Wednesday, 23 September 2009

New books: Herman Lindqvist on Carl XIV Johan

Among this autumn’s royal biographies is the well-known Swedish journalist Herman Lindqvist’s Jean Bernadotte – Mannen vi valde (“Jean Bernadotte: The Man We Elected”), published by Albert Bonniers förlag on 8 September. This is Lindqvist’s fiftieth book and his 51st can be expected already in November – it will be a book about Crown Princess Victoria, called Victoria – Drottning med tiden (“Victoria: Queen Some Day”).
Jean Bernadotte deals with the life of the future King Carl XIV Johan until the 1814 campaigns against France and Norway, followed by a brief summary dealing with his ascension to the thrones of Sweden and Norway in 1818 and his daily life until 1823, but hardly a word is said about his reign.
There are at least 30 biographies and many other books already written about King Carl Johan and one may wonder what the hyper-productive Lindqvist’s motivation for writing another one is. In an interview in the latest issue of the magazine Queen (no 6 – 2009) he explains that he thought no other author had “really understood who he was”. Having read the book, I can say that Lindqvist certainly comes no nearer than earlier biographers.
The people in Lindqvist’s books tend to be portrayed in an often quite flat, one-dimensional way, occasionally reducing them almost to caricatures. In this biography Lindqvist stresses how different Bernadotte always was from everyone else – he was taller than average, spoke French with a Béarnaise accent, he had a great temper etc. His temper was legendary and has often been referred to, while I would say his background was not much different from many of his contemporaries who rose from simple origins to become ministers and marshals in the Napoleonic age. Napoléon himself could serve as one example; the two rivals were probably more alike than any of them were comfortable acknowledging.
Another reason for writing a new biography of Carl XIV Johan could be if one had discovered unknown material. Lindqvist claims he has done “a lot” of research in the Bernadotte Family Archives, but obviously he has not been able to come up with much new. In fact I can find only one new piece of information in this book’s 455 pages: the author has come across a letter Bernadotte, when French Ambassador in Vienna, wrote to the Austrian Foreign Minister informing him that he intended to display a French flag outside the Embassy – an act which led to serious riots.
What Lindqvist considers his first great “discovery” is that Bernadotte was not actually named Jean-Baptiste but just Jean, but that he was called Jean-Baptiste to draw a distinction between him and his elder brother, who was also named Jean and was called Jean-Évangeliste. This is a well-known fact which should come as no surprise to anyone. Indeed it was first revealed 120 years ago by Fredrik Ulrik Wrangel in his book Från Jean Bernadottes ungdom, which is also listed among Lindqvist’s sources.
In an advance article in the history magazine Populär Historia (no 9 – 2009) Lindqvist announced that he had discovered a file of papers in the Bernadotte Archives showing that Bernadotte, when a general, had dreamed of and planned an expedition to India. This is in fact mentioned several times in the first volume of Torvald T:son Höjer’s official biography of King Carl Johan, published seventy years ago.
Lindqvist’s books are written in a very narrative way and mostly in an engaging manner, which make them easy to read and is probably much of the reason for his success as a bestselling author. However, this means that he rarely stops to discuss with himself or the reader. This becomes problematic as there are several episodes in the life of Carl XIV Johan where there are conflicting versions about what actually happened. It may seem that Lindqvist often just picks the best one. He also avoids some of the biggest and perhaps most difficult questions. One such is the question if Bernadotte, who changed sides, went against France and played an important part in Napoléon’s downfall by giving his enemies the key to the Emperor’s military strategy, could be said to have betrayed France. Lindqvist does not even touch on it.
On the other hand Herman Lindqvist does not abstain from making a good story better. For instance he tells how the fifteen-year-old Juliette de Récamier married a much older man, who “many years later” turned out to be her biological father. This was most likely not such a surprise; the accepted version is that Monsieur Récamier entered into a platonic marriage with his illegitimate daughter to make her his heir when he feared he would be executed.
