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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: January 2, 2023
2022 Royal Reading List
in alphabetical order
Ambition and Desire | Becoming a Romanov | Caught in the Revolution | Christian IX | The Crimean War | Daisy Princess of Pless | Darling Loosy | Die Herzen der Leuchtenberg | Dorothea Lieven | Embassies of Other Days | Emperor Francis Joseph | Ena and Bee | The Fall of the Dynasties | Grand Duchess Maria Nikolayevna and her Palace in St. Petersburg | In Napoleonic Days | In the Shadow of the Empress | The Lost Queen | The Lost Tudor Princess | Love, Power and Revenge | Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen | Metternich | Nicholas I | Prince Alfred and Grand Duchess Marie 1874 | Princess Alice | Princess Olga | Queen Mary | Queen Victoria and the Discovery of the Riviera | Queens of the Crusades | The Quest for Queen Mary | Return of the Swallows | The Romanovs | A Royal Experiment | Royal Subjects | Society’s Queen | Storms over Luxembourg | Sunlight at Midnight | Talleyrand | Thunder at Twilight | The Tsar’s Doctor | The Vanquished | Die württembergischen Königinnen
Read but not reviewed (fiction, out of my usual range of study, ran out of time, etc.)
Archduke of Sarajevo | City on Fire | Daughters of Yalta | Dracul | Everybody Behaves Badly | Killers of the Flower Moon | Murder at Teal’s Pond | The Name of War (King Philip's War) | The Secret Queen (Eleanor Talbot) | The Sun Also Rises | Under His Spell | The Vapors | The White Ship
Subtitle: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte
Author: Kate Williams
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Available at: Amazon
Full disclosure: I’ve been quasi-obsessed with Josephine ever since 1987, when I saw Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story (a miniseries that ran on ABC when I was in sixth grade). In my mind, Napoleon will always be Armand Assante and Jacqueline Bisset will always be Josephine. Part of the pleasure of reading books about Napoleon and Josephine is imagining the characters as they appeared to me on the screen in sixth grace. So yeah, there’s some nostalgia happening here. But nostalgia or not, this book is extremely entertaining and stands on its own, without my rose-colored glasses.
I’m not going summarize Josephine’s life here, other than to say she survived a shitty first marriage, the French revolution, and Napoleon’s rise to power. This book makes it clear just how much she had to sacrifice to stay on top of the world at Napoleon’s side – it sounds exhausting, honestly. This dude had needs. And one of those needs was for her to play a role – the majestic empress, the beautiful empress, the gracious empress, the witty empress, the sociable empress, the always available empress, the perfect empress. Even if you love someone, that is a lot to ask. But Josephine had no choice. Her ability to be the perfect empress was all she had to give him, considering she could not give him an heir. She made being the perfect wife and empress – minus said heir – her life’s work. And when Napoleon fell, in 1814, she died a few weeks later. Her heart and will to live had both been broken, it seems.
I liked this book because it had good pacing and good writing. Williams wants to entertain you and educate you, and her formula works. There’s also a lot of detail here about the Bonapartes and artwork – confiscated versus purchased – which I enjoyed.
Interestingly, I’d always read that Josephine died of diphtheria, but this book says it was probably pneumonia and doesn’t mention diphtheria at all. Is that a more modern take on it? Has the diphtheria diagnosis been relegated to the dustbin of history? It doesn’t matter at all. It’s just one of those things I happen to remember from all the books I read when I was a kid.
No serious caveats – just a missed opportunity and a few questionable word choices.
- Early in the book, Williams makes it a point to note – a handful of times – that Josephine’s Black maid, Euphémie Lefèvre, was also likely her half sister. But after Josephine became Paul Barras’s mistress, we don’t hear anything about Euphémie. Once Josephine is already empress, we get this single line: “Josephine had long since sent away Euphémie Lefèvre, her maid and probable half sister, but supported her with a pension, and Euphémie eventually was able to buy a rather large property near Malmaison.” (Ch 16, loc 4187) So…do we know exactly when they parted? Did Euphémie want to retire, or did Josephine no longer want to employ her? After taking such care to emphasize the likely blood connection, Williams dropped the ball on telling us more. Even a line stating that we don’t know when or why they parted company would have been nice.
- On Plombieres and its attractions: “…hundreds of well-heeled invalids had flocked to Plombieres: rheumatic old women and gout-ridden men, along with dozens of frantic infertile women.” The “frantic” description bothered me – why not just infertile? Why make them sound so desperate? Even if they were, this word has a bad connotation that, in this context, feels judgey to me.
- At one point, when talking about Josephine and her affair with Hippolyte Charles, Williams describes her as “the only woman who dared betray Napoleon.” (Ch 11, 2813) Well, not really. If you mean “betray” in terms of marriage, Marie Louise hooked up with Adam Neipperg while she was still married to Napoleon. And if you mean “betray” in general terms, his sister Caroline betrayed him to try and stay on the throne of Naples. And those are just two examples off the top of my head. A little sensationalistic, then, to describe Josephine that way.
- At points, Williams seems on the verge of judging her subject. Take this sentence, for example: “Seductive, a survivor of prison, stylish, and somewhat lacking in morals, Marie-Joseph fit in to this circle perfectly.” (Ch 5, loc 1174) Okay, but were Josephine's "morals" any better or worse than the crowd she ran with? The people who ran the country at the time? The whole point of the Directory seemed to be that it had no morals - everyone was just glad to be alive after the Terror. So what sort of judgment is this? And is it really appropriate? Then, later, we get this sentence, which seems to excuse the lack of whatever 'morals' were implied in the previous statement: “To her, romance and sex were a path to status and security, the bargains that a woman had to make to survive.” (Ch 5, loc 1483) Is Williams excusing Josephine? Or chastising her? She walks a fine line here, but it seems unnecessary to judge your subject at all. We weren't there. We can't judge.
Since I read this in eBook and this particular edition doesn’t have equivalent page numbers for the paperback, the citations you see are the chapter number and the Kindle location.
- During the Terror (and prior to her arrest), Josephine moved out of Paris to Croissy, a suburb, and rented a house that used to belong to Madame Campan, Marie Antoinette’s lady-in-waiting. From her window, she noticed a beautiful chateau – Malmaison, which she would later own and make world-famous. (Ch 4, loc 945)
- Jacques-Louis David, the painter who later immortalized the moment when Napoleon crowned her empress, signed her first husband’s arrest warrant and death warrant during the revolution. (Ch 4, loc 962; Ch 16, loc 4135)
- Here’s how Josephine described herself: “Taking a side has always seemed tiring to my Creole nonchalance, I find it easier to follow the will of others.” (Ch 6, loc 1517)
- Napoleon sent some really weird requests to the Directory as he attempted to set up a French base of actions in Cairo. This is the order of things he wanted sent to him: “1st , a company of actors ; 2d , a company of dancers ; 3d , some dealers in marionettes , at least three or four ; 4th , a hundred French women ; 5th , the wives of all the men employed in the corps ; 6th , twenty surgeons , thirty apothecaries , and ten Physicians ; 7th , some founders ; 8th , some distillers and dealers in liquor ; 9th , fifty gardeners with their families , and the seeds of every kind of vegetable ; 10th , each party to bring with them : 200,000 pints of brandy ; 11th , 30,000 ells of blue and scarlet cloth ; 12th , a supply of soap and oil…” (Ch 7, loc 2199) I mean, marionette dealers before surgeons and doctors? Seriously, dude?
- When Napoleon’s flagship, L’Orient, sank at the hands of Nelson’s guns, it went to the bottom of the sea with 600,000 livres worth of gold and diamonds Napoleon had stolen from Malta. (Ch 9, loc 2227)
- Napoleon had FEELINGS about what women should look like and what they should wear. We’re told he had “an invincible hatred of a fat woman.” And that he hated dark dresses. He wanted his wife and stepdaughter to wear only French products, which did not include Josephine’s beloved cashmere shawls and Indian muslin. Josephine and Hortense tried to lie and say their muslin was “St. Quentin linen,” but if Napoleon didn’t believe them, he would rip the offending dresses to shreds with his hands. (Ch 11, loc 2761-4)
- I did not realize her Malmaison zoo was so extensive. She had kangaroos, emus, llamas, a zebra, a gnu, flying squirrels, gazelles, Chinese pheasants, and Australian black swans. She also collected taxidermy animals and birds – and since I love taxidermy, too, we would have had something in common. (Ch 12, loc 2941-57)
- Hortense perhaps foresaw the future of being a 21st century creative. “On one occasion at Malmaison, Hortense failed to make an appearance at dinner. When Josephine went to her daughter’s room and found her drawing, she asked whether she was hoping to earn a living from her hobby. Astute for her age, Hortense replied: ‘Mama, in the century in which we are living, who is to say that that might not happen?’” (Ch 12, loc 3054)
- Their happy moments made me smile. In the Tuileries, as emperor and empress, their lives weren’t totally devoid of affectionate moments: “His valet, Constant, would go to her apartments between seven and eight A.M. and sometimes find the pair still asleep. ‘When the Emperor asked me for tea or for an infusion of orange flowers and started to get up, the Empress would say to him smilingly, ‘Must you get up already? Stay a little longer.’ His Majesty would answer, ‘You mean you are not asleep?’ and he would roll her up in her blanket, giving her little taps on her cheek and on her shoulders, laughing and kissing her.’” (Ch 16, loc 4149)
- At the time, French fine dining did not consist of courses. “The custom of serving all the dishes together still prevailed , rather than the à la russe fashion of eating courses in sequence.” (Ch 16, loc 4226)
- When Napoleon proposed marrying his stepson, Eugène, to Princess Augusta of Bavaria, her father – the Elector of Bavaria – suggested Napoleon divorce Josephine and marry Augusta himself. (Ch 17, loc 4486)
- Crown Prince Frederick Louis of Mecklenburg-Strelitz had the hots for Josephine (while she was still married to Napoleon). When she went to the theater with him, Napoleon “was infuriated, declaring his wife a second Marie Antoinette and demanding that his rival leave Paris within two days.” (Ch 19, loc 4902) After the divorce, he asked Josephine about marriage, but she wouldn’t consider it.
- Not long before their divorce, when they both knew their time was almost up, they still behaved like honeymooners. “He then spent the last days in Bayonne relaxing with Josephine, pleased with a job well done. They ran hand in hand along the beach and swam in the sea. He played his usual tricks, throwing her shoes into the water and pushing her over in the sand. They were like young lovers on honeymoon.” (Ch 19, loc 4945)
- Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise, did not care for some of his outrageous rules: “Nearly two o’clock and the Emperor would not allow me to eat in the carriage! He said a woman should never have to eat. I was so angry and hungry that it gave me a fearful headache and so much bad humor that the Emperor was furious. I didn’t care. If I return in another world, I would certainly not remarry.” (Ch 20, loc 5329)
- When Josephine died in 1814, Napoleon wrote: “No woman was ever loved with more devotion, ardour and tenderness, only death could break a union formed by sympathy, love and true feeling.” (Ch 21, loc 5697)
Should You Read It?
Absolutely. Whether you’re already a Josephine fan or not, this book will give you a great feel for who she was and why she mattered, both to Bonaparte and to the world at large.
Williams does a good job of treating her as a human being – she’s not a paragon here, but neither is she slut-shamed, as she was by many of her contemporaries (including Napoleon’s own family). In my caveat section above, I only mentioned the author's seeming judgment of Josephine because it felt so out of place in the context of the rest of the book (where Williams is neutral about Josephine's cheating and war profiteering, but very sympathetic to the demands she faced as a beleaguered empress).
A constant theme remains Josephine's love for her children (and theirs for her). Even though this book doesn’t shed much light on Josephine as a mother, we’re constantly told that she wanted her children with her, no matter what was going on in her life. And the bond both her grown children shared with her must have meant she did something right. She was a woman of charm, of grace, of taste - and this book shows how far she came from being a girl judged to have none of these things. Highly recommended.
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.
Author: Hans Roger Madol (translated from German/Danish)
Available at: Abe Books
This is the story of King Christian IX of Denmark – who started out as Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Beck. Say that five times fast, will you? But thanks to the oddities and infirmities of the Danish royal family tree, he was one of several candidates to ascend the Danish throne when it looked like King Frederick VII was going to die without a male heir.
He wasn’t the only candidate – and the king wasn’t his biggest fan, either. What saved his candidacy was the fact that, during a war between Denmark and the German states, he was the only one of his family to side with Denmark.
Literally the only one.
Christian was devoted to Denmark, through and through, and even though King Frederick VII had some moments of petty jealousy and doubts about his loyalty that threatened his candidacy, he won out with persistence and consistency. And good thing, too. As this book makes clear, Christian was an old-school kind of guy who believed in personal honor and doing the right thing. He was also a capable constitutional monarch, capable of subverting his personal feelings to do what his government asked him to do. He was the right man for the job, even if it took his subjects a few decades to catch on and appreciate him.
Over and over, what you hear about this guy is that he conducted his life – and raised his family – with a deep sense of honor, simplicity, integrity, and truthfulness. That’s why you hear those descriptions applied to his kids: Princess Alexandra (later Queen Alexandra of Great Britain & Ireland), Princess Dagmar (later Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia), Princess Thyra (later Duchess of Cumberland), Prince Friedrich (later King of Denmark), Prince William (later King George of Greece), and Prince Valdemar (happy not to be a king, despite several thrones offered to him, thank you very much).
His legacy is in his integrity and the sense of duty and decency he instilled in his many, many descendants.
My only caveat is the difficulty inherent in grasping the family’s origins, branches, and nomenclature changes. I’m not a stupid person (three college degrees!), but the first chapter of this book made me as confused as some of the readings in my postmodern fiction class.
