political dynamics in the country. Just a very brief recitation of fact. Why include it if there’s no analysis? That’s what I meant earlier when I said it feels more like a brain dump than a traditional book.
- The author cites Catherine Radziwill as evidence for Marie-Adélaïde’s implied attitude toward Germany. In my experience, you quote Radziwill for gossip, not for heft to support your ideas. Then again, what do I know? Nothing. Literally nothing. The older I get, the more I realize how little I know about even the things I think I know. So maybe my judgment here is out of line. Still, I wouldn’t feel comfortable basing any conclusion solely on Radziwill’s writing.
- The eBook formatting is a little wonky. The text of the endnotes is at least double the size of the actual text. So if you get to the end of the text, and you’re only 78% of the way through the eBook, that’s why.
Should You Read This Book?
If you have a deep interest in Luxembourg in the World War I period, yes. If not, there’s probably not enough here to keep you interested.
Subtitle: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia
Author: W. Bruce Lincoln
Publisher: Basic Books
Available at: Amazon
This was W. Bruce Lincoln’s last book – his wife wrote the acknowledgements, since he died before this was published. I think of the authors I read as perennially tucked away in a library or office, always working on something new. And as unrealistic as it is, I think of them as always alive…so it makes me sad when reminders of their death creep into a book.
This was a very enjoyable book to read. It takes you through the history of St. Petersburg in chronological order, highlighting the physical, emotional, and spiritual changes the city went through in various phases of its 300-year existence. You get glimpses of how tsars, tsarinas, architects, poets, painters and writers interacted with the city. A book like this would make no sense without copious illustrations, and this book has ’em, thankfully.
Lincoln constantly refers back to the idea of Petersburg as Russia’s “window to the West.” It evaluates how Russia drifted between Western influence under Peter the Great, Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine and then became more distant to the West under Tsar Nicholas I, and even more so a hundred years later after the Russian Revolution.
If I were going to critique anything, it would be the lack of focus on ordinary people. Empresses Anna, Elizabeth, and Catherine get a lot of coverage, and rightly so. But once we pass the era of Nicholas I, Lincoln sticks mostly to writers (Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Akhmatova, Brodsky) to help him tell the story. That’s totally reasonable, of course. But I found myself wondering how much more encompassing the book would have been with more descriptions and quotes from native citizens who weren’t famous writers or painters. In Suzanne Massie’s book on Pavlovsk, for example, there are stories of the heroic ordinary people who saved the palace’s treasures prior to the Nazi invasion and worked painstakingly to restore the palace after the war. These people’s connection to their country and their history moved me so much – and it’s that emotional connection this book lacks.
- Peter the Great (the city’s founder) wanted Russia to borrow everything it needed from the West, and then once they’d modernized, chance course and “show their ass to the West.” (3)
- The enormous piece of granite that supports Falconet’s statue of Peter the Great in Senate Square had to be dragged five miles to the Finnish coast, and then floated another 8 miles to Russia. At 30 feet high and 3 million pounds, this was no joke. In a year, they’d moved it 160 feet. It took a total of 2 years and thousands of workers’ effort to put the stone in place for Falconet to work on. (95-6)
- In early 19th century St. Petersburg, it was illegal to smoke on the street because fire was such a danger. Watchmen kept a lookout for any sign of fire. (141)
- Dostoyevski was imprisoned in the Peter & Paul fortress in 1849, for his connections to a group of subversives. After almost being hung (but reprieved at the last minute), he was finally sentenced to 4 years of penal servitude in Siberia. After everything, he wrote to his brother, “Life is a gift. Each moment of life can be a century of happiness.” (175)
- Everyone the Bolsheviks sent to guard the wine cellars of the Winter Palace got drunk. The Preobrazhensky Regiment? Drunk. The Pavlovsky Regiment? Drunk. Other random units? Drunk. Handpicked Regional Committees? Drunk. Armored car drivers patrolling to keep people out of the wine cellar? Drunk. The firemen sent to flood the cellar to keep looters out? Drunk. (240)
- On January 15, 1944, the Red Army unleashed what is possibly the largest barrage ever on the German army to break the siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg’s name under the Soviets): 500,000 shells and rockets in 2.5 hours. That was after the previous morning’s assault of 100,000 shells in 65 minutes. It worked. (297)
- Saxophones had never been made in the USSR, so you had to get them from somewhere else. The government had provided some to jazz bands, but rescinded that approval in 1949. Everyone with a saxophone had to turn it in and get new work paper showing they played a different instrument. (322)
Should You Read It?