This book is sadly polluted by Herman Lindqvist’s trademark sloppiness when it comes to historical facts. Names and titles are a mess throughout the book: Napoléon’s father was not named Carlos, but Carlo; Pauline Bonaparte was not Princess OF Borghese; Bernadotte’s wife spelt her name Désirée, not Desirée; he mixes the titles “prins” and “furste” constantly; Pauline Bonaparte’s first husband was named Victor Leclerc, not Charles Leclerc; George III was not Prince, but Elector of Hanover; a viceroy and a governor is not the same thing; in 1805 Davout held the rank of Marshal, not General; Elisa Bonaparte was Princess, not Grand Duchess, of Lucca; Archduke Karl of Austria is suddenly demoted to being a mere duke; Frederik VI of Denmark did not have a son named Fredrik Christian – in fact he had no son at all; Pontecorvo was a principality rather than a duchy; Murat was not both Grand Duke of Berg and Cleves and King of Naples at the same time; Napoléon’s elder brother was not titled “José Primero Buonaparte” when King of Spain (when did kings start to use surnames, and if so, why an Italian surname in Spain?); the man who was elected King of Norway in 1814 was Prince of Denmark, not of Oldenburg; the Norwegian Constituent Assembly in the spring of 1814 was not called a “storting”, this term only applies from the first extraordinary parliament which convened in the autumn; the Norwegians in 1814 did not insist on calling Carl XIII “Karl II”; the Duchy given to Denmark by the Congress of Vienna was called Lauenburg, not Lünenburg; Queen Désirée was the paternal, not maternal, grandmother of Oscar II; and so on.
Dates and years also seem to be a problem for Herman Lindqvist. The Battle of Waterloo took place on 18, not 19, June 1815; Franz II/I assumed the title Emperor of Austria already in 1804, not when the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved in 1806; 14 March is not the day before 15 April; Carlos IV of Spain was deposed in 1808, not 1809; 1794-1809 makes fifteen years, not fourteen; and in 1814 it was not 24 years since Louis XVI was toppled. One also wonders how Louis Bonaparte could have brought his wife to Italy in 1797 when he married only in 1802.
Lindqvist finds it hard to agree with himself – on one page Bernadotte’s income from the Principality of Pontecorvo is said to be quite good, on another page it was low; one place it is (correctly) said that Britain attacked Copenhagen in 1807, a hundred pages later we learn that it was Napoléon (!) who did so; the Treaty of Kiel was signed on 14 January 1814 on page 386, on 15 January thirteen pages later; and we learn that Carl Johan was the last of the allies to arrive in Paris in 1814, yet the Austrian Emperor arrives three days later on the following page.
But there are graver mistakes than these. For example he states that Bernadotte was elected Crown Prince by the four estates of Sweden, in contrast to Napoléon and his brothers, who, according to Lindqvist, “had become regents through the use of violence”. The fact is that Napoléon was elected Emperor by the French Senate, an election which was approved by an overwhelming majority in a plebiscite. But Lindqvist also seems confused as to what the estates of Sweden actually did. The election of Bernadotte did of course not mean that Carl XIII “should abdicate his throne to a stranger” – he remained king until his death. And it was when he was elected by the estates, not when he was adopted by Carl XIII, that Bernadotte became heir to the throne – the adoption was a mark of goodwill from the King, but held no constitutional significance.
Herman Lindqvist’s version of the events in Norway in 1814 is highly dubious and full of mistakes, and particularly his portrayal of King Christian Frederik shows that Lindqvist is unfamiliar with modern historiography – unless he simply chooses to ignore it to present Carl Johan and Sweden in a more glorious light. It could be pointed out that there is no evidence whatsoever to support Lindqvist’s claim that Frederik VI “naturally supported everything Kristian Fredrik [sic] now did” and that Denmark by the Treaty of Kiel ceded Norway not to Sweden, but to the King of Sweden, which is a significant difference. Lindqvist also gives the wrong number of inhabitants in Christiania in 1814 and his attempts at spelling in Norwegian are full of mistakes – the words “our king” are for instance not “vores kung” in Norwegian.
Despite, or maybe because of the fact that he has spent only a few of his so far 66 years in Sweden, Lindqvist has a grandly patriotic, almost national chauvinistic, approach to the history of Sweden – what used to be called “storsvensk” in Norway. As such it does not suit him that Norway and Sweden between 1814 and 1905 were two independent states in a personal union based on the principle of absolute equality.
In order to convince the reader that Norway was really a Swedish province, Lindqvist pompously tells us: “It was Sweden which had a governor general in Kristiania, not Norway in Stockholm”. This is rubbish. The governor general, who presided over the Norwegian cabinet when the King was not in residence in Christiania, was not a representative of Sweden, but of the King – i.e. the King of Norway, who happened also to be King of Sweden. He was a Norwegian official who was paid by the Norwegian state and who could be impeached by the Norwegian Parliament. He could be either Swedish or Norwegian, but it remains a fact that during the 59 years the position existed, it was held by Swedes for fifteen years, by Norwegians for nineteen and left vacant for twenty-six.
If one should read only one book about King Carl XIV Johan, it should certainly not be this one.


