Some book links below may be Amazon affiliate links. If you choose to buy through that link, it doesn’t change your price at all, but Amazon will give me a few extra cents for the tiara research fund.
Do you love reading about royals as much as I do? If so, check out my 2023 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: September 17, 2023
2023 Royal Reading List
in alphabetical order
A Bold and Dangerous Family | Becoming Queen Victoria | Catherine the Great | Chère Annette | City of Lights, City of Poison | Clash of Generations | Daughter of Prussia | The Diary of Frances, Lady Shelley | Divine Lola | The Eagles Die | The Fortress | Grand Dukes and Diamonds | The Husband Hunters | The Illustrious Dead | Je devais être impératrice | July 1914 | Katharina Pawlowna | King Leopold’s Ghost | Kings over the Water | Koningin Sophie 1818-1877 | The Last Days of Imperial Vienna | A Mad Catastrophe | Maria Dorothea von Württemberg | Maria Féodorovna en Son Temps | Marie-Thérèse, Child of Terror | Mistress of the Elgin Marbles | Napoleon: A Life | The Princess Spy | Queen Victoria and the Bonapartes | Queens of the Age of Chivalry | The Queen’s Necklace | Romanov Relations | Rusland en Oranje | The Russian Dagger | Scottish Queens | Traitor King | Vienna 1814 | A Visit to St. Petersburg | Waterloo
Note reviewed: fiction, out of my usual scope of research, etc.
Subtitle: The Unexpected Rise of Britain’s Greatest Monarch
Author: Kate Williams
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Available at: Amazon
This book has two clear trajectories: (a) the brief life and early death of Princess Charlotte, and (b) the birth, childhood, and reign of Queen Victoria until her first son was born, securing the throne. One would probably not have existed without the other, which is why these stories need to be told in tandem. It’s not a full biography of either woman, but it’s definitely everything you need to know to understand how and why the throne passed to Victoria.
As a super-quick recap, Princess Charlotte was the only daughter and heiress of King George IV. Because of his deep and abiding loathing for his wife, there was never any possibility of a sibling for Charlotte. She survived the trials and tribulations of childhood and grew up a strong-willed, tomboyish child starved for affection. Both of her parents used her in their epic battles with each other and with the royal family at large (her grandfather was King George III and her grandmother was Queen Charlotte, of Bridgerton fame).
It’s a miracle this kid grew up any kind of sane – but she did. And after refusing to marry her father’s choice of husband, the Prince of Orange, she drifted from fling to fling and finally settled on Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. Handsome, grounded, and willing to move to England full-time, Leopold was just what Charlotte needed. His steadiness calmed her down, and his affection gave her confidence. She, in turn, charmed him, helped him loosen up, and gave him an identity and a purpose beyond an impoverished younger son. Until, that is, she died giving birth to their first child, who was stillborn.
Suddenly, with the only heiress to the throne gone, all Charlotte’s uncles raced to the altar and then the bedroom to try and provide a legitimate heir. Victoria’s father won that race, and the rest, as they say, is history. The Victoria section of the book goes into detail about how her mother, the Duchess of Kent, tried her hardest to keep Victoria’s public image squeaky clean – and to keep herself in the limelight as long as humanly possible. With, as you’d guess, the expected deleterious result to her relationship with her daughter. As with Charlotte, it’s a bit of a miracle this kid turned out sane, too. Luckily, her determination to do the right thing was stronger than her mother’s greed.
If you want a more complete story about the madness of King George and how it affected his family, read A Royal Experiment by Janice Hadlow. That book really sets the stage for this one – and both are incredibly readable. Princesses by Flora Fraser also covers a lot of the same territory, from the point of view of the aunts Charlotte loathes.
Should You Read It?
Yes. This is a fascinating look at first Charlotte and then young Victoria. I didn’t find much new information, but Williams’s telling felt full and complete.
- Princess Charlotte’s mother, Caroline of Brunswick, didn’t exactly kill it on the European marriage market. Years before, when Queen Charlotte heard that her brother – the Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz – was considering proposing to Caroline, she wrote to him and was like, nope, don’t do it, for the love of God, don’t do it. And he didn’t. But when the next prospective bridegroom was her own son, Charlotte kept her mouth shut since Caroline’s mom was also her sister-in-law. (16)
- Think your ex is petty? Prince George – later George IV – hated Caroline of Brunswick so much that he “removed chairs from her private dining room, saying he could not afford to pay for them, and took back the pearl bracelets he had given her on their wedding day, presenting them instead to his beloved Lady Jersey.” (24) What a dick.
- Williams’s description of the Prince of Orange cracked me up. “’Slender Billy,’ as the Prince of Orange was known by his fellow soldiers, had never cut much of a dash…He had returned to Holland in 1813 as crown prince, a short, skinny, and ugly youth with buck teeth and wispy blond hair, and a diffident and indecisive character.” (78)
- Charlotte had a crush on Emperor Alexander I of Russia. “My ears are very ugly, but I would give them both to persuade the Emperor to come to me to a ball, a supper, any entertainment that he would choose.” Except that when Charlotte saw him, he told her to marry the Prince of Orange. Facepalm. (87)
- Napoleon had declared Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg “the handsomest man who had ever entered his Palace of the Tuileries,” according to Williams. (89)
- Princess Mary (one of Charlotte’s many single aunts) had the hots for Leopold, too. Once Charlotte realized this, it made her more attracted to him.
- When Charlotte’s baby was born dead, Williams notes: “The infant was taken directly to St. George’s Chapel and not given any service, according to the principle that stillborn children had no soul and thus needed no prayers.” (138) This struck me as so sad.
- Tsar Alexander of Russia said he wanted to be a godparent to the Duke of Kent’s new baby, which traditionally meant the baby had to bear his name. That’s why Victoria’s real first name was Alexandrina. The parents had wanted to name her Victoire Georgiana Alexandrina Charlotte Augusta, but the Prince Regent (future George IV) was like, nope, don’t like it, you can’t use that. At the christening, he said the child’s name should be Alexandrina. He vetoed Kent’s suggestion of Elizabeth for a second name, and said they could use the mother’s name, but only if it didn’t come before the emperor’s. Hence…Alexandrina Victoria. (157-8)
- I chuckled at Princess Lieven’s comment after the Duke of Kent’s death, regarding the twice-widowed 32-year-old Duchess of Kent: “She kills all her husbands.” (163)
- Victoria is a girl after my own heart. Once, when the Duchess of Clarence (future Queen Adelaide) asked her what she wanted for her birthday, Victoria said she wanted the windows at Kensington Palace cleaned. I want my windows cleaned for my birthday, too. I feel seen. (172)
Author: Simon Dixon
Available at: Amazon
This is a traditional cradle-to-grave biography. The prologue covers Catherine’s coronation, to give you a sense of “how it’s going” and then jumps back to her childhood (“how it started”). The level of detail in that coronation prologue is enchanting, immersing you in the time and place. It begins with a quote from a Swedish prisoner of war complaining about the ringing bells of St. Petersburg’s Peter & Paul Cathedral – and proceeds to describe how much more intense the bells in Moscow rang during Catherine’s coronation. From the bells, we proceed to a description of what Catherine wore, the route she took to her coronation, where troops were stationed throughout the area, how the nearby houses had been decorated. See what I mean? It’s incredibly visual, and a good way to begin Catherine’s story.
Dixon focuses on Catherine’s mind – what she wrote, her goals, and her dreams. This was a welcome change from, say, focusing on her lovers, like many 19th century writers did. It elevates the book, not to mention doing the hard work of really helping us see who Catherine was. Think PBS, not TMZ – but at the same time, the writing isn’t dry or scholarly or boring. There are endnotes (thank goodness), but I never felt lost or confused as I sometimes do when writers get too deep into the nitty-gritty of Russian politics. The whole book feels calm and balanced, a pleasure to read.
Throughout the book, Dixon gives you details about the buildings, architecture, art, and décor to give you a sense of how things looked at the time. The whole thing is immersive and visual, which I appreciated. And it’s fitting, since Catherine wrote to her friend Baron Grimm, “Building is a devilish thing. It devours money, and the more one builds, the more one wants to go on. It is a sickness, like drinking, and a sort of habit.” (260) So when Catherine gleefully tells Grimm that her renovated rooms in Tsarskoe Selo’s Catherine Palace are awesome – “no one has seen anything to match them; I can tell you that I have done nothing but look at them for the last nine weeks” – you actually want to read the descriptions of the silk in the Lyon room, the red and green foil in her study, and the Chinese jars in the Chinese room. Because it all meant something to Catherine, it means something to us as the reader.
Dixon also has a knack for picking excellent quotes from source material to illustrate a point. For example, as Catherine sets out on her journey to Russia to marry the heir to the throne, Dixon uses a quote from Isabella of Parma (bride of the Austrian emperor) to describe what a princess feels in this situation: “There she is, condemned to abandon everything, her family, her country – and for whom? For an unknown person, whose character and manner of thinking she does not know.” (36) As a writer, I like Dixon’s choice here. Even though Isabella of Parma has nothing to do with Catherine’s story, her quote helps us to understand what Catherine might have been feeling. It’s a much more effective way to describe a situation than the author simply saying, “Catherine might have been feeling X,” or “She surely felt Y.” That kind of authorial intrusion can be annoying, and I like how Dixon avoided that pitfall.
All this to say…Dixon’s is a very grown-up biography. It mentions Catherine’s lovers when they’re important to the story, as when her grief for Lanskoy sidelined her for weeks in 1784. When those lovers aren’t important to the story, they get mostly passed over. There are no prurient details, but you don’t need them because the star of the show isn’t Catherine’s personal life. It’s the life of her mind. And it’s fascinating.
Dixon also delivers an elegant smackdown to illustrate how some negative views of Catherine’s personal life had hidden agendas. In addressing the French courtier Corberon’s assessment that Catherine was ruining Russia with her morals, her spending, and her weak and romantic feminine nature, Dixon replies: “Generally the preserve of foreigners, and provoked most often by the failure of a particular ambassador’s diplomacy at St. Petersburg, such verdicts owed more to stereotypical assumptions about female rule than to the realities of Catherine’s reign.” (244) BURN. I love it.
- “Female rule had been associated with bravery in Russia since Catherine I’s legendary role at the battle of the Pruth in 1711, and Elizabeth’s clerical mythmakers duly seized on the image to portray their empress as ‘Peter’s daughter.’” (77) Elizabeth was Peter the Great’s daughter, the Empress of Russia when Catherine arrived to marry Peter. I have no idea what happened at that battle, but now I want to find out.
- “Reputed to be the first private individual in Russia to plant his own pineapple orchard, Elizabeth’s principal minister Peter Shuvalov had its fruit fermented into wine and once served a dessert in the form of a mountain studded with precious stones from his own mineralogical collection.” (96)
- Catherine’s husband, Tsar Peter III, issued an edict freeing the nobility from mandatory state service. There are several origin stories for this edict, including this hilarious one: “Prince Scherbatov famously claimed that the tsar had locked Dimitry Volkov, one of Elizabeth’s leading officials, into a palace stateroom with a great dane and told him to come up with something important overnight while he went off to carouse with Princess Kurakina…” (118) Dude. I used to have a great dane. Great danes are gentle giants – they are not going to hurt anyone. They are more likely to cower in fear. My great dane cowered in fear at the sight of mailboxes, balloons, garbage cans, recycling bins, and anything else on the sidewalk where we walked.
- “It was in her library [in the Winter Palace] that Catherine had scientific experiments set up for visiting ambassadors, using apparatus such as the ‘small electrical machine’ with which her son enjoyed electrocuting his servants.” (138) This reminds me of a story in Christian Ludwig of Mecklenburg-Schwerin’s memoirs, where he talks about learning to shock people after scuffing his feet on carpet and proceeding to shock the hell out of the German ambassador.
- Dixon notes that a Catherine’s Tale of Tsarevich Khlor (written for her grandchildren) was “the first children’s story to be written in the Russian language.” (249) I really wish this sentence had added “that we know of” or “published for a commercial audience.” The first one written in Russian, period, seems like a claim no one can verify.
- In the late 1780s, Catherine put together a “comparative etymological dictionary,” aimed at discovering common word origins in the world’s languages. She wrote to world leaders everywhere and asked for information about native languages in their area. “Invited to contribute lists of Native American words by the marquis de Lafayette, George Washington replied in May 1786 that he would do his best to help Catherine, ‘but she must have a little patience – the Indian tribes on the Ohio are numerous, dispersed & distant from those who are most likely to do the business properly.’” (275) The book was published in 1787 – and now I wonder if Washington ever got back to her.
- The French ambassador, Ségur, included something cool Catherine said in his memoir: “’More is to be learned, she said to me one day, ‘by speaking to ignorant persons about their own affairs, than by talking with the learned, who have nothing but theories, and who would be ashamed not to answer you by ridiculous observations on subjects of which they have no positive knowledge. How I pity these poor savans! They never dare to pronounce these four words, I do not know, which we ignorant people find so convenient, and which often prevent us from adopting dangerous decisions, for, in a doubtful case, it is much better to do nothing than to do wrong.’” (283) How many modern “thought leaders” have come to the same conclusion? Yeah, Catherine the Great beat you to it.
- The King of Poland, Stanislaw Poniatowski, had an American secretary: Lewis Littlepage. Now I’m curious about him.
Should You Read It?
Yes. If you’re at all interested in Catherine, you will want this book.
Subtitle: Letters from Russia 1820-1828 The Correspondence of the Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia to her daughter the Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna, the Princess of Orange
Editor: S.W. Jackman
Publisher: Alan Sutton
Available at: Amazon
I’ve had a copy of this book for years and re-read it recently because I was interested in Anna Pavlovna, one of Tsar Paul I’s daughters. She married the Prince of Orange, the future Willem II of the Netherlands. After her marriage in 1816, Anna and her mom, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia, kept up a steady stream of letters between Brussels (where Anna spent most of her time) and St. Petersburg. But what do those letters tell us about them?
Also: Every time I cite this book or Romanov Relations, I type Hugh Jackman as the editor. Every. Damn. Time.
This book covers the years 1820 to 1828, when Maria Feodorovna died. These were formative years for Anna, who married in 1816. Her new husband didn’t get along with his father, like, at all – neither one trusted the other. They saw each other’s character flaws too clearly, and both wanted to be the boss. In her daily letters, Maria Feodorovna gives Anna advice on how to smooth out the disagreements between the two men, techniques she’d learned during her long years of doing the same thing for disagreements between her husband, Grand Duke Paul, and his mother, Catherine the Great.
What I liked most about this book was the mother/daughter relationship. Mom is calm and encouraging, giving her daughter the praise she needs to build her confidence. Mom also asks a lot of questions, including what the hell Anna was thinking when her palace caught fire and she left her diamonds inside it. The relationship appears incredibly open, with Anna telling her mom about her fears, expectations, and difficulties becoming the princess her mother expects her to be.
You won’t find groundbreaking history in this book – no revelations of never-before-seen palace intrigue, for example. But you will find a window into a touching relationship that reminds us historical figures were also just people, struggling with their jobs and relationships the same way we do. Nothing brings that fact home like reading correspondence.
Should You Read It?
Yes. I love books with royal correspondence – it’s like you’re right there with the subjects as they live their lives. You hear about their frustrations, their impressions of court life and political events, and see what questions they ask each other. It’s frustrating when you don’t get all the answers, either because some letters were lost or not included in the collection. But I was incredibly moved by how much these letters revealed a caring mother-daughter relationship. In some of the quotes I pulled out below, you can really see Maria Feodorovna’s caring side. I tend to focus on her controlling side, because I’m usually thinking about if and how she behaved during major historical moments, like the assassination of Tsar Paul I or the Decembrist revolt. But in these quieter moments, in private notes to her youngest daughter, she’s incredibly encouraging.
- As a Russian grand duchess, Anna Pavlovna received an annual payout from the Russian appanage fund. How much did she get? Over 100,000 guilders per year. (7)
- Anna’s favorite gemstone was topaz.
- On July 17, 1820, Maria Feodorovna wrote to Anna: “When I was at Mont Pléasire I threw a stone into the sea for you. I picked up another and sent it to the shop to have it polished and the date engraved on it. I will send it to you as a paper weight.” Isn’t that the sweetest thing? (27)
- When Anna’s palace in Brussels burned down in late 1820, Maria Feodorovna hounded her for details. “Tell me, dear Annette, how did you manage to lose your diamonds?” she wrote on January 4, 1821. On January 8 she wrote, “So was it true that the only gems you lost were those you were wearing the previous day? What did you lose?” On January 11, she wrote, “Tell me if you have recovered the diamonds.” (36-7)
- Maria Feodorovna mentions Anna’s talent for drawing and painting several times. She encourages her to continue and not waste her talent. She even asks Anna to send her a new drawing for a drawing for a compilation album she’s putting together. Isn’t that sweet?
- Maria Feodorovna seemed very happy that her youngest daughter had a relatively happy marriage. She wrote, “He [Willem] makes you happy and heaven, in granting you such charming children, has blessed you both. Enjoy your good fortune, dear Annette, for as long as you live. That is my special prayer for you.” (Annette, 126)
- When Anna told her mom that she thought people were gossiping about her, her mom set her straight. “I can swear, my child, that I have never heard of any Russian who has travelled say that you are not loved in Brussels. On the contrary, I have heard how popular you are…Believe me, my dear, that criticism is not worth listening to even if it is being said, and I doubt that it is.” (132-3)
- Maria Feodorovna seemed so pleased when Anna was able to be her best self. She wrote, “I hear the same old Annette speaking as we used to in the good old days when she was still in the family home… what sweeter joy or consummation for a mother’s heart than to see you becoming more and more established in such noble ways of feeling and acting.” (146)
- The year she died, Maria Feodorovna seemed so happy that Anna was working hard to control her temper and give more attention to her royal duties. She wrote, ““Persist in this noble course, in these elevated thoughts so worthy of you which assure a divine blessing and facilitate the way to solidarity. Just tell yourself that if I could love you any more I would now.” (155) Awww…that one hits me right in the feels.
Subtitle: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris
Author: Holly Tucker
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Available at: Amazon
This delightful nonfiction account of the Affair of the Poisons focuses on Nicolas de La Reynie, the first police chief of Paris. The case fell in his lap after he’d begun cleaning up the city, sweeping it clean literally and metaphorically. He was the one who first installed streetlights, thereby reducing crime at night.
As the book opens, we find out that decades later, after La Reynie’s death, he had left a key for Louis XIV – a key that opened a black leather box full of papers. These were his notes from his investigation of the strange murders that had occurred years ago. He had kept them secret until his death, as he’d promised Louis he would. Louis burned the papers.
Because the Affair of the Poisons had involved members of his court – in particular, his former mistress, Athénaïs, the Marquise de Montespan. As the story goes, Athénaïs had availed herself of love potions…and possibly more…in her attempt to keep the king’s interest. But the women who provided those potions were part of a shadowy network of Parisian fixers who provided abortions, poisons, and other illegal services. Need to bump off your husband? Get some poison. Need to collect from your father’s will sooner rather than later? Get some poison. Have a daughter in trouble? Get the right “medicines” and it won’t be a problem.
But too many suspicious murders tipped off the authorities that something bigger was going on. This launched La Reynie’s investigation and a case that obsessed all of Paris for years. As more and more noblewomen were arrested and even executed, it became clear that something awful was happening. Who would be next? Prominent letter writer Madame de Sévigné commented on how far-reaching and absorbing the case became, part of people’s daily lives. “The only thing one talks about here are the words, the actions, of La Brinvilliers…I pity you for not having me in Paris any longer so I can send you the latest on La Brinvilliers,” she wrote to her daughter, referencing one of the noblewomen under suspicion of murdering her relatives with poison. (93)
I won’t spoil the story by telling you what happened. But hopefully this intrigues you enough to check it out…
Should You Read It?
Yes. It’s very entertaining and well-written. It reads like a novel, thanks to the direct quotes the author was able to source from direct police interviews, confessions, trials, and more. I really enjoyed this. The author does a great job of managing the storylines of multiple historical figures over the years. I never felt confused or overloaded with a data-dump of information.