I just couldn’t grasp the relationships without constant reference to the family trees at the end of the book (but even these were selective, and some people mentioned in the text were left out of the trees, which wasn’t helpful). And the frequent nomenclature changes aren’t always explained. The same person – Christian IX’s father – appears with all the following surnames in the first 23 pages: “Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Beck,” “Beck Glücksburg,” and “Holstein-Beck (afterwards Glücksburg).”
I’m all for being accurate when referring to people – but in this case, it’s beyond my grasp based on the material provided here. Luckily, this frustration eases the further you get into the book, but I still have no clear idea how or why these surnames are or are not correct at various points.
- Before Christian became the leading candidate for the Danish throne, it looked like the Russian Oldenburgs were going to get it. They had the support of the European powers (mostly because at this time, the European powers did whatever Tsar Nicholas I wanted them to do), but they didn’t shown any enthusiasm and lost the opportunity. I’ll have to look up and see which Grand Duke of Oldenburg Madol means in this context, since he never provides a Christian name, just the family name. Grand Duchess Catherine (sister of Tsar Alexander I) had married a Grand Duke of Oldenburg. And I think their oldest son married Princess Theresa of Nassau. I’m not sure whether it’s Catherine’s widow or Therese’s husband who would have taken the Danish throne had he appeared to give a shit. Not crucial to the story, but again, Madol could have provided that clarification with next to no effort and didn’t.
- Christian had a long-standing relationship with the Russian royal family after several trips there in the 1840s. In July 1857 when Tsar Alexander II visited Kiel, a few Danish royals went to greet him. He hugged Christian, but shook hands with Crown Prince Ferdinand. “I suppose,” said Ferdinand, “I am too small for him to stoop down to embrace me.” (106)
- Apparently, the people of Denmark were not happy when Christian and Louise named their second daughter Dagmar, after a historic queen. “How they had once reviled him for calling his daughter after Queen Dagmar! And yet how often and how happily had Princess Dagmar proved, both as Russian Grand-duchess and as Tsarina, that she felt at heart a Dane!” (264) Reminds me of how people in Italy went ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ when Victor Emmanuel announced “Mafalda” as his daughter’s name.
- Prince Valdemar – Christian IX’s youngest son – was offered and refused the throne of Bulgaria after Sandro Battenberg was forced out. He preferred his career in the navy and his wife, Princess Marie d’Orléans, was like, hell to the no. The throne eventually went to Prince Ferdinand of Coburg (“Foxy Ferdinand”). (226)
- Christian’s oldest son and heir, Prince Frederick, married Princess Louisa of Sweden. But Christian’s wife, Queen Louise, and the bride’s mother were both against the match. The Swedish queen wanted a German son-in-law and Queen Louise would have preferred her son marry Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s daughter. But Queen Victoria would never have sent one of her daughters to Denmark because she was a little obsessed with the shitty treatment her great-aunt, Queen Caroline Matilda (sister of King George III), had received in Denmark.
Should You Read It?
I think so. If you can pick up a cheap used copy, go for it. This book illuminates a portion of Danish and German history that I knew very little about. I can’t say I’ve absorbed it all or internalized it all yet, but I have a much better background than I did before. However, if just reading the caveat above made you break out in hives, this is not the book for you. The entire first half is largely about the interminable succession debates and the fight of Schleswig-Holstein. Caveat emptor.
Author: Orlando Figes
Publisher: Metropolitan Books
Available at: Amazon
Before reading this book, the facts I knew about the Crimean War could have fit on one hand:
- Florence Nightingale cleaned up British military hospitals
- the Charge of the Light Brigade was something disastrous yet somehow admirable (and Tennyson's poem about it was later quoted by Tim Curry as Wadsworth in the movie Clue)
- traditional enemies France and Britain ganged up on Russia
- the most famous battle was the Siege of Sevastopol
I had no idea what caused it, or what lasting effects it had. Turns out, there were lots.
In a nutshell, the war had multiple causes. Ostensibly, it was about Russia’s need to exert its influence over Turkey by claiming to have the right to protect the Orthodox Christians and holy sites within the Ottoman Empire. That was partly true, but it was also about Russia positioning itself advantageously for the inevitable fall of the Ottoman Empire. Notice that I didn’t say it was about Russia trying to hasten that fall or conquer Ottoman territory. (He’d already tried that in 1829, but Austria wouldn’t take the bait.)
In 1844, Nicholas I told Queen Victoria to her face that taking over Constantinople was not his goal. But Victoria’s Russophobic douchebag of a prime minister, Palmerston, didn’t believe Nicholas. So he whipped up the British press into a frenzy, turning public opinion against Nicholas and Russia until it seemed like any move Nicholas made portended his takeover of the Balkans, of Turkey, and (gasp!) even of the British empire in India. Absolutely no truth to it, of course, but British politicians like Canning and Palmerston simply could not accept the fact that Nicholas had no intention of taking Turkish territory.
That’s what caused the war.
Yes, you can pull in lots of other threads. Emperor Napoleon III needed a nice little war to cement his new status as emperor and quiet internal dissent – and sticking it to Orthodox Russia for how they’d treated the Catholic Poles in 1830 was a bonus. Then Austria refused to support Russia because they were afraid the Slavs in their far-flung empire would rise in support of Russia rather than back the Habsburg monarchy. But part of the reason Nicholas had been ballsy enough to declare war on Turkey was that he assumed – after saving Franz Josef’s throne in 1848 – that Franz Josef would have had the decency to do him a solid and return the favor. That didn’t happen.
What does this all mean?
Long story short, no one sided with Russia. So when Nicholas declared war on Turkey, Britain and France declared war on Russia and Austria, Prussia, and Sweden sat the whole thing out.
The French did the heavy lifting for the allies, and the Russians realized their prized million-man army was no good because parade-ground drills weren’t the same thing as war (contrary to the belief of Tsar Nicholas and his brother, Grand Duke Mikhail). So those guys do bear responsibility for what happened after war was declared, but in my opinion, less responsibility for the war starting in the first place than Figes assigns them.
But you should read this book and make your own decision.
Like most wars, dreams of glory and a quick finish vanished a few weeks in. I won’t go into the details here, but illness and disease did more damage than the actual battles. The Russians performed poorly (except when it came to defending Sebastopol, which they did amazingly well for 11 long months). But no one had the heart to continue the war for more than a couple years, and in the end, the Treaty of Paris slapped Russia on the wrist by taking away the Black Sea fleet (and its access to the Mediterranean).
That status quo didn’t last, however – about 20 years later, Russia got the right to have a Black Sea fleet back. So what, you ask, was the point of the tens of thousands of men who died? Ay, there’s the rub…
This is very well written and thoroughly researched. Multiple times throughout the book, Figes says Nicholas I bears the primary responsibility for starting the war – but he didn’t convince me of this. I came away feeling like the British Prime Minister, Palmerston, bears equal (if not more) responsibility. But that’s my personal opinion and has no bearing on the book’s quality, which is excellent.
- Figes continually references Nicholas I succumbing to “the hereditary mental illness that troubled Alexander and Nicholas’s other brother, the Grand Duke Constantine….” This was the first I’d seen of a mention of mental illness relative to the change in Nicholas toward the end of his reign. The symptoms? Nicholas “grew increasingly irritable and impatient, inclined to rash behaviour and angry rages…” (57) I don’t know, man. That sounds like half the crowned heads of Europe throughout history. I’m not sure mental illness can be blamed for this. More like the stress of realizing his bureaucracy – intended to help run the empire – had become a multi-headed hydra of incompetence and corruption. That’s enough to make anyone a little pissy. In any case, the footnote cites three Russian-language sources, so maybe that particular interpretation hasn’t made it into accepted Western versions of his reign yet.
- 19th century British hypocrisy in one sentence by Figes: “The British may have totally supplanted the Mughal Empire in India, but they were determined to stop the Russians doing the same to the Ottomans, presenting themselves as the honest defenders of the status quo in the Near East.” (62-3)
- European hypocrisy and Russophobia in three sentences by Pogodin: “France takes Algeria from Turkey, and almost every year England annexes another Indian principality: none of this disturbs the balance of power; but when Russia occupies Moldavia and Wallachia, albeit only temporarily, that disturbs the balance of power. France occupies Rome and stays there several years in peacetime: that is nothing, but Russia only thinks of occupying Constantinople, and the peace of Europe is threatened. The English declare war on the Chinese, who have, it seems, offended them: no one has a right to intervene; but Russia is obliged to ask Europe for permission if it quarrels with its neighbour.” (184)
- Queen Victoria’s impression of Nicholas I: “’He gives Albert and myself the impression of a man who is not happy, and on whom the burden of his immense power and position weighs heavily and painfully,’ she wrote to Leopold on 4 June. ‘He seldom smiles, and when he does, the expression is not a happy one.’” That’s in part because, back in Tsarskoe Selo, his pregnant daughter Adini was dying of consumption – she was weeks away from death at this point. I’d love to know if he told Victoria this. It would have explained a lot of his sadness at that particular moment. (96)
- It seems like the fastest way to die in 19th century Europe was to be a soldier in the Russian army. The stats Figes provides are ghastly. In Poland in 1830-1, 7,000 soldiers were killed while 85,000 died of illness or their injuries. In Hungary in 1849, 708 soldiers were killed by 57,000 had to be hospitalized for illness or injuries. And in peacetime, 65% of the Russian army was sick at any time. (164)
- The role of journalism in British policy: “’An English Minister must please the newspapers,’ lamented Aberdeen, a Conservative of the old school…’The newspapers are always bawling for interference. They are bullies, and they make the Government a bully.’” (202)
- The allied forces didn’t take any winter clothes with them when they invaded Crimea. They had almost no idea what the landscape or weather was like – they relied on old travel memoirs, and failed to remember what happened in 1812. Napoleon thought he’d be in and out, too. And just like with Napoleon, Britain and France had to rush winter supplies to their freezing soldiers once it became obvious the war wasn’t going to end that fall. SMH. (267)
- After the battle of Alma, when the French captured the fleeing Prince Menshikov’s carriage, they found: “a field kitchen, letters from the Tsar, 50,000 francs, pornographic French novels, the general’s boots, and some ladies’ underwear.” I feel like there's a story here. (295)
- Specificity is key in giving orders. The famous Charge of the Light Brigade would have ended differently if their commander, Raglan, had given clearer orders. But instead of specifying that he wanted them to recapture the British guns on the Causeway Heights, he ordered them to capture the guns. Well, there were the aforementioned Causeway Heights guns and…three other sets of guns. What the hell was he talking about? So they went to capture the Russian guns at the end of a wide-open valley, figuring their commander *must* have meant the enemy’s guns, right? Nope. He meant their guns, abandoned to the Russians, which he had decided he wanted back. SMH again. (333)
Should You Read This?
Probably – but if you tend to doze off during battle scenes or descriptions of military strategy, you may struggle.
On the plus side, there are plenty of first-hand accounts to liven up the typical descriptions of battles…and plenty of personalities to admire (Mary Seacole, Florence Nightingale, any of the French Zouaves) or fume in rage at (Palmerston, Raglan). Plus, if you’re interested in the antecedents of trench warfare (no, WWI was not the first), you’ll like this eye-opening look at how soldiers endured what would later be known as shell-shock.
Subtitle: A Discovery
Author: W. John Koch
Publisher: Books by W. John Koch Publishing
Available at: Amazon
If you’ve heard of Daisy, it’s probably in the context of her role as a late Victorian/Edwardian social butterfly.
She was born Mary Theresa Cornwallis-West to a family of British gentry descended from the Earls De La Warr. In 1891, as a teenager, she married the fantastically rich Hans Heinrich, Prince of Pless and moved to Germany. Her life story is one of never-ending conflict: conflict with an older husband who didn’t share her interests, conflict between the strict etiquette of imperial Germany and her liberal tendencies, and conflict in being an English woman in Germany during World War I and its aftermath.
Daisy fell victim to the distrust and hatred that sprang up between Germans and the British in the years during and leading up to World War I. Many of her German peers (and the German press) labeled her a British spy and overlooked the contributions she made through Red Cross nursing during the war. She tried like hell to prevent the war by acting as an unofficial go-between for the Kaiser and the British monarchs, King Edward VII and King George V. A personal friend of all these men, she had the ability and the guts to deliver truth with a sunny smile.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.
That’s what makes Daisy’s story so heartbreaking – her life was never the same once war broke out. She went from being one of the most beautiful, glamorous women in the world to dealing with disability and poverty, stripped of her influence. There are some bridges you just can’t rebuild.
What You Won’t Find
Because the author spoke to people who knew Daisy – as well as her oldest son Hansel – you shouldn’t expect this book to dive too deeply into any scandals. Think of this as an “authorized” biography. For example, there are vague hints that something bad happened to Daisy’s youngest son, Bolko. He’s barely mentioned at all; there was one offhand mention of a heart condition, and then a later mention of his sad, tragic life. We’re only told that he died under mysterious circumstances, with no details as to what those circumstances are. There isn’t even a mention of how old he was when he died.
The author has a strange reluctance to talk about Daisy as a mother. He failed to mention when she had her three children; the reader only knows they exist when they suddenly appear in quotations from her diary. On page 55, for example, we’re up to the year 1894 – and suddenly, in a quoted tidbit, we see that Daisy wrote, “…shall I really see my little baby again whose brown hair I have around my neck in a locket…”. As a reader, this was incredibly jolting. What baby? We had never been told she was pregnant. Where was the baby born? What was her reaction to becoming a mother? Did it bring her closer to her husband at all? The author is silent on this and any questions relating to the birth of any of her three children. We’re told she wasn’t thrilled with the idea of her third pregnancy, but that’s it.