  1. Enjoyed your book review, as I do your Web page.

    I often wish there were more biographies of Scandanavians in English, and thankfully, it sounds like this one won't get translated.

    Keep up the good work!

    Birmingham, Alabama USA

  2. Thank you for your kind words. As you may know, one of the best biographies of Carl XIV Johan is actually written in English, by the Irish jurist Sir Dunbar Plunket Barton. It was published in three volumes between 1914 and 1925, with a one-volume "summary" version published in 1929 under the title "The Amazing Career of Bernadotte", which I believe was reprinted quite recently. Alan Palmer's "Bernadotte: Napoleon's Marshal, Sweden's King" is more recent, but less good.

  3. Takk for en grundig og god anmeldelse.
    Jeg har lett etter ei bok om Carl Johan, og tenkte kanskje jeg skulle plukke opp boka til Lindqvist. Det er ikke aktuelt nå :-)

    Er det Sir Bartons bok du anbefaler høyest eller er det bare den beste engelskspråklige boka?


  4. Dunbar Plunket Bartons biografi er den beste engelskspråklige - den kom opprinnelig i tre bind på engelsk, men den ble også utgitt i en engelsk ettbindsutgave ("The Amazing Career of Bernadotte") og i en svensk ettbindsutgave ("Bernadottes underbara levnad").

    Den beste biografien om Carl Johan er etter min mening Torvald T:son Höjers, som kom i tre svære bind mellom 1939 og 1960. Skal man derimot nøye seg med en biografi i ett bind, er nok Dunbar Plunket Bartons blant de beste uansett språk, men jeg synes fortsatt det mangler den ene virkelig gode biografien om Carl Johan.

    Men den ene, virkelig gode biografien om Carl Johan mangler fortsatt, og de fleste biografer slutter nærmest historien i 1810, 1814 eller 1818 og skriver lite eller ingenting om hans lange tid som konge.

  5. Takk for anbefalingen og det raske svaret:-)
    Da går jeg for Bartons biografi.


    Det er god og interessant blogg du har her.

  6. Takk for det. Ulempen med de fleste utenlandske biografier er at de går ganske raskt forbi årene som konge, men Barton viet ihvertfall ett av de tre bindene til årene 1810-1844 (bind III, "Bernadotte: Prince and King") og også ettbindsutgaven inneholder en del om det. Men den samlede framstillinga av Carl Johan som norsk konge mangler vi fortsatt.

  7. I just found your review and really enjoyed it. Thanks for all the clarifications regarding Linqvist's book. Although the errors are regrettable, I hope the new work will generate interest in the subject, which is far less than is justified. It truly was an "amazing" career.

    Your readers may appreciate visiting for free a complete read of the first part of Barton's work at

    BTW in case you missed it, the author showed up in a sensationalized, lurid interview in Aftenposten this past weekend! Check it out.

    I hope to add to the English-language collection of books on this subject within the next year.

  8. Yes, I did read the interview in Aftenposten and am still recovering from the experience! I did not know if I should laugh or cry and could only be amazed at to what lengths some people are willing to go to make sure that they are not taken seriously.

    Lindqvist will also publish a book on the history of the Bernadotte dynasty in October and there is by the way a rather good new biography of Carl XIV Johan in German, which is on the list of books I plan to write more about here. Do let me know when your book appears!

  9. Nar man laser Trond Norens kommentarer om
    Herman Lindqvists bocker sa kan man inte
    lata bli att tanka,
    Det ar surt sa' raven!

  10. And when one reads Herman Lindqvist's recent books one cannot help realising that this man really does not know much about what he pretends to be an expert at. When his books were published at Norstedts they made a giant effort to correct all the mistakes, but now that he has switched to Bonniers the publisher does not make that effort and his ignorance and sloppiness are therefore revealed to its full extent.

  11. Takk for en saftig anmeldelse. Leste du boken på svensk? I så fall kan jeg føye til at den norske oversettelsen er svak. Den ser ut til å være gjort under sterkt tidspress av en person uten interesse for godt norsk.

  12. Ja, jeg leste boka på svensk , men har også kikket litt i den norske utgaven og begge må kunne sies å være eksempler på hvor galt det kan gå når verken forlag eller forfatter gjør jobben sin.

    (Kommentarer ønskes forresten signert på en eller annen måte).


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