- On one common method of poisoning: “To help a client determined to get rid of her husband, Voisin asked for the man’s shirt. She would then bid adieu to her guest and pass the shirt to a trusted laundress, who washed it thoroughly with an arsenic-based soap. (In a pinch, the man’s shoes were also an option.) Buttoning his freshly pressed chemise, the husband unwittingly sealed his own fate. The rash appeared a few hours later, followed by blisters, nausea, vomiting, and finally death.” (33)
- During the construction of Versailles: “A massive army of laborers moved earth and lifted stones as big as buildings to make the king’s wishes come to fruition. Each day Louis inspected their work. During visits, he often stopped for a quick ride on the rustic wooden roller coaster—one of the first of its kind.” (58)
- Louis XIV’s finance minister, Colbert, was not fond of Versailles. He thought it was a waste of money and a missed opportunity to remain at the Louvre in Paris: “Fueling the conflict between domestic and military affairs, Colbert complained, ‘Your Majesty knows that, in addition to stunning successes on the battlefield, nothing marks more the grandeur and the spirit of princes than buildings. . . . Oh what a pity, that the greatest and most virtuous king would be measured by Versailles!’” (58)
- On one common poison: “Bosse said she witnessed Voisin give diamond powder to the woman inside Notre-Dame Cathedral. Reputed to be one of the deadliest and most expensive forms of poison available, the sharp shards of diamond crystal entered the digestive system, where they supposedly made tiny deadly, yet imperceptible, perforations in the intestines.” (162)
- On messing with the mind of a suspect who had fled France: “The prolific court gossip Primi Visconti also described Louvois’s actions toward [the Countess of] Soissons after her flight from France, claiming that Louvois arranged to have scores of black cats released outside a church in Brussels where Soissons was attending mass. Panicked by what they took as a sign of Soissons’s connection to the devil, the locals chased her from their city. The show had reportedly been arranged by spies from Louvois’s armies.” (190)
Subtitle: A Habsburg Family Drama in the Nineteenth Century
Author: Lavender Cassels
Publisher: John Murray
Available at: Archive.org
What’s It About?
Long story short: The book compares and contrasts the older generation of Habsburgs with the younger generation in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. It starts with a section on Franz Josef and Albrecht, then covers Johann Salvator and Rudolf. The final third of the book covers the tragic demise of the younger Habsburgs. I won’t give any spoilers here, even though most of you probably know what happened to Rudolf.
There’s a lot here about inter-generational angst: the older generation doesn’t get it, says the younger generation, they’re ruining everything. And the older generation says, the younger generation is going to wreck everything – can’t they see how hard it is just to hold things together? You’ll get lots of detail about army politics and court politics. Although that may sound boring, Cassels makes it interesting because it’s always in the context of how Rudolf and Johann Salvator feel stifled by these politics.
Should You Read It?
Yep. I really liked this one. It’s well-written, entertaining, and had original research (interesting quotations from Johann Salvator’s letters to his mother, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany). If you’re already very knowledgeable about the Habsburgs, there won’t be much new here for you. But Archdukes Albrecht and Johann Salvator aren’t as frequently covered as, say, Franz Josef, Sisi, and Rudolf, so it’s nice to see a larger family group discussed here than you may see in other sources. Most of the sources in the bibliography are in German, which gave me more to scope out for future research.
- Archduke Albrecht is almost always described as “the victor of Custozza” – the only battle the Austrians won during the war of 1866. However, his Chief of Staff, John, was the one who created the battle plan. When John died in 1876, Albrecht made sure he got John’s personal papers. The implication here is that those papers would have revealed how little Albrecht did, tarnishing his glory. (62, 69)
- Neither Rudolf nor Johann Salvator got along with Albrecht. Rudolf wrote to Franz Ferdinand in 1884: “He delights in nosing about, picking quarrels, in intriguing and doing harm…” (144)
- Johann Salvator provided the outline Rudolf used for his proposal for the 10-volume book series describing Austria-Hungary’s territories in words and pictures. I didn’t know that before.
- I’d seen the quote before describing the way Rudolf’s fiancé, Princess Stephanie of Belgium, walked down the aisle at their wedding: with “all the daintiness of a dragoon.” Turns out, that’s a quote from Archduke Wilhelm, Albrecht’s more-popular brother. (118)
- At the family dinners Franz Josef served on January 1 and once a week throughout the winter, every archduke and archduchess in Vienna was expected to attend. The problem? He was served first and ate quickly. All the plates were removed as soon as he’d finished a course. So if you were a junior archduke at the foot of the table, you probably had zero chance to taste a course before it was cleared away. (53-4)
- Johann Salvator was involved in the search for a prince to rule Bulgaria (after Sandro of Battenberg abdicated). He was hoping to be named Commander-in-Chief of the Bulgarian army as a thank-you. It didn’t happen. Later, when he’d resigned his commission in the Austro-Hungarian Army and was both jobless and penniless, he went incognito to Sofia and asked Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria for an appointment as a lieutenant in the Bulgarian army. Ferdinand refused and told him to get out of Bulgaria at once. (240)
- I had no idea Johann Salvator’s long-term mistress, Milli Stubel, was on board the Saint Margaret with him on his final voyage. That’s all I’ll say here – the chapter title “Cape Horn” was a nail-biter for me.
Subtitle: Louise, Grand Duchess of Baden and Her Family
Author: John Van der Kiste
Available at: Amazon
In the introduction, Van der Kiste tells us this is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared in Royalty Digest. It’s a slim book – of 134 total pages, 73 are the actual text of Louise’s story and the rest consists of illustrations, a timeline, family trees, footnotes, bibliography, index, and the list of illustrations. But I knew when I ordered it this it wasn’t going to be comprehensive – I just wanted to see what made the highlight reel of Louise’s life, which is exactly what this book provides.
Louise was one of two children born to Prince Wilhelm of Prussia and his wife, Princess Augusta of Saxe-Weimar. She married Frederick, the Prince Regent (later Grand Duke) of Baden. Later, her parents would reign as sovereigns of Prussia, and as of 1871, as Emperor and Empress of the new united Germany. The original title of the Royalty Digest article was “Louise, Grand Duchess of Baden: A model sovereign princess,” and that’s what she was. She did not interfere in politics; instead, she focused on charity work and supported her husband behind the scenes with a loving home environment. In Germany, that’s what made a “model” princess.
Louise saw her family’s fortunes rise and fall. Her parents were the first rulers of unified Germany, but under her nephew William II, it all fell apart. In 1918, when Germany lost World War I, William abdicated and fled to the Netherlands. Louise’s son abdicated the throne of Baden, and the family lived out the rest of their lives as private citizens. Only her daughter, Victoria, remained relatively untouched as the Queen of Sweden, a neutral country. Louise died in 1923.
Not many. In terms of production quality, there were a couple of mistakes/incorrect words. For example, the author refers to “Louise’s sister William” and Louise’s “brother” William when he means Louise’s brother-in-law, Prince William of Baden (21). The map included is captioned “Germany in the nineteenth century,” but it’s not; instead, it’s a recent map that includes the current German states and surrounding countries, including the Czech Republic (part of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the nineteenth century). And one of the images included a watermark from the blog that had originally posted it. But none of that affects the information provided, so if you can focus on that, you’ll be fine.
Also, as the subtitle says, this is a book about Louise and her family. So rather than expecting detailed information about her, expect to see how she interacted with her parents, her daughter Victoria, and her nephew, Kaiser William II, for example. This book doesn’t claim to be a full-fledged biography of Louise, and it isn’t. Think of it as a summary, or as I mentioned above, a highlight reel.
Should You Read This?
If you’re a fan of the Hohenzollerns, yes. Just be aware that you might not get much new information, depending on how much else you’ve read. Or, if you’re like me, you just want to have this as part of your collection because Van der Kiste is a reliably good author.
- Louise corresponded with Florence Nightingale and befriended Clara Barton, two of the nineteenth century’s most famous advocates for better nursing and care for soldiers.
- Louise might have been a gossip in her early years. Vicky, Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, accuses Louise of repeating gossip about Princess Christian of Denmark’s flirtations with young officers.
- Bismarck always suspected Louise of trying to influence her father politically. She tried once, on behalf of the oppressed Catholics of Alsace-Lorraine, but didn’t make a habit of it. Bismarck’s fear of her was based mostly on his fear of the potential influence of her mother, Empress Augusta, and sister-in-law, Crown Princess Victoria (Vicky).
- Louise was an excellent piano player and it was rumored that she could play Wagner’s entire ring cycle without sheet music. If true, wowza.
- Louise’s youngest son died at age 23 in 1888 of “inflammation of the lungs,” but it was rumored he actually died in a duel.
- The tidbit I love most? For years, she organized and supervised the Easter egg hunt in the gardens at Bellevue Palace.
Author: Frances, Lady Shelley
Publisher: Charles Scribner’s Sons
Available at: Google Books
Born in Lancashire in 1787, Frances was the daughter of Thomas Winckley of Preston and Jacintha Dalrymple, a cousin of the Earl of Peterborough. Her maternal aunt was Grace Dalrymple Eliot, who shared a prison cell with Madame du Barry during the French Revolution (long story).
By age 15, Frances had lost both her parents and went to live with her half-brother, Sir Thomas Hesketh. In 1805, she was presented to King George III at court. Two years later, she married the dashing Sir John Shelley, who was 15 years older than her. Their marriage was a happy one, although John had some notorious affairs prior to saying “I do” – including with Maria Fitzherbert’s sister. Among the couple’s friends? The future Duke of Wellington, which explains their entrée into Parisian society in the aftermath of Napoleon’s fall in 1814. After Waterloo, they went back to Paris and then made a European tour, visiting Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, and Italy, among other places. The bulk of the diary covers the years 1814-1816.
Should You Read It?
Yes! This was a delight to read. Lady Shelley’s flirtation with Wellington is fascinating – Wellington reads as the central male figure in this part of her story, far more so than her husband. In this volume of her diaries, you get her impressions of Tsar Alexander I, Grand Duchess Ekaterina Pavlovna, Prince Willem of Orange, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, Talleyrand, Metternich, and more. Frances wasn’t shy about including opinion in her diaries – and when she changed her mind about someone, she made notes later that indicated as such. A very fun read.
- On Britain’s Princess Charlotte: “Her manner in public is extremely forward.” (47) and “Princess Charlotte’s manners are as bad and hoydenish as possible. She is very clever, and wilful.” (55)
- On Tsar Alexander I and his sister: “If I have been led away by the popular cry in favour of the Emperor of Russia, let me now retract my opinion. Each succeeding day dispersed the halo of glory with which fancy had exalted the magnanimous Alexander...Personally, he is as brave as a lion, but entirely under petticoat government. His sister, the Grand Duchess, has complete power over him; and, shocking as the notion is to English morals, is generally regarded as his evil genius.” (62)
- On Talleyrand: ”I never saw so diabolical a countenance as Talleyrand's. He has no very marked feature, is pale, has a crafty expression, and a most villainous mouth. His fiendish laugh still haunts me.” (121)
- On approaching the Papal Territories in central Italy: “At last we came to the Tiber, having passed, every half mile or so along the road, the leg or arm of a man nailed to a post, as a warning to malefactors. Twas thus the Pope had done justice to some of the assassins who infested the roads.” (349)
- On Marie Louise, Napoleon’s second wife: “Marie Louise, though not regularly handsome, has an animated and expressive countenance, and her figure is fine and commanding. She looked at that moment every inch the Empress, and when I reflected upon her fallen state - a mother deprived of the child whom she adores - I felt for her the deepest sympathy…I cannot help thinking that General Niepperg, who accompanied her on that romantic tour [of Switzerland], had more to do with it than the climate. She seems to be deeply attached to him, and Shelley thinks…” (383-4) Her sentence actually does trail off like this. It’s obvious what Shelley thought, and he was right.
Subtitle: A True Story of Scandal and Celebrity
Author: Cristina Morató
Translator: Andrea Rosenberg
Publisher: Amazon Crossing
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
Lola Montez was born In Ireland in 1821 as Eliza Gilbert. Determined to escape her circumstances first as the stepdaughter and then the wife of British army officers stationed in India, she ran away and rebranded herself as an impoverished Spanish aristocrat. Back in Europe, as “Lola Montez,” she took a one-woman dance show on the road in 1843, eventually performing in London, Paris, Berlin, and Munich.
Famous more for her beauty and violent temper than her dancing skills, in 1846, she entranced the aging King Ludwig I of Bavaria in a May-December friendship that turned into a passionate romance. He showered her with love, poetry, jewels, and all the accoutrements of a royal mistress. According to this book, they slept together at least once, but it’s unclear if that was a one-off or a regular occurrence. Mostly he was jealous of the younger, more attractive university students Lola hung out with.
Now, the Bavarian government officials and public hated Lola. Like, with a vengeance. They believed she was trying to run the country through Ludwig, encouraging him to ditch all his conservative ministers and policies. This book actually downplays any political influence she had – it mostly focuses on her personal relationship with Ludwig, and her never-ending quest for money and a title. Does that mean she didn’t have much political influence? Or just that this book didn’t really focus on it? This is the only Lola book I’ve ever read, so I can’t tell you. But between the hatred for Lola, the hatred for Ludwig’s reforms, and the revolutionary spirit of 1848, the people forced Ludwig off the throne and Lola out of the country.
After fleeing Bavaria, she took her show on the road in North America, settling in Grass Valley, California for a few years before moving on to Australia and then back to New York. She started a new life on the lecture circuit, and was reinventing herself as a public speaker and a renewed Christian, when she died in 1861.
Along the way, she had married a few more times…I lost track of how many bigamous marriages she made – two? Three? As much as I wanted to sympathize with a woman who refused to be told what to do or how to live, Lola’s violent temper (she hits people…a lot), narcissism, and continual bad decisions made that hard to do.
- One thing that REALLY irritated me about this book was the occasional bit of poorly developed made-up dialogue. It made the book feel like a young adult novel rather than factual non-fiction. In the author’s note, she says she did this to make the book more entertaining, but Lola’s life is already pretty entertaining. It’s like being given a slab of the highest quality Kobe beef in the world (Lola’s jam-packed life story) and after the cooking (writing) process, dousing your final product with dollar-store ketchup to make sure it has enough flavor.
- In several snatches of that made-up dialogue, Lola rails against Victorian morals and morality. This made me stop and think. Would anyone in the late 1850s have referred to society’s current morals as “Victorian”? Victoria had been on the throne since 1837, but my understanding is that “Victorian” is an adjective only used later when looking back to describe the history and culture throughout Victoria’s reign. I could be wrong, but the fact that this made-up dialogue took me so far out of the book as to question its correctness ticked me off.
- I didn’t get a clear sense from this book how much political influence Lola actually had in Bavaria. She later referred to herself as the “shadow queen” of Bavaria, but the book focuses more on the personal side of her time with Ludwig. He was nuts about her, writing her letters and poetry and getting jealous when he heard she was hanging out with younger, more attractive men. She pestered him for money and for a title, believing that this title would somehow magically win her respect. Ludwig had to defend her constantly against, well, everyone else in his life, but even he knew the title wasn’t going magically bring her acceptance. And although I’m glad the author covered this aspect of their relationship in detail, it was to the exclusion of any actual influence she might have had. So I came away from the Bavarian section of the book a little unclear on how much she may have merited the hatred of the Bavarian people in terms of government meddling.
Should You Read It?
I’d recommend skipping this one, mostly due to the made-up dialogue. There are plenty of other books on Lola listed in the bibliography, so you’re not going to be short of options in Spanish, German, French, or English. If you have Kindle Unlimited, however, it’s free to read – so there’s your best option.
Subtitle: Franz Joseph, Elisabeth, and Their Austria
Author: George R. Marek
Publisher: Harper & Row
Available at: Amazon
George Marek was a Vice-President and General Manager of the RCA Record Division, so this book pays special attention to music as a leitmotif. If you’ve read any of Frederic Morton’s books (A Nervous Splendor, Thunder at Twilight), you’re familiar with the way blending information from other disciplines into a historical tale can enrich it immensely. This book achieves something of a similar effect, with digressions into how composers like Johannes Brahms and Anton Bruckner lived and worked in Franz Joseph’s Vienna.
Marek provides a poetic description of Franz Joseph in his foreword as “a sovereign of little malice and intermittent kindliness, [who] was forced by his tradition and the bent of his mind to act in so retrograde a manner that one can say that he hastened the sinking of the sun. During his reign and empire slid into the dusk, and he could not understand the reason for its fading.” (xiii)
The book starts off with a chapter on the Viennese: how accurate are descriptions of them as music-loving, cheerful, happy-go-lucky people. Marek argues for a deeper strain of melancholy native to the Viennese, which is similar to what Morton argues in A Nervous Splendor.
From that point on, we get the well-known story of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth. Glancing through the pages here, I see I didn’t underline anything, so I must not have learned anything new and shocking. But I enjoyed Marek’s telling and the way he brought elements of his own memories of Vienna, composers, and other influences into a story that could have been myopically focused on the people themselves.
Should You Read It?
If your library has a copy or you can shell out a few bucks for a used copy like me, yes. It’s a fresh perspective, with more attention paid to the general setting (Vienna, Austria) than many other biographers provide.
Subtitle: The Siege of Przemyśl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands
Author: Alexander Watson
Publisher: Basic Books
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
This book is about the struggle for control of the city and fortress of Przemyśl in 1914-1915. Located near the border between present-day Poland and Ukraine, the city was home to permanent residents and garrison members who were a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic cross-sample of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: German Austrians, Hungarians, Jews, Croatians, Hungarians, Ukrainian-speaking Ruthenians, and more. Their struggle with the invading and besieging Russian army is fascinating. Without spoiling things, there was an initial battle, a siege, a takeover, and another takeover. Both sides committed atrocities based on racial lines, which is what most reviewers commented on as new information to them.
Watson did an absolutely amazing job of finding primary source material that highlighted more than the commanders – the pilots, the regular people, the nurses, the sex workers, the rank and file, and more. One thing I really enjoyed was the female perspective that cropped up in Watson’s chosen source material. Normally, in my head, I think of war books as “boy books” because there are almost never women in them. Watson solved that problem by choosing a good number of primary sources by or referring to women. Countess Ilka Künigl-Ehrenburg, Helena z Seifertów Jabłońska, Wanda Zakrewska, and Eva Anna Welles all produced primary sources Watson consulted. Can I just say how refreshing this is?
Should You Read It?
Maybe – it depends whether you fall asleep when reading about battles or battle strategy. There’s plenty of human detail in this book – and, surprisingly, female perspectives – but if military history leaves you cold, even Countess Ilka’s diary entries might not save it for you. And there aren’t nearly enough maps, so after awhile, I just kind of gave up on actually understanding the movements described and just tried to go with the flow of the story.
But if you’re interested in why in holy hell Austria-Hungary performed so poorly in the war, this book will give you a very detailed snapshot that explains everything.
- Austria-Hungary’s chief strategist, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, had competing priorities. He should have had extra motivation not to suck because he was super afraid that the embarrassment and shame of losing the fortress would also lose the love of his married girlfriend, Gina. He wrote, “If I fail, then I shall also lose this woman; an appalling thought for me, for then I would have to withdraw into solitariness for the rest of my life.” (49)
- The Austro-Hungarian supply chain was…shitty. This resulted in the entire garrison receiving only 4,300 cloaks and 6,000 “calf-skin rucksacks” prior to the siege. What the hell were the men meant to do with rucksacks? Well, a division of Hungarian infantry figured out how to turn them into vests. That detail made me smile. (153)
- The first ever air strike against a civilian urban population? Yep, that happened in Przemyśl in December of 1914. Russians dropped 275 bombs on the city and its surrounding area. (155)
- Conrad launched an offensive to try and relieve the fortress on January 23, 1915. He sent 175,000 soldiers up and over the Carpathian Mountains – some as high as 2,600 feet. It was a freaking disaster. The Third Army lost 2/3 of its men in two weeks, half through frostbite or illness. One man who survived later said, “Religious souls visualize hell as a blazing inferno with burning embers and intense heat. The soldiers fighting in the Carpathian Mountains during that first winter of the war know otherwise.” (192)
- The original drop-dead date for running out of food during the siege was February 18. But by getting creative, the Austrian military lengthened that about a month longer. They cut rations, slaughtered and ate horses, and diluted flour with turnip, bran, or 20% birch wood. (*gulp*) (207)
- When the Russians took over the fortress after the Austrian surrender, they expelled all the Jewish residents. It was the “largest single forced removal of a community perpetrated by the Russian military on occupied soil.” Later, Austrian authorities estimated that 17,000 Jews were forced out of the town, fortress, and surrounding area. (258)
Subtitle: The Wernhers of Luton Hoo
Author: Raleigh Trevelyan
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Year: 2012 (1st ed. 1991)
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
Long story short: This book covers two generations of Wernhers: Julius, the father, who was instrumental in developing gold and diamond mines in South Africa, and Harold, the son, who married Zia, Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich’s daughter. Julius became incredibly wealthy, catapulting his wife and three sons into the British social hierarchy. His good works, philanthropy, and incredible business sense helped him earn the respect of his peers – although because most of his business partners were Jewish, he was assumed to be Jewish as well (he wasn’t). As with any stratospheric social or financial rise, the family wasn’t without its detractors, who nitpicked Julius’s wife for her extravagant fashions. Of Julius’s three sons, the youngest died in World War I, the oldest frittered away all his money, and the second (Harold) became his heir, inheriting the palatial estate of Luton Hoo.