Even if Daisy wasn’t the most nurturing of mothers, motherhood is still an important part of any subject’s life. This author dropped the ball on including even the most basic facts about this facet of her life. And even if her children didn’t want those details in the book, fine – at least tell the reader when they were born to provide continuity.
There are also a couple mistakes that identify sons of Wilhelm II as his brothers (August Wilhelm and Eitel Fritz).
- Hans Heinrich of Pless originally came to London to win the hand of Princess Mary (May) of Teck, the future Queen Mary of Great Britain and Ireland. Daisy, it seems, was a “second choice.” Ouch. (25)
- Kaiser Wilhelm II had an annoying way of summoning people: “…the Emperor asked her rather quickly for a second dance by beckoning to her with his index finger and then pointing to the floor…This peculiar habit of calling someone to his side was one of the notorious, much disliked practices of the Emperor; it made the ladies blush in embarrassment, while men would gnash their teeth in anger and humiliation.” OMG, this would drive me crazy. (45)
- Daisy had a platonic affair with an unidentified nobleman from a Bavarian/Austrian family. His name was Maxl, and he eventually married a woman named Gabrielle, who had a sister named Rosalie. The author discovered their identities, but in keeping with Daisy’s diaries, he decided not to name them. He was “a member of an Austro-Hungarian branch of an illustrious Bavarian family which had spread into Wurttemberg and Prussia. Down the centuries its members occupied some of the greatest places in the Holy Roman Empire, and had frequently married in Imperial and Royal Houses.” I never could resist a mystery…I might have to see if I can figure this one out. (90)
- When the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz committed suicide, gossip said it was at least partly to do with Daisy – he’d fallen for her and obviously couldn’t marry her. The author says this is rubbish, and that’s what I believe, too.
- Daisy had multiple sclerosis and became progressively weaker and ultimately paralyzed toward the end of her life. Her devoted caretaker, Dolly Crowther, took care of her until the very end. The author saved the multiple sclerosis diagnosis for the epilogue - not sure why. Within the text, we're just told she had a chronic illness that made it difficult (and later impossible) to walk and that it led to increasing amounts of paralysis.
Should You Read This?
If you’re interested in World War I, yes. There’s a lot of detail here about Daisy’s efforts to create a bridge of understanding between Britain and Germany in the decade leading up to the war.
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.
Subtitle: Geschichte Einer Bayerisch-Napoleonischen Familie
Author: Adalbert Prinz von Bayern
Available at: Abe Books
The Leuchtenbergs are a very interesting family. Here’s the scoop:
In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte forcibly married his adopted stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais, to Princess Augusta of Bavaria. The idea was to create loyalty among his allies by marrying his family members to theirs. The Bavarian king was horrified, but had no choice as long as he wanted to keep his throne. Despite their arranged marriage, the couple had fallen in love and remained deeply devoted to each other. Augusta realized Eugène was a man of honor and courage. Even though her family shuddered at the thought of his non-royal origins, she saw him for who he was and dedicated herself to supporting him and raising their family. They had six surviving children: Joséphine, Eugénie, August, Amélie, Max, and Theodolinde.
When his father-in-law, the King of Bavaria, joined the alliance against Napoleon, Eugène remained loyal to his stepfather. But as we know, loyalty to Napoleon was a losing game. After Napoleon’s fall in 1814, Eugène and Augusta were driven out of Italy. Her father, King Maximilian of Bavaria, took them in and gave them a house in Munich.
And now that they were out of the political limelight, Eugène and Augusta were blissfully happy with their family life. But it all came crashing to a halt in 1824, when Eugène had a stroke and died at the young age of 42. Devastated, Augusta devoted herself to his memory – and to making sure that their kids, seen as only half-royal by the rest of Europe, made good marriages and were given the respect they deserved.
This book is the story of what happened to Augusta and all six kids. They married into the royal houses of Sweden, Russia, and Brazil, among other things. Intrigued yet? 😉
None, really. I read this in translation via DeepL and Google Translate, so I can’t tell you if the prose would blow your mind in the original German. The bulk of the quotations in this book are from the diaries of Princess Augusta and her daughter, Theodolinde. All those entries are in italics. But sometimes the author summarizes their entries and these summaries are not in italics (even though they read just like an entry). It keeps you on your toes.
I will say that I dislike the German formatting standard of not indenting a new paragraph. And the near-complete lack of white space on the page makes me cringe. Visually, this book is a friggin’ wall of text. Indentations and shorter paragraphs are much kinder to the eyes. But I think this is just a cultural context; I’m used to one formatting style, Germans are used to another. YMMV.
Also, I could have done without the chapter focused on Lola Montez. It feels like a drag on the narrative, but I understand why it’s included. Augusta was involved in the effort to get rid of her, and she is the family matriarch. Skipping this – her last major battle – wouldn’t have been fair to the family. And fairness for the family is all Augusta ever wanted.
- Eugène de Beauharnais inherited Empress Joséphine’s beloved estate of Malmaison when she died. When he died, his oldest son, August, inherited it. But his widow, Princess Augusta, was in charge of the estate until August came of age. And when money became a problem, she decided to sell the estate. August loved his mother, but he hated this decision of hers. He had wanted to live there when he grew up, and always considered himself as much a Frenchman as a Bavarian.
- Augusta always noted when her brother – King Ludwig of Bavaria – slighted her family. “She noted with dismay that in her brother's country, unlike with foreign sovereigns, her children received not the slightest attention.” (47) For example, when Emperor Dom Pedro I of Brazil appointed her son, August, 2nd Duke of Leuchtenberg as Duke of Santa Cruz (with the title of Royal Highness), Augusta’s brother, King Ludwig, refused to recognize it. A few years later, she wrote in her diary that she was irritated that he “allowed her children to be given different cutlery at family breakfasts. He treats my children like Prince Wallerstein, who is a minister. The royal family has an en vermail couvert, special carafes and glasses. My daughter Theodolinde does not enjoy this distinction, but Eugénie as hereditary princess of Hohenzollern-Hechingen does.” (60; 102)
- King Charles X of France was so paranoid that August (Eugene de Beauharnais’s oldest son) would drum up too many good memories of Napoleon that he forbid August to set foot in Paris. Seeing Paris – the city where his father and grandmother had made history – was one of August’s bucket-list items. “I had hoped to return to Munich tout franç This dream, the fulfillment of which had made me happy, has now flown away ... precisely in France, which I love so much and where it would be my greatest wish to live.” (63)
- Augusta’s daughter, Joséphine, married the Crown Prince of Sweden. But court life wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, she wrote. “I think the more you live in the big world, the more you feel the need to go inside and reflect on what you've seen and done. Being in a constant hustle and bustle, in constant motion, always thinking of others, of what is going on around you, if you even have time to think, that's not living ... nowhere do I feel as comfortable as in my big armchair, reflecting on what I have seen, done and thought and conclude that I am learning something.” (92)
- Augusta’s eldest son, August, married Queen Maria da Gloria of Portugal. But if his mother had had her way, he’d have married Jerome Bonaparte’s daughter, Mathilde. (95)
- Augusta’s youngest daughter, Theodolinde, had teenage crushes on Crown Prince Maximilian of Bavaria and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon III). It looks like she had a head for business, too, because she got pissed at her mom for telling her not to buy shares a railway line that later more than doubled in value (100 guilders to 220). She wrote in her diary that she was then determined to buy shares in a different railway. (122)
- In 1842, Augusta saw the former Empress Marie Louise of France in Berchtesgaden. Here’s what she wrote in her diary about the run-in: “I had not seen her since 1814. Apparently, God had punished her for forgetting what she owed to the house of Emperor Napoleon, her son and herself. She looks like an old, decrepid, fat and worn-out peasant woman. She is disgusting…This woman, who would have had such a beautiful role if she had followed the example of Empress Maria Theresa, has had a demeanor that puts every woman, and especially the Empress of the French, to shame… I avoided conversation with her.” Augusta is, shall we say, a little judgmental. (253)
Should You Read It?
If you can read German, absolutely. Order an inexpensive used copy and tell the world to get lost for a few days while you absorb the tragic story of a family who didn’t want to conquer the world – they just wanted to represent their founder’s legacy of courage and honor.
Subtitle: A Russian Princess in London and Paris 1785-1857
Author: Judith Lissauer Cromwell
Publisher: McFarland & Company, Inc.
Available at: Amazon
The author spent 10 years working on this book after a career on Wall Street. That tells you one thing right off the bat: she has an amateur historian’s passion for her subject (just like yours truly). I love that so much!
A few stylistic quibbles aside, I really enjoyed the way this biography combined politics with the personal aspects of Dorothea’s life. I always enjoy more of these personal aspects. For me, politics can be so dry without that added spice.
If, like me, you’re interested in snippy remarks between husbands and wives, you get ‘em here. If, like me, you’re interested in how Dorothea kept (or failed to keep) her love affairs separate from her ambition, you get all the details here.
Yes, there are a few small mistakes (describing the Winter Palace as white and green at the time of Dorothea’s birth when prior to 1837, it was yellow and white; referring to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna as Princess Louise of Prussia instead of Princess Charlotte; saying Grand Duke Constantine and his wife died at the same time when she survived him by four months), but they’re not dealbreakers.
Dorothea played a pretty big role on the world stage from a very young age. Married at age 14 to Christopher Lieven, she lived her entire youth and formative years as the object of his jealousy. She was smarter than he was and pretty much everyone knew it. His mother was Charlotte Lieven, beloved governess of Tsar Paul I’s children – and elevated to the rank of Princess by Tsar Nicholas I.
Dorothea herself had been adopted by Empress Maria Feodorovna (Alexander I and Nicholas I’s mom) after being orphaned at a young age. It was Maria who pushed her into the marriage with Christopher Lieven. But Dorothea grew up to be smarter than he was and better at the political maneuverings required to be a good ambassador – and that knowledge ate away at him like rust, destroying the trust and goodwill between them.
Dorothea’s two other great loves (because she did love her husband as a young woman, despite the later disintegration of their marriage) were Clement Metternich and François Guizot – two of the century’s premier political influencers.
Because of her relationships with them, as well her Russian connections, she had a front-row seat to the turbulent politics of the time: the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna, the revolutions of 1830, the growing repression under Tsar Nicholas I in Russia, and the revolutions of 1848. This book takes you through all the political wrangling that underpinned those major world events, through the eyes and words of the woman who knew (and, let’s be honest, influenced) the men who usually get all the credit.
Not many. The research here is impressive, with material from archives in England, France, the Czech Republic, and Russia. My only nitpicks are stylistic, which a good editor could have solved easily.
- The author frequently fails to contextualize complete direct quotes. Usually, if you want to use a full quote from a source, you provide not only the quote itself, but more information about that quote: who’s speaking or writing, and who they’re writing or speaking to. It looks something like this: During the great ice cream war of 2166, participants thought it would last forever. “I haven’t had ice cream in 50 years. Well, maybe not actually 50 years, but that’s what it feels like,” wrote King Strawberry to his wife, Queen Pecan Praline. See? You introduce the situation, and then provide both the quote and the WHO and the TO to contextualize the source material.
Instead, this author introduces quotes with a brief context for the situation, but then frequently omits that additional context for the direct quote itself. I had to re-read A LOT of quotes to see if, for example, it was Dorothea or Metternich writing. Here’s what I’m talking about:
Example 1: “Malicious tongues called little George Lieven ‘the child of the congress’ in spite of his birth eleven months after Dorothea last saw Clement. And more. The king adored his namesake because he thought George resembled him. ‘Up to the present he says it is a joke; in a few days he will be saying it meaningfully; later he will let it be understood that he had good reasons for saying it; and, still later, he will persuade himself that he can really take credit – that is how his mind works.’” (65)
See what I mean? As you read this for the first time, you have no idea who is speaking in that “Up to the present…” quote. Is it George, the Prince Regent? Is it one of Dorothea’s friends reporting on something George said or did? Or is it Dorothea herself? Sure, by the end of the quote, you can intuit that it’s Dorothea, but you can’t be sure when the quote begins since the author just referenced Prince George. It seems like a little thing, but believe me, it causes a lot of confusion. Plus, there’s such an easy fix: “Up to the present,” Dorothea wrote to [letter recipient], “he says it is a joke…”
Example 2: “As for Lord Palmerston, the tables had turned. He immediately pressed the princess to induce Grey to give him the foreign office.
‘I boldly promised to propose him to Lord Grey.’
When Grey paid his customary afternoon call…” (129)
Here’s the deal. If you give me two sentences about Lord Palmerston and then give me a direct quote, I’m going to think it’s Lord Palmerston you’re quoting. But no – it’s Dorothea, with no attribution to the quote to clarify. Again, you can figure it out through context, but in a book of this length with as many quotes as this one has, this gets exhausting. And you can’t always assume Dorothea is the speaker/writer, because there are copious quotations from others, too.
This flaw isn’t consistent – sometimes the author will provide the context, other times she won’t. I’d rather see her err on the side of caution and always make it clear.
- There are a couple stylistic tics that a good editor would have identified and fixed. There are frequent references to flowers blooming to set the scene after a section break or when Dorothea leaves for a trip. It’s a nice touch the first few times, but a dozen or so later, it feels too cutesy. Examples: “Flowers bloomed in colorful profusion under a pellucid sky when the Lievens, traveling in opposite directions, left Warsaw” (127); “When the scent of sun-warmed flowers wafted through the ambient air Princess Lieven sailed southward” (158); “When crocuses pushed their purple petals up through the thawing earth, Tsar Nicholas sent a special envoy to the Hague” (140). Another stylistic issue involves using adverbs to modify nouns (“the poorly princess”) and overuse of the phrase "let alone."