If you’re interested in Russia, yes. And if you find biographies of places interesting – like Alistair Horne’s Seven Ages of Paris, you’ll also like this book.
Subtitle: Betrayer and Saviour of France
Author: Robin Harris
Publisher: Lume Books (eBook edition)
Available at: Amazon
First things first: Talleyrand is one of the most debated and inscrutable characters in early modern history. No single biographer is likely to be able to capture all of his facets and contradictions. As the subtitle of this book says, he was both a betrayer and a savior of his country – and opinions about him remain divided. For example, when he turned on Napoleon and began actively working against him, was that a betrayal of his boss or the salvation of his country? Luckily, the author does a good job of telling you when opinions diverge and gives you his take, based on the evidence. I appreciated that, as it gives you a wider picture of how he’s perceived without you having to do a damn lit review like you’re writing a paper in grad school.
The book focuses on Talleyrand’s political career. As I mention in my first caveat below, this will float your boat if you’re like most people. I’m not most people. I wanted more details on his personal life. For example, Harris describes the Duchess of Courland as “one of the greatest love affairs and most important friendships of his life.” (Ch 10) The author then covers their entire relationship in a single paragraph. Any other time her name pops up, it’s in reference something Talleyrand wrote her that has nothing to do with their relationship. You can see how this is irritating. What drew him to her? When did he see her? How long did their affair last? All we’re told is that he “valued his friend’s shrewdness as much as her beauty and affection.” (Ch 10) It’s not enough – nor is there enough information on his other loves and affairs. That’s my main quibble with the entire book.
I enjoyed the author’s style – it’s not academic, but it’s loftier than many popular histories. It’s also honest about his faults and failings. Apparently, Napoleon’s disastrous expedition to Egypt was in large part his fault. He wrote a memorandum suggesting the expedition – a fact Talleyrand omitted in his memoir, blaming it all on Napoleon.
If you’re interested in the Napoleonic period, the Congress of Vienna, the Hundred Days, or the Bourbon restoration in particular, you’ll enjoy the perspective this book has to offer.
- A great Talleyrand quote: “Translations augment the faults of a work and spoil its beauty.” (Preface)
- Another good quote: “In matters of importance one must get the women going.” (Ch 6)
- Yet another good quote, after Napoleon gave him the title “Prince and Duke of Benevento”: “Go and see Mme de Talleyrand. Women are always charmed to be princesses.” (Ch 8)
- A few names popped up that rang a bell for me, although I didn’t have time to track down the full connection. Case in point: Talleyrand’s friend and lover, the comtesse de Brionne, had two daughters: the princesse de Carignan and the princesse de Lorraine. Marie Antoinette’s best friend, the Princesse de Lamballe, was born a princess of Savoy-Carignan. What’s the connection between the princesse de Carignan and the Princesse de Lamballe, if any?
- During the French Revolution, Talleyrand lived with Adélaïde de Flahaut (his lover) and the American Gouverneur Morris in an apartment in the Louvre. Both men loved Adélaïde, and Morris was anxious for Talleyrand to move on with Germaine de Staël so he could have Adélaïde to himself. (Ch 3)
- During the Terror, he fled to England – but was expelled under the terms of the Alien Act. So he decided to head for America, As he was getting underway, his ship ran into a storm and had to turn back to Falmouth. There, he met an American that he hoped would be able to help him. Nope. It was Benedict Arnold, persona non grata for obvious reasons. What are the odds? (Ch 5)
- In America, he settled in Philadelphia. There, he was seen with “a Negro girl on his arm” that the author later refers to as his “black mistress.” (Ch 5; notes)
- Also in America, he met up with the La Tour du Pins and commented to Madame de Staël that he thought it was weird they shared the same bedroom. Perish the thought. (Ch 5)
- A local hosiery maker in the village of Valençay, where he had a gorgeous chateau, “even kept moulds of the legs of the Prince’s female guests, in case they laddered [i.e., got a run in] their stockings.” (Ch 8)
- Napoleon probably did not actually call Talleyrand “shit in a silk stocking.” Damn it. (Ch 11)
- Talleyrand’s personal life gets short shrift. This author focuses on his political contributions almost exclusively. I get it – there’s so much to cover that you can’t include everything. And on the whole, the political stuff is what most of the world is interested in. But if you’re as interested in the personal stuff, this book isn’t going to scratch that itch, so to speak. His loves and lovers barely rate mentions here. Ditto for his illegitimate son, Charles de Flahaut. Whether that’s because Talleyrand had little to nothing to do with him is unclear – this book stays that far away from Talleyrand’s personal life. The author mentions only that Charles was the first but not likely the last of Talleyrand’s illegitimate children. No others are mentioned, not even claimants.