Harold married Zia Torby, daughter of Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich. It didn’t seem to be a love match on her part, although Harold would later write that he’d been in love with Zia since age 15. After the Russian Revolution, Zia’s parents were strapped for cash and there was family friend Harold, incredibly rich. Zia had other suitors, including the future King George II of Greece, but her family refused to consider that marriage. After Zia and Harold married, he did indeed have to support her family periodically. The couple’s relationship had its ups and downs, but they remained firmly committed to each other, their kids, and the life they built together. Some of the most amusing anecdotes in the whole book are of Zia as an old woman, imperious to the last, demanding her daughter go make Queen Elizabeth II hurry when she was late for dinner.
Should You Read It?
Yes, if you’re interested in any of the following: the history of South Africa, the diamond business, late Victorian industry, British horse racing, or Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich, his wife, Sophie Countess of Torby, and their descendants. There’s also a fair amount about Harold Wernher’s contribution to D-Day and the floating harbor project. As you can see, the book covers a surprisingly diverse amount of subjects. And you won’t find a ton of gossip here – scandals are hinted at rather than explored in detail, with the exception of Derrick Wernher’s gambling/debt problems.
- In 1898, Julius was named one of the Life-Governors of De Beers. Yeah, that De Beers. (116)
- The author does get one thing wrong – he says Grand Duke Friedrich Franz III of Mecklenburg-Schwerin jumped out a window in Cannes to kill himself. Nope. It wasn’t a window, and it was never confirmed that he died by suicide. (205)
- When Julius Wernher died in 1912, his widow kept the letters of condolence from Princess Helena and Princess Louise (Queen Victoria’s daughters). Louise had sent Julius cornflowers while he was sick so they would remind him of where he grew up in Germany. Isn’t that sweet? (247)
- Countess Torby sold Queen Mary a diamond and sapphire necklace, which Mary later gave to her daughter (the Princess Royal) as a wedding present. It was believed to have belonged to Empress Elisabeth (although the author doesn’t specify which one – presumably Alexander I’s wife and not Peter the Great’s daughter). (282)
- According to Harold, it was his sister-in-law, Nada, who encouraged Princess Marina to marry Prince George (later Duke of Kent). (338)
- When Julius’s wife, then Lady Ludlow, died, she left Queen Mary several things from her vast collection of British porcelain. Mary returned the peacock and peahen to Harold, saying she was superstitious about them and hoped he wouldn’t be offended. (399)
- Grand Duke Michael had a number of eccentricities. He couldn’t stand the sound of rustling paper, and neither could Zia. She forbid the wrapping of Christmas presents and instead, called the family to her bedside on Christmas morning. Their presents were buried in the folds of her bedding. (431)
Subtitle: Social Climbing in London and New York
Author: Anne de Courcy
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
This book is about the late 19th century trend of rich American women marrying titled British men. In many cases, the men were in need of a cash infusion to save their ancestral estates. The so-called American “Dollar Princesses” had the cash they needed, and – often – mothers who were anxious to see their daughters get a title in return. As this book shows, the mothers often needed their daughters’ social success to create or boost their own.
Unfortunately, in most cases, these marriages were unhappy.
American society and British society functioned differently in terms of the expected role of women. In American society, women ran things while the men worked. In British society, the men ran politics, the government, and society at large while the women ran their husband’s house and not much else. American girls who’d grown up seeing their mothers in positions of social power and experiencing power themselves (over doting fathers and lovestruck suitors) found themselves with less freedom and power. No longer the belle of the ball or a cosseted daughter, these women often struggled to replicate the free and easy lifestyle they’d had in America.
Some of the people covered are:
- Alva Vanderbilt Belmont & Consuelo Vanderbilt, future Duchess of Marlborough
- Consuelo Yznaga, future Duchess of Manchester and Devonshire
- The three Jerome sisters (but especially Jennie, future Lady Randolph Churchill)
- May Goelet, future Duchess of Roxburgh
- Adèle Beach Grant, future Countess of Essex
- Anna Gould, future Countess de Castellane
- The “marrying Wilsons”: Grace, May, Belle, and Richard
- Cornelia Bradley-Martin, future Countess of Craven
- Minnie Stevens, future Lady Paget
- Virginia Bonynge, future Viscountess Deerhurst
- Maud Burke, the future Lady “Emerald” Cunard
- Tennessee Claflin, the future Viscountess of Monserrate
In terms of organization, this book felt a little disjointed. I suspect it’s made up of chapters written at separate times for separate purposes cobbled together into a book. At times, information is repeated, which is what made me think some chapters might have been written as stand-alone articles intended for other publications. People are mentioned, dropped, then discussed again 50 or 75 pages later. Some people are only mentioned in the chapter devoted to them, such as Virginia Bonynge. Some chapters cover what it was like to live in the Gilded Age; others cover individual stories or themes. In general, the book follows a chronological timeline, but there’s lots of jumping around between people’s stories and general information about the period.
Should You Read It?
If you can get it from your library or buy the Kindle version ($3.99, as of this writing), yes. There are some great stories in here, like the chapter on Virginia Bonynge. I wish there were an entire book about Virginia’s family story – it’s worth the price of this book alone.
Subtitle: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon’s Greatest Army
Author: Stephan Talty
Publisher: Crown Publishers
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
This book tells a very scary story: how typhus resurfaced during Napoleon’s march into Russia, decimated his army, and contributed greatly to the failure of his campaign there. Typhus had been around for centuries, if not millennia, but was little understood. It cropped up when armies marched across countries and continents. It had appeared in the 15th century, when Ferdinand and Isabella fought to force the Moors out of Spain. And it had cropped up again in the 16th, when Francis I of France had tried to conquer Italy.
The disease produced similar symptoms in its victims: lethargy, fatigue, fever, and spots on the torso and legs (but not the face and hands). It not only affected soldiers on the move, but people in the countryside around them – the people who fed them, housed them, and nursed them. But germ theory was not common knowledge, so people believed this disease was spread by bad smells in the air, or just the air in general.
They didn’t know it was the common louse, jumping from victim to victim.
All they knew was that the disease was killing incredible numbers of the men of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Of course, disease wasn’t the only thing killing them. Cold, hunger, thirst, and starvation took their tool, too. But this book’s argument is that typhus left those other factors in the dust.
Here are a few stats Talty provides on page 252:
- Between 550,000 and 600,000 French soldiers crossed the Niemen onto Russian territory.
- About 100,000 were captured.
- Total dead are estimated between 400,000 – 540,000, depending on the source.
- Less than 25% of those died fighting.
Of course, it’s not possible to show how many men died specifically from typhus, as opposed to hypothermia or starvation. But those numbers alone show how devastating this campaign was, and how important it is to take every factor into consideration when talking about why it failed.
Should You Read It?
Yes – I found this book fascinating and easy to read. It doesn’t have the detail of, say, Dominic Lieven’s book on the Russian campaign, but that’s not what its purpose is. You have to understand how the campaign unfolded to see how the disease took hold, so there’s enough information to understand how, where, and why the army moved where it did. Plus, it’s written for a general audience, so you don’t need to know anything about germ theory or Napoleonic warfare to enjoy the story.
Subtitle: Mémoires de la dernière princesse héritière d'Autriche-Hongrie
Author: Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, Countess of Lonyay
Publisher: Editions Frédérique Patat
Available at: Google Play Books
What’s It About?
Born in 1864, Princess Stéphanie of Belgium was married to Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria-Hungary when she was barely sixteen. If you follow my book-reading odyssey, you’ll be familiar with her father, King Leopold II of the Belgians (portrayed in King Leopold’s Ghost). Stéphanie describes her childhood as cold. She longed for affection and praise and almost never got it from either parent. Her mother, she explains, walled off her emotions after her only son died young. Her two daughters, Stéphanie and Louise, found affection and companionship in each other and household staff members.
Stéphanie’s marriage was an arranged one. Her father thought it would be good to have a tie with Austria-Hungary, and that was that. The marriage started out relatively well, but quickly turned sour because Rudolf and Stéphanie had little in common. That’s not surprising – what would a sheltered teenage girl have in common with a worldly, already disillusioned man in his twenties? The couple had one child together, a daughter – not the son and heir the empire desired. But there would not be another child because Rudolf infected Stéphanie with venereal disease, destroying her ability to have another child.
Although they remained married, they were not happy. Rudolf hunted, slept with his mistresses, inspected army regiments, and wrote editorials for the Neue Wiener Tageblatt. Stéphanie was left behind to keep up appearances at court, often filling in for the absent and uninterested Empress Elisabeth.
Then, in 1889, Rudolf died by suicide at his hunting lodge of Mayerling – after shooting his teenage mistress, Mary Vetsera, in a murder-suicide pact. Stéphanie was one of the only people who had tried to help Rudolf by bringing his deteriorating mental and physical condition to her in-laws’ attention. They did nothing.
This book only covers Stéphanie’s life through Rudolf’s death. Later in life, she married Count Elmer Lonyay, a Hungarian noble. You won’t meet him anywhere in these pages, however. The book ends with a lovely condolence letter written to Stéphanie by Queen Elisabeth of Romania (Carmen Sylva).
Stéphanie usually gets a bad rap – she’s described as haughty, ambitious, silly, and unintelligent. And yes, parts of this book are extremely flattering to her, and any modern reader is instantly going to see some self-aggrandizing going on here. But at the same time, there’s more to Stéphanie than most people gave her credit for. She was devoted to her duty as the future empress – which is more than could ever be said for her mother-in-law, the actual empress. She was the only person who really tried to save Rudolf. She writes about the coldness and deprivations of her childhood and her deep need for love and affection. That kind of need, that longing, can really mess a kid up. Not to mention being married so young. I’m prepared to give her quite a bit of slack for the so-called crimes of ambition and imperial haughtiness. She was finding worth and validation through her position – which she was forced into by her parents. In my mind, she was trying to make the best of a situation she didn’t ask for.
Should You Read It?
If you’re interested in the Habsburgs and read French, yes.
In my opinion, Stéphanie doesn’t always see herself clearly. Everywhere she goes, she wants you to know that she won all hearts, that people were crazy about her, that she was universally admired and beloved. Maybe – but something rang a little false about these statements, so I took her descriptions of raving crowds and faithful peasants with a grain of salt. At one point, she admits that her “natural gift for winning hearts” came from her mother “and I had no merit in it.” (Ch. 5)
But even if her descriptions of herself can’t quite be trusted, she says some insightful things about other people.
She mentions several other women accused of being ambitious – her aunt Charlotte (Empress of Mexico) and her aunt Victoria (Crown Princess of Prussia). She couches Charlotte’s ambition as a product of vast intelligence and willingness to do good in the world. Of Victoria, she says: “Already, at that time, she was the target of violent attacks. She was said to be ambitious, proud and intriguing. They forgot to say that when a princess marries a crown prince, her desire, obviously, is to become empress or queen; and then is not this ambition entirely justified? … Like all intelligent women of quality who were forbidden to use their abilities, she suffered from her inactivity.” (Ch. 3)
I kind of love that Stéphanie brings this up – as children, these girls are given to heirs to a throne, and then punished when they like (or convince themselves they like) the perks of the job. As if they were ever given a choice….
- All 3 kids had small gardens at Laeken. After their brother died, Louise and Stéphanie took care of his garden for him. They arranged flower beds, dug, sowed, planted, weeded, and grafted. I love the idea of two sisters keeping their dead brother’s garden alive. Later, after Louise married, Stephanie took care of her garden until her younger sister, Clémentine, was old enough to take it over. (Ch. 1)
- She owned a painting done by her aunt, Charlotte (Empress Carlota of Mexico). (Ch. 1)
- According to Stéphanie, at age 15, her parents called her to them and her father said, “The Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary has come here to ask for your hand. Your mother and I are all in favor of this marriage. We have chosen you to be Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. Go away, think about it and give us your answer tomorrow.” That night, when she went to talk to her mom and express her doubts, her mom talked her into it. Stephanie bought into the vision of herself as a sovereign, there to ensure the well-being of her mother’s people. But the doubts about marrying a man she didn’t know lingered. “I could not have known that already at that time I had been duped. It was only later, much later, that I was told that my future husband had not come to Brussels alone, that his friend, a certain Dame F., had accompanied him.” And by “friend,” she means a friend with benefits. (Ch. 2)
- Stéphanie’s wedding gift from the city of Budapest? “…necklace, earrings, belt, chain and barrettes, a gift from the city of Budapest. All of these jewels represented a kilo and a half of gold, in addition to 32 large brilliants, a thousand smaller brilliants, three hundred opals and four magnificent rubies.” Dayum. (Ch. 3)
- Of former Empress Maria Anna, widow of Emperor Ferdinand, Stéphanie says: “Despite fifty years of residence in Austria, she had not learned German; we had to speak French or Italian to her.” (Ch. 3)
- Stéphanie was a late bloomer. In the first year of marriage, she describes being tired from what sound like growth spurts. Then, when she had her baby Elisabeth in 1883, she says that when she got up from childbed, “I was surprised to find that my dresses were too short. I had grown suddenly and was even slightly taller than the Crown Prince.” (Ch. 3)
Subtitle: Countdown to War
Author: Sean McMeekin
Publisher: Basic Books
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
McMeekin’s thesis is that Russia and France should carry more of the blame for starting the war than traditionally assigned. You usually see blame assigned to Germany and Austria-Hungary, not members of the Triple Entente. McMeekin presents Russia and France as led by politicians who willingly withheld information from their allies to make the situation look worse than it was. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians, by contrast, are largely presented as bumblers, at cross purposes with each other despite being allies.
This book highlights how dysfunctional the Austrian government really was. When Foreign Minister Berchtold and General Conrad were eager for war, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Count Tisza, held them back. Not because of humanitarian concerns, but because war wasn’t good for his home country of Hungary. Now, in most cases, holding someone back from starting a war is a good thing. But in this case, a quick war against Serbia – begun before the Russians could mobilize, and with the full support of Germany – might have been the best way out of a global conflict. But because of the power Franz Josef had had to give to Hungary as a member of the Dual Monarchy, there was nothing he could do when Tisza cock-blocked the idea of a short, fast war against Serbia. Tisza’s attempt to safeguard Hungarian interests at the expense of Austria’s comes off as one of the key moves that made a larger, deadlier conflict inevitable.
So how does McMeekin attempt to prove the Russians and French had a hand in engineering the war? Well, for starters, Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov straight-up told the French ambassador they were doing so. As McMeekin notes, on July 24: “In less than three hours , Russia’s foreign minister had (1) instructed Serbia’s minister not to comply with Austria’s ultimatum and promised that ‘Serbia may count on Russian aid’ (although it is unclear whether he also spelled out what form this ‘aid’ would take); (2) warned Germany’s ambassador that Russia would go to war with Austria if she ‘swallowed up’ Serbia; and (3) informed France’s ambassador about Russia’s impending mobilization measures.” (190)
The fact that France knew about Russia’s mobilization and hid it from the British (and did nothing to stop it) brings them in for some measure of blame. They knew Russia was mobilizing and let it happen. As McMeekin notes: “Addressing journalists at the Chamber of Deputies, Jaurès was seen to ‘explode’ in anger over Russia’s malign influence on French foreign policy: ‘Are we going to unleash a world war because Izvolsky is still furious over Aehrenthal’s deception in the Bosnian affair [of 1908–1909]?’” (322) The answer, apparently, was yes.
I won’t go into more detail here – no spoilers. But it was definitely interesting to read McMeekin’s arguments. I’m not sure I agree with them, but they’ve given me more to think about.
Should You Read It?
If you’re interested in WWI, yes.
If you’d rather stick with royal women, this is probably too wide a scope for you to enjoy. Franz Josef, Wilhelm II, and Nicholas II are all prime movers in this story, but women are few and far between.
- Franz Ferdinand had a psychic moment. As Franz Ferdinand travelled to Sarajevo in June of 1914, the wiring in his train car was on the fritz. Candlelight was the only available light, and Franz Ferdinand’s reply was prescient: he said traveling in that train car was like traveling “in a tomb.” (5)
- The British ambassador to Vienna dropped the ball. Not everyone in the Austro-Hungarian government wanted war. While the Austro-Hungarians were still trying to get their shit together in mid-July, retired Austrian ambassador Heinrich Lützow left Vienna for his country estate. His neighbor just happened to be the British Ambassador to Vienna, Sir Maurice de Bunsen. On July 15, Lützow actually told de Bunsen what Austria was up to, what with the ultimatum to Serbia being intentionally designed to provoke a belligerent response. “As far as we can glean from Lützow’s memoirs , his own intention was to frustrate Berchtold’s designs by warning the British about what was brewing , in the hope that they might act to restrain Serbia , France , and Russia.” And what did de Bunsen do with this information? Nothing. He did not forward this information to London. SMH. See something, say something, dude. (128)
- French president Raymond Poincaré was not super-impressed by Tsar Nicholas II’s palace at Peterhof when he came for a visit in late July (20-23). “Poincaré was less than impressed by the park, which he found ‘a rather fadé replica of Versailles.’ His ‘heavily gilt,’ white satin–lined suite, too, he found overdone, ‘being somewhat of a piece with the over-decorated galleries and the great saloons, the gorgeousness of which seems rather to run riot.’” (149)
- Grand Duchess Anastasia, wife of Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich, may have let too much slip to the French ambassador. During Poincaré’s visit, she told France’s ambassador to Russia, Maurice Paléologue, exactly what was up. “When the champagne started flowing, the mood grew more euphoric still. Grand Duchess Anastasia, as if taking Paléologue into confidence, told France’s ambassador that ‘there’s going to be war. There’ll be nothing left of Austria. You’re going to get back Alsace and Lorraine. Our armies will meet in Berlin. Germany will be destroyed!’ She may have been just warming up, but a ‘stern gaze’ from Tsar Nicholas II cut off this belligerent reverie. Anastasia was, after all, married to the host, a possible commander in chief of the Russian armies.” (163)
- Kaiser Wilhelm II only read Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia in the newspaper. The Austrians had not sent it to Germany ahead of time, despite relying on Germany’s “blank check” in terms of support for a war against Serbia. As McMeekin notes: “What angered Wilhelm most was that he had finally learned that day [Monday, July 27]of the text of Austria’s Thursday ultimatum to Belgrade — not from Jagow or Bethmann, but from the Wolff news agency.” (225)
- Berchtold lied to Franz Josef to get him to approve the declaration of war on Serbia. On the morning of Tuesday, July 28, Berchtold went to the emperor at Bad Ischl and persuaded him to declare war. How? By telling him that Serbian troops had already fired on Austrians on the Danube. They had not. (244)
- When Austria finally declared war on Serbia on July 28, Serbian officials thought it was a joke. The telegram declaring war came through at 11:10 am on Tuesday morning, July 28. The Serbians deciphered it at 12:30 pm. “…Berchtold’s telegram was unaccompanied by any military action, which appears to have left the Serbians in doubt as to its veracity. Pašić, indeed, thought it was a hoax, not least because the direct telegraphic line to Austria had been cut off and he was not sure how the telegram had reached Serbian territory. Serbia’s prime minister went so far as to wire to Petersburg, Paris, and London to inform friendly powers ‘of the strange telegram he had received and to ask whether it was true that Austria had declared war on Serbia.’” (245) A fiction writer couldn’t make this stuff up.
Author: Detlef Jena
Publisher: Verlag Friedrich Pustet
Available at: Amazon
First things first. This book is in German, which means I had to scan it and translate it digitally, which results in a less than optimal reading experience. Some books translate really well using digital translators, while others – like this one – do not. I used Amazon Translate for a first pass, which gets you an 80% readable copy.
