Sunday, 15 August 2010

New books: Habsburg drama

In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa is the somewhat overwrought title of a somewhat overwrought new book by Justin C. Vovk, who, according to the book’s cover, is “a critically acclaimed historian whose work is archived in the Library of Congress”. This sounds quite pretentious as this is his first book and as far as I know nearly everything published is “archived in the Library of Congress” – I think they have at least one of my books as well.
Basing his work entirely on secondary sources, Vovk builds his book over the same pattern as Julia Gelardi’s Born to Rule: Granddaughters of Victoria, Queens of Europe (2005) and his subjects are Empress Maria Theresia and what he describes as her five “reigning” children – the Emperors Joseph II and Leopold II, Duchess Amalia of Parma, Queen Maria Carolina of Naples and Queen Marie-Antoinette of France.
The Duchess of Parma is the one we hear the least about and also the one the author seems to have least sympathy for, while the lives of the other four are more or less equally covered. Maria Theresia herself is another main figure in this book. These five out of sixteen children have been chosen because they were, in the author’s words, those of the Empress’s children who came to rule states.
But out of these five only two did in fact reign. Yet all of them are constantly referred to as “reigning” or “rulers” and we learn that “[t]hey all shared the same experience of becoming a monarch”. But the spouse of a monarch is as little a monarch as the spouse of the President of the USA is head of state or Commander-in-Chief.
We are told that the fact that it was Amalia’s husband who was Duke of Parma, “in no way diminished her role as a reigning consort”, but this term is clearly an oxymoron. And when Maria Carolina marries the King of Naples, we learn that “she was now the reigning Queen of Naples”.
The author does not make a lot of factual mistakes (there are however some, such as the claim that Marie-Thérèse was Marie-Antoinette’s last surviving child at the time of the latter’s execution), but he obviously struggles with the terminology. “Leopold was now heir apparent to the imperial throne”, he states, before adding that “only a unanimous election could make him emperor”. But one cannot possible be heir apparent if an election is needed and one can hardly be heir apparent to an elective monarchy at all. And Marie-Antoinette, the youngest but one of sixteen children, was certainly not Maria Theresia’s heir, although Vovk writes about the Empress and Louis XV agreeing about “the marriage of their heirs”.
Despite the author’s annoying insistence on referring to all of his subjects as rulers, it is true that two of the imperial daughters who became the consorts of monarchs – Amalia of Parma and Maria Carolina of Naples – came to wield great influence in their adopted countries. Maria Carolina’s husband was, in the words of a historian, “born to be ruled by others” and Vovk writes: “There was never a question of who was in charge. Queen Maria Carolina knew exactly how to control King Ferdinand. She masterfully crafted a smokescreen of melodrama and marital discourse that made hum submissive to her will”.
Queen Marie-Antoinette cannot really be said to have wielded the same sort of influence in France and thus cannot be called the ruler of France neither in name nor in reality. Yet the author writes of how she and Louis XVI travelled to Reims for “their coronation”, which made her “the first reigning queen to attend a French coronation since 1549”. But not only was she not a reigning queen; it was furthermore only Louis XVI who was crowned, making it his coronation and not theirs.
The author does not at all dwell on the reasons why Marie-Antoinette was not crowned, which could be seen as a symptom of the animosity displayed towards her even early in her husband’s reign. But this animosity is not something Vovk will go to any length to try and explain to the reader; in his version, Marie-Antoinette was entirely without any human faults or shortcomings. Axel von Fersen only makes a brief appearance as a letter-writer and courtier and is never directly linked to the Queen. The story of the unconsummated marriage, which was certainly of enormous dynastic consequences and which will be familiar to anyone who has read anything about Marie-Antoinette, goes entirely unmentioned. The portrayal of Joseph II as quite simply an enormous failure also tends to speak of a tendency to paint people in black and white.
There are some gross simplifications, such as the assertion that Napoléon “engulfed it [the continent] in the flames of war”. Those wars had started before Napoléon came along and he was certainly not alone in prolonging them, as the author also acknowledges when he writes about how Britain broke the peace of Amiens because it was in its own interest to do so. Hand in hand with the simplifications go the many exaggerations, such as referring to Catherine Mary Bearne, who a century ago wrote some romanticised royal biographies full of tittle-tattle, as a “famed historian”.
Both the author and the publisher could have made more of an effort about the language, which contains rather too many clichés – clichés which occasionally contradict each other. On page 208 we read: “If the French monarchy were an opera, then the Diamond Necklace Affair would be its closing act”. On page 210 we read: “The death of Princess Sophie marked the beginning of the end of Marie Antoinette and her family”. But can the beginning of the end really take place after the closing act?
On page 250 Leopold II’s death gives the author cause to write that “[t]he Holy Roman Empire mourned the passing of a sovereign for the second time in two years”, but what he writes on page 233 about how “[t]housands of people [had] lined the streets of Vienna to say good riddance” during Joseph II’s funeral and thrown rocks, mud and other objects at the coffin, does not exactly convey the sense of a people in mourning.
There are also some translations from German which make absolutely no sense, such as the following ending to a letter: “Although I am more than persuaded, that such a loss cannot be repaired, I dare to offer you in me, who in friendship, attachment, [and] true and sincere interest in everything that could interest you in all ways”. What? The author will insert a “[sic]” after words spelt in an older manner or according to English rather than American grammar, yet he will himself make a rather high number of grammatical mistakes, including some rather basic ones.
And then there are some downright silly statements, such as the claim that the Duke of Lorraine upon marrying Maria Theresia “took the name Francis Stephen” – of course he did no such thing, as taking an English name would make no sense for a man about to become Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The same goes for the claim that Felipe of Spain “took the name Philip” when he became Duke of Parma.
But what is most annoying about this book is the constant insistence on drama or tragedy even where there is none. Emperor Franz Stephan had a “dramatic funeral”, but we never hear of any drama played out during this ceremony. The Augustinerkirche in Vienna is also “dramatic”, although I personally found it quite peaceful when I visited it last summer.
“But the conclusion of the war and the restoration of peace in Austria would pale in comparison to the tragedies that were about to befall Emperor Leopold II and Queen Marie Antoinette” is just one example of how we are constantly told of grim forebodings and unexpected fates. These often begin with words such as “No one could know that...”, but the author often overdoes it. When a queen gives birth to her second son it is not an entirely unimaginable possibility that this second son might one day be king – history is full of second sons acceding to thrones, either of their own countries or of another kingdom.
On the other hand there are some refreshing anecdotes, such as Maria Theresia writing to her daughter about her future husband: “Although an ugly prince, he is not absolutely repulsive…at least he does not stink”. One would wish Vovk had included more of this and less of the melodrama.
The story which forms the backdrop for Vovk’s book is certainly fascinating and the most valuable aspect of this book is that it tells the stories of some interesting, lesser-known individuals as well as those of their more famous siblings - my main reason for reading this book was a desire to learn more about Queen Maria Carolina of Naples.
The book is not bad in itself, but as I read on I eventually began feeling rather tired out by the constant melodrama and all the exaggerations. The book is otherwise held in an accessible, easily read prose and the author seems to have the potential for becoming a good storyteller. My advice to the author would therefore be to take some time to learn and understand the correct terminology of his subject and to work on restraining his sense for melodrama.


