Wednesday, 7 April 2010

New books: Bernadotte and the town where it all began

With the celebrations of the Bernadottes’ 200 years in Sweden approaching, Örebro County Museum chose to dedicate the 2009 edition of their yearbook to Carl XIV Johan. The book, titled Bernadotte – Det började i Örebro, is edited by Yvonne Torstensson and contains contributions by Birger Wennberg, Herman Lindqvist, Jan Mårtenson, Lars O. Lagerqvist and Göran Alm.
It was in Örebro that the Four Estates met in August 1810 to elect an heir to the childless King Carl XIII. He had become king following the deposal of his nephew Gustaf IV Adolf the previous year and the heir first chosen by the Estates, Christian August of Augustenburg, had died suddenly shortly after his arrival in Sweden. Many believed he had been poisoned and blamed the Marshal of the Realm, Axel von Fersen, who was consequently beaten to death by a mob during the Crown Prince’s funeral. In such uncertain times it was deemed too unsafe for the General Estates to meet in Stockholm and Örebro was chosen instead.
The largest part of this book is a revised edition of Birger Wennberg’s 1994 book Bernadotte och Örebro. Wennberg recounts the surprising events of the General Estates’ meeting, which did not, as had been anticipated, lead to the election of Christian August’s brother, but of Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, Marshal of the French Empire and Prince of Pontecorvo.
These momentous events are well-known and (naturally) Wennberg has no new information to add. But what makes his account stand out from others is his local connection to Örebro. Thus he is able to paint a colourful portrait of the town as it was two centuries ago and make us understand just how remarkable it was that this undeveloped small town became the centre of events which would alter the course of Swedish, and arguably also European, history.
The second part of the book is by the notoriously unreliable tabloid journalist Herman Lindqvist, who summarises his very weak biography of Bernadotte. This chapter aims to answer the question of who Bernadotte was, but, like Lindqvist’s own book, it reduces the multi-faceted, complex personality that was Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte to a one-dimensional caricature.
More interesting is the third part, by the former diplomat and courtier Jan Mårtenson, who looks at Mörner the kingmaker. The 29-year-old Lieutenant Carl Otto Mörner persuaded the Foreign Minister to allow him to go to Paris as an extra courier asking for Emperor Napoléon’s advice about who should be the new heir to the Swedish throne and took it upon himself to invite one of the French Marshals to come to Sweden. As we know, his plan succeeded, but Mörner himself never reached the heights of glory. The story of Carl Otto Mörner is a fascinating one, and this chapter might well have been longer.
In the last but one chapter the historian Lars O. Lagerqvist, one of Carl XIV Johan’s more significant biographers, treats the reader to an entertaining account of the King’s daily life and – a favourite topic of Lagerqvist’s – what the King ate.
The final chapter is by Göran Alm, art historian and head of the Bernadotte Library, who discusses Carl Johan’s relation to the arts, an aspect of his career which has been accorded surprisingly little attention. The Royal Palace in Oslo and Carl Johan’s library are at the centre of Alm’s argument, which concludes that Carl Johan understood how to use the arts as political tools and as means to legitimise his dynasty in Sweden and Norway.
The book is generously illustrated and works well as an introduction to the first phase of the history of the Bernadotte dynasty. But it would have been better if the chapter on Carl Johan’s background had been written by a more serious and knowledgeable author than Herman Lindqvist, who is now long past his prime.

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