- You already need a background in the major events and players of the Napoleonic and Restoration eras. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – the book might be twice as long otherwise. Still, if you don’t already know who Napoleon fought against, why, and what the outcome of the major battles was, you’re not going to get any of that info here. You need to know, and then the new info about what Talleyrand was doing behind the scenes can be added to what you already know. For example, there isn’t a word about the devastation of the Grande Armée in Moscow. The author notes that the future Duchesse de Dino simply told Talleyrand when Napoleon had returned from Russia, and that he left his “shattered army” behind. (Ch 12) If you don’t already know the details, you won’t understand how shameful that episode was.
Should You Read It?
If, like me, you know the bare minimum about this guy, this book is a good choice to get started – just keep in mind the personal takes a backseat to the political.
Subtitle: Vienna 1913-1914
Author: Frederic Morton
Publisher: Da Capo Press (eBook edition)
Year: 2014 (reprinted, 2nd edition; originally published 1989)
Available at: Amazon
I love the way Morton selects pivotal figures who converged on a particular place at a particular point in time. For example, this book covers 1913 and 1914 and Morton makes use of the following people, all in Vienna for at least part of that time:
- Emperor Franz Josef
- Archduke Franz Ferdinand
- Vladimir Lenin
- Leon Trotsky
- Joseph Stalin
- Sigmund Freud
- Adolf Hitler
- Gavrilo Princip
For me, any story becomes more fascinating when you see how a time and a place affected a range of people. Plus, Morton turns regular history into a sort of literary exercise, using the techniques of fiction to create some actual scenes, with dialogue and/or interior thoughts. It’s one thing to describe Franz Ferdinand as grumpy. It’s another to see that grumpiness in action. The whole book isn’t like this – these scenes are brief and used judiciously to immerse you in a moment. I thought it worked really well.
Morton also looks for poignant moments where his historical figures overlap. For example, in the introduction, he describes the setting of his previous book, A Nervous Splendor: “The story ends on the Saturday of the Easter weekend of 1889, when Rudolf’s sarcophagus was consecrated at the hour of Adolf Hitler’s birth.” That’s the kind of goosebump-inducing synchronicity you get from a Morton book. I love it.
If you like history books with a range of figures and perspectives – with historical detail about the ruling, upper, middle and lower classes – this is a story I think you’ll like.
