Wednesday, 9 December 2009

New books: Bernadottes and Romanovs

A book on the Bernadottes and the Romanovs in itself sounds like a good idea. It was the then Crown Prince Carl Johan’s alliance with Emperor Aleksandr I in 1812 which ultimately brought about the union with Norway and which greatly helped secure his position as an upstart monarch. Russia remained a key ally throughout most of Carl XIV Johan’s reign, until his son, Oscar I, broke with his father’s pro-Russian policy by concluding the November Treaty with Britain and France in 1855.
But as the subtitle indicates, the scope of Gunna Wendt’s new book Die Bernadottes und die Romanoffs. Europäische Dynastien auf der Mainau (published by Verlag Huber in Frauenfeld), is narrower than so.
At the centre of her story stands a marital rather than a martial alliance – in fact the only such alliance concluded between the Bernadottes and the Romanovs. In 1908 Prince Wilhelm of Sweden, the second son of King Gustaf V and Queen Victoria, was married off to Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia, a granddaughter of Emperor Aleksandr II. It was arguably the grandest match the Bernadottes ever made as well as the most disastrous. Princess Maria ran away after five years and divorce followed in 1914. Maria wrote about the marriage with great bitterness in her memoirs, while Wilhelm passed the whole thing over in his.
The fruit of the marriage was an only son, Prince Lennart, who, having lost his royal title by marrying a commoner in 1932, became known as the multi-talented Lennart Bernadotte and lived to a great age – he died on Mainau five years ago this month, aged 95.
This book has been written in connection with the exhibition “100 Jahre Lennart Bernadotte – Zurück zu den Wurzeln”, which was held at Mainau this year to celebrate his centenary. The author, who has earlier written a biography of Lennart Bernadotte’s second wife, Sonja, cooperated with her, Lennart’s cousin Prince Michel Romanoff and the French author Jacques Ferrand, in preparing the exhibition, but sadly all of them, except Wendt, died before its opening.
The book begins with a chapter on Carl XIV Johan. It is obviously based mostly on Fritz Corsing’s 1946 biography, but it is well written and Wendt offers some interesting perspectives on the founder of the Bernadotte dynasty.
After this we hear quite little about the Bernadottes and comparatively more about the Romanovs, as the author charts the life story of Lennart Bernadotte and some of his Russian relatives – his great-grandfather Aleksandr II, his maternal grandfather Grand Duke Pavel Aleksandrovich, his mother Maria Pavlovna and his uncle Grand Duke Dimitry Pavlovich, as well as Grand Duke Pavel’s three children from his second, morganatic marriage. One of them, Princess Irina Paley, was the mother of Prince Michel Romanoff, a first cousin who came to be a close friend of Lennart Bernadotte.
What many of those persons had in common was that their lives turned out quite differently from what they had expected. Grand Duke Pavel was banished from Russia because of his morganatic marriage, but was allowed to return at the outbreak of World War I, only to be executed by the Bolsheviks because of “the sins of his family” in 1919. Grand Duke Dimitry escaped this fate by having been banished from St Petersburg because of his involvement in the murder of Rasputin.
Lennart Bernadotte himself was thrown out of the royal family and had to make his own living by the use of his many talents. And his mother, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, refused to live in a loveless marriage with Prince Wilhelm and became one of the Russian royals who best succeeded in creating a new existence for herself following the revolution. It must however be said that Gunna Wendt puts somewhat too much faith in Maria Pavlovna’s memoirs, particularly when it comes to her version of her marriage and divorce.
The Bernadottes have produced more interesting and talented characters than most royal dynasties, yet they remain in the shadow of Lennart Bernadotte’s closest Russian relatives throughout this book. The relations between the two dynasties would also be worth a study, but is mostly bypassed by Wendt.
All in all this is an easily read and mostly correct book, but some significant voids make it less interesting than it might have been.

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