- In the early 1800s, as an unfulfilled wife at the Russian imperial court, she had a fling with Grand Duke Constantine. The author describes their hookup as “brief and shallow” but Dorothea said he always treated her in an “amiable, spiritual, gallant” manner afterward. (30)
- She wasn’t above a little bragging to get her lovers to acknowledge her. She wrote to Metternich during one of their separations, “You would not believe how beautiful Italy has made me. You are missing a great deal by not seeing me and no doubt this is the Indian summer of my charm. Fogs and journeys will make me lose it all…” (86)
- In her unpublished memoir, she wrote, “my husband never forgave me for the importance I had.” (159)
- Her marriage to Prince Lieven had deteriorated so badly by the time her sons were grown that – without telling her - he banished one of them to America after he felt Constantine had wasted too much time and money on gambling, booze, and women. And then he failed to tell Dorothea when he got news of Constantine’s death in America. She found out when one of her letters to him got returned from America with “DEAD” written on it. Can you imagine?
- Metternich wrote to her, “If you were a man, you would be called to the highest destiny. With your head and your heart, one could do anything.” (219)
- Later in life, Dorothea wrote letters on green paper because it was easier on her eyes. You’ll see correspondents like Empress Alexandra Feodorovna refer to their joy at getting her “green letters.” (236)
Should You Read It?
If you’re interested in the inner workings of British policy in the early-mid 19th century, yes. There's a lot about politics here, with Whigs and Tories and prime ministers and foreign ministers. If you don't already have an interest in these things, you may start skimming.
If you’re interested in a woman who could do a hell of a lot more than traditional female roles of the time allowed her to do, yes. I love how many quotes you see throughout the book where men praise her. Kudos to the author for including them and doing the research to find them.
Volumes 1 & 2
Author: Lady Walburga Paget
Publisher: George H. Doral Company
Available at: AbeBooks
Walburga Hohenthal was born in Saxony in 1839. Her father was Count Charles Hohenthal, who inherited property from the Buenau side of his family – including the estate, Puechau, where Wally grew up. Oh, yes, as she tells us in her first chapter, she was always called “Wally,” pronounced “Vally.”
Her father’s first wife died young of typhoid. His second wife, Countess Loïda Emilie Neidhardt von Gneisenau, was Walburga’s mother. Like many well-off aristocratic families, they did a fair amount of traveling, so she saw The Hague, Ostend, Brussels, Silesia, Dresden, and Weimar. Her father was good friends with Ernst of Saxe-Coburg, Prince Albert’s brother, and her mom was besties with Sophie, Hereditary Grand Duchess of Saxe-Weimar.
But her childhood happiness was short-lived. Her mother died when she was only 15, and she moved to Berlin as the ward of her uncle, Adolph Hohenthal. There, the Prince of Prussia (later Kaiser Wilhelm I) asked her family to let Wally be a Maid of Honor to his future daughter-in-law, Princess Victoria of Great Britain and Ireland (Vicky). So when the time came, Wally went to England and joined Vicky’s household prior to her marriage – despite Wally still being an unmarried teenager, not the usual situation for a Maid of Honor.
Two years later, she left Vicky’s service when she married Lord Augustus Paget, a British diplomat.
As an ambassador, her husband was stationed in Copenhagen, Italy, and Austria-Hungary between the years 1860 and 1893. Talk about a gold mine for royal research! She got to know King Christian IX and his family while in Copenhagen, King Umberto and Queen Margherita while in Italy, and everyone from the Duke of Cumberland to Crown Prince Rudolf in Vienna. Not a bad contact list, right? 😉
She began writing this eventual 2-volume memoir in 1884, while her husband was stationed in Vienna. In the second volume, she transitions from a true narrative memoir to entries from her diary that cover her later years in Vienna. The second volume contains a lot of detail about British politics, which I skimmed, if I’m being honest. But there are plenty of fascinating tidbits about people and life in Britain, Prussia, Saxony, Copenhagen, Rome, Florence, and Vienna. It’s part travelogue, part gossip column, part life story of a fascinating woman. What’s not to like?
Seriously, there are so many casual mentions of royalty and nobility that I lost count.
- In a letter to her father in August of 1841, her mother reported a storm so intense that it would have killed her and the three kids had they been out in. Wally notes that she remembered “such huge hailstones crashing through the windows that they could not be forced into a German beer glass.” This reminded me of the death of Dorothea, Duchess de Dino, who had been pelted by just such a hailstorm in 1861 and, after returning home bleeding and feverish, never really recovered. (24)
- Her mother was friends with Sophie, Grand Duchess of Saxe-Weimar (sister-in-law of the acerbic Queen Sophie of the Netherlands). When Wally’s mom died, Sophie even volunteered to take Wally in, but she didn’t want to be separated from her sisters. Instead, as wards of their uncle, Adolph Hohenthal (Saxon minister to Prussia), they went to Berlin. Later, when she became a lady-in-waiting to Princess Victoria, she felt a little guilty because she’d accepted that position but not Sophie’s offer of a place at her own court. When she explained it to Sophie, she said Sophie showed her nothing but “unselfish kindness and affection.” (60)
- When she first met Vicky’s future husband, Prince Frederic William, he wasn’t the hottie he later became. According to Wally, “At twenty-seven he was still undeveloped, even in appearance, and nobody could foresee how handsome a man he would be ten years later, when he had filled out and the long golden beard made him look like one of Wagner’s heroes of romance.” (70-1)
- As part of Wally’s sightseeing in England prior to Vicky’s wedding, she and her fellow ladies-in-waiting went to the Tower of London: “Yesterday in the morning we went to the Tower: I laid my head on the block on which formerly prisoners – and I think also Lady Jane Grey – were beheaded. It was a very peculiar feeling, and one almost thinks one feels the axe.” (79)
- In Berlin, as a young lady-in-waiting, Wally demonstrated her acting ability by showing fellow lady-in-waiting Lady Jane Churchill and “some of the gentlemen” how to do a perfect faint. So of course, the rest of the gang had to give it a try. But so many thuds on the floor scared the crap out of the woman who lived on the floor below them, Princess Frederic Charles, who sent a page up to ask what was going on. (91)
- On a visit with Fritz and Vicky to Gotha, Wally was bored on a rainy day. Her solution? “It poured nearly all the time, so, to beguile the dragging hours, as I was without my usual occupations, I dressed myself up as a ghost, and very successfully frightened a certain number of people.” (96) I’m cracking up here.
- Speaking of practical jokes, she could foil them as well as dish them out. Wally notes that the future Kaiser Wilhelm I loved teasing the ladies-in-waiting and “had a habit of pulling our bonnet strings, which in those days were seldom tied neatly. I was, however, very particular on this point, and used to fasten them with two pins, which defeated him entirely; but I have seen a whole row of Maids of Honour with their bonnet strings hanging down after the Regent had passed them.” (100) I’m still cracking up…Wally shows the moments of humor and color behind staid, boring court life.
See? I’ve only gotten to page 100 to see what I underlined on my first pass, and this is just a fraction of what’s there.
Should You Read It?
If you like slice-of-life glimpses of aristocratic life in 19th century Europe, yes.
If you want offhanded tidbits about Prussian, Italian, or Austrian royalty, yes.
Or if you want a behind-the-scenes look at British politics in the 1870s and 1880s, yes.
Subtitle: Life, Death and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire
Author: John Van der Kiste
Publisher: The History Press
Year: 2013 (originally published in 2005)
Available at: Amazon
Franz Josef became Emperor of Austria thanks to the revolution of 1848. Although second in line for the throne, his father was urged to abdicate in his favor – turbulent times called for someone younger and more energetic, and his son fit the bill. From 1848 to 1916, Franz Josef was the living embodiment of a soon-to-be-vanished empire and way of life.
Devoted to duty, he was determined to carry it out faithfully at all times. And that’s exactly what he did, sometimes to the detriment of his personal relationships. After his son Rudolf died by suicide, many said he was heartless – he hadn’t shown the boy enough love, didn’t show enough grief or remorse afterward. But if your duty was to NOT do those things, to remain aloof and dignified at all times, why would you have?
He grieved in private and did his best not to let the world see how the many tragedies in his life affected him. And good lord, were there a lot of tragedies: first child died young, younger brother executed, son died by suicide, wife assassinated, nephew assassinated…the hits just kept on coming. I waver between thinking Franz Josef was too hands-off in his personal life and thinking that he held himself to a different standard because of his rank. This book can’t really help you make that judgment call – but it can give you some evidence to help you make up your own mind.
None, really – just a couple minor quibbles and an observation, but overall, the book is well done.
- I didn’t like the way he described Emperor Franz’s second wife, Maria Theresa of Bourbon-Naples. He described her as “mentally deranged and extremely ugly.” I know nothing about Maria Theresa and don’t have a mental picture of what she looked like (without going to look one up). But even so, this description seems both nonspecific and unkind. What makes someone “extremely” ugly? And “deranged” – what does that even mean? If it indicates a mental illness, why not just say that? I’d expect that kind of language in, say, a 19th or early 20th century biography…but the first edition of this was published in 2005, and the new digital edition in 2013. This was probably before things like sensitivity readers were available, but reading those phrases in 2022 made me cringe. (12)
- There’s one mix-up between Archduchess Maria Josepha and Maria Theresa. He mentions “Francis Ferdinand’s stepmother Maria Josepha,” when he means Maria Theresa. Maria Josepha was his sister-in-law. (272)
- If you’re already pretty familiar with Franz Josef’s story, this probably won’t shed any more light on him for you. There is original research here from British archives, relating to what Queen Victoria and British ambassadors said about or thought about the Austrian empire and its rulers, but for the most part, this book uses previously published sources. That’s not a drawback – unless, as I said, you’ve already read sources by authors including Corti, Brook-Shepherd, Gribble, Hamann, Haslip, Ketterl, Margutti, Palmer, and Redlich. If you already know which books I’m referring to just by the authors’ names, you're who I’m talking about in this caveat.
- Franz Josef’s mother, Sophie, was a twin – one of two pairs of twin girls born to King Maximilian I of Bavaria and Princess Caroline of Baden (his second wife). With a total of five sisters who “had a reputation for being strong-willed and authoritarian by nature…the Prussian historian Heinrich von Treitschke would later refer to them collectively as ‘the Bavarian sisters of woe.’” (13) I kind of want that on a T-shirt now. Or for that to be a band name.
- Franz Josef’s father, Franz Karl, fell for his mom before she fell for him. He seems like a non-entity, without any particular talent or interest, but who was kind and loving. Except for when his mother-in-law described him as “really terrible…he would bore me to death. Every now and then I would want to hit him.” (14) Violence is not the answer, Caroline. You know that.
- When Italy was united and the monarchs of the Two Sicilies were driven out of the country, Franz Josef offered them a place in Vienna. This led to the following funny moment: “With the possibility that Vienna might become a home for exiled royalties from Italy and other neighbouring states, the nineteen-year-old Archduke Ludwig Victor remarked one night at a dinner that all the royal highnesses who were expelled from their dominions came to them. ‘I wonder where we will go when we are driven away?’ he asked disingenuously.” (82) LOL.
- This probably isn’t interesting to anyone but me, but this is my website, so you’re stuck with me. I already knew that when Princess Stephanie of Belgium got engaged to Archduke Rudolf, Franz Josef’s heir, the wedding had to be postponed because she hadn’t gotten her period yet. But Van der Kiste quoted Empress Elisabeth as calling Stephanie “an unformed child.” (161) This rang a bell for me because I’d seen a reference to another royal woman referred to as “unformed” and I didn’t know what it meant. When applied to a teenage or pre-teen girl, does “unformed” always mean that she hasn’t hit puberty yet? Or was Elisabeth’s usage a one-off? Enquiring minds want to know.
- When the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) visited Vienna, he had too much energy for Franz Josef. During a shoot in Hungary and military maneuvers in Croatia, Franz Josef tried to ditch the prince by riding faster (trotting and galloping). It didn’t work. “The fat man was always with me and held out quite unbelievably, only he got very stiff and tore his red Hussar trousers and, as he was wearing nothing underneath, that must have been very uncomfortable for him.” (177) Yes. Yes, indeed. It’s a little weird sitting here in 2022 wondering whether royals wore underwear, but there you have it. Be careful what you write, people. It could end up in the hands of nosy readers a hundred years later.
- To express disapproval of Franz Josef’s platonic but extremely close relationship with actress Katharina Schratt, “one of the junior archdukes” called him “Herr Schratt” to his face. (222) We’re not told which one, and there’s no footnote to go see where this tidbit came from, unfortunately. L
- One time, at band camp…er, at Franz Ferdinand’s house (unclear whether it’s the Belvedere or Konopischt)…he led his party guests through the place in a conga line “only to come face to face with Sophie’s recently washed underwear hung by the maid to dry on a chandelier.” (230)
- Thrifty Archduchess Gisela (Franz Josef’s daughter) used to take spare candles home from the Hofburg, where fresh ones were provided for the chandeliers every day even if the previous day’s candles were untouched. (232) Now that’s just being practical. Way to go, Gisela.
- I was impressed to read that, when traveling in the Austro-Hungarian empire, the devout Catholic Franz Josef always visited churches belonging to other faiths: Protestant, Orthodox, Islamic, and Jewish. Didn’t know that about him – but it made me like him more. (255)
Should You Read It?
Franz Josef’s reign spanned an incredible length of time. If you have any interest in 19th century history, World War I, or Austrian history, this is a no-brainer. It’s an easy read, well written, and a good starting point for the Habsburg story.