Then you have to take individual sentences that don’t make sense and try a different digital translator, like Google Translate or DeepL. Doing that, you can get to a 95% readable copy.
There are always some sentences that just don’t translate well at all, leaving me to muddle through the construction of the sentence using what I remember from four years of high school French (not really applicable) and one quarter of college linguistics (actually helpful). Whenever I use this method for a non-English book, there’s no way I can comment on the style because I’m not absorbing it as intended. Sometimes I can barely comment on the information contained in a book, depending on how good the translation feels.
That being said, I can only offer a few general impressions about the book. Any value judgments would be unfair. So I’ll just gather those impressions into two main bunches: positive and negative.
But First: Let’s Meet Katharina
For those who aren’t familiar with Katharina Pawlowna, she was the beloved sister of Tsar Alexander I of Russia. An when I say “beloved,” I mean it – there are letters between them that are downright flirtatious. In terms of personality, she was willful, spoiled, and self-centered to the near-exclusion of all other personal characteristics. Every situation needed to be about her, and if she deployed her not inconsiderable intelligence or charm, you could damn well bet there was a reason for it. She was an ambition monster, to borrow a phrase I’ve seen recently online. She felt she was destined to rule and do great things, and she pursued that goal with a persistence that any modern CEO would envy.
When Napoleon expressed an only-partly-serious wish to marry her (before he’d ever divorced Josephine), the family panicked and rushed an already-existing plan to marry her to a Prince Georg of Oldenburg-Holstein to get her off the marriage market. The marriage was a happy one, but Katharina definitely wore the pants in that relationship. She and Prince Georg had two sons, but unfortunately Georg died in late 1812, during one of the most dramatic events of Russian history: Napoleon’s invasion of and subsequent retreat from Russia.
Always ambitious, Katharina decided her second husband needed to be more powerful and influential – so she, by extension, could wield some or all of that power. Efforts to sound out the Austrian emperor did not go well. Neither did the Romanovs’ efforts to match Katharina with an archduke. When Katharina latched onto Crown Prince Wilhelm of Württemberg, it was an ideal match: Wilhelm was also ambitious and prideful.
At the time, it seemed like there was a possibility he might play a role in the future of a united Germany…and Katharina liked the idea of being a potential future German empress. That didn’t work out, in part due to her brother’s pact with the King of Prussia and Emperor of Austria to hold the status quo in Europe after all the Napoleonic upheavals. Monarchical legitimacy was the name of their game, and creating an entirely new empire was a little too much change all at once. Katharina’s ambition to rule was fulfilled, but only on a smaller scale, when she became Queen of Württemberg. She threw herself into the role with charity and social work, creating lasting change aimed at helping women get an education, as well as helping the lower and middle classes save for a rainy day in new national savings banks.
But Katharina was not a healthy woman. After her first husband died in late 1812, she developed a sickness where she’d have periods every day of total stiffness/partial paralysis. It happened pretty much daily for up to an hour. Over time, those episodes eased up, to the point where she felt strong and capable in 1815 – or at least that’s the impression she wanted to give. In reality, she was probably still deeply unhealthy, and exerted a superhuman effort to keep anyone from knowing how ill she was. So when she died at the age of 30 in early 1819, the world wondered: why? Conspiracy theories developed that she’d seen her husband cheating on her and basically died of heartbreak and shock. That’s almost certainly bunk. In reality, it was a combination of things: a worn-down immune system, a cold that turned into something worse, an erysipelas attack, and possibly also a stroke. There was no way her body could fight all these things at once, and she died leaving Wilhelm of Württemberg with their two young daughters.
- Jena provided a really good chapter summarizing the conspiracy theories around her death. It was so unbelievable to people at the time that a seemingly healthy woman would have died after what seemed like a light illness in just a few days. But he makes the point that she wasn’t a healthy woman – that was the impression she worked so hard to give, and it worked a little too well in the end. This was the best and most balanced chapter in the whole book. Really well done.
- Jena provided quotes from onlookers who both admired and detested Katharina. She did not have a good showing in Britain, for example, pissing off nearly everyone who had to interact with her, including the Prince Regent (future King George IV). But there were plenty of intellectuals and writers, for example, who left kind words about her. The impression I came away with was that she could be whatever the situation called for: charming, flirtatious, intellectual, ruthless, or analytical…and she would deploy any or all of these attributes at any time if there was something in it for her. This makes her a hard person to understand, let alone like, and reading this in translation did not help with that.
- For a book that clocked in at 124,179 words of text (plus notes and sources), I feel like there wasn’t a lot of information in it. The book contains a lot of authorial evaluation and judgment of her character. And since her character (as it’s represented here) was all about ambition, we’re pounded over the head with what feels like a million repetitions of her goals and dreams.
- Based on the translation, it seemed like Jena contradicted himself multiple times by building up Katharina’s influence over a person or situation and then discrediting it all by saying she actually had no effect at all. Despite all her scheming, and man, this woman schemed more than Blair Waldorf in Gossip Girl, I came away with the impression that the only real historic effects she had were (1) the dismissal of Speransky as Tsar Alexander’s advisor, and (2) her charity work in Württemberg, still remembered today. Jena made a big deal about Catherine’s total commitment to fighting Napoleon, and her effort to get her brother to fight him. But, because of the sketchy translation, I was unable to grasp what those efforts actually amounted to. I’m heading for a couple English-language biographies of Alexander next to see if I can get a better picture of the situation.
And what about that tense relationship between Katharina and her sister, Anna? Well, it wasn’t discussed at all here – but I gleaned a few facts that may offer indirect support. And, like I mentioned, it doesn’t seem like Katharina was easy to like at all. It might have been as simple as that.
Should You Read It?
If you’re Romanov-obsessed and read German, yes. For one, there’s not that much information on her available in English. If you’re not obsessed and only casually curious about the Romanovs, I’d say skip this and read her correspondence with Tsar Alexander I instead (free via Archive.org). If that intrigues you (and you can read German), dive deeper with this book.
Subtitle: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
Author: Adam Hochschild
Publisher: Mariner Books
Year: 2020 (first edition, 1998)
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
Long story short: During the late 19th century “scramble for Africa,” Leopold took advantage of European explorers and missionaries and used them to seize control of the Congo, which he took possession of as a personal colony in 1885. And then he ruthlessly exploited its people and resources to make money. His decisions led to the mass murder of an estimated 10 million of Africans. Let that sink in – an estimated 10 million. Leopold never cared about anything but profit, earned mostly from wild rubber. Prestige and power were nice, but secondary to the cold, hard cash. The court of public opinion eventually forced him to sell the Congo to Belgium, but the damage had been done. And he was never sorry about any of it, not until the day he died.
Should You Read It?
Yes. This book is very well-written – Hochschild uses fictional techniques like foreshadowing and cliffhanger chapter endings. Like every other English major on the planet, I read Heart of Darkness in college. Like 99% of the books I read in college, it meant little to me at the time. But now, as a 45-year-old woman, with a better idea of how hard and horrible the world can be, the tie-in with the subject matter of Conrad’s most famous novel was very appealing.
Hochschild populates this book with a lot of memorable characters: writer Joseph Conrad, explorer Henry Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame), and of course, the chief asshole, Leopold himself. What’s even better is the depiction of courageous people who saw what was happening and spoke up: English shipping clerk Edmund Morel, African-American journalist George Washington Williams, African-American missionary William Sheppard, and Irish nationalist Roger Casement are all worth meeting. Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, and Arthur Conan Doyle also make appearances.
- Leopold married Archduchess Marie Henriette of Austria. A month later, she wrote, “If God hears my prayers, I shall not go on living much longer.” Doesn’t that break your heart? (35)
- When Leopold visited Seville as a student, he was more interested in money than in sightseeing. He wrote, “I am very busy here going through the Indies archives and calculating the profit which Spain made then and makes now out of her colonies.” (36)
- The U.S. was the first country to officially recognize the Congo as Leopold’s possession. Stellar work.
- The invention of the rubber bicycle tire in 1887 transformed the Congo into Leopold’s personal ATM. His soldiers and employees forced Africans to gather rubber for them. If they didn’t meet Leopold’s quotas, they were maimed or murdered or their families were kidnapped or maimed or murdered or starved or all of the above.
- When Leopold’s daughter Stephanie remarried a Hungarian count (her first husband, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, famously died by suicide), Leopold would only refer to her second husband as “that shepherd.” (135)
- Kaiser Wilhelm II and his wife both loathed Leopold. Wilhelm once called him “Satan and Mammon in one person.” (239) Augusta Viktoria once had a room he had stayed in exorcised after he left.
- According to the author’s estimate, the population of the Congo was halved between 1880 and 1920, reduced from 20 million to 10 million. That’s due to disease, starvation, and murder.
- After Leopold’s death, it took decades for investigators to uncover where he’d hidden all his money. It was a trail of shell company after shell company. By 1923, they finally got a handle on things and realized some of the money he’d appropriated had belonged to his sister Charlotte, still alive but mentally ill.
- Jules Marchal, a leading historian who studied Leopold and the Congo, estimates that Leopold made 220 million francs ($1.1 billion in today’s money) from the Congo. (277)
- 9 out of 10 New York publishers turned down this book because they thought American readers would not be interested in African history.
Subtitle: The Saga of the Stuart Pretenders
Author: Theo Aronson
Publisher: Lume Books
Year: 2020 (digital edition)
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
King James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but that didn’t end Stuart hopes of ruling Britain. James’s son, also named James (the Old Pretender), tried to invade and conquer Britain in 1715. It didn’t work out. It also didn’t work out in 1745, when James’s grandson, Prince Charles Edward (the Young Pretender) tried it. This book covers both of those famous risings, and a whole lot more.
The story begins with James II and Queen Mary of Modena as they fled England for France and set up a shadow court under the good graces of King Louis XIV. After a few initial missteps with Louis’s brother, Monsieur (a stickler for etiquette), Mary of Modena became the respected leader of the Jacobin court in exile. Her grace, intelligence, sensible judgment, and devotion to her aging husband made her a beloved figure. Their children, James III (to Legitimists) and Princess Louise, were the shining lights of the Stuart dynasty for a short time.
Unfortunately, the beautiful and intelligent Louise died young. And James III failed to regain his father’s throne. He married a Polish princess, Maria Clementina Sobieska, and had two sons: Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) and Henry. Although both of those sons were known as King Charles III and King Henry IX by their followers, they became “also-rans” in the history books, both dying with no legitimate male heirs.
When Henry IX died in 1807, the Stuart legitimists had to consult the family tree to find their next pretender. By that point, it was mostly an exercise in nomenclature. The Hanoverian kings had a firm grip on Britain, and no foreign power was going to risk supporting a Stuart in yet another rising. It’s a fascinating story, made even better by Aronson’s eye for anecdotes and personal details.
Should You Read It?
Yes. I really enjoyed this, mostly because the stories were new to me. Aronson is a good writer who always keeps the focus on the personalities rather than the politics, which I appreciate so much.
- James II and Mary of Modena’s son, Prince James Francis Edward, was subject to a strange ritual of 18th century childcare: “He should have been swaddled at all times, not only at night, ran one criticism; and was it really necessary, ran another, for him to be tossed up, gurgling, into the air in order to prevent him from contracting what the English called ‘Ricket’?” (81)
- James II had two illegitimate sons with Arabella Churchill. The first, the Duke of Berwick, joined the French army and married the daughter of one of Mary of Modena’s ladies-in-waiting. The second, Henry Fitzjames, was described by the Duc de Saint-Simon as “the stupidest man on earth.” Ouch. (106)
- James III (the Old Pretender) fell in love with Princess Benedicta of Modena, a cousin of his mother and the oldest daughter of the reigning duke. But the duke was too afraid to piss off King George I by letting his daughter marry the guy angling for George’s throne. He refused to allow the marriage, and broke James’s heart.
- Emperor Charles V arrested James III’s intended bride, Maria Clementina Sobieska, at the request of King George I. George really didn’t want James to marry the wealthy Polish princess, produce heirs, and continue the struggle to regain the throne. George even offered a huge bribe to anyone else who would marry Maria Clementina. She refused all comers, however, since she’d had a dream that she would one day be queen of England.
- While in hiding in Scotland after his failed rising, Charles III (the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie) fell in love (or at least in “like”) with his host’s niece, Clementina Walkinshaw – who had been named after Charles’s mother. Previously uninterested in women in general, he developed a bond with Clementina because she wasn’t out to seduce him. It was one of the few untroubled relationships he ever had with a woman. Years later, in 1752, they ended up living together in Ghent. Aronson says it’s unclear if he asked her to join him or if she volunteered. (241)
- In 1750, Charles III converted to Anglicanism. I don’t know why I never knew this before. What a silly choice – it alienated all his Catholic supporters, and didn’t win him any new English ones. He was already a lost cause and they knew it.
- Bonnie Prince Charlie had an illegitimate daughter with Clementina Walkinshaw named Charlotte, who late took the title Duchess of Albany. He did not have any children with his wife, Princess Louise of Stolberg (Queen Louise, to Stuart legitimists). When they married, she was a beautiful but poor 20-year-old and he was 52. Ouch.
Editor: C.A. Tamse
Publisher: De Walburg Press
Available at: AbeBooks
What’s It About?
Sophie was born a princess of Württemberg in 1818. Her father was King Wilhelm I and her mother was Queen Catherine (born Grand Duchess Ekaterina Pavlovna). This memoir covers her mother’s death (early 1819), her father’s remarriage, her education, and the plaguing question of who Sophie would marry. She cuts off this memoir when she marries Prince Willem of Orange, a marriage that did not go well, to put it mildly.
For more background on Sophie, you can check out my video. I did collect her impressions of her immediate family, her Romanov relatives, and her Bonaparte relatives for my Patreon peeps. If you want to join and take a look, click here to see that post.
Should You Read It?
If you read Dutch, absolutely.
It’s extremely well-footnoted, so you’re not going to miss any of Sophie’s references. Here’s a sentence with three footnotes: “Around this time in Stuttgart, I also met Mademoiselle Protasov17, friend and confidant of Katharina II18, mentioned in de Ségur's memoirs.19” (18)
If you don’t (like me), it’s going to take some doing to scan and translate, but it’s worth it. It includes Professor Tamse’s commentary after Sophie’s actual memoir concludes. My translated Word doc came to 133 pages, just shy of 50,000 words.
I created a post with what she said about her immediately family, her Romanov relatives, and her Bonaparte relatives for my Patreon peeps. Become a patron to read it! Sophie doesn’t disappoint, and I put some of my favorite tidbits there. Here are a few more – seriously, I’m spoiled for choice when it comes to Sophie:
- How it started: “This is my life story. It does not include a single notable event or shocking denouement.” (7)
- How it’s going: “Despite my good memory, by God's grace, I've almost forgotten the first few days of my marriage. I guess I had suffered too much and was numb.” (76) Yikes.
- Sophie was a preemie and wasn’t expected to survive: “…I was a girl, so tender and small that my aunt [the Queen] of Westphalia28 wrote in her diary: ‘This child is so weak and insignificant that I don't believe in her viability.’” (11)
- She was always attached to her two-half brothers, children of Ekaterina and her first husband, Prince Georg of Oldenburg: “Every two years, they came to visit us in autumn and stayed with us for a few weeks. But we were separated for life. Although I can't remember the time when we lived under the same roof, neither my sister nor I lost the sense that we belonged to them for a moment.” (11)
- When Ekaterina died, Wilhelm still had no son and heir. So the Romanovs suggested two possible future brides: “a Princess of Mecklenburg (Maria of Mecklenburg married to a Prince of Saxe-Altenburg) and Maria of Weimar (married Prince Karl of Prussia).” Of course, Wilhelm chose neither; he married a cousin, Pauline of Württemberg.
- Sophie was…not fond…of her stepmother: “My stepmother wasn't a bad character, but her vice came from mediocrity. She was moderately educated and made no effort to broaden her horizons. She was not interested in anything, she read nothing and she found unimportant what she was not aware of.” (12) OUCH.
- Sophie on the nature of her childhood grief: “From the moment I was able to think consciously, I missed my mother…But the thought, which so often came to my mind afterwards, why this sorrow had been brought upon me, did not disturb me in my youth. That is because young people are religious by nature. Doubt and rebellion come later. Children believe and accept.” (13)
- Her mother’s English nurse, Miss Drust, stayed with the family after her mother’s death. “She often stroked my hair that reminded her of my mother and squeezed my fingertips to make them thinner.” (17) Is that really a thing? Pinching fingertips to make them skinny?
- Sophie had a great admiration for her Bonaparte relatives. Maybe some of this came from the grandmistress of her household, Countess von Beroldingen: “She called Napoleon ‘Buonaparté’; she read his Mémoires de Ste Hélène with dedication and she spoke to us about him as if he were a wonderful creature: half angel, half devil. Because of her actions, he came to live in my imagination and I secretly venerated him.” (25)
- Sophie dreamed that she would die young: “I remember a wonderful dream that I had at that time. I saw my mother high on a mountain dressed in a white dress and a red scarf. She told me: ‘I’ll stay with you, but I'll take you with me when you're thirty.’ The dream was repeated and I was convinced that I would die at thirty.” (33)
- Sophie volunteered as an assistant to her father: “During the same period, my father started talking to me about politics and letting me see documents. He took pleasure in asking me all kinds of questions and then listening to my answers. It was a bit like Molière reading his comedies to his maid. He had me make extracts and translations, because I wrote more correctly in French than his secretaries.” (45)
Author: Robert Pick
Publisher: Dial Press
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
The book opens on October 21, 1916 – with a murder. Austria-Hungary’s Prime Minister, Count Karl Stürgkh, was shot and killed while eating lunch at the Hotel Meissel and Schadn. I love that the author included details about what the doomed man ordered, based on an interview with the restaurant’s head waiter who was there at the time: “a bowl of mushroom soup, a dish of boiled beef with mashed turnips…and a farina confection which ‘wasn’t bad at all.’ A tumbler of dry white wine mixed with seltzer was served with the meal.” (2-3) This assassin, Dr. Friedrich Adler, fired three shots into Stürgkh’s head and shouted, “Down with absolutism! We want peace!”(5)
It’s a dramatic scene, and a good introduction to the fall of an empire.
This book doesn’t focus on royalty, like most of the books I read. It’s more about the overall political scene in Vienna. You get an in-depth look at the political parties active at the time: the Social Democrats, the Christian-Socials, and the Communists. Emperor Karl plays a large role, of course, but he’s just one spoke in the wheel (and not its hub). The story takes us from the prime minister’s assassination to war shortages to workers’ strikes to the Sixtus Affair to the government’s collapse. You get a good balance of quotes and descriptions from primary sources (diaries and letters) as well as newspaper articles from the time.
You really get a good sense of what it was like to live in Vienna as food and fuel grew scarce, as strikes loomed, as a war-weary people began to question what the war was really all for. The author is deft with details: a soap shortage leading to coffeehouses that smelled worse than usual, wooden shoes clattering on cobblestones in the inner city, etc. All in all, you can feel the exhaustion as you’re reading this. Joseph Redlich’s diary entry on the day Franz Josef died reads: “…a deep tiredness, close to apathy, is hovering over Vienna. Neither sorrow for the deceased nor joy over his successor can be noticed.” (14) Throughout the book, the author has a knack for picking great quotes from his sources, including Redlich’s diary.
Should You Read It?
If you’re interested in a wider view of the Habsburg dynasty’s fall, yes. If you’re only interested in royal women, this veers too far from that path and would probably bore you.
That being said, I’m not usually interested in politics myself, but the details and quotes Pick chose bring the story alive and make political goings-on more interesting than I would have imagined. So even if you don’t think the struggles of the Social Democrats against the Christian-Socials sound very interesting, give it a shot. You’ll have a broader understanding of what Karl and Zita were up against.
Subtitle: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire
Author: Geoffrey Wawro
Publisher: Basic Books
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
Long story short: This book is heavily focused on the initial period of World War I, from Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination to the last gasp of Austro-Hungarian-led military offensives in 1915. After these initial campaigns in Galicia, Serbia, and the Carpathians exhausted Austria-Hungary’s capabilities, the Germans were forced to come to their rescue. The Austro-Hungarian army was reduced to a supporting actor in the war, and Wawro summarizes the rest of these efforts in much less detail in the final couple chapters.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Wawro has opinions, which I like reading. There are lots of places to get the basic facts of who marched where and which battle took place on which date. It’s much more interesting to find out what the author actually thinks about the events he’s writing about.