- “Vladimir Lenin, resident in the Austrian province of Galicia, followed parliamentary performances in Vienna through the Cracow papers. The way Habsburg survived the ethnic imbroglio impressed him. In an article he sent to the St. Petersburg Pravda he declared that ‘Austria handles the national problem far better than the Tsar.’” (19)
- “In fact, Stalin’s Vienna experience had still further, rather ironic, consequences. When he seized supreme power after Lenin’s death, he resorted to the ‘Austrian’ solution after all. In other words, he dealt with the nationalities problem by giving them only cultural—not political—independence.” (22)
- Impressions of two Americans on Austro-Hungarian aristocrats: “They looked (as Consuelo Vanderbilt put it) ‘. . . like greyhounds, with their long lean bodies and small heads.’ They could impress even a star-spangled bucko like Teddy Roosevelt. When asked what type of person had appealed to him the most in all his European travels he said unhesitatingly, ‘The Austrian gentleman.’ In 1913 the Austrian aristocrat could still ring superlatives from the most hard-eyed Americans by simply being himself.” (28-9)
- Vienna’s history, traditions, and beauty seems to have made Trotsky angry that Russia couldn’t compete. “In an essay for Kievan Thought he shuddered at the barrenness of his country’s past. It seemed so tundra-dreary compared to the occidental succulence surrounding him in Vienna. ‘We are poor,’ he said of Russia, ‘with the accumulated poverty of over a thousand years . . .But that complex and rounded-off way of [Western] life, which on the basis of feudal rule grew up in Europe—that gothic lacework of feudalism—has not grown on our soil . . . A thousand years we have lived in a humble log cabin and stuffed its crevices with moss. Did it become us to dream of vaulting arcs and gothic spires? . . . How miserable was our gentry! Where were its castles? Where were its tournaments? Its crusades, its shield bearers, its minstrels and pages? . . . Its fêtes and processions? . . . Its chivalrous love?” (46)
- As part of the campaign against Franz Ferdinand’s morganantic wife, Countess Sophie Chotek, Prince Montenuovo – First Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Franz Josef – had a photo of her retouched to add wrinkles and then circulated it throughout the court. Dick move, right? (33)
- Even in 1913, people worried about kids and screen time. “At nearly the same time, a medical journal reported headaches in adult cinema addicts and, in children, a regression of speech patterns by limiting their vocabulary to the primitive phrases of the explanatory titles [of the period’s silent movies].” (81)
- When the tango became the hottest dance (and musical style) of early 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II forbid German soldiers from listening to it while in uniform. Far too risqué for him. (113)
- Franz Ferdinand’s war aims – or lack thereof – were gravely misunderstood by, oh, just about everyone. To wit: ”’If that Archduke had lived to sit on the throne,’ Freud said the day after the assassination to his patient the Wolf Man, ‘war with Russia would have been inevitable.’ The truth was precisely the reverse. Yet most Viennese shared Freud’s breezy misjudgment and his mistaken relief.” (266)
- When Franz Josef’s Minister of War appeared on July 25 and asked for permission to mobilize the army, he gave that permission but seemed to understand what war would cost his empire. Here’s how Morton describes that moment: “Franz Joseph gave it, not like a monarch commanding a general but like a puppet controlled by a ghost. ‘Go . . .’ he had whispered to the Minister. ‘Go. . . . I can do no other.’ A few hours later he walked on foot, as usual, to the villa of Frau Schratt. From the way he stooped his way across the little bridge before her gate, she knew what turn history had taken. ‘I have done my best,’ he said to her. ‘But now it is the end.’” (315)
Should You Read It?
If you’re interested in Habsburg history, World War I, or European cultural history, this will have something to please you. Or if you’re new to all those things, this will give you a fantastic look at what Vienna was like on the precipice of war and the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s destruction.
Subtitle: Charlotte Mathilde, Katharina, Pauline, Olga, Charlotte - ihr Leben und Wirken
Author: C. Sabine Thomsen
Publisher: Silberburg Verlag
Available at: Amazon
This book is an introduction to the five women who were queens of Württemberg:
- Charlotte Matilda, born a Princess of Great Britain
- Catherine Pavlovna, born a Grand Duchess of Russia
- Pauline, born a Duchess of Württemberg
- Olga Nikolaevna, born a Grand Duchess of Russia
- Charlotte, born a Princess of Schaumburg-Lippe
As usually happens with books that cover multiple subjects, some women get more coverage than others. Pauline and Charlotte of Schaumburg-Lippe get the short end of the stick here, while Charlotte Matilda, Catherine, and Olga have longer sections devoted to them. Pauline’s section includes a lot of information about her extended family and Württemberg itself, so there’s less here about her than initially appears.
Side note: It was interesting to me that the author fell into a common trap regarding King Friedrich of Württemberg’s first wife, Princess Augusta of Brunswick. During the couple’s time at the court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg, she describes Augusta as having an affair with a man that Catherine herself wanted, causing her to lose Catherine’s favor. None of this is true – but that it surfaced in a book about Württemberg’s history tells me how pervasive that particular canard is.