Subtitle: Queen Victoria’s Spanish Granddaughters
Author: Ana de Sagrera
Translator: Iain Dorward Steward
Year: 2022 (originally published in Spanish in 2006)
Available at: Amazon
The whole world waited with bated breath to find out who King Alfonso XIII of Spain would marry. When, in 1905, he chose Princess Victoria Eugenia (Ena) of Battenberg, it was a surprise. Ena was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, but her father was the product of a morganatic marriage – which many believed made her unsuitable for the throne of Spain. But it was a love match, and Alfonso didn’t care – or so he thought at the time.
Later, one of Alfonso XIII’s cousins, Infante Alfonso of Orleans, fell in love with Princess Beatrice of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Ena’s cousin. But because Beatrice was firmly Protestant, Spanish authorities refused to allow the marriage. Although he personally approved, Alfonso’s hands were tied. So Alfonso (Ali) and Beatrice (Bee) took matters into their own hands and married outside of Spain.
Initially, they were exiled for marrying without the proper approval (and, unofficially, out of spite for Bee’s refusal to convert to Catholicism). Eventually, they were forgiven and welcomed back to Madrid, where Bee and Ena resumed their childhood friendship. They resumed it so well that it offended the strict etiquette of the Spanish court.
To us, it seems normal that you’d want to hang out with your best friend all the time. But Spanish court etiquette had strict rules about who got to spend time with the queen.
And when Ena flouted some of those rules to spend more time with Bee, it pissed some of those court officials off. So much so that they attacked Bee and tried to drive a wedge between the two women. They failed to do that, but a cabal did manage to drive a wedge between Bee’s husband and King Alfonso. (There’s a lot more to it than that, but I’m trying not to spoil the story for you.) So Ali and Bee were exiled a second time. Once again, they were eventually allowed to return and remained there until a revolution turned Spain into a republic and drove the royal family out of the country.
During the Spanish Civil War, Bee did what she could from the borderlands. After the war, she and Ali were finally able to settle permanently in Sanlúcar, where she founded a maternity hospital and devoted her time to her family and to charity.
The author, Ana de Sagrera, met Bee after becoming well-known in Spain for her biography of Queen Maria de las Mercedes, the short-lived true love of Alfonso XIII’s father. It’s fascinating to read this knowing the author actually met her subject, as well as spoke to many of Bee and Ali’s friends and descendants.
Overall, I highly recommend this book. It’s entertaining, and covers a lot of ground I’d never read about in other books. If, like me, you’d seen references to Bee as a troublemaker at the Spanish court, this book tells the real story – and explains why that lingering image isn’t true at all.
Just one, really. Perhaps it’s due to the effects of translation, but there were times when sentences referred to two women (usually both Ena and Bee), and it was hard to untangle who the “she” referred to was.
- Bee’s first love was her Russian cousin, Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich (younger brother of Nicholas II). But the Russian imperial family didn’t approve, and although Mikhail kept writing to her for months, the romance fizzled. “They do not want me to care for you,” he wrote her. (116) Bee’s family felt Michael led her on, and Bee herself seems to have felt that Mikhail was too weak to stand up to his parents.
- Grand Duke Boris of Russia, a cousin of Mikhail’s proposed to Ena but she turned him down. (125)
- Bee first met her future husband, Ali, during the celebrations for Ena’s wedding in Madrid in 1906. Grand Duke Vladimir, her uncle, introduced them at a ball. That very night, the first time they danced together, he asked if she would marry him. Her response? She slapped him. Violence is never the answer, but I found that amusing. Years later, he said he did it because it was the best way he could think of to make her remember him in a ballroom full of other potential suitors. (138)
- Already in love for two years but forbidden to marry by Spanish court law and etiquette (because Bee was a Protestant), Bee and Ali had to resort to some “strategery” to force the issue. Ali planned to visit Bee in Coburg on the way to fight in Morocco in July of 1909. Because the Catholic church has a dispensation called “Partida de la Mort,” the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha thought they could marry without permission. It was a rushed wedding, with a civil marriage first followed by a Catholic ceremony. King Alfonso wasn’t happy about it, because even though he’d given personal verbal permission for it, he wasn’t officially able to sanction it without the government’s consent (per the Spanish Constitution). Ali’s father was so shocked he sent Ali a telegram to say “all is finished between us.” (169) Ouch.
- Bee designed the emblem for the then-new Spanish Air Force. It consisted of “large feathers, with a golden sun in the centre to be embroidered on the aviators’ green uniforms…Curiously the Spanish Emblem would be copied by the British Royal Air Force and other countries.” (211)
Should You Read It?
Yes. Whether you’re interested in Queen Victoria’s descendants, a few tidbits of Russian history, Spanish history, or general European royal history, there’s something for everyone here.
Subtitle: The Collapse of the Order 1905-1922
Author: Edmond Taylor
Publisher: Congregation Press
Year: 2017 (this eBook edition; originally published in 1963)
Available at: Amazon
I bought this book because it shows up in lots of bibliographies. It specifically looks at the reasons for the fall of four dynasties during and after World War I: the Hohenzollerns in Germany, the Habsburgs in Austria-Hungary, the Romanovs and Russia, and the Ottomans in Turkey. It’s a decent summary of the political scene before the war, during the war, and shortly after the war. The book didn’t break any new ground for me, but that’s probably because of the huge amount of material on World War I published since 1963 (the first edition of this book). Any modern reader already interested in WWI has probably already read several books like this one.
What makes this book different is the inclusion of the Ottomans – usually far more on the periphery than in this book.
Also, the author isn’t shy about including some personal opinions, as you can see by his description of Kaiser Wilhelm II: “A born ham with a compulsive urge for the mock-heroic gesture, Wilhelm ranted and postured like some men drink. His whole life was a series of charades that he acted out with self-applauding zest before a captive audience of European diplomats and crowned heads unable to take their eyes off the grotesque performance for a moment lest fate punish the mountebank by accepting one of his impersonations at its face value, thus turning farce into real tragedy.”(30)
This style of opinionated storytelling isn’t as popular today as it was in the 1960s – I’d like to think we’re a lot more respectful today, and more interested in advancing understanding than proving oneself right. So if you’re not used to the style, it might be offputting at first. However, if you're like me, it's interesting seeing who and what people blame for WWI, so an opinionated style can actually be useful.
- In pre-war Vienna, public dance halls were popular night spots. “One, claiming to be the largest in Europe, maintained a fully equipped emergency maternity room for the convenience of its female patrons.” (25) WTF.
- When, in 1866, Austria lost its Italian provinces, ex-Emperor Ferdinand (who had been forced to abdicate in 1848), supposedly said, “Is this what they made me abdicate for? I could have lost those provinces myself.” (59) This quote made me laugh, and if it’s true (Taylor presents it as if it is), refutes the description I’ve seen elsewhere of Ferdinand as severely mentally disabled.
- “Once when Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had been invited to attend an important Austro-Hungarian field exercise, asked the Imperial Chief of Staff if he might have some champagne with his meals, Francis Joseph indignantly forbade it. ‘Not a drop,’ he growled, ‘let him drink beer.’” (62)
- Kaiser Wilhelm II apparently wished American millionaires would leave him money: “Sometimes,” he wrote his friend, Poultney Bigelow, the son of an American diplomat with whom he had played Indians in childhood, “I wish one of your millionaires would have the splendid idea on his deathbed of willing his fortune to me.” (101) Was this tongue-in-cheek? Maybe. Taylor doesn’t present it as that way. He is not fond of the Kaiser.
- Austria’s Foreign Minister, Count Leopold Berchtold (“Poldi”) had “a mania of drinking iced coffee (brought up specially from Demel’s Café) at all hours of the day.” (133) So what’s your point? 😉 Iced coffee is good, dude.
- Apparently, some in high society were taken completely unaware by WWI. “When the detonator finally went off, on July 23, the statesmen and the diplomats were only slightly less surprised than the novelist Elinor Glyn, then at the height of her slightly scandalous success, who commented with asperity on the bad manners of the Austrian Ambassador in rushing away from a weekend house party in a chateau near Paris at which they were fellow guests. Anthony Glyn relates in his entertaining biography of his famous grandmother that when Fielder, Elinor’s chauffeur, suggested the disappearance of the Ambassador was possibly a sign of impending war, ‘everyone searched hurriedly in the newspapers to see what he could mean and with whom the war could be.’ (136)
Should You Read It?
If you’re obsessed with World War I, yes. If you’re not, you can probably skip this one – unless, like me, you obsessively stalk bibliographies of other books.
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 Defiant Lives of Maria Theresa, Mother of Marie Antoinette, and Her Daughters
Author: Nancy Goldstone
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Available at: Amazon (used)
This book tells the story of four women: Empress Maria Theresa, Archduchess Maria Christina (“Mimi”), Archduchess Maria Carolina (“Charlotte”), and Archduchess Maria Antonia (Marie Antoinette).
The first part of the book details Maria Theresa’s struggle to stay on the Austrian throne amidst the asshattery exhibited by Frederick the Great. In my post on Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria-Teschen, I referred to this as “Grand Theft: Silesia.” Yes, he had a traumatic childhood. But is that an excuse for being a dick? He lied, he stole, he went behind his allies’ backs, he did anything necessary for the good of Prussia. Great if you’re a Prussian, but terrible if you’re, well, anyone else. All this makes it really easy to root for Maria Theresa here. Goldstone does a good job bringing out her heroic traits and her genuine desire to improve her subjects’ lives. Too bad her son Joseph effed it all up…he’s another man who’s very hard to like in this telling of the story.
Unfortunately, Maria Theresa’s daughters – all very capable, even Marie Antoinette – were the victim of circumstance. They were all in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the Austrian Netherlands, Mimi and her husband Albert were forced out by revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic chaos. Ditto for Maria Carolina in Naples, where she’d ruled over her weak-willed husband for the 20 previous years. And we all know what happened to Marie Antoinette.
As they’re portrayed here, the daughters are all very likeable. You root for them and want them to succeed. And even though I know the story pretty well by now, I’m also rooting for the French royal couple to make it to the border during the Flight to Varennes. And every time, I’m crushed by how close they were to succeeding.
Kudos to Goldstone for the novelistic devices she used in telling this story. You have rising action, falling action, and cliffhangers, just like any good novel. She knows how and when to shift the scene to, say, Frederick the Great or Catherine the Great to tell you what you need to know before jumping back to Maria Theresa and her co-ruler, Joseph. I never felt confused or lost, despite the arcane political origins of both the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). However, one of the stylistic devices Goldstone overuses in this book is telling you what someone should do or is most likely to do in a situation, and following that prediction with, “And so that is exactly what they did.” Once you notice it, you can’t unsee it.
Yes, there are a couple. Let's just say this book has generated a bit of controversy.
- This book only uses previously published sources. That’s not a huge caveat in and of itself; the previously published sources include plenty of primary sources. The problem here is that the material is well worn. There are hundreds of books on Marie Antoinette. Plus, there are already books specifically on Maria Theresa and her daughters (Julia P. Gelardi’s and Justin Vovk’s spring to mind). So what makes this one different? Without unpublished or archival sources, new material is unlikely. And if that’s the case, why tell the exact same story? What’s the angle? The word “defiance” in the subtitle seems to indicate some sort of girl power theme, but I think that’s a given based on the fact that all four of our heroines were rulers in a male-driven world. This lack of newness in topic and in source isn’t a deal-breaker by any means. It’s just something to be aware of. I did find it interesting that several reviewers mentioned how well the book is researched, considering most of the sources in the bibliography are from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Every piece of information cited in this book has been out there for decades, if not centuries…except the point raised in the next caveat. The achievement here is not the research, I’d argue, but the fast-paced and cinematic telling of the story.
- Goldstone believes King Louis XVI of France – Marie Antoinette’s husband – was autistic. That investigation could fill a book on its own, and a thorough discussion rates more than the couple footnotes it gets here. Goldstone compiled a list of things Louis said and did (according to diaries, letters, and memoirs of the time) and sent this list to a developmental pediatrician with 30 years of experience working with kids on the spectrum. When they confirmed that the behaviors on the list fit the profile for someone on the spectrum, Goldstone ran with it. But there are problems with this methodology. First, how many incidents and descriptions did Goldstone include in her list? Did she include any incidents where Louis’s behavior did not fit the profile of someone with autism? If not, confirmation bias is a problem. Also, it’s hard to know how valid or complete those observations are. How long after the incidents occurred were the memoirs, letters, or diary entries written? Was there a correction later (i.e., an apology after an insult or sharp remark)? Memories change and fade. People have biases whether they realize them or not. Long story short, historical descriptions from observers cannot provide an ironclad diagnosis – only speculation. And while that speculation may be valuable, it needs a lot of time and care to explore. So why not give it the space it’s due to do so properly? Why not develop it in another book or with her expert in a co-written peer-reviewed paper? Or, if she was determined to include it, it would have been helpful to include the list sent to her expert as an appendix, with the appropriate citations for the sourced items, to let readers study this further for themselves. By no means am I saying the diagnosis may not be true; it might. And, contrary to Goldstone's argument on her website, not everyone who refuses to immediately accept this diagnosis does so because of belief in an autism stigma. For myself, I simply think this claim needs to properly studied, evaluated, and peer-reviewed. After all, if it's true, more study and scrutiny should only support her theory.