Take, for example, Wawro’s characterization of Franz Joseph: “As a supreme commander, he was a butcher. As a strategist, he was a knight errant. As a statesman, whose longevity might have allowed him to fix or temper Austria-Hungary’s enfeebling problems, he was absent.” (383) Wawro rails against the “historical picture of the lone figure who presided over this unfolding human catastrophe” as “the bewhiskered old father of the empire whose heart was in the right place.” (383)
Ouch, right? But it’s valuable to get different takes on the situation because it forces you to start thinking. Who do you agree with? How should these historical figures be judged? We each have to make up our own minds. And to do that, I like to consider strongly voiced opinions like Wawro’s.
He also assigns Austria-Hungary more blame than most for causing the war in the first place. This makes me really want to read Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Origins of the First World War for a competing perspective (Russia and Germany started the war).
See, this is what’s amazing and devastating about history. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.
I’ve seen this situation happen in history books that focus on politics and war – they get small details about the royal figures involved wrong. I get it – that’s not their focus. To them, the royal figures are on the periphery of the action, supporting actors, and it’s not likely the authors spent years researching them before writing. But it does beg the question: what else might be glossed over or not looked into thoroughly? What other incorrect conclusions might the author have come to?
- Wawro puts a weird (and, to my mind, incorrect) spin on the timing of Franz Ferdinand being “named Austria-Hungary’s crown prince and heir apparent” in 1898. According to him, “everyone assumed – until 1898, when they gave up assuming – that the emperor would simply remarry and produce another son, rendering his nephew irrelevant. But the emperor, besotted with Frau Schratt, never bothered remarrying, and the so the monarchy was stuck with Franz Ferdinand.” (45) WTactualF. How could anyone in the empire, let alone “everyone,” assume up until 1898 that Franz Joseph would remarry…when he was still married to Elisabeth? Divorce was out of the question, as it had been for Crown Prince Rudolf prior to his death by suicide in 1889. It was only after 1898 and Elisabeth’s assassination that any question could even be raised of 68-year-old Franz Joseph’s remarrying. I seem to recall a minister or someone bringing this up to Franz Joseph, and it pretty much died on the vine. He was old, he had loved Elisabeth desperately, and never took the idea seriously. So up until 1898, the only people (the mysterious “everyone,” according to Wawro) who could possibly have considered the idea of the emperor remarrying were either misinformed or willfully ignorant. But, if he had decided to remarry, it would have been purely out of a sense of duty to the empire, his raison d’etre. The relationship with Katharina Schratt would not have prevented it. She was always meant to be a behind-the-scenes character in his life, and the presence or absence of Empress Elisabeth didn’t change that. This entire passage made me stop and write “WTF” in the margin because it didn’t make sense. It felt extremely unfounded, and had no footnotes or supporting information. Again, who is “everyone”? A minor point in the grand scheme of the book, but so wildly off course in terms of what I know of Franz Joseph that it made me question the author’s work in total.
- Wawro repeatedly refers to the Russian commander-in-chief, Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaevich, as Nicholas II’s uncle. Nope. One quick look at a Romanov family tree would show you that the commander-in-chief was not a brother of the tsar’s father (uncle), nor the father of any of the tsar’s actual uncles (great-uncle). The tsar and his commander-in-chief both descended from Tsar Nicholas I, making them cousins once removed. Again, not a deal-breaker, but this sloppiness reveals a willingness to trust details without verifying them. The more I learn about history (and the study of history), the more I realize you can’t trust anyone. Like, literally no one. Even if all of your sources refer to Nikolasha as the tsar’s uncle, you still have to go back to the family tree and double-check that yourself.
Should You Read It?
If you’re at all interested in World War I, yes. If you’re interested in Austria-Hungary, yes. Or if you’re interested in an alternate perspective on who should bear guilt for starting the war, yes.
Subtitle: Ein Leben für Ungarn
Author: K. Eberhard Oehler
Publisher: Ernst Franz Verlag
Available at: Abe Books
What’s It About?
First things first - information about Maria Dorothea is hard to come by. Neither the Habsburgs nor the Württemberg family has any documents on her, according to the author. The archives of the former palatine of Hungary no longer exist. A couple of Hungarian-language biographies and some church archives/biographies had most of the information available on her. So needless to say, this is a short biography but it covers what it’s possible to know about her.
Born in 1797 in Carlsruhe, Silesia, Maria Dorothea married Palatine Joseph of Hungary, the brother of Emperor Franz II of Austria. As one of only two Protestants who married into the Habsburg family, she had a rough time of it. They didn’t trust her, and worried she would try to convert the Hungarians her husband governed in the emperor’s name. She did all she could to support the existing Protestants in Hungary, but knew better than to openly defy her husband’s family. Still, when he died, the emperor recalled her to Vienna, unwilling to let her stay in Hungary. She was too dangerous, they all thought. In reality, she was a devout and pious woman who wanted to help anyone who needed it. The move to Vienna nearly broke her heart – she loved Hungary and the Hungarians. She died unexpectedly while on a visit to Hungary in 1855 and is buried in Budapest.
Should You Read It?
If you (a) read German, and (b) are obsessively interested in the Habsburgs, Hungary, or the Württemberg royal family, then yes.
If not, this might be a little arcane for you.
Because of the lack of information on Maria Dorothea, some parts of this biography are thin. Other times, the author tells you something but doesn’t provide any evidence or support. For example, after Maria Dorothea moved to Vienna as a widow, he writes of Emperor Franz Josef: “The young, educated and upright monarch adored the Protestant woman. Even as a young man, he often visited the Augarten with his brother Maximilian, who later became Emperor of Mexico.” (117) Okay, that’s great, but how do we know this? Did Franz Josef write to her? Praise her to others? This is all we get, a tidbit in passing. I have no doubt it’s true – the author did a great deal of research just to get us this far. But I wish there was more backup or detail for statements like this.
- Her dad, Duke Louis Eugene of Württemberg, spent money like water. At one point, he was in debtors’ prison in Warsaw and his brother, the king of Wurttemberg, had to negotiate for his release. That brother, Friedrich I, and his sister Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia, had to help him out with periodic cash payments. (15)
- Maria Dorothea’s sister Pauline married King Wilhelm I of Württemberg (her cousin).
- Maria Dorothea’s brother Alexander married Countess Claudine Rhedey morganatically – their children became the Counts and later Dukes of Teck (and, through Princess Mary of Teck, ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain & Ireland).
- In 1819, she became the third wife of Archduke Joseph, the Palatine of Hungary (brother of Emperor Franz II, both nephews of Marie Antoinette). His two previous wives had died in childbirth. His second wife left him with a set of twins, Stephen and Hermine.
- None of Joseph’s 3 wives were Catholics. This did not make for smooth sailing in the Habsburg family. When he married Maria Dorothea (a staunch Protestant), Emperor Franz II is supposed to have said: “I would like to pray for the life of this woman myself, because if she dies, your fourth wife will surely be a Jewess.” (32)
- Maria Dorothea learned Hungarian and fell in love with her adopted country. She spent just about every dime she had on charity that benefited the people of Buda and/or Hungary.
- The court in Vienna talked a lot of smack about her because, apparently, she did super weird things like let her kids see her and talk to her whenever they wanted. Perish the thought.
- Her daughter Maria Henriette married King Leopold II of the Belgians. They had a disastrous marriage, which sucks considering how happy her parents’ marriage was and what a good childhood and upbringing she had.
- After the emperor forced her to move to Vienna as a widow, she had to resort to underhanded methods to stay in touch with Protestants in Hungary. Franz Josef’s mother pressured her to convert to Catholicism, but she refused. She slipped letters to her Protestant friends using go-betweens like a ship’s campaign, doctor, and chambermaid. (101)
Subtitle: Contribution à l’histoire de la Russie et de l’Europe
Author: Marie Martin
This book is a French-language biography of Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia, born Sophia Dorothea of Württemberg. She married Catherine the Great’s son Paul as his second wife. Their early years of marriage were happy ones, with Maria giving Paul the emotional support and love he’d never gotten from his mother. Of their ten children, a whopping nine survived childhood. But as time passed, Paul’s mental state became problematic – worsening dramatically after he became tsar late in 1796. By 1798, his relationship with Maria Feodorovna had disintegrated almost completely; Maria lived in isolation and saw her husband for formal court-mandated events only. Why? Because courtier friends of Paul’s had convinced him that his wife and mistress were controlling him – and if there was one thing Paul absolutely couldn’t stand, it was being controlled by a woman.
But Paul did more than sabotage his personal relationships. He sabotaged his political ones, too, veering from an enemy of Napoleon to a friend, which really pissed off the British. With nutty plans in place to march across Asia to threaten the British in India, Paul seemed to be coming unhinged. Someone had to do something. And a group of conspirators finally did, murdering Paul in March of 1801 with the tacit approval of his son, now Tsar Alexander I. Of course, Alexander had insisted the conspirators merely dethrone his father, but…you know…shit happens.
No one knows what Alexander said to Maria Feodorovna the first time they saw each other after Paul’s murder. But from that day forward, Alexander deferred to her on anything that concerned family business. The near-universal conclusion was that his guilty conscience didn’t allow him to refuse his mother anything when it came to the aforementioned family business. He didn’t let her near politics, but she retained her iron control over court functions and protocol throughout Alexander’s reign, to the detriment of Alexander’s wife, the reigning empress. As dowager empress, she continued the work she’d been doing as reigning empress: running a slew of charities and schools. When Tsar Alexander died in late 1824, she was devastated. She died in 1828, having outlived five of her ten children.
So, other than a general Romanov fascination, why did I pay $93 for this book? Well, Maria Feodorovna was the grandmother of the six grand duchesses I hope to write about (Maria, Olga and Alexandra Nikolaevna and Maria, Elizaveta, and Ekaterina Mikhailovna). And although she died while they were all still quite young, she did so much to shape their parents, Nicholas and Michael. So I’ve been studying up on her as this grande dame of the family.
In many 19th century sources, she’s lionized – an icon of generosity, so caring, so kind, a nurturing mother, a supportive and loving wife even when wronged, a submissive daughter-in-law, yadda yadda. In others…not so much. A handful of authors paint her as a petty, shallow, ambitious woman – yes, she did wonderful charity work, but that shouldn’t erase her significant character flaws, they imply. The truth, I believe, lies somewhere in the middle.
Since this book had a hefty page count (457), I was hoping it would shed more light on that complicated personality. It didn’t quite do that for me, but it’s still the most comprehensive source on her you can get (especially since Shumigorski’s Russian-language biography only covers up to 1796).
Remember that page count of 457? Only 207 of them are the actual biography. The rest of the book contains snippets of Martin’s sources, printed from archives or reprinted from previously published sources. It was cool to see some of those archival sources – bits of letters, mostly – but at the same time, I wish I’d known the biography portion of the book was on the short side. It just didn’t have the depth that a full 400-page bio would have. It focuses heavily on her childhood and education in Étupes, charity work, and the palace of Pavlovsk, which reflected her taste in art, her European travels, and her overall aesthetic. I was really looking for something that focused on her relationship with her kids and her political career. But, at the end of the day, it’s still the most comprehensive resource you can find on her, which made it worth the hassle of finding.
Should You Read It?
If you read French, are Romanov-obsessed, and can get a hold of it, yes. If any of those things are not the case, probably skip this one.
- Some things about Maria Feodorovna’s life will forever remain a mystery. Why? Because her will asked her for her personal papers to be burnt, including her diary and her correspondence with her son, Tsar Alexander I.
- “Similarly, when Marie-Antoinette arrived in France in 1770 to marry the future Louis XVI, the Württemberg family, for reasons of protocol, refused to attend the ceremonies of her reception in Strasbourg: other princes would have taken precedence over them.” (34)
- Catherine the Great on Sophie Dorothea as a potential bride for her son: “She also has flaws, in particular having eleven siblings, but they are all minor…” (36)
- On changing her religion and her name to marry Grand Duke Paul: “As for the change of first name, she could have kept that of Sophia, which appears in the Orthodox calendar and which Catherine II also originally bore, but a long-lived tradition considered it harmful in the imperial family, because of the detestable memory left by the regent Sophie, sister of Peter the Great. The Empress chose for her new daughter-in-law the first name of Maria Féodorovna, under which she would henceforth be designated.” (50)
- Madame Campan, Marie Antoinette’s first chambermaid, had this to say about Maria Feodorovna as a young woman: “The Countess of the North, of a good size, very fat for her age, with the stiffness of the German bearing, educated and making it known perhaps with too much confidence, had not obtained in the first days the same success with the Queen [that Paul had with King Louis XVI].” (59)
- When Maria Feodorovna complained to Catherine the Great about a mistress of Paul’s: “The empress, in response, hands her daughter-in-law a mirror, reminds her that her rival is a ‘little monster,’ and advises her to have more confidence in herself.” (93)
- In 1807, she created the first school for deaf and non-verbal children in Russia, at her estate of Pavlovsk. (131)
- She funded many of her schools and charitable endeavors with a particular form of income: the sale of playing cards. She was granted a monopoly on this by her husband, Tsar Paul, in 1798. In 1819, her son Tsar Alexander I renewed this contract. (135)
- When the French army invaded Russia in 1812 and reached Moscow, Maria Feodorovna “gave in to fear, thinking above all of organizing a retreat in Finland for herself and for the students of her dear Institutes. Alexander called her back to calm: her flight would amplify the panic.” (171)
Subtitle: The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter
Author: Susan Nagel
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
If you know anything about Marie-Thérèse, it is probably this: she is the sole survivor of her immediate family, who all perished during the French Revolution. Both of her parents, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, went to the guillotine. Her younger brother, Louis-Charles, died while imprisoned. Only Marie-Thérèse survived.
In 1795, the French government traded her to Austria, her mother’s country, in a prisoner swap. Her Austrian uncle, Emperor Franz II, was keen for her to marry his younger brother, Karl. You know, keep all that money, jewelry, and pro-royalist PR in the family. But Marie-Thérèse wasn’t having it.
Her French uncle, Louis XVIII (the Comte de Provence), told her that her parents had wanted her to marry her cousin, the Duc d’Angoulême. And Marie-Thérèse believed him, although it wasn’t true. It wasn’t that her parents hadn’t wanted the match; it was that the revolution had overtaken them before Marie-Thérèse was old enough to be married, so it obviously took a backseat until, well, forever. But Marie-Thérèse clung to the idea that that was what her beloved parents wanted her to do, and she refused to let Franz II strong-arm her into an Austrian marriage.
Finally, she got her way – Franz let her join Louis XVIII’s court in exile, where she married her cousin, Angouleme, son of the Comte d’Artois (her father’s youngest brother). This book then follows Marie-Thérèse and her Bourbon family through the turmoil of the Napoleonic years: exile, a peripatetic lifestyle, restoration in 1814, flight when Napoleon returned from Elba, and restoration again after Waterloo in 1815. One highlight of those years? When Napoleon returned, her uncle – Louis XVIII – fled instantly. You know who didn’t? Marie-Thérèse. She mustered troops in Bourgogne and made a valiant attempt to fight. It came to naught, but it earned her a nickname from Napoleon: “the only man in the family.”
I won’t spoil the rest of the story. If it seems like all the juicy stuff has already happened by this point, you’ve still got an assassination, a revolution, and blackmail coming your way. Suffice to say that Marie-Thérèse’s faith – in her god, in her country, and in her duty – are wondrous to behold. Parts of this book (about the family’s life during the revolution) are downright hard to read, because you imagine a teenage girl going through this and you can’t believe she turned out sane. It hardly seems possible. But neither does the so-called “switch” theory Nagel mentions. In short, contemporaries thought Marie-Thérèse might have switched places with someone either during her time in the Temple prison or on her way to Austria during the prisoner swap. Don’t fall for it. The number of people who commented on post-release Marie-Thérèse’s royal bearing, dignity, and carriage reminiscent of her mother are too numerous to discount.
Should You Read It?
Yes. It’s informative and enjoyable – with a few caveats.
- The presentation is a little biased, because Nagel clearly wants to present Marie-Thérèse’s side of things; her character flaws are downplayed, and her reactionary political beliefs are glossed over even as they stick out like a sore thumb in the decades after her return to France.
- Nagel lingers far too long on certain events, like the March on Versailles, which felt like it took forever to get through.
- We learn almost nothing about Marie-Thérèse’s husband: details about his feelings for her, what he did all day, what he believed about his uncle’s reign, if he looked forward to his reign, etc. He barely registers in this book, which felt odd to me.
- There were more mentions of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI being in Paris than I remembered from other biographies. My impression was that they were not there often. For example, Nagel notes after Marie Antoinette gives birth to Marie-Thérèse in 1779, “As she rode through the streets of Paris, ordinary citizens scowled at her not only for what they considered her disrespect for French tradition, but also because they perceived her to be insensitive to their hardships.” (27) That’s the point – exactly why she and Louis avoided Paris. And at about the same time, she writes that “it was widely discussed that the King visited Madame de Polignac at her townhouse and that hers was the only private house in Paris he visited since he had become King.” (30) Again, my memory could be totally out of whack, but I never got the sense from any other biographies that either one of them spent much time in Paris, outside of Marie Antoinette’s early days as dauphine when she went to costume balls incognito with Artois.
There are also a couple of odd assertions here that I don’t think I’ve seen in any other biographies of Marie Antoinette or Louis XVI. Nagel writes that Louis XVI had not one, but two illegitimate daughters: one with Marie Antoinette’s best friend, the Duchesse de Polignac, and one with a Versailles staff member, whom he slept with as an experiment to see if he could be at fault for the couple’s failure to conceive early in their marriage. YMMV, but neither of these ring true, like, AT ALL to me. Let’s set aside the fact that he was a devout Catholic who would have almost certainly shunned even the idea of adultery. Let’s set aside the fact that he loved Marie Antoinette. Even without those two things, Louis XVI never struck me as the type of guy to sleep with his wife’s best friend. And the whole experimenting-to-find-out-if-he’s-fertile thing seems pointless. He didn’t seem overly bothered by that possibility for, what, the first seven years of his marriage? And with two younger brothers, it wasn’t like the dynasty would die out if he didn’t have children, either. To me, he would have seen his fertility or lack thereof as God’s will.
Because there are no real footnotes in this book, we have no idea which sources made this claim. It’s frustrating, but I was so interested in Marie-Thérèse that I let it go as I read.
- One day, Marie-Thérèse’s little brother, Louis Charles, began to “boo” and “hiss.” When Marie Antoinette and a loyal servant, François Hüe, told him to stop, he said, “I did my lesson so badly that I’m booing myself.” Isn’t that the cutest thing? (41)
- I love this: “Reports from the borders tell of h ow chivalric Swiss men took pity on young women fleeing France and underwent marriages of convenience, thereby allowing the women to enter Switzerland with their escorts. In some cases, the ‘husbands’ were found to have married eighteen or twenty times.” (86)
- On the anniversary of the flight to Varennes, during an attack on the Tuileries, some of the people in the mob thought Madame Elisabeth, the king’s sister, was actually Marie Antoinette. “As the intruders lunged at the King’s sister, someone shouted that they had the wrong woman, to which Madame Elisabeth replied defiantly: ‘Do not undeceive them!’, declaring that she was willing to lay down her life for her sister-in-law.” (120)
- Marie-Thérèse and the Empress of Austria, Maria Theresa, disliked each other instantly. “Marie-Thérèse found her cold and believed that the Sicilian-born Princess thought herself superior to the daughter of the King of France, who ought to be grateful for her husband’s handouts.” (176) Yikes.
- Nagel notes that Archduke Karl “made it obvious to all that he too felt those sentiments [of affection] for his cousin. In fact, it appears that his appreciation had blossomed into romantic feelings for Marie-Thérèse.” (192) Would have been great to get a quote from him in a diary or letter to show this firsthand…
- Marie-Thérèse did not help Madame Ney, when she begged for Marie-Thérèse’s help to save her condemned husband. As a Napoleonic marshal, Ney was not someone she had an interest in helping or saving. However, after she read a book about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia that detailed Ney’s heroics in getting his soldiers out of Russia and across the Niemen, she said she had made a mistake. “If only I had known,” she said, and cried. (273)
- When Louis-Philippe took over the throne after the 1848 revolution, he “issued decrees reversing those of his Bourbon predecessors. It was now illegal to observe with reverence the anniversary of the death of Louis XVI; he also shut down the memorial to Marie Antoinette at the Conciergerie.” (324) Way harsh, bro.