- Prince Friedrich of Württemberg’s wedding present for Charlotte Matilda? A string of pearls with 42 “oriental pearls.” Not bad, right?
- Charlotte Matilda’s unused baby clothes. Charlotte married rather late – at age 31. Her dowry, provided by her parents, included two sets of baby clothes, one for a boy and one for a girl. But she never had a living child; her only pregnancy ended when she gave birth to a stillborn daughter on April 27, 1798. Later, after her death, those two layette sets were sold with her other possessions. It makes me think of that six-word story supposedly written by Ernest Hemingway: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
- Catherine went with big brother Tsar Alexander I to the Vienna Congress. There, she fell for Crown Prince Wilhelm of Württemberg (her future second husband). They strolled together in the park, went to parties together, and enchanted society with their passionate, whirlwind romance. They got engaged in October of 1815…once Wilhelm had annulled his supposedly unconsummated marriage to Princess Charlotte Augusta of Bavaria.
- When Catherine Pavlovna died at the young age of 30, King Wilhelm had a gold engraved saying added above the entrance to her burial chamber: Love never ends.
- Pauline’s youngest brother Alexander married Countess Claudine Rhedey von Kis Rhede in 1835. It was a morganatic marriage, although the Austrian emperor gave her the title “Countess Hohenstein.” Later, King Karl of Württemberg elevated their three children to be “Princes of Teck.” That makes Queen Elizabeth II – whose grandmother was born Princess Mary of Teck – a great-great-granddaughter of Alexander and Claudine.
- Sibling rivalry. Pauline had three children, including the heir to the throne. However, King Wilhelm preferred to spend time with his two daughters by Catherine Pavlovna. The family often took separate vacations. There was bound to be some friction there, especially since Catherine’s two daughters had inherited her fortune – while Pauline had brought no money or jewels to her marriage and couldn’t provide as well for her own kids.
- Prince Wilhelm of Prussia – the future Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany – once called his niece Olga “the most beautiful woman on earth.” His sister, Princess Charlotte of Prussia, had married Grand Duke Nicholas Pavlovich (the future Tsar Nicholas I). Olga grew up to marry Crown Prince Karl of Württemberg, the son of King Wilhelm I and Queen Pauline.
- Much like her predecessor Charlotte Matilda, Olga longed for children. It was not to be. Her husband, Karl, was sterile thanks to youthful indiscretion...and the resultant VD. But she was able to care for and later adopt her niece, Grand Duchess Vera, who was too prone to tantrums for her parents to deal with. Olga treated Vera as her own daughter and raised her with patience and kindness.
- Charlotte was an outdoor girl. She loved ice skating, skiing, tennis, swimming, and horseback riding. She was also calm and brave. One time, in 1892, the rear axle of her carriage broke and the horses bolted. The coachman fell off, and the footman tried to grab the reins, but also fell off and was being dragged. Charlotte put one foot on the carriage step and managed to get hold of the reins dragging on the ground. She was the one who saved the day, stopping the horses and saving everyone from even worse injury.
- Childlessness is a theme here. Like Charlotte Matilda and Olga, Charlotte of Schaumburg-Lippe wanted children but had none. Her husband, Prince Wilhelm of Württemberg (nephew and heir of King Karl), had one surviving daughter with his first wife, Princess Marie of Waldeck-Pyrmont. She had died in childbirth in 1882. When he became king, Charlotte felt pressure to provide an heir to the throne. But it just never happened. Only after 20 years of marriage did Wilhelm name his cousin, Duke Albrecht, as his successor.
Should You Read It?
If you read German, yes. This is an enjoyable read that will help you figure out who you might want to read more about. Not all the direct quotations are endnoted, which was a little irritating. But this book is for the casual reader, not an academic audience, so I’m sure there was a reason for this. Overall, I enjoyed getting a glimpse into each woman’s world.
I’m a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. This content may contain affiliate links, particularly in the Sources section. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. If you choose to buy using my affiliate link, the seller will pay me a small additional amount at absolutely no cost to you. Thank you for supporting The Girl in the Tiara!
Check out the blog for fascinating stories about royal women and their tiaras. And don’t forget to join my mailing list to get Grand Duchess Louise of Baden’s meatloaf recipe! It’s finger-lickin’ good.