- Goldstone believes Marie Antoinette’s last two children were Axel Fersen’s. This is something no one can prove short of DNA evidence, which as of this moment in July of 2022, we just don’t have. But she treats it as a fact, and only provides skimpy evidence in this book to support it. Better support may exist elsewhere; all her references to this theory come from a book by Evelyn Farr. For example, in this book, we’re told Marie Antoinette’s third child was born nine months after a party on June 21 that she threw at Petit Trianon for the visiting Swedish king. Then, in a footnote, we get this: “Fersen, who would remain queen’s lover until her death, and who stayed with her many nights, both at the Petit Trianon and Versailles, was almost certainly the father of this child.” (350) Elsewhere online, Goldstone elaborated and said this particular stay at Petit Trianon was a week long, and that Marie Antoinette's lady in waiting (Mme. Campan) confirmed that Louis did not appear at Trianon all week. Okay, so she believes the child was conceived during this week. But my question is this...how do we know that? What evidence is there that the baby wasn't conceived the week before or the week after? Or 10 days before or 10 days after? Were Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in the same bed during either of those two windows of time? Presuming the Swedish party week was the only week the baby could have been conceived seems like a flaw in this theory. Even if it's likely, it's still not the only possibility. Babies can come early, or they can be late. So pinpointing an exact 7-day window for conception seems like it can only create a possible scenario, not a provable one.
And this is where the controversy deepens. Suffice to say, there was a very non-complimentary review of this book and this theory in particular in the New York Times. Goldstone responded to that review on her website.
Should You Read It?
I got a little carried away with the caveats here, which makes it seem like I didn’t enjoy this. I did. What I enjoyed most was the pacing and cinematic scope. This book is structured like a novel, complete with rising action and cliffhangers. The detailed political maneuvering of the mid-18th century was really well covered. I’ve read descriptions that made my eyes glaze over; I was wide awake and intrigued through this retelling. As long as you’re aware of the controversy surrounding it, you can read this book and enjoy it and judge for yourself.
Subtitle: The Life and Tragedy of the Prince Regent’s Daughter
Author: Anne Stott
Publisher: Pen & Sword History
Available at: Amazon (used)
It’s too big a story to get into here, but Caroline of Brunswick had what is probably the most disastrous royal marriage in history. If that interests you, check out Flora Fraser’s The Unruly Queen. Long story short, Caroline and her husband, Prince George of Wales had one child with no potential for another: Princess Charlotte of Wales.
The parents treated Charlotte as a pawn in their attempts to piss each other off, but Charlotte wasn’t the type to just take it. She loved both her parents but also saw their flaws. As she grew up, she did her damnedest to assert her independence. For example, her father arranged for her to meet (and marry) the Prince of Orange, an eligible Protestant suitor. Charlotte wasn’t crazy about him, and although she initially gave in to her father’s pressure, she later decided nope, she wasn’t gonna marry a man she didn’t love. She flat-out refused, no matter what her father threatened to do.
As an alternative, she latched onto Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. He’d gotten himself introduced to her knowing she was Europe’s most eligible heiress. This was not a love match, at least not in the beginning. Charlotte wanted to escape her father’s strict rules and oversight. Leopold wanted to make a great marriage. But surprise, surprise – they fell deeply in love with each other in the early days of their marriage. What started as the lesser of two evils for Charlotte became a Disney movie. And then she got pregnant for a second time (the first ended in a miscarriage). The entire nation placed bets on when the baby would arrive.
And that’s when the fairy tale ended. After a protracted labor, Charlotte gave birth to a stillborn son and died five hours later. That’s why the title refers to her as the “lost queen.” She would never rule, and her uncles began a mad dash to the altar to get married and produce the next heir to the throne. This slightly undignified pageant is what led to the birth – and accession – of Queen Victoria.
- This is how a courtier described the birth of Augusta and Carline’s mother, a British princess: “At St James’s, with nothing prepared for the birth, she was delivered, in the words of the courtier Lord Hervey, ‘of a little rat of a girl, about the bigness of a large toothpick case’. This despised child was none other than the future Duchess of Brunswick, mother of Princess Caroline.” Ouch. (82)
- Charlotte wasn’t always a well-behaved little girl. Here’s what happened when she played with the little sisters of the Earl of Albemarle: “His little sisters, aged 7, 6 and 4, also suffered from her harsh high spirits. She would entice them to the top of a mound near Earls Court and roll them down into a bed of nettles. ‘If the little girls refrained from crying and from complaining to their governess, they were sure to be rewarded for their reticence by a doll. In due course the nursery was filled with dolls, two of which the girls named Princess Charlotte and the Princess of Wales.”(120)
- There was gossip that one of Charlotte’s uncles – the future King William IV – didn’t want her to be queen: “A year earlier, Lord Glenbervie had heard it ‘generally reported’ that the Duke of Clarence ‘has more than once asked persons who have happened to mention his niece as presumptive heir to the Crown, “Do you think that I and my brothers will ever suffer that girl to wear the Crown?”’” (145)
- I swear – a lot – and I’m always amused by tidbits about royals who swear...or not, as the case may be here. “Lady Glenbervie reported to her husband that she [Charlotte] had grown tall and graceful, but she was ‘forward, dogmatical on all subjects, buckish about horses, and full of exclamations very like swearing’. It was anecdotes like this, exaggerated over time, that prompted Lord Melbourne to tell the young Queen Victoria that Charlotte ‘used to swear like a Trooper’.”(146)
- Regarding Charlotte’s husband, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg: “In his exile, Napoleon was to remember him as ‘the most handsome young man he had met in the Tuileries’.” (201)
- Once Charlotte decided she wanted to marry Leopold, she made no bones about it: “The tone of her follow-up letter, written on 19 July, was polite, but she ended with one of her notes of defiance: ‘One thing more have I to urge, and that most strongly, which is that in case my suit should be so very unfortunate as not to meet with the P. R.’s approbation and consent, that no other proposal of any sort or kind be ever made to me, as I have determined never to listen to or accept them.’ The prime minister at least knew now that it was to be Leopold or no one else.” (243)
- A suitor Charlotte rejected – the Prince of Orange – later married Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna of Russia.
- As Leopold was trying to sort out his future, including whether he wanted to pursue his relationship with Charlotte, he had a telling dream: “For a while he toyed with an offer from the Grand Duke Constantine of a military commission in Poland; his choice lay, he told his sister Sophie, between the North and the West. He seems to have been as stressed as Charlotte. One night he woke sweating from a Freudian nightmare in which he had to walk through a narrow passage between two cages, each containing a venomous serpent; as he passed them they stuck their heads out and their teeth bit into his clothes.” (248)
- “Obstetric forceps had been developed in the early seventeenth century by the Chamberlen brothers, Huguenot refugees from France, and used to aid the delivery of the first child of Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria.” (288)
- During her protracted and difficult labor, Charlotte didn’t complain. “She was putting, Dr Baillie told the counsellors, ‘a good Brunswick face upon the matter’. ‘I am a great coward,’ she had told Sir Thomas Lawrence, ‘but I bluster it out like the best of them till the danger’s over.’” (289)
- After Charlotte died five hours after giving birth to a stillborn son, everyone had an opinion – even Napoleon. “From his exile on St Helena, Napoleon was to express astonishment that the people had not stoned him [Dr. Croft] and his fellow accoucheurs to death.” (294)
I’m purposely omitting some of the most surprising and interesting tidbits about Charlotte’s death and its aftermath – don’t want to spoil the whole book for you!
Should You Read This Book?
Yes. I really enjoyed it. With lots of primary source material, you really feel like you’re immersed in the time period and Charlotte’s life.
Subtitle: Extracts from the Private Diary of Augusta, Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, Queen Victoria’s Maternal Grandmother 1806-1821
Author: Augusta, Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (selected & translated by Princess Beatrice, foreword by John Van der Kiste)
Publisher: A&F Reprints
Available at: Amazon
Our diary writer, Augusta of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, had seven surviving children, whom you meet as they come and go throughout these pages:
- Ernest, Duke of Saxe-Coburg und Gotha (father of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s future husband)
- Julie, estranged wife of Grand Duke Constantine of Russia
- Victoire, Princess of Leiningen and then Duchess of Kent (mother of Queen Victoria)
- Sophie, wife of Count Mensdorff-Pouilly
- Antoinette, wife of Duke Alexander of Württemberg
- Ferdinand, husband of Maria Antonia von Kohary
- Leopold, future King of the Belgians (and widower of Princess Charlotte of Great Britain)
The diary begins in early 1806 and takes us through Augusta’s death in 1821. In these pages, you get her observations on the war, as French and Prussian troops pass through. You get to experience her joy when her kids stop by, her sadness as one of her beloved grandchildren dies, and the general trials and tribulations of aging. It’s a fascinating slice of life in that it covers such huge world events alongside everyday life events, like birthdays and holidays.
None, really – there are a handful of typos, but they didn’t keep me from enjoying this book. And the eBook’s footnotes appear in the middle of a following page, often in the middle of a paragraph. I suspect this happened because the publishers converted the paperback straight to eBook without the necessary formatting tweaks. Not a deal-breaker, but a little sloppy. I volunteer to proofread and double-check formatting for future reprints, if needed!
- She witnesses infantry soldiers bring in the dead body of Prince Louis Ferdinand after the battle of Saalfeld: “A detachment of Infantry with its eagles, preceded by bearded sappers, marched into the courtyard carrying something on poles. Only when they dropped their burden on the ground did I recognize the body of Price [sic] Louis Ferdinand. Naked and only wrapped fin a rough cloth, lay this great Prince, his fine head uncovered.” (19)
- She thought King Frederick William III of Prussia was too weak not to be taken advantage of: “Germany owes her downfall to her faulty constitution and Prussia owes hers to the deterioration of her monarchy.” (22)
- She had mixed feelings about son-in-law Grand Duke Constantine of Russia. Despite his awful marriage to her daughter Julie, she does have the occasional kind word for him: “Constantine has knowledge of human nature. What might have been made of this young man, had he had a different upbringing, and grown up in other surroundings!” (46)
- She didn’t mince words when describing how the German princes had behaved during Napoleon’s success…and afterward. “What an impression must Germany’s pitiful and weak-knees princes have produced on the noble Northern Monarch? When he [Tsar Alexander I] appeared on the German frontier, he called upon them to work with him to set their country free, instead of which, they let Russia and Prussia fight alone for Germany’s freedom and joined with the Oppressor’s forces. Only when he was defeated…did they come forward with zeal for the good cause and strike a blow at the defenceless one!” (97)
- She thought selfish politicians and rulers were running everything – and I feel the same way today. “It is a sad peculiarity of our times, that even good people’s actions are so often inspired by self-interest. The right course must always be the one in which usefulness and honour are combined. Soon we shall have to look to the heroes of bygone days, and in romances, for the noble, great-hearted men who place their principles and their regard for what is right before any personal advantage.” (128) WORD.
Should You Read It?
If you’re a fan of royal history, yes. If you’re a fan of Queen Victoria, yes. If you’re interested in the Napoleonic wars, yes. It’s a fast, easy read and some of Augusta’s observations feel spot-on, over 200 years later.
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 Untold Love Story
Author: Evelyn Farr
Publisher: Peter Owen
Year: 2013 (revised & expanded edition)
Available at: Amazon
This book has a thesis: Marie Antoinette and the handsome Swedish count, Axel Fersen, were lovers. Not platonic lovers, like in the traditional chivalric sense, but actual lovers. The author notes that previous biographers and publishers have covered up the real relationship for centuries. Whether out of respect for the queen or for Fersen, this relationship was depicted as one of the utmost respect and love, but without consummation.
Well, Evelyn Farr is here to argue that there was a hell of a lot of consummating going on. Her evidence? (a) Original letters between the two that were edited or altered for publication, and (b) detailed tracking of Fersen’s whereabouts to see how and when they matched up with Marie Antoinette’s.
After reading this book, I can’t help but separate it into two sections: the part that covers Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen’s relationship up to the visit the Swedish king made to Versailles in 1783, and everything that happened afterward. The author’s arguments to prove the nature of the relationship until 1783 felt weak and forced to me, but her conclusions for much of what came afterward seem solid.
IMHO, regarding the early years of the relationship, she wildly over-interprets motivations behind ordinary speech and actions. The text is full of expressions like “He surely…”, “Marie-Antoinette’s acting skills must have been…”, “he was surely thinking of something other than his career…”, “She must have bitterly regretted…”, “It is quite obvious from this that…”, “This was undoubtedly another red herring,” “It is probable that,” “She obviously did not mind…,” “Fersen…very probably also met her incognito…”, “Marie-Antoinette must have caught more than a glimmer of interest…” and so on. I found myself making dozens of snippy comments in the margin: Must she? Was he? Are you sure? For many of her “must be” statements, it’s easy to think of alternate plausible explanations.
However, if she’s correct and 1783 does represent the turning point in their relationship, each of them must have had feelings for the other before that point. Still, her effort to prove that it was a true love, life-changing relationship from its first moment did not convince me. Without their more explicit later letters, any examination of the early evidence is pure speculation and reading the constant “must haves” and “probably”s really annoyed me after awhile.
On the positive side, the documentation and correspondence from 1783 onward is more complete and more convincing. There’s no question they played a large role in each other’s emotional life.
I suspect, however, that previous biographers who downplayed the relationship did so not because they wanted to whitewash the story but because…well…what about the story would consummation change? We already knew Fersen was the driving force behind the Flight to Varennes. Knowing he and the queen were actual lovers doesn't change the outcome of events...it just deepens the motivation. Plus, none of Marie Antoinette’s sons succeeded to the throne of France. In the grand scheme of things, this makes it less important whether her second son was Fersen’s or Louis’s. Yes, it’s important to understand the emotional life of your subject if you’re writing a biography. But if you’re just out to tell the story of how Person A got from Point B to Point C, a love whose physical consummation likely didn’t affect Point B or Point C might fall by the wayside.