Subtitle: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin
Author: Susan Nagel
Publisher: Harper Collins
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
Born in 1778, Mary Nisbet of Dirleton was a wealthy Scottish heiress, the great-granddaughter of the 2nd Duke of Rutland. She married a fellow Scot, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine in 1799. That same year, they left for Turkey, where Bruce would be England’s new ambassador. But while in Turkey, it was Mary who took on the starring role in their partnership. She broke barriers by charming Sultan Selim III and befriending his mother, his Grand Vizier, and the Captain Pasha. She was the only Western woman invited to the Seraglio and Topkapi Palace. In a time when women were relegated to the harem, Mary shone like a star.
Their stay in Turkey is what gave Lord Elgin the proximity and permission to excavate and remove the famous Parthenon marbles from present-day Greece (then an Ottoman possession). He used Mary’s money to finance his passion for archaeology. Mary herself seems to have had little to do with it. Elgin ordered the excavation, paid for it with Mary’s money, and left her to handle the travel arrangements to get the marbles back to England.
But what’s more interesting about her life story is the way she tried to take control of her own body – and was put through the ringer for it. She didn’t enjoy being pregnant, and after an incredibly difficult pregnancy with her fifth child, she told her husband she absolutely wasn’t going to do that again. He didn’t accept her decision, told her he wanted another son, and the marriage disintegrated from there.
Of course, it didn’t help that Mary had also fallen in love with one of her husband’s old friends, Robert Ferguson. By this point, her husband was in “take no prisoners” mode. He decided to divorce Mary, which meant putting her and Robert on trial for adultery. The scandal rocked the entire country.
Mary and Ferguson were found guilty; an Act of Parliament divorced Elgin and Mary. Unfortunately, Elgin had thought he’d walk away with Mary’s money, too. Nope. Mary’s family used the legal system (their wills and good lawyers) to prevent that from happening.
After the scandal, Mary married Ferguson and they lived their lives exactly how they wanted – together, quietly, with no further pregnancies for Mary. It took decades for her to re-establish a relationship with her surviving children, but it happened eventually. As for Elgin? Without Mary’s money (and her ability to rein in his spending), he went broke and sold the Elgin marbles to the British government in 1816.
The marbles, although they feature in the book’s title, play almost no role in the story. They’re just the frame, and possibly the hook, to get you to read it. The rest of the story is what’s most rewarding.
Should You Read It?
Yes – because the story of Mary’s fight to control her own body was astonishing. The excerpts from her letters detailing how awful she felt during her pregnancies and how hard it was for her to recover were painful to read at points. You can’t help but root for her as she tells Elgin she won’t do it again. It’s worth reading just to know how hard a struggle it was for a woman to do something as simple as say “no” in those days.
Author: Andrew Roberts
Publisher: Penguin Books
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
As Andrew Roberts notes, the volume of material on Napoleon is staggering: “More books have been published with his name in the title than there have been days since his death.” (869) And that was in 2014, when this book was published. I mean, holy crap, how do you even take a stab at a subject this big with so much material to canvass?
Roberts does an amazing job, with each part of Napoleon’s life given the same level of detail, from his childhood through the French Revolution and finally to all the famous stuff. There are lots of good quotes from Napoleon himself, the people who observed him, and his family members – the mix is perfect, with the right blend of source material, narrative, and analysis.
I liked the way Roberts paid attention to so many different aspects of his life and character: his relationship with women (wives, siblings, mother, mistresses), with people of other religions (Jews and Muslims), his relationship to France as a Corsican, towards the thinkers and writers and philosophers of the day, and his uneasy relationship with other rulers in the brotherhood of kings and emperors. He’s insufferable towards women in general, yes. But he was also a wannabe writer at heart – he wrote terrible fiction in his youth, just like me. And Roberts wove strands from a shitty melodrama Napoleon wrote throughout the biography, referring back to it so you didn’t forget who Napoleon was when he was younger. That’s just one example of how well this book is written.
One interesting point Roberts makes is a potential reason for Napoleon’s downfall. He was a micromanager, through and through – Roberts frequently quotes letters of Napoleon’s, written from battlefields, where he reprimands individual actors or actresses or merchants for some minor wrongdoing, or nitpicks a bureaucrat for being literally one franc off in terms of his accounting.
This was a problem when it came to the increasing size of armies and battles. Micromanaging can work when you have 10,000 men on the field; it can even work when you have 50,000. But when you have 100,000, you really need marshals and generals who have been trained to think for themselves. But Napoleon didn’t have that because he’d micromanaged them all from the get-go. They needed orders to tell them what to do because that’s almost all they’d ever been allowed to do.
Some, like Davout, clearly had the talent to stand on their own. But most of the other marshals, it seems, didn’t get the chance to develop into the kind of leaders Napoleon needed when the going got tough in Russia, in German and Bohemia, and later at Waterloo. More competent sub-leadership could have helped pick up some of the slack generated by his aging and health issues (he had demonstrably less energy in his 40s than he did in his mid 20s, like almost all of us).
Should You Read It?
Yes. It might take awhile because of the length, but it’s 100% worth it.
I do wish there was a glossary of battle terms for those of us who have no idea how many troops are in a division or what a redoubt is. Be ready to Google some stuff if you’re not up to snuff on military procedures. Roberts spends a good amount of time on battle tactics and summaries, which I really appreciated but also, in all honesty, eventually ended up skimming. By the fifteenth battle, I was like, yeah, yeah, someone’s gonna try flanking someone and everyone needs to protect their rear. Also, because I’m immature, I snorted every time someone had an exposed rear. Sorry not sorry. I was not cut out to be a military historian.
I also really appreciated that the book didn’t straight-up end when Napoleon died. Roberts took the time to tell you what happened afterward – to his family members, to his marshals, to his body (it was repatriated to France years later), and to other famous figures like Talleyrand, Louis XVIII, Charles X, and Fouché. I appreciate this so much and hate being left in the lurch on the last sentence when the subject dies. This book is too good for amateur hour stuff like that.
- “At twenty-two many things are allowed which are no longer permitted past thirty.” - Napoleon to Elector Frederick of Württemberg. (29)
- “Asked whether Josephine had intelligence, Talleyrand is said to have replied: ‘No one ever managed so brilliantly without it.’” (71)
- Talleyrand was forced to resign as foreign minister when he was caught demanding a $250,000 bribe from three American envoys in Paris, including future Supreme Court justice John Marshall. Who’s lacking intelligence now, buddy? Try reading the room rather than practicing unilateral graft. (209)
- Austerlitz may have been a remarkable victory, but it wasn’t perfect. “At 10 p.m. Napoleon returned to the Stara Posta. ‘As may be imagined,’ recalled Marbot, ‘he was radiant, but frequently expressed regret’ that his brother Joseph’s regiment should have lost its eagle to that of Alexander’s brother, the Grand Duke Constantine. The next day Napoleon berated those soldiers for losing their eagle to the Russian Guard cavalry.” (389)
- Looking back, Napoleon thought he’d been too kind to Prussia: “‘Where I erred most fatally was at Tilsit,’ Napoleon said later. ‘I ought to have dethroned the King of Prussia. I hesitated for a moment. I was sure that Alexander would not have opposed it, provided I had not taken the King’s dominions for myself.’” Somewhere, Queen Louise is smiling right now. (459)
- What did Napoleon say about his wives? “‘ I think,’ he said years later, ‘although I loved Marie Louise very sincerely, that I loved Josephine better. That was natural; we had risen together; and she was a true wife, the wife I had chosen. She was full of grace, graceful even in the way she prepared herself for bed; graceful in undressing herself…I should never have parted from her if she had borne me a son…’ Napoleon was eventually to come to regret his second marriage, blaming it for his downfall. ‘Assuredly but for my marriage with Marie I never should have made war on Russia,’ he said, ‘but I felt certain of the support of Austria, and I was wrong, for Austria is the natural enemy of France.’” (541)
- Amusing no-context quote for you: “When Napoleon was moving at top speed, water had to be poured on the wheels of his carriage to prevent them overheating.” (596)
- This is how devastating the 1812 Battle of Borodino was, outside Moscow: “The combined losses are the equivalent of a fully laden jumbo jet crashing into an area of 6 square miles every five minutes for the whole ten hours of the battle, killing or wounding everyone on board.” JFC. How’s that for a mental picture? (607)
- I don’t know why this made me smile, but it did: “When Napoleon’s former secretary Fleury de Chaboulon visited him in February 1815 he brought a message from Maret that France was ripe for his return. Napoleon asked about the attitude of the army. When forced to cry ‘Vive le Roi!’, Fleury told him, the soldiers would often add in a whisper ‘de Rome’.” (729) Here’s the context: Napoleon’s toddler son had been given the title King (Roi, in French) of Rome. So, when forced to say “Long Live the King” (for the re-installed Louis XVIII), soldiers muttered “of Rome” as a charming and multi-pronged gesture of both allegiance to Napoleon and lack of faith in Louis.
- A thigh-slapper for those of us who think the future George IV is an asshole: “Calling a meeting of advisors, Napoleon said, ‘I’m not acquainted with the Prince Regent [of Great Britain and Ireland], but from all I have heard of him I cannot help placing reliance on his noble character.’ Here, too, his information was faulty, as the Prince Regent had one of the most ignoble characters of any British sovereign. ‘There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow-creatures than this deceased king,’ opined The Times when he died in 1830.” (776)
Subtitle: The True Story of World War II Spy Aline Griffith, Countess of Romanones
Author: Larry Loftis
Publisher: Atria Books
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
Aline Griffith was an all-American girl, born in Pearl River, New York in 1920. Tall and beautiful, Aline found work as a model in New York City. But when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, her brothers enlisted in the military. Aline wanted to help, too, but modeling wasn’t going to win the war. So when she met a mysterious man at a dinner party named Frank Ryan, she told him she wanted to go to Europe, where the action was.
Turns out, Frank Ryan was a spy recruiting agents for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). When Aline accepted his offer of a position in Europe, he sent her to a place called The Farm near Clinton, Maryland. There, OSS agents learned to shoot, fight, make dead drops, and crack safes.
After weeks of training, Aline was sent to Madrid, Spain. Spain was a neutral country, but it was a hive of activity for Axis and Allied spies. Her station boss was Gregory Thomas, code name ARGUS. Her code name? BUTCH, an ironic name for a beautiful model.
From her arrival in February 1944, Aline had to hold down a day job as cover in Madrid - as well as mingle with high society and learn as much as she could about any Nazi plans. And she was good at it. Right away, she met one of the most famous bullfighters in Spain, Don Juan Belmonte, who took her out on dates to the most fashionable restaurants and nightclubs. There, she gathered information on suspected Nazi spies like Princess Maria Agatha of Ratibor and Corvey and Prince Maximilian Egon von Hohenlohe-Langenburg, who knew high-ranking Nazis including Himmler and Göring.
This book follows her adventures as she helps uncover details on Nazi contacts in Spain, and then – after the war – fleeing Nazis and stolen art. As if all that wasn’t exciting enough, it turns into a love story when Aline falls for Luis Figueroa, was one of the wealthiest nobles in Spain. His grandfather, the Count of Romanones, had been one of King Alfonso XIII’s ministers before his abdication. Can a relationship survive when one partner is a spy, lying to the other? If you read this book, you’ll find out.
Should You Read It?
Yes. This is a fantastic read. The author describes this as a nonfiction thriller, and he’s right. He uses the techniques of a novelist, including cliffhanger chapter endings and dialogue, to propel you through book. All the dialogue, however, is real – it comes from reports, statements, memoirs, and other nonfiction sources.
I really appreciated Loftis’s effort to include only incidents that can be confirmed. Aline’s three memoirs, as it turns out, are full of contradictions, fictional elements, conflations, and name changes. Loftis gets to the bottom of most of it, and boy, even without the fictional elements, it’s one hell of a story. I enjoyed the notes section thoroughly, where Loftis points out why he included what he did (and what didn’t make the cut).
Aline is bold, brave, and fun to root for. Highly recommended.
- Want to know where Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain got her chocolate? Loftis has the answer: “He turned on Calle Peligros and stopped in front of a store called La Mahonesa. Inside, the owner, Don José, greeted Juanito with several bows and then turned to Aline. ‘Señorita, it is an honor to have you visit this shop. For one hundred and sixty-six years, my ancestors and I have made Spain’s best chocolates. We have served the royal family and the country’s most illustrious citizens. The señorita shall have a box just like the ones we used to prepare for Queen Victoria Eugenia.’” (54)
- Prince Maximilian Egon von Hohenlohe was suspected of being a spy for Nazi Germany. “He had numerous Nazi connections, OSS reports indicated, including Himmler and Hermann Göring, Germany’s Reichsmarschall. He was also a confidant of Walter Schellenberg, Himmler’s foreign intelligence chief, and it was possible that he was rendering political services to the Gestapo.” (59) Was he really working for Hitler? I won’t spoil the story…
- Bullfighting is a leitmotif in this book. You’ll read a lot about it here, and although I struggle with the cruelty of it, the way it’s described in this book (with quotes from Hemingway, Steinbeck, and bullfighters themselves) helped me see what aficionados see in it: the poetry, the lifestyle, the bravery, and the acceptance of fear. And if you’re wondering where the royals used to watch bullfighting, Loftis has our answer: “Next they went to the Plaza Mayor, a seventeenth-century square surrounded by ancient buildings with iron-railed balconies. ‘That’s where the royal family and the court used to watch the bullfights,’ Juanito said. ‘When the matador was especially successful, the ladies sometimes threw pearls into the ring.’” (84)
- Here’s a Steinbeck quote Loftis cites that resonated with me, as someone with an office job: “‘I like bullfighting,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘because to me it is a lonely, formal, anguished microcosm of what happens to every man, sometimes in an office, strangled by the glue on envelopes.’” (131)
- Thanks to Aline’s secretive trips outside Spain on spy missions, her relationship with Luis had its ups and downs. During one of the downs, she was in Paris and he was reading about her in the newspaper. “…one day Luis surprised her by calling her at the office. This time the line was crystal clear. ‘I’ve been reading the Paris newspapers,’ he said. ‘What were you doing at Maxim’s with the king of Yugoslavia?’ Aline smiled. King Peter II was only three years her senior and was quite handsome. Before she could answer, Luis added: ‘I played golf with him and he’s not only a bad golfer, but he’s also a big bore.’ Aline mumbled an answer, pleased that Luis was jealous.” (201) I am here for Luis’s royal gossip.
Author: Theo Aronson
Publisher: Lume Books
Year: 2020 (first published 1972)
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
Try this fact on for size: “Born six years after the death of King George III, the Empress Eugenie was to die six years before the birth of Queen Elizabeth II.” (264) This kind of blew my mind when I read it. I mean, I knew Eugenie lived a very long life, but I hadn’t placed it in quite that context.
But this isn’t a book about Eugenie – not exclusively. And that’s what made it so enjoyable. I really liked seeing the threads of these relationships all displayed together. Napoleon III knew how to flatter Alfred. He knew how to flirt with Victoria. He charmed them both at their initial meeting in Paris. It’s also interesting to note how Victoria always felt Eugenie was a delicate, wilting sort of flower – when, to others, she displayed incredible tenacity and vivacity. Clearly, she put on her best behavior for Victoria…and the habit stuck. The two women became fast friends, which was my favorite part of the book. Both long-lived women survived the crushing sadness of their loved ones’ death. They knew what it meant to hurt and grieve, and they respected that depth of feeling in the other. If you want an unexpected feel-good story about women supporting each other, this book fits the bill.
As always seems to happen these days, there are some OCR errors because a lazy publisher failed to pay someone to proofread the eBook after it was converted from the scanned physical copy. Expect to see quite a few mentions of “Empress Eugenic,” a very unfortunate result. I’m available, if anyone’s paying attention.
Should You Read It?
If you’re a fan of Victoria or Eugenie, yes. Or if you just want to see two royal women who cared deeply about each other, yes. Politics, schmolitics. This female friendship had me glued. It’s like The Golden Girls, but with only two cast members. If they were alive today, could someone have convinced them to start a podcast? Probably not – that would be way too public and undignified. But good lord, I would have paid a lot to hear the gossip-loving Victoria sit down with Eugenie for a coffee klatch.
- When Queen Victoria visited Paris, it was a big freakin’ deal: “The Queen’s room had been designed to resemble, as much as possible, her own at Buckingham Palace. The zealous decorators had even gone so far as to saw the legs off an exquisitely proportioned table lest it prove too high for the diminutive Queen.” (60)
- Queen Victoria didn’t have much fashion sense…and the French knew it. But, as this anecdote shows, sometimes there was a damn good reason: “Princess Mathilde was appalled to see the Queen setting out with a huge home-made handbag on which was embroidered a multicoloured parrot. The embroidery was the handiwork of one of her daughters, explained the Queen with disarming pride to the astounded Princess.” (67)
- As politics began to poison the two countries’ political alliance, the occasions their rulers saw each other became less magical, too. In August of 1858: “The rather strained visit over, Victoria could hardly wait to get back to reading ‘that most interesting book, Jane Eyre’. (107)
- I love this quote.” ‘One of the first duties of a sovereign,’ Napoleon III used to say, ‘is to amuse his subjects of all ranks in the social scale. He has no more right to have a dull Court than he has to have a weak army or a poor Navy.’” (128)
- I love this quote, too. “Henry Ponsonby always claimed that he knew of only two people who were quite unafraid of Queen Victoria: the one was John Brown and the other the Prince Imperial.” (183)
- Who doesn’t appreciate a good prank? I know, I know – the person upon whom the prank is played. But you have to adore the fact that Eugenie’s son, Louis, and the Prince of Wales (despite being a generation apart in age) worked together on this one: “Both princes shared the contemporary passion for practical jokes, with Louis proving particularly resourceful. Lillie Langtry, then in the first flush of her social success, tells the story of a seance, attended by both princes, at which Louis was discovered emptying bags of flour over Bertie’s head. On another occasion the two men, having hoisted a live donkey through a bedroom window, dressed it in nightclothes and tucked it up in a guest’s bed.” (185) Gives new meaning to the phrase “donkey show”…
- Was there something between Princess Beatrice and Prince Louis? Eugenie seems to have believed so: “Some time after Louis’s death, the Empress Eugenic [sic – see my comment above about lazy eBook publishers] presented Queen Victoria with a little package. The Queen was to promise that she would not open it until after Eugenie’s death. Victoria promised, but curiosity getting the better of her and emotion the better of the Empress, they decided to open it together after all. It contained a magnificent emerald cross—the gift of the King of Spain to Eugenie on her marriage to Napoleon III. The Empress had intended it, she told the Queen, for Louis’s bride.” (189)
Subtitle: England’s Medieval Queens: 1299-1409
Author: Alison Weir
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
As mentioned above, you get coverage of five queens in this book, centered on the 14th century. The calamitous 14th century, as Barbara Tuchman called it. Interestingly, the plague didn’t seem to affect the women covered too much – their wealth sheltered them as much as it was possible to be sheltered. One notable exception? On July 1, 1348, Princess Joan – sister of Edward III – died of plague in Lormont, France. She was just fifteen, and on the way to be married in Spain. After her death, the mayor of Bordeaux ordered the chateau she had died in to be burned to the ground. (322)
As expected, Queen Isabella gets a lot of coverage here because Weir had already written an entire book about her. But she’s a fascinating woman, so you can’t begrudge the space devoted to her. She went from being perceived as a peacemaker and a wife mistreated by her husband to an adulterous, greedy, power-mad queen who needed to be stopped. How did it happen? And did she have anything to do with her husband’s murder? And, come to find out, was he even really murdered? I won’t spoil the story if you don’t already know. 😉
I also enjoyed the chapters on Anne of Bohemia and Isabella of Valois. I didn’t know much about either of them, and although they both died young, their personalities shone through: Anne as a lover of arts and culture and Isabella as a tenacious young woman who couldn’t be forced into doing something she didn’t believe in. It was fascinating to see Richard II as a devoted husband to both of his wives, so tender and loving and compassionate…and then see him be a total dick to everyone else, grasping for power and refusing to take advice that might have kept him on the throne.
Should You Read It?
Yes. If you enjoy women’s history or British history or medieval history, you’ll find plenty to like here. Weir is careful to cross-reference sources and tell you when particular stories in the chronicles are likely to be untrue, and if possible, where they may have originated. This is important when it comes to stories about queens who were later vilified, like Isabella. You have to sort the truth from the rumor and Weir does a wonderful job of this. I also like the way Weir gives you enough information on each woman to feel like you’re getting a full picture of who they were and the world they moved in…without ballooning the book to 1,000+ pages. There’s a sense of depth here, despite the fact that you know you’re only getting an overview. Kudos to Weir for pulling this off so well.
- Marguerite of France (Edward I’s second wife) was apparently extremely active up to the moment she gave birth. “Although at full term, Marguerite (who loved riding and hunting and who sent horses to her stepson, Prince Edward) was following the chase when she went into labor and was taken to a house near the church, the site of which can still be seen today. It was a difficult delivery and, in fear of death, she cried out to St. Thomas Becket to succor her. Seemingly miraculously, she was safely delivered of a son, who would become the ancestor of the Howard dukes of Norfolk.” (28)
- In 1313, Edward II and Isabella sailed to France for the ceremonial knighting of her brothers. Apparently, a good time was had by all: “On Pentecost Sunday, in a magnificent ceremony, Isabella’s three brothers, Louis, Philip, and Charles, were knighted by King Philip. The event was marked by weeks of pageants and feasts, with the two kings and Louis of Evreux acting as hosts; Edward’s wine bill for the visit came to £4,468.19s.4d. ($3.7 million).” (89)
- Years later, when Isabella had fled England because of her husband’s horrible treatment, she decided to return with an army and oust him from the throne in favor of their son. “Hers was the first successful invasion of England since the Norman Conquest of 1066, and her ‘bold and noble enterprise’ was one of the most successful coups in English history, ‘at which the whole country rejoiced together.’” (192)
- When Philippa of Hainault arrived to marry Edward III, the way her entourage dressed (in short, tight clothing) really caught on. The English copied their styles and, according to a chronicler, “looked more like tormentors and devils in their clothes and appearance than men. And the women copies the men in even more curious ways, for their clothes were so tight that they sewed foxtails beneath [them] to hang down and hide their arses.” (267)
- Anne of Bohemia was known as Anne of Luxembourg in Europe. Her mother, Elizabeth of Pomerania, was part German and part Polish, the granddaughter of Casimir the Great of Poland. “She was an unusually strong woman who could tear apart thick wads of parchment and break blocks of wood with her bare hands, feats in which her husband had taken great pride.” (365)
- Anne may have inspired the sweet female eagle depicted in Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem “The Parliament of Fowls.” “Chaucer’s poem takes a witty view of love and tells of three tercel hawks who gather on St. Valentine’s Day to choose their mates; it is thought to have given rise to the tradition of celebrating February 14 as a day for lovers.” (367)
- After Anne’s death, Richard II still needed an heir, which meant he needed to remarry soon. He sent envoys to France to see if it would be possible to marry a daughter of Charles VI. “When the envoys returned to England, Charles VI gave them Isabella’s portrait; this is the first instance of a likeness of a prospective bride being sent to an English king.” (415)
Author: Frances Mossiker
Year: 2004 (first published 1961)
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
As I mentioned, this book wasn’t what I thought it was. Perhaps stupidly, I’d assumed it was like most non-fiction: a narrative written by the author explaining what happened. Instead, this is sort of a guided tour through the source material on the diamond necklace scandal. It’s mostly extensive sections of text from the memoirs or legal briefs defending the people involved, with explanatory bits from the author interspersed between them to explain how they support each other or contradict each other.
At first, that kind of bummed me out. I wanted a modern researcher to walk me through the scandal and explain what we know now. I didn’t necessarily want to read people’s justifications or explanations of how the situation looked to them then.
But once I got over that and accepted the book, it was actually very eye-opening and entertaining.
If you’re not familiar with the diamond necklace scandal, just Google it – basically, a con woman named Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois tricked Cardinal de Rohan into believing he could get into Marie Antoinette’s good graces by facilitating her purchase of an extremely expensive diamond necklace. But when Jeanne absconded with the necklace, the scam fell apart and Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette blamed Rohan for being dumb enough to believe what the con woman had told him.
Rohan and Jeanne were arrested and put on trial, but the real losers were the king and queen. The king looked weak for not handling this in private. The queen came out looking worse because the scandal highlighted the very worst gossip about her: she was frivolous, a spendthrift, flighty, given to extramarital affairs, a lesbian, and vengeful toward her enemies. How much of any of that was true? Nearly none of it, especially at that point in time, but good luck convincing the French public of that. The trial so damaged the prestige of the French monarchy that it was no longer unthinkable to end it a few years later, during the revolution.
Here’s a taste of what you get in this book:
- Large parts of the memoir of Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois: the mastermind of the scam (but not according to her…oh, no, nothing was ever her fault, according to her)
- Parts of the memoir of her husband, Marc Antoine de La Motte, who survived her (and the revolution)
- Parts of the memoir of Rétaux de Villette, the forger who helped Jeanne pull off the scam
- Large parts of the memoir of Count Beugnot, a lawyer and former suitor of Jeanne who saw the whole thing unfold
- Large parts of the memoir of the Abbé Georgel, secretary to Cardinal de Rohan
- Parts of the memoir of Madame Campan, lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette
- Small parts of the memoir of Count Cagliostro, the mysterious alchemist-philosopher who befriended Rohan but warned him against Jeanne
- Defense briefs written by the lawyers for Cardinal Rohan, Jeanne, Count Cagliostro, Villette, and an actress charged for their parts in the scam
Should You Read It?
If you’re specifically interested in the diamond necklace scandal, yes. Also a yes if you’re obsessed with Marie Antoinette or the French Revolution, since so many contemporaries dated the true beginning of the revolution to this particular scandal (circa 1785-6). Or if you’re just curious about one of the most famous scams in world history, this is the case study for you.
If none of those topics interests you deeply, this will probably not entertain you. Also, if you’re not a fan of stories with multiple unreliable narrators, this might just end up irritating you. Although this is non-fiction, the memoirs of some of the participants are full of lies. In her introduction, the author says she wants you to make up your own mind about who to believe. That’s nice and all, but if you’re just out for the cold critical analysis of the case, this strategy might leave you wanting. Choose wisely.
I started out being irritated, but ended up enjoying this deep-dive through the memoirs of the period and the main characters involved. It still made me want a modern analysis of all those memoirs, rather than a simple presentation of them…but that means this book did its job in terms of piquing my interest in the subject. So don’t consider this a be-all end-all book that will solve the case. Consider it as the detective’s file, full of testimony, that you happened to pick up and leaf through. Want to go on and solve the case? That’s up to you – but the solution isn’t in this particular file.
Subtitle: The Private Correspondence of Tsars Alexander I, Nicholas I and the Grand Dukes Constantine and Michael with Their Sister Queen Anna Pavlovna 1817-1855
Editor: S.W. Jackman
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
The star of the show, in this collection, is Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna. In 1816, she married Prince Willem of Orange, heir to the throne of the Netherlands. Throughout her tenure as Princess of Orange and later Queen of the Netherlands, some pretty crazy stuff happened: the theft of her jewels in Brussels in 1829 and the Belgian Revolution in 1830, in particular. Later in life, Anna’s daughter-in-law, Sophie, had horrible things to say about her, so it’s interesting to see Anna’s personality in these letters to get a feel for the woman who brought out pure rage in Sophie.
The three youngest Romanov siblings – Anna, Nicholas, and Michael – formed a club called Triopathy (of which their mother, Empress Maria Feodorovna, was an honorary member). Anna mentions the Triopathy a handful of times, including the membership rings they had made, showing what a close bond these three younger siblings had. Although Michael is barely represented here, you can tell she’s always keen to see him and hear about what he’s doing based on what she tells Constantine and Nicholas.
Anna and Willem had four surviving kids: Willem (their heir heir), Alexander, Henry, and Sophie. It’s heartwarming to see the otherwise ferocious and fractious Grand Duke Constantine ask about “Miss Orange [i.e., Sophie]” and say wise and sweet things to his sister. He comes off as balanced, rational, kind, and compassionate – not words that were used to describe him outside the family circle.
That’s the great fun of reading private letters. You get to see sides of historical figures they might not have revealed anywhere else.
Should You Read It?
Yes. If you have any interest in the Romanovs, this will be a fun read. There’s nothing here that’s earth-shattering – no great revelations, no political secrets. The Romanovs all mention saving the juiciest details for messengers to deliver in person; no one wanted their dirty laundry aired if the mail went astray. Still, it’s the day-to-day details and musings on current events that I most want to read, and all of those things are in these letters. You’ll find Anna asking her brother Nicholas for favors, Anna defending William and her father-in-law when they do things the Russians don’t understand, Anna smack-talking a Russian minister, and Anna gushing over getting to spend time with her nephew Sasha (the future Tsar Alexander II).
- Anna’s Willem is the same Willem (William, in English) of Orange who was originally slated to marry George IV’s daughter, Princess Charlotte of Great Britain. She balked, and Willem was available when Anna’s oldest brother, Tsar Alexander I, was looking for a husband for her.
- Anna’s mom (Empress Maria Feodorovna) gave this advice when Anna was caught between her feuding husband and father-in-law: “The surest weapon for leading him back to the paths of conciliation and love is gentleness, dear Annette, and it is the only one which you must use. You must temper the animation, the rage of the father, by your gentle winning manners, by friendship and endearments…” (71)
- After the 1825 Decembrist revolt in Russia, Constantine – who steadfastly refused the throne of Russia in favor of his younger brother Nicholas – wrote to Anna: “I shall never forget our conversation in the barouche between Frankfurt-am-Main and Mainz, and I repeat that as long as the family is unified…it can win out over all events and face up to the dangers…You will not find me wanting in this regard, and Nicholas can count on me as well as upon my zealousness and devotion to serve him.” (119)
- After visiting Anna and her children in the Netherlands, Constantine wrote to her on his way home: “All my good wishes to with you, my loving affection to all your children and hundreds of the kindest regards to Miss Orange, and I beg her to deliver a message of profound respect to her dolls for me…” (183) This is cute overload – a gruff grand duke delivering a message of profound respect to his little niece’s dolls, whom he must have been introduced to on his visit.
- One time, after the Belgian Revolution and while affairs were still being settled between the new kingdom of Belgium and the Netherlands, Nicholas I mentioned he would have done some things differently from King Willem I (Anna’s father-in-law). She briskly defended her father-in-law and her adopted country to her beloved brother: “As I am attached by feelings and by duty to the cause of the country to which Heaven has joined my fate, I respect the King as my sovereign and in so doing only share the feelings of the nation which aligns itself with him…” (247)
- During the official ceremony (not actually a coronation) when Anna’s husband became Willem II in 1840, he made a toast to Anna’s health. Anna described what she felt in that moment to Nicholas: “God alone could grant me a moment like that! It was one of the sweetest of my life, for it was saying to the nation, ‘I love you’ and ‘I respect you.’” (306)
Subtitle: Tragiek en Glorie van Overgrootmoeder Anna Paulowna
Author: Jacqueline Doorn
Publisher: Europese Bibliotheek
Available at: Boekwinkeltjes.nl
What’s It About?
Anna Pavlovna was the sixth daughter and eighth child of Tsarevich Paul Petrovich and his wife, Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna. You might be more familiar with her grandmother: Catherine the Great. Born in 1795, she was only six years old when her father was murdered in a palace coup. In 1810, when Napoleon asked for her hand in marriage, she was only fifteen. That’s A LOT of stuff to happen before you even get your driver’s license. 😉
So when Anna married Prince Willem of Orange in 1816, she brought all that internal baggage with her to her adopted country. Interestingly, no one forced Anna to marry Willem – he went to Russia and spent time there before she agreed to marry him. Anna loved him…or convinced herself she did. Her mother was the OG “stand by your man” prototype, and Anna absorbed that behavioral example like a sponge. She would live and die by it through the many sorrows and tribulations of her life. And boy, there were a lot of those. To name just a few: her husband cheated on her, her house burned down, her jewels were stolen, one of her children died very young, another of her children died as a young man, her father-in-law lost half his country, and the list goes on and on.
So…if that sounds interesting, you might want to know more about Anna. But does this book do the job? Let’s go through a few good points and a few of my wish-list items. Keep in mind that I used online translators to read this book, so there’s no way I was able to capture the full essence of the author’s work.
Things I Liked
- The author focused on stories and people who are interesting, even if they were Anna-adjacent. The first chapter focused on her childhood in Russia. Now, since Anna was so young when Catherine the Great and Paul I died, some biographers might not talk much about those people or events at all. But Doorn went into detail about both deaths and their effects on the court, which I appreciated. Because even if Anna was a baby for one and six years old for the other, the mood and the feel of those events would have helped shape her consciousness. Later in the story, Doorn gave us details on the marital conflicts Anna’s sister-in-law, Marianne, and her son, Willem, had with their spouses. Again, not directly part of Anna’s story (at least for Marianne), but I appreciated being given a fuller picture of what was going on around Anna.
- The author paid a lot of attention to the story after Anna’s husband’s death. For some biographers, Anna’s life might have seemed a lot less interesting after her husband died and she was no longer queen. But this book gave us even more information about Anna’s habits, conversations, clothes, and daily life for this part of her life than it did for her life as crown princess or queen.
- There are several appendices with interesting and useful information. Family trees, original text of a letter to her brother Nicholas, items in her dowry, a list of her jewels that were stolen, information on one of her daughter-in-law’s séances…fun stuff to read, right?
Things I Wish This Book Had
- Archival research. Almost all the author’s sources are previously published – and most it not all of Anna’s direct quotes come from a book that’s readily available in English (Romanov Relations by Hugh – er, S.W. Jackman). At times, it felt like the author was just going through Romanov Relations and explaining all the letters found there in more detail. If you’ve already read that and are specifically looking for new information on Anna, you’re not going to get as much as you’d like here.
- Fewer sentence fragments & conversational elements. The author’s style includes a lot of sentence fragments, and conversational questions and asides phrased with “By the way.” It felt choppy to me and grated on my nerves after awhile, but that’s just a personal reaction. YMMV. Here’s an example (translated from the Dutch by a combo of Amazon Translate/Google Translate:
As soon as she hears this, Charlotte bursts into a loud sob. Not living in England, not living in England all year round? That’s terrible!
Her father, who sits in an adjoining room for good morals, hurriedly walks in to her cry.
“What? Is he leaving already?”
“Not yet,” his daughter sobs and runs out of the room.
The Prince Regent conveniently waves away all the excitement. Tears? That’s just the way girls are. Wouldn’t Willem dress for the banquet offered to him by the City of London?
It is true. He has other obligations. The banquet awaits him and then there is his departure to the Netherlands. (53)
Should You Read It?
If you read Dutch and are interested in Russian history or the Romanovs, probably. But if you’ve already read Romanov Relations, be aware that you’re not going to find much more in terms of direct quotes from Anna. Or if you’re a huge Romanov fan and already read a book about, say, Catherine the Great, Paul I, and Alexander I, also be aware that you’re also not going to find much you don’t already know about Anna’s childhood.
If you don’t read Dutch, you can get a lot of the Romanov-focused information in this book from Romanov Relations, E.M. Almedingen’s So Dark a Stream, and Adam Czartoryski’s Memoirs. If you don’t have much or any info on the Dutch royal family, most of her source books are also in Dutch, so there’s unfortunately no good English equivalent.
- When Princess Charlotte of Great Britain & Ireland dumped her fiancé Willem of Orange (Anna’s future husband), the British were so desperate to keep the alliance with the Netherlands that they invited Willem’s younger brother, Fritz, to visit England after his older brother’s engagement fell apart. Fritz was a cool customer, though – he showed no interest in Charlotte, and left without a commitment of any kind. It was just as well, since Charlotte’s mother had already had the same idea, which Charlotte had turned down flat. (63)
- After the Battle of Waterloo, Prince Frederik (“Fritz”) of the Netherlands – Willem’s younger brother – led a mission to find looted Dutch art treasures. The mission was a success, locating 200 missing paintings. (68)
- When Willem and Anna arrived in Alphen aan den Rijn (on their way to The Hague after getting married in Russia), the people were so excited to see them that they unharnessed their carriage horses and pulled the carriage themselves. This freaked Anna out, big time – she thought there was a riot happening. In Russia, you just didn’t do stuff like that. She had no idea it meant the people were happy to see them. (76)
- Anna brought the custom of daily steam baths with her to the Netherlands. Apparently, they thought it was a little weird that she wanted to do this every day, and mentioned how odd it was that she asked her staff to haul hot water and ice up to her bathroom every single day. (79)
- Anna and Willem vaccinated their first-born son against the wishes of her father-in-law, King Willem I. (82)
- Anna often attended her sons' language and history lessons. Why? To sharpen her Dutch and learn more about the history of her adopted country. I love this about her. She spoke better Dutch than her husband, who mostly spoke French. (126)
- If you thought your wedding was stressful, how about this: Princess Marianne of the Netherlands (Anna's sister-in-law) got married in the midst of the Belgian Revolution, as half her father's kingdom was attempting to break away. Her brother Frederik missed her wedding to command Dutch troops outside the Belgian capital, Brussels. Wilhelm, who had already tried and failed to negotiate with the rebels, made it back for his sister's nuptials. (142)
- Anna paid for the care of her childhood governess, Mademoiselle de Sybourg, who came from Russia to the Netherlands with her in 1817. When her beloved "Bourcis" developed dementia in the early 1830s, her family proposed moving her to Switzerland. But Bourcis was 100% devoted to Anna and her children and refused to leave - she wouldn't even get in a carriage in case her relatives had planned to spirit her away. Anna let her stay in the palace with a caretaker she provided and paid for. (168)
Subtitle: Cold War in the Days of the Tsars
Author: Virginia Cowles
Publisher: Sharpe Books (digital edition)
Year: 2018 (first published in 1969)
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
This book is an interesting mix of subjects. It’s not about the tsars or Russia, per se, but about Russian efforts to influence events in Europe and elsewhere in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Topics covered include:
- Alexander II as tsar
- The rise of nihilism in Russia
- The rise of terrorism in Russia
- The assassination of Alexander II
- Russia vs. Alexander Battenberg, the Prince of Bulgaria
- The assassination of King Alexander and Queen Draga of Serbia
- The assassination of Franz Ferdinand
For someone who reads a lot of biographies, this was definitely more focused on politics than people. I struggled, I admit it. The intricacies of Bulgarian politics, for example, made my head bob at times. And since it was written during the Cold War, to convince Western readers that Russia then and Russia now aren’t so different, it didn’t have the flow or continuity that you get from a more contained story. It felt a little meandering and a little aimless. You start out with a close-up view of the Romanov monarchy, in the last years of Nicholas I’s reign and the beginning of Alexander II’s. But then the focus shifts to Bulgaria and Serbia, and the last half of the book is more about the governments and politicians of these countries than Russia. It’s a weird mix, and you just have to go with it.
Should You Read It?
It’s well-written, as all Cowles books are, but this one felt disjointed. If you’re already deeply interested in Balkan politics, yes, read this. If you’re not, I’d suggest skipping it or cherry-picking chapters on people or events you care about.
Also, skip the digital edition and order the paperback if you really want this one; the eBook omits the bibliography and any footnotes or endnotes. Someone just used OCR to convert the paper book to an eBook and didn’t do a good job of checking and proofing. Really lazy formatting. There’s an acknowledgements page where she thanks publishers for permission to quote from a handful of books; this is the only indication of any source material you get in the digital version.
Subtitle: The Queens and Consorts Who Shaped the Nation
Author: Rosalind K. Marshall
Publisher: Birlinn (digital edition)
Year: 2019 (first published in 2003)
Available at: Amazon
I enjoyed reading about these little-known royal women, from Lady Macbeth to Saint Margaret to Anne of Denmark. Marshall covers 31 women who reigned as consort or queen regnant from 1034, when Duncan I came to throne, to Queen Anne’s death in 1714. During Anne’s reign, Scotland and England were joined, meaning there were no more queens of Scotland as a stand-alone country.