I don’t even know why I’m pushing against this book so much. Despite the annoyance of the early chapters, I still enjoyed reading it. I think I’m just at a point where I cannot deal with anyone – authors, politicians, or anyone else – attempting to diagnose medical issues or claiming to read the thoughts of people who are dead with any certainty. Showing the evidence? Great, I’m all for it. Overinterpreting situations where there is no evidence or you cannot be sure why someone else did something? Say so. I mean, is this so hard: “We don’t know much about how or when Marie Antoinette fell for Axel Ferson. And we can’t be sure when he fell for her, either. All we know is that they saw each other occasionally, interacted via expected court channels, and at some point developed feelings for each other. I’ll point out where I think this happened, but we’ll never really know. When their later letters emerge, I believe we can know – and I’ll tell you when we get there.” I prefer that strategy to being pounded over the head with a mallet as the author does in the first half of this book.
The author draws several important conclusions that feel forced.
For example, Farr believes the couple first had sex on July 15, 1783. By August 25, she tells us, news of the queen’s pregnancy had leaked to the court. The author believes this was clearly Fersen’s baby. Could be – but if so, that’s relatively quick for Marie Antoinette to realize she was pregnant. Even today, in 2022, protests against strict abortion laws argue that many women don’t know they’re pregnant before the six weeks allowed by some current abortion laws have elapsed. In an age before pregnancy tests, the only way Marie Antoinette could be relatively sure she was pregnant would be if she expected her period very soon after July 15. Otherwise, not enough time would have elapsed for her to know anything was different about that particular menstrual cycle.
A woman is most likely to get pregnant 12-14 days before her period. So if she expected her period on, say, July 20, that puts the likely point of conception on July 6-8. These dates hint at either a different conception date, a different consummation date, or at the fact that Marie Antoinette’s cycle was irregular and none of the above assumptions hold true. Two out of three of those situations mean Farr’s conclusions have some holes.
But that’s not all.
Later, we find out that courtiers’ impressions of how far Marie Antoinette was in that pregnancy differed wildly from Marie Antoinette’s own interpretation. In October, a courtier noted that she looked enormous, “as though she were six months pregnant.” (119) On November 3, she had a miscarriage. She wrote to her sister that she had “already reached the third month.” (119)
Farr believes she got pregnant shortly after July 15. She realized she was pregnant by August 25, when the news had already leaked. She appeared (to one courtier, at least) six months pregnant in October. When she miscarried on November 3, she told her sister she was already in the third month of pregnancy. Would she really have been showing that much in the third month? Either the courtier was wildly mistaken, Marie Antoinette intentionally misled her sister, the conception date is wrong, or some of all of the above. But Farr wants so badly to convince you that the timing works that she ignores the fact that the timeline is wonky and does not try to reconcile these contradicting impressions.
As another example, when Marie Antoinette’s second son, Louis Charles, was born, Farr cites the language Louis XVI used to describe the new baby in order to support her theory that the boy was Fersen’s – and that Louis knew it. In his diary, Louis did not call the new baby “my son” – instead, he noted that the queen was delivered of a son. But when Marie Antoinette’s fourth baby, Sophie, was born, Farr also believes this was Fersen’s baby. This time, however, Louis XVI refers to baby Sophie as “my second daughter.” (142) She makes no reference to the fact that his language this time invalidates her conclusion based on the very evidence she provided for the previous child. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
There are a lot of examples like this in the book. When evidence supports her theory, she makes sure you know it. When there’s an alternate conclusion, she brushes past it without a word.
Should You Read It?
If you’re a fan of Marie Antoinette, yes. If you’re already interested in the French Revolution, yes. If you enjoy tragic love stories, yes. If you prefer impartial histories or don’t like points of view being foisted on you, this might not be the book for you.
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).
Subtitle: Queen Victoria’s Forgotten Daughter
Author: Gerard Noel
Publisher: Michael Russell
Year: 1992 (originally published in 1974)
Available at: Amazon
This is a very readable cradle-to-grave biography of Princess Alice, Queen Victoria’s second daughter. The author made fantastic use of letters in the Hessian archives, which provided as close a glimpse as possible of Alice’s mind and soul. She was the daughter most affected by her father, Prince Albert’s death, since she was the one who nursed him and recognized – before her mother – that he wasn’t going to make it. As a teenager, that’s got to do some mental and emotional damage.
Alice recovered as best she could, and for a time it seemed she was happy with her husband, Hereditary Prince (later Grand Duke) Ludwig of Hesse and by Rhine. But over the years, court life in Darmstadt weighed on her. She wanted to do epic shit, as they say – really help the poor and underserved people her new country. But getting down into the trenches to understand and help sex workers, the poor, and the sick wasn’t what well-bred women in Darmstadt were supposed to do. So courtiers gossiped about her for the rest of her life. It hurt her and weighed on her terribly.
What surprised me most was how brutally honest Alice was with her husband, Ludwig. Late in her life, she wrote some extremely hurtful things in her letters. Essentially, she’d say things like, “Man, I really thought we were going be soul mates, but you’re not capable of meeting me on my mental or spiritual level, so that really sucks for me.” And then she’d follow it up with something like, “But I’m totally looking forward to seeing you when you get back from your trip. Love you!” That’s my rendition, obviously, not her exact words, but you get the drift. It was actually hard to read – my heart hurt for Ludwig, but also for her, because I could feel her pain, too.
Princess Alice died of diphtheria in 1878 at the young age of 35. I won’t spoil the story any further, but the way it happened…oh, man, if that doesn’t get you right in the feels, you have a heart of stone.
One of the most interesting parts was Appendix II, a letter from Princess Alice’s British doctor meant to advise her on how to stay healthy after her marriage, while far away in Darmstadt. It provides advice on diet, exercise, constipation, what to do if you think you’re pregnant, what to do if you think you’re having a miscarriage, and other useful things. Because Alice was so forthright and interested in the workings of the human body, I didn’t imagine her blushing while reading this.
There were a few points where I wish the author had gone into more detail – and at least one that I think he overlooked or missed entirely.
For example, Alice developed a close friendship with German writer David Strauss. He was a theologian who wrote about the historical Jesus as being separate from the mythological Jesus. But when Strauss died in 1874, the author says he and Alice had drifted apart: “…she was one of the many former devotees of Strauss who found that they could not follow him in the extremes to which he went towards the end of his life, particularly in his work The Old and New Faith.” (220) Um…what were those extremes? Even a sentence or two would really help illuminate Alice’s character. Wouldn’t you like to know what was too extreme for Alice? I know I would. It’s unlikely I’m going to go read Strauss’s book, and it would have been so easy for the author to just give us one sentence more about this. But no, he moved on.
And as a point I feel that he overlooked, I was hoping he’d say more about Alice’s openness about the human body. One of the Queen Victoria quotes included in the Gelardi book I mentioned above was her telling someone (probably Vicky) to be on her guard against Alice’s nosy questions about ladyparts and their functions. Nowhere in this book is it explicitly mentioned that Alice actually asked family members for details about their bodies. I find this fascinating and wish the author had covered it. In a family with such a voluminous correspondence, surely there’s a lot more evidence of this to find and share.
The book also ends abruptly with her death. I prefer it when authors give you some closure after the fact. How did people grieve? What did they say about her after she died? Did her husband remarry? (He did, which I already knew, but no thanks to this book.) I don’t need another 20 pages of grief, but a few choice quotes from people who missed her (or who only later realized what she meant to them) would have been nice.
- Alice insisted on breast-feeding every baby that came after her first – definitely something unusual for royal mothers at the time. She had her first child, Victoria, in England and Queen Victoria just wouldn’t allow it. But Alice was determined to do so later, when out of her mother’s grasp, which she was for the rest of her pregnancies (all 5 of them).
- Personal hygiene was one of Alice’s social crusades. She promoted “the installation of baths in private homes. This would involve a whole new drainage system, for which Alice fought tooth and nail, her only ally being the family doctor, Dr. Eigenbrodt.” But not everyone thought this was a great idea. A Darmstadt citizen attending one of her public meetings on the subject said, “We do not want such ideas Your Highness. It is a luxury if everybody can have a bath. I have never bathed in my life and yet I am clean. These are new fangled English ideas.” (143)
- Frances, Countess of Warwick described Alice as “that woman of more than ordinary gifts” who “was slightly clairvoyant and psychic.” (176)
- When Alice’s second son, Frittie (a hemophiliac), died after falling out a window, her older son Ernie said, “When I die, you must die too, and all the others; why can’t we all die together? I don’t like to die alone like Frittie.” Such a macabre quote, but makes total sense from a little kid’s point of view. (213)
- Over the holiday season of 1877/1878 (her last), Alice was in despair over an ongoing quarrel with her mom. We don’t know exactly what it was about – the author says she gives no further information to Ludwig when she wrote, “I have had a letter from Mama – so unfair that it makes me cry with anger. I am so cross that I shall not write about it until I am back in D. I wish I were dead – and it probably will not be too long before I give Mama that pleasure.” (231) Ouch.
Should You Read It?
If you’re interested in Alice or Queen Victoria’s children at large, yes! But if you’re not already interested in Victorian-era women, this probably won’t hold your attention.
Subtitle: Her Life and Times
Author: Robert Prentice
Publisher: Grosvenor House Publishing Limited
Available at: Amazon
Olga was born a Princess of Greece and Denmark in 1903 (two years after the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Grand Duchess Anastasia, for context). Her parents were Prince Nicholas of Greece and Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna of Russia. She and her two sisters – Marina (future Duchess of Kent) and Elisabeth (future Countess of Toerring) – experienced the turmoil of multiple world wars and revolutions. Their grandfather, King George of the Hellenes, was murdered. Political turmoil forced their uncles, Constantine and George II, out of Greece. A plebiscite forced their cousin, another Constantine, off the throne in 1974. Through it all, Olga and her sisters never lost touch with their Greek roots and family.
Olga, however, went from the political frying pan into the fire when she married Prince Paul of Yugoslavia. If you thought Greek politics were fraught with peril, meet Yugoslavia – a country created by decree after World War I, encompassing diverse ethnic groups that didn’t all get along or want to be lumped together under a single ruler. Paul became the country’s regent while his relative, King Peter, was a minor. What did that mean for Olga? She and Paul were king and queen in all but name, handling the political and social duties required of a ruler.
Of course, everything went wrong when World War II broke out. You had the Axis powers pressuring Paul to join them…and the Allied powers pressuring Paul to join them. Meanwhile, poor Paul was trying to do the job he’d been tasked to do: act as a steward of the kingdom until Peter came of age. For him, that meant keeping Yugoslavia neutral – after all, it wasn’t his country to pledge to either side. No one else seemed to understand or accept that.
It was a classic no-win situation.
And it didn’t go Paul’s way. His regency was forced out of power by the Allies, who installed Peter as their king. Then the Nazis marched in, scattering them all. Long story short, Prince Paul and Olga spent the war in a sort of genteel house arrest in Kenya and then South Africa, with the British as their hosts-slash-jailers.
After the war, they floated from place to place, with the world pretty much hating Paul (unfairly, in my opinion) for not taking their side in the war. And as the years passed, Olga remained incredibly close to her mother and sisters – they were the true loves of her life. I won’t tell you much more so the events and people of Olga’s later life aren’t spoiled if you read this.
One big plus of this book? The author had access to Olga’s private papers and interviewed some of her family members. Now, usually what that means is the author must whitewash any unpleasantness – the family doesn’t want a hatchet job done to their loved one. Understandable. But in this case, I felt the author was pretty generous with moments in Olga’s life where there was obvious stress, or where the modern reader probably wouldn’t side with her on a particular issue.
I have two caveats, one little and one relatively big. Neither of them should stop you from reading this book. I just needed to put them out there.
My little caveat
There are SO MANY instances where the pluralization of a noun is incorrectly turned into a possessive. Part of me feels like a dick for even pointing this out, but I'm no one special, and if I learned this, so can you.
These are mistakes that show the author does not know the difference between a plural and a possessive. That’s actually fine, because there should be an editor in the background who can fix these mistakes. But the frequent mistakes made me wonder…was there an editor?
This is not the idea you want running through your reader’s head.
Like I said, it’s a small caveat because I still understood what the author meant. But to have such an obvious mistake repeated dozens if not hundreds of times was a red flag. For those of you who aren’t sure what I’m talking about:
- Example 1: “…one of her former employee’s at Beli Dvor…” (294)
- Correct: one of her former employees (This is a plural, not a possessive – there is not supposed to be an apostrophe.)
- Example 2: referring to two couples, “Kent’s and Ogilvy’s” (284)
- Correct: the Kents and Ogilvys (This is a plural, not a possessive – there is not supposed to be an apostrophe.)
- Example 3: “…the Princess’ joined other ‘near relations’…”(108)
- Correct: the Princesses joined… (This is a plural not a possessive – there is not supposed to be an apostrophe.)
My big caveat
This book is incredibly comprehensive in terms of Olga’s life – a huge achievement since, as far as I know, this is the first full-length biography of her. But I felt it was missing something in terms of the bigger picture. I wanted more scope, flow, pacing, and a bit of pruning. It’s like we’re viewing Olga though a zoom lens, and I wanted the author to zoom out a bit and give us some additional perspective.
For example, this book drops a lot of names. It can be difficult to sort through Olga’s cousins and uncles and aunts and second cousins. Sometimes they’re referred to by nicknames, which helps. Other times, they’re not. Footnotes would have been helpful, or in-text clues to help the reader get a better feel for who’s being mentioned. For example, sometimes Olga’s mom is referred to as “Princess Nicholas,” other times as “Ellen.” Sometimes from one sentence to the next, the nomenclature is different. It made me wonder why – and having your reader wonder about your naming conventions probably isn’t what the writer wanted.