Marshall begins with Lady Macbeth, the first Scottish queen whose name we know: Gruoch. (It’s unclear if King Duncan’s wife, Suthen, was alive when he succeeded to the throne in 1034.) When King Duncan was killed and her husband seized the throne, she became queen. There’s much we don’t know about her – did she love Macbeth? Was she ambitious, as Shakespeare depicted her? That’s the story about so many of the early queens of Scotland. We know they lived, we know if they had surviving children, but most other details have been lost to history. Whenever possible, Marshall provides their life stories and gives them the benefit of the doubt when there’s harmful gossip about them. Anne of Denmark was described as being stupid, for example, but Marshall makes it clear she had strong emotions, deep interests, and was a generous patron of the arts.
It’s pointless to summarize this cavalcade of women, who were all so different. So I’ll just give you a few facts from Marshall’s conclusion that help illuminate who we’re talking about:
- 27 were queens consort and 4 were queens in their own right
- 10 of 27 queens consort were the daughters of kings
- 9 were English
- 6 were French
- One was Anglo-Irish, 3 were Danish, one was Dutch, one was Portuguese, and one was Italian
- Only 4 of the 31 queens covered were Scottish
- The average age of the women when they married was 15.5
- The biggest age gap between husband and wife? Yolande, Countess of Montfort was 26 years younger than King Alexander III when they married in 1285
- 5 of the queens had already borne a son to their first husbands before remarrying a man who either was or became king: Gruoch, Ingebjorg, Matilda, Margaret Logie, and Mary of Guise
- None of the queens is known to have died in childbirth (one named Ingebjorg might have, but it’s unclear)
- 14 of the 31 queens died before their husbands, but 13 outlived them
- Two queens, Yolande and Catherine of Braganza, went back to their home countries after their husbands died
Scottish history is turbulent, folks. The last flight I took that had this much turbulence ended with at least one attendant in tears and everyone else clutching a barf bag. The result? Total disorientation. In the first quarter of the book, kings and queens appear and vanish in paragraphs as they are chosen, anointed, dethroned, and/or buried in rapid succession.
We just don’t know much about these women or their lives, and recapping the bare bones of their lives and reigns often amounts to a few lines or a few pages. The dizzying succession of families and factions was hard to keep straight, so in the end, I just let my eyes drift over the words without being able to really absorb what was going on.
Will this happen to you? I can’t say – but until I got to the late medieval queens (Mary of Gueldres, Margaret of Denmark), I had zero ability to retain or follow the succession without more detail. But, in this case, that detail would have been extraneous to the book’s mission, so it was understandably omitted.
Beware OCR Errors
As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, big publishers routinely fail to proofread the results after scanning and converting print books to eBooks. This one is no exception. One of the most egregious errors? Referring to Mary, Queen of Scots (Mary Stuart) as “Mary Smart.” I shit you not. The first sentence of her chapter reads: “‘Queen of Scots’ was the title used by female monarchs and consorts of Scotland before 1603, but for most of us these words mean only one person, Mary Smart, the daughter of James V and Mary of Guise.” (126)
There are lots of errors like this throughout the book, although none as funny.
Don’t blame the author for these mistakes – this is entirely the publisher’s fault for failing to proofread the digital edition before taking your money. Because corporate greed and laziness aren’t already rampant enough in America.
Subtitle: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke & Duchess of Windsor
Editor: Andrew Lownie
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Available at: Amazon
What’s It About?
The story of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson is well-covered elsewhere – so why another book? Andrew Lownie says his book is different because it’s the only one devoted specifically to what happened after Edward VIII gave up the throne and left Britain for good, transformed into the bumbling Duke of Windsor.
And as you can tell from the title, the book spends a lot of time on Windsor’s activities during World War II. How did he feel about Nazi Germany? What happened during his meeting with Hitler? Did he actively work against Britain’s war effort? The title gives you a clue as to the author’s conclusion. I won’t spoil his findings, but he made a persuasive argument.
The book then follows the Duke and Duchess of Windsor for the rest of their lives, shifting after their deaths to a discussion of some of the many rumors about them. When I got near the end (when he covered their deaths) and realized Lownie hadn’t covered some of these sensitive topics, I was disappointed – and then a little ashamed for wanting all the dirty details. But then he did cover them, in a separate section of the book after he finished summarizing their lives. The part of me that still can’t resist the occasional episode of TMZ was satisfied.
Should You Read It?
Yes. I enjoyed this book – it walked that fine line between detailed research and gossip. There are a few salacious details here, but they’re tucked away toward the end of the book, rewarding you for making it through. Not that making it through was difficult, but I appreciated the author’s tact in putting them toward the end, almost as a reward. The Duke of Windsor is hard to take at times and difficult to like.
Just a Couple Tidbits
- Sir Charles Mendl, a press attaché at the British Embassy in Paris, was knighted in 1924 “for reputedly retrieving letters from a gigolo blackmailing the Duke’s brother George [Duke of Kent], but more likely for his espionage activities.” (62)
- The Duke of Windsor had an incurable case of foot-in-mouth disease. In 1926, at a dinner party: “He said Czechoslovakia was a ridiculous country – just look at it – how could anyone go to war for that? It isn’t a country at all, just an idea of the Wilsons.” (62) Its people, who felt like second-class citizens within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, might disagree.
- This book made me want to find a book about Princess Stephanie Hohenlohe. Here’s one tidbit about her, in 1940: “In December, Adolf Berle noted in his diary that he had seen an FBI report that ‘Sir William Wiseman and Fritz Wiedemann, the German consul general, were cooking up some peace moves together. Wiseman expects to do it through his contacts with Lord Halifax bypassing Lothian.’ Also involved as an intermediary was Stephanie Hohenlohe, Wallis’s former neighbour in Bryanston Court, a close friend of Bedaux and Goering and described by Berle as ‘an old hand at international intrigue.’” (147)
- This book also made me want to know more about the trip of Sir Owen Morshead and Anthony Blunt to Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war to seize paperwork and correspondence that might have revealed how pro-Nazi the Duke of Windsor was. Ostensibly, the purpose of the trip was to recover the 4,000 letters between Queen Victoria and Vicky, her oldest daughter, held at Schloss Kronberg. But, as Lownie writes, there was something more going on: “It looks like the trip to Kronberg was a cover for a fishing expedition, which suggests there was something else the Royal Family was worried about. ‘George VI had every reason to believe that the Hesse archives might contain a “Windsor file”, because Prince Philipp of Hesse had been an intermediary, via the Duke of Kent, between Hitler and the Duke of Windsor,’ claimed Prince Wolfgang of Hesse to the Sunday Times.” (240)
Subtitle: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna
Author: David King
Publisher: Harmony Books
Available at: Amazon
This book opens with Napoleon’s arrival on Elba on May 4, 1814. The action unfolds in a panorama, with lots of first-person accounts as Napoleon settles on Elba, diplomats and royalty arrive in Vienna, insanely expensive entertainment ensues, Napoleon escapes Elba, and the Allies defeat him and settle the final peace in Paris after Waterloo.
The starring roles go to the wily diplomats Talleyrand and Metternich; their respective love interests – the sisters Dorothée, soon-to-be Duchess of Dino and Wilhelmina, Duchess of Sagan; and the most important rulers at the conference, Emperor Franz I, Tsar Alexander I, and King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia. Throw in the British delegates - Castlereagh and Wellington – and you have an ensemble cast that’s ready for their close-up in what should be an HBO limited series.
There is so much sex and money and ego here, it’s unbelievable. I can’t believe this hasn’t been done yet.
Anyhoo, the book takes you through the diplomacy and negotiations that encapsulated the hopes, fears, and dreams of delegates from 200+ states and princely houses. The tidbits below give you a feel for the shenanigans that went on: parties, dances, masquerade balls, concerts, bed hopping, cash flashing, and maybe – if there was time – negotiating for the future of your country.
So what did the conference actually achieve? A mixed bag of things: redrawn maps, Swiss neutrality guaranteed, freedom of seas and international rivers proclaimed, diplomatic procedures established, the slave trade condemned, and stolen works of art restored. (Or not, if the hint about copies leaving the Louvre is true.)
There were lots of interesting little nuggets I didn’t know before. Check it out – random delegations went to the congress to pitch their ideas, including representatives of publishing firms who wanted to address the issue of “literary pirates” – they wanted to create an international copyright to protect intellectual property. How interesting is that?
Should You Read It?
Yes. This was just plain enjoyable to read. I’m thankful King didn’t go too deeply into the politics, which is a weird thing to say about a book that covers an inherently politically driven event. But I wasn’t interested in reading, say, thirty pages on the difficulties inherent in estimating the number of “souls” who lived on the left bank of the Rhine. I’d rather read a page on that and move on to the parties and spies and mistresses. And in this book, you get a little bit of everything: the people, the power, the folly, the money, and the lasting effects. Highly recommended.
- Emperor Franz I played the violin in the Habsburg family string quartet; sometimes Metternich would join them and play the cello. Franz’s other hobbies? Making candy and studying maps. (11)
- At the conference, 29-year-old Jacob Grimm represented Hesse-Cassel. Two years earlier, he and his brother Wilhelm had published what became known as Grimm’s Fairy Tales. (47)
- Some of the spies used by the Austrian chief of police, Baron Hager, have never been identified – including one known only by the infinity symbol, and the one who signed as ** (addressed by Baron von Hager as Your Highness). Who could this be? (69)
- During the first week of October, there was a concert conducted by Antonio Salieri, who had taught Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt. Remember Salieri? The narrator of the play and movie Amadeus? (82)
- Among the many lovely ladies at the conference, Princess Bagration and Wilhelmina, Duchess of Sagan competed to draw the most attention to their salons. And both women ended up broke because the conference went on so long. Wilhelmina had to sell a sapphire necklace to Emperor Franz, and Princess Bagration had to write home to her stepfather for cash after her cook refused to work on credit.
- While in Vienna, Eugène de Beauharnais (stepson of Napoleon) was spotted ducking into a jeweler’s shop and buying something for his latest mistress (whom the author doesn’t name, dang it). A police report submitted to Baron Hager said the bill was 32,000 ducats. Eugène paid in part with a cavalry saber Napoleon had given him. (126)
- The crown princes of Bavaria and Württemberg almost ended up in a duel. They had been playing blindman’s buff at the salon of Princess Thurn und Taxis when one accused the other of cheating. The king of Bavaria stopped the duel in time. (127)
- A banker from Geneva, Jean-Gabriel Eynard, confessed that at a party, he saw King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia standing alone against the wall and thought he was a waiter. He almost asked him for a glass of champagne. LOL. (158)
- On December 23, Tsar Alexander I’s birthday, Beethoven gave a concert. It was the last time he ever played the piano in public. (182)
- On December 30, there was a party at Count Razumovsky’s to celebrate Russia and the tsar. But his palace caught fire in the early morning hours of December 31. His servants tossed as many of his valuable possessions out the windows as they could, but so much was lost: his entire gallery of Canova sculpture, and many Dutch paintings. Even worse, two chimney sweeps went back into the fire to try and rescue some of the Russian embassy’s paperwork…and didn’t make it back out. In the morning, the tsar found Razumovsky sitting along under a tree, crying. (191-2)
- Napoleon’s second wife, Archduchess Marie Louise, had been assured she would get the Duchy of Parma, as promised to her in 1814. But when Napoleon escaped from Elba, she worried that his breaking the 1814 treaty would give people a good excuse for taking Parma away from her. In discussing her inconvenient husband, Archduke Johann of Austria told her, “For your sake and ours, I hope that he breaks his neck!” (243)
- Did you know Metternich had mad pranking skills? His secretary, Gentz, was hella stressed out from doing most of the paperwork during the conference. Napoleon’s escape did not soothe Gentz’s nerves. And then, one morning, he woke up and saw an article in the Wiener Zeitung offering 10,000 ducats as a reward for his murder – signed by Napoleon, in retaliation for a conference document that had referred to him as an outlaw. Gentz freaked the hell out – like, packing a suitcase, panicking, almost in tears. It was left to Dorothée de Talleyrand-Périgord to tell him to look at the paper’s date. The paper was a custom job, created especially by his boss, Metternich. The date? April 1. (250)
- A member of the Sicilian embassy, Duke of Serra Capriola, came to the cash-strapped Princess Bagration’s rescue, guaranteeing her extensive bills would be paid. Who does that? (314)
Author: Cornélie de Wassenaer
Translator: Igor Vinogradoff
Publisher: Michael Russell
Available at: Amazon
The Dutch party left Brussels on September 8, 1824, traveling by carriage. The party consisted of Willem and Anna and their suites, which included cooks, maids, footmen, a farrier and saddler, and the luggage of all of the above. The ones who could travel faster – the men – did so, while the women and luggage often lagged behind. Overall, the party covered 1,400 English miles in 24 days. (22) The journey took them through swamps, sand, and mud – roads were not well kept, and there were no trains or passenger steamers yet. First, they went to Weimar for a brief visit with Anna’s sister, the Hereditary Princess of Saxe-Weimar. They were on the road again on September 20. On October 12, they crossed the border into Russian Poland. Anna’s brother Michael met them in Warsaw. About two weeks later, they finally reached Gatchina, on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, where Anna’s mother lived.
The rest of the trip – from October through the end of July – would be spent at or near Romanov palaces in the St. Petersburg area, from the Winter Palace to the Anichkov, the Tauride, Pavlovsk, Tsarskoe Selo, Peterhof, and more. Although Willem went to Moscow, Anna and her ladies did not.
So…what did they do? A lot of sightseeing, a lot of parties, a lot of accompanying Anna on visits to her family and members of the court. If you’re curious what it was like for an outsider to be plunged into society, from the food to the people to the parties and church services, you’ll get the full experience here through Cornélie’s eyes.
Should You Read It?
If you’re interested in travel writing, you’d probably like this.
Or if – like me – you’re just a little obsessed with the Romanovs – you’d like this.
My used copy was about $10 on Amazon, and it looks like there are a few more at or near this price, so even though it’s a short book (about 150 pages), you’re not out a lot of money to add it to your collection.
- Before Cornélie met Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna for the first time, in Gatchina, Anna had asked all her ladies to wear their best outfits. Turns out, Maria Feodorovna hadn’t wanted them to bother, saying, “I am not Empress here; I am Madame de Gatchina.” (37) Since Maria Feodorovna was a stickler for etiquette, this shows she’d unbent a little in the years since her husband’s reign.
- One night in January, Cornélie met Prince Yusupov, who had known Catherine the Great back in the day. Yusupov told a story about Catherine at the gaming table one evening. Suddenly, a messenger arrived from Warsaw with bad news. Yusupov watched Catherine read the messages, fold them back up, and finish her game without letting on what the news was or how bad it might be. When the game was over, she withdrew to her apartments and worked all night long. (77)
- Sliding down ice hills was a fun winter pastime in St. Petersburg. On February 18, Cornélie wrote: “The weather was pleasant and we set out by sleight, but it turned out that we had gone too early. The mountains were there but no one was sliding yet…So we drove back to the city…They were sliding down ice mountains there. Ordinarily these are built on the Neva but, though the ice was more than three feet thick, it was not thought strong enough, especially in view of the changeable weather.” (88-9) On March 11, Cornélie went to a different ice hill outside the city “for the upper classes…They are watered every evening so that the ice stays perfectly smooth…You put on a huge pair of red leather gloves because you have to steer your sledge by hand….As for myself, I did not venture, especially once I had seen the thing close to and heard the ladies scream when the descent was at its fastest. Even the ones who love this exercise will tell you they have the feeling of being thrown out of the window, and this is not an idea that appealed to me.” (93) Oh, Cornélie, you crack me up. I couldn’t have resisted trying it at least once.
- Cornélie was not a fan of the Russian cuisine served one night during Lent: “The dinner was as bad as possible for our heretic stomachs. It was entirely Lenten fare because of the attendant clergy. The only good dish I tasted was sterlet, a very expensive fish of exquisite flavor.” (100)
- Spring came late in 1825…or did it? On May 23rd, Cornélie notes that she saw “a hint of green” in the Hermitage garden. And when she saw Mme. Naryshkin that night, the lady “assured us this year was exceptional and as a rule the month of May in St. Petersburg is charming. She asked M. Palmstierna, the Swedish minister, to bear witness to her statement. ‘I can assure you,’ he replied, ‘I have spent several years in St. Petersburg and I have never known a month of May to differ from this one.’” (119) LOL. I have found this true in the south, where no one seems to remember how often it snows or ices, and insists this instance is something totally out of the ordinary (when it snowed lightly, like, two or three times the previous winter).
- Postilions had a really hard time of it. A postilion rides the front-left-hand horse leading a carriage, guiding them. In imperial Russia, apparently, most postilions were young boys. There are constant references to postilions getting injured, like in this coach ride in early July: “On our way back to Pavlovsk in another carriage our postilion fell off his horse. The poor child screamed quite dreadfully and we could not even ask him where the pain was. Luckily the Grand Duchess Maria drove up and got us out of trouble. She had the child put in another carriage and driven off to Pavlovsk; he was all right in a few days. These poor little postilions have a wretched life and I think a lot of them die early. They are constantly exposed to every sort of weather and the accidents of their calling, and they are often only ten to twelve years old.” (140) Can we get some child labor laws here, please? And some health and disability insurance?
Subtitle: June 18, 1815: The Battle for Modern Europe
Author: Andrew Roberts
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Available at: Amazon
This is a concise account of the battle, including the prequel battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras, with a lot of attention given to the specific tactics of the generals involved. It was interesting to see where each combatant made mistakes – Napoleon made more than Wellington or Blücher. Roberts does a very good job of including a wide range of material for such a short book: quotes from soldiers’ memoirs, direct orders from the battlefield, and mentions of what oft-ignored groups like the Dutch & Belgian soldiers were up to.
The one thing I wish this book had was a map. Or, to be more precise, several of them, interspersed throughout the book. If there are maps in the hardcover or paperback editions, they were omitted in the digital version I bought. And because the terrain played such a large role (and it has been greatly altered in the years since), parts of the battle were hard to visualize without a map. For example, the battle contained several knock-down drag-out fights for farmhouses scattered throughout the general area – maps would have helped me visualize how far these were from the main battlefield. Were they *on* the main battlefield? Off to the side? A few hundred feet away? Half a mile away? I just couldn’t picture it.
Also, if possible, it would really have helped to provide dimensions of said farmhouses. When I hear the word “farmhouse,” I’m picturing something about 2,000 square feet. But then I read a mention of 800 or 900 soldiers being inside one of them, and I was like, whoa, this is not the farmhouse I was picturing. Was it more like a barn? How big was this house? Was this a wealthy farmer’s house? Did normal farmers build houses that large? Or were these soldiers crammed in like sardines? A teensy bit more clarity in the description would have helped noobs like me have a clearer sense of the scene.
Should You Read It?
If you’re a fan of military history, yes (although you might not learn much new here).
If you don’t need to know anything about Waterloo, the discussion of tactics might be too much for you. But it’s short, which means you’re not wading through 300 pages of description about whose grenadiers or dragoons moved where.
Beware a Few OCR Errors
I am sick as shit of publishers failing to proofread the eBook versions of their hardcover or paperback books. It’s painfully obvious that most of them scan the hard copy and use optical character recognition (OCR) software to convert it into a digital copy...and then fail to pay anyone to proofread the damn thing.
For example, in the introduction: “Yet what we can say for certain about the battle of Waterloo — that it ended forever the greatest personal world-historical epic since that of Julius $$ — is easily enough to drive us on to want to discover more.”
Not sure why the software couldn’t read “Caesar,” but there you have it.
And since it appears as the first sentence of the third paragraph in the introduction, clearly no one even took a stab at proofing this thing.
Good job, Harper Collins. Your attitude towards eBooks (and readers like me, who enjoy them) is duly noted. I mean, JFC, if you asked for volunteers among employees, librarians, reviewers, or – I don’t know – bloggers who routinely read eBooks about history, chances are someone would have been interested enough to proof this for free.
There are additional errors scattered throughout: a missing dash here, another weird $ there, things like that.
I’m a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. This content may contain affiliate links, particularly in the Sources section. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. If you choose to buy using my affiliate link, the seller will pay me a small additional amount at absolutely no cost to you. Thank you for supporting The Girl in the Tiara!
Check out the blog for fascinating stories about royal women and their tiaras. And don’t forget to join my mailing list to get Grand Duchess Louise of Baden’s meatloaf recipe! It’s finger-lickin’ good.