I also felt there was room for other voices. The author’s main sources were Olga’s letters and diary, which is fantastic, but sometimes…I wanted someone else’s perspective on an event or person. This book doesn’t give you a lot of quotes or viewpoints from other people. You have the ubiquitous Chips Channon, of course. And a few notes from Yugoslav politicians. But overall, the focus was very narrow and I think that was a missed opportunity.
Access to sources in different languages can be problematic, so this longing I have for more context and more depth is probably a pipe dream.
But if you read this book, I suspect you’ll start to feel – as I did – that you’re reading a laundry list of day-by-day activities. I also suspect not all of those activities needed to be included. This book is long and dense. To achieve the scope I’m missing, some of that quotidian content probably has to go. I don’t think that would be a bad thing.
For example, one time, when Olga stayed with Alice Athlone at Kensington Palace in the early 1970s, Alice roped Olga into weeding her garden. As the author tells us, “…on one occasion, Olga became so exhausted from her endeavours that she was forced to take a nap.” Is this really a newsworthy, biography-worthy moment? Include the tidbit that Olga weeded Alice’s garden, but is more really necessary? Are we gaining insight into Olga as a human by learning…shocker…that she got tired and needed a nap?
As I said, neither of these caveats are a deal-breaker. And I’m giving them more space than they deserve. This book is a big achievement – let that be clear. But I think it could have been a great achievement with a little more context, and a little wider scope.
There are so many…
- In December of 1915, at Tatoi, Princess Helen of Greece (Olga’s cousin) made a snowman and put a lit cigarette in its mouth. I don’t know why this detail is so charming. (33)
- In 1935, Paul suffered from myolysis in one arm. “Milan Stojadinović would later claim that the Princess had informed him that the arm problem had been caused by Mignon [Queen Marie of Yugoslavia] striking the Prince in the course of a heated argument.” (97) All in all, this book does not do Mignon any favors. I try to keep an open mind – everyone’s suffering and having problems you don’t know about – but this book makes it hard at points.
- Zoia de Stoeckl and her husband, Alfons Poklewski, make appearances in this book. They were close to Marina, Olga’s sister, and Olga interacts with them on her numerous trips to England. I reviewed Agnes de Stoeckl’s memoir here.
- There was a recurring tension between Olga and Queen Frederika of Greece (who married Olga’s cousin, Prince Paul of Greece). The author isn’t really clear on how or why this developed – and we don’t hear Frederika’s voice to explain her side. All we get is a brief note that “Olga seemed somewhat taken aback when ‘Freddie’ simply ‘walked in suddenly’ to her mother’s house to partake of an impromptu supper and enjoy a long chat.” Is this really how it started? Am I the only one who thinks that’s unlikely? (236)
- Olga and Paul inherited the lovely Villa Demidov in Florence, Italy – Paul’s mother was the wealthy and beautiful Aurora Demidov. Her grandmother, also named Aurora, at one time owned the Sancy diamond!
- Olga was not pleased when her son’s girlfriend (soon to be second wife, Princess Barbara of Liechtenstein) wore pants to meet her for the first time. The year? 1972. (302)
- Olga lived to age 94. She died on October 16, 1997. It trips me out to think that Olga – who remembered the Romanov court and her grandmother, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna – was alive while I was in college.
Should You Read It?
If you’re a fan of the Greek royal family, yes. If you’re a fan of the Karadjordjević dynasty, yes. If you’re nuts about World War II, probably. But if you don’t already have an abiding love for these characters or for literature on the second world war, you might not be able to make it all the way through.
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: Virginia Cowles
Publisher: Sharpe Books
Year: 2018 (Kindle edition)
Available at: Amazon
The Romanov dynasty began in 1613 when Michael Romanov accepted the crown offered by an assembly of nobles and ended the so-called ‘Time of Troubles.’ It ended in 1917, when Michael Romanov refused to take power after his brother Nicholas II’s abdication.
A hell of a lot of interesting stuff happened in the intervening 304 years, and Virginia Cowles gives you a quick summary of the hijinx.
She sticks to well-known historical figures – tsars, tsarinas, and ministers mostly. Each chapter covers a new ruler, with a focus on the main summary points of each reign. Some chapters delve more deeply into personal characteristics, like those on Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas I. Other deal more with politics, like the chapters on Alexander II, and Alexander III. By the end, you’ll have a good feel for the basic events in Russian history: the Europeanization of Russia by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, the bureaucratization of Russia by Nicholas I, the end of serfdom, the rise of domestic terrorism, industrial progress prior to World War I, and the end of the dynasty.
And toward the end of the book, there’s one sentence that rocked me to my core. Let’s see what it does to you: “It was a Romanov tradition to go to war in a hopeless sea of inefficiency and corruption, to spill oceans of blood, to endure the humiliation of defeat, yet to remain, through sheer size, massively intact.” (304) Ouch.
Only minor ones, really.
This is basically a brief, guided tour. Don’t expect a lot of depth on any particular tsar, tsarina, or character in Russian history. The sources Cowles used are mostly memoirs and previously published biographies, with a few original documents from the British Foreign Office thrown in for good measure. Treat it as a survey course and you’ll be in good shape. However, if you’re expecting any information about Michael Romanov (the first Romanov tsar), skip this book, however – he’s dealt with and dismissed in a single paragraph.
You’ll also find a couple phrases that are cringe-worthy today, but less so when the book was originally published in 1971….things like a reference to Tsar Alexis’s “Tartar complexion,” Tsar Ivan’s description as “a semi-imbecile” and Peter the Great’s description as an “emotional cripple.” Not ideal, but let’s face it - this is going to happen frequently when you read texts written anytime other than our century.
- I knew Peter the Great had some emotional issues, but according to this book, he also had a facial twitch, shaking hands, and frequent nightmares. It reminded me of the facial twitch Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (wife of Nicholas I) developed during the day of the Decembrist revolt. (21)
- One of the original trustees of the British Museum, Dr. Peter Birch, interviewed British diplomats as soon as they got back from Russia. According to him, Peter the Great would not have won the Great British Baking Contest. “’The Russian cooks,’ he wrote, ‘often tie eight or ten young mice in a string, and hide them under green peas, or in such soups as the Russians have the greatest appetite to, which sets them kicking and vomiting in a most beastly manner, when they come to the bottom and discover the trick; they often bake cats, wolves, ravens and the like, in their pastries, and when the company have eaten them up, they tell them what they have in their guts.’” (38) If this is true (and not an exaggeration), it sounds like eating with Peter was like being on an episode of Fear Factor.
- This sounds like an exaggeration, but you never know. Cyril Razumovsky, brother of Empress Elizabeth’s lover Alexis Razumovsky, bought “a hundred thousands bottles” of wine at a time. Clearly, this is who you wanted to party with. (70)
- Catherine the Great scared the crap out of the Chevalier d’Eon, an agent of King Louis XV: “The Grand Duchess is romantic, ardent, passionate. Her eyes are brilliant, their look fascinating and glassy — the expression of a wild beast. Her forehead is lofty, and, if I am not mistaken, a long and terrifying future is written on it. She is prepossessing and affable, but when she comes close to me I instinctively recoil, for she frightens me.” (75)
- At age 19, Catherine’s son – the future Tsar Paul I – found pieces of glass in his food. It wasn’t intentional, but a servant had somehow failed to pick out the pieces from a broken bottle. Paul, however, thought his mother had tried to murder him. (106)
- Of Tsar Alexander I’s brother Constantine, Prince Adam Czartoryski wrote, “Woe to his friends, and to his enemies, and woe to his subjects should he ever have any.” (160)
- One of Tsar Nicholas’s I’s dumber regulations: “Only the army had the right to wear moustaches, and all moustaches had to be black, dyed if necessary.” (174)
- Towards the end of her life, poor Tsarina Maria Feodorovna (wife of Alexander II) was in such poor health that “her rooms were artificially impregnated with oxygen released from gas cylinders.” (230)
Should You Read It?
Yep. It’s a good introduction to Russian history. Find the people and eras you like best and dive deeper into the story with other books.
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: The Life and Times of Sir James Wylie
Author: Mary McGrigor
Available at: Amazon
James Wylie left his native Scotland as a young man and made his name – and his fortune – in tsarist Russia. At the University of Edinburgh, he studied anatomy and surgery (1786), medical theory and practice (1787), and anatomy and surgery (1788). He left without graduating, ready for adventure. That’s what took him to Russia, where he passed the exam that let him practice as a surgeon.
He started as a surgeon in the infantry in 1790. During the siege of Warsaw in 1794, under General Suvorov, Wylie realized there was zero plan for treating the wounds of soldiers wounded in combat. Only officers were given any sort of assistance. He decided he would change that, if he could just create the opportunity to do so. In 1795, he resigned from the army to become a family physician to Prince Golitsyn, a friend of Grand Duke Alexander Pavlovich.
When Paul I became tsar in 1796, a fellow Scot, Dr. Rogerson, recommended Wylie be appointed to the imperial court. He moved to new digs in the Winter Palace and never looked back. As surgeon and physician to tsars Paul, Alexander I, and Nicholas I, he had the incredibly opportunity to improve Russian medical care for soldiers. He created a system of battlefield medicine including transport, triage, and treatment that saved tens of thousands of lives during the Napoleonic wars. Surgeon, administrator, innovator: in Russia, he’s well known for being all these things. Outside Russia, he has been largely overlooked.
Romanov fans and historians know his name because of two key events. In 1801, under pressure, he signed Tsar Paul’s death certificate, stating he died of apoplexy and not strangulation. Years later, in 1825, he was present at Tsar Alexander I’s deathbed…and was one of the few people Alexander would have trusted if, as has been alleged, he faked his death to live out his years in peace away from the court and his responsibilities.
This book gives you about as much information as we have about Wylie and his interaction with the Romanovs. If the life of a Scottish doctor who became a friend and confidant of Alexander I sounds interesting, you’ll enjoy this book.
There are a few small mistakes, but none that are so disruptive they change the narrative. Tsarina Maria Feodorovna was not, for example, the Grand Duchess of Württemberg (the rulers were dukes before Napoleon raised them to kings, but they were never grand dukes). (27) Constantine’s wife is referred to as Anna Feodorovna of Saxe-Coburg, but that’s not strictly true. She was Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg, who became Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna after her conversion to Orthodoxy and marriage to Constantine. (27) Catherine the Great was Paul’s mother, not grandmother. (32) That sort of thing.
- Tsar Paul I thought he heard buzzing in his ears. If a doctor told him it was nothing, he insisted they were wrong. Wylie’s trick for dealing with this? It’s kinda like that magician’s trick of pulling a quarter out from behind your ear. He found a bee (probably dead), and using sleight of hand, pretended to extract it from Paul’s ear. The trick worked and Paul said the buzzing in his ears was gone. Worked like a charm. (24)
- At the Battle of Borodino, as Russian forces battled to push Napoleon back, Wylie operated on at least 200 men. Tolstoy’s doctor in War and Peace, Villier, is based on him. (70)
- The winter of early 1821 was so cold that three coachmen were found frozen to death, waiting for their passengers to return from their entertainment. So Tsar Alexander I forbid “evening entertainments in St. Petersburg when the temperature dropped to seventeen degrees below zero.” (124)
- Tsar Alexander I and his wife, Tsarina Elizabeth, had a rocky marriage, but shortly before their deaths, they found a way back to each other. In preparation for what became their final trip together, to Taganrog, Alexander made sure every detail for her travel was perfect, from ordering her “special pillow cases, candle shades, and even Dresden china for her breakfast and her tea.” Aww. (139)
- Near the end of his life, Wylie told a visiting American doctor about his memoirs – burned at the request of Tsar Nicholas I. All he said was, “The emperor had directed it.” Can you imagine? What had he said that Nicholas didn’t want the general public to know? Argh. So frustrating. (200)
- In 1933, the writer of an article in a Cologne newspaper claimed to have found a copy of Wylie’s memoir in the Imperial Secret Archives. The memoir, they say, confirms the fact that Alexander I faked his death. The article writer claims to have found proof that successive tsars were told of this deception, and said he saw the signatures of Tsar Nicholas II and Grand Duke Michael. As the book’s author notes, however, no further evidence of the memoir or this signed document has ever come to light. Take with a grain of salt. (165)
Should You Read This Book?
If you’re interested in the Romanovs, yes. The author does a great job of blending Romanov history with Wylie’s life and details about medical treatments of the time.
Subtitle: Why the First World War Failed to End
Author: Robert Gerwarth
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Available at: Amazon
This isn’t an academic text, but it’s a little more scholarly than your average history nonfiction book. It covers the political, social, and military events in Russia, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Italy in the wake of World War I. It’s not uplifting stuff – we’re talking revolution, Communism, fascism, famine, displacement, and other things it would have been hell to live through.
One interesting trend in in post-war Germany was the rise of the Freikorps, a militia formed of former soldiers. If you watched my videos on Grand Duchess Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, you saw that she and her family worried for their safety when bands of Freikorps roamed the duchy, seizing weapons from landowners. One quote I found in this book was particularly chilling. “A member of the Freikorps named Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz later wrote, ‘We laughed when they told us that the war was over, because we were the war.’” (124)
I’m toying with the idea of turning the three scripts for Alexandra’s videos into a short book, and detail like this really helps me understand more of what was going on in the background of her life.
Should You Read It?
If you’re deeply interested in the fall of the Romanov, Habsburg, and German empires, yes. If you’re not, this may be a little too dry for you. It doesn’t focus so much on people as it does trends and general events. So if you’re the type of person who really needs characters to pull you through your non-fiction books, this one doesn’t have that. However, if you have a deep interest in World War I or World War II, this book helps contextualize the issues that sprang up after the former and led to the latter.
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.
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