  1. Dear Mr. Isaksen,

    This is Justin Vovk, author of "In Destiny's Hands." I appreciate the time you've taken to read my book, as well as the extremely thorough analysis you have done on it. I must admit, you make very excellent points. If I could go back and rewrite the book using your suggestions, I absolutely would. A perfect example is, of course, the point you make about "reigning siblings," when the correction should be "reigning and consort siblings." I was quite young when I started writing IDH (only 20 years of age), and knew little about the industry or what makes for successful serious history. I'd like to think I have learned from my mistakes. I am currently working on a new book that takes a less biased, more balanced view of four reigning imperial consorts. I'm sure you'll also be relieved to know that I have scaled back my sense of melodrama considerably, instead letting the facts and storytelling speak for themselves. That being said, I would love to have your take on my new manuscript if you are interested.

    Kindest regards,
    Justin C. Vovk

  2. Of course most of us who have written books will wish we had done something a bit differently and I am glad to see that you take so gentlemanly to criticism. As I said I can see from the book that you have potential for becoming a good storyteller, so I can only hope your next book will be without such irritants which tend to spoil the overall effect a bit. I am glad that someone picks up the stories of historical figures which have been partly neglected in recent years and makes their stories available to the general public, so I can only wish you all the luck with your coming book, but I am afraid I do not have the necessary time to read manuscripts as this tends to involve quite a lot of work.

  3. Apologies if this is too tangential a question, but are/were there any monarchies where the consort normally does reign or rule with the monarch?

  4. One cannot be a monarch and a consort at the same time, but of course it has happened that the consort has been the actual ruler - sometimes for formal reasons such as the monarch being incapacitated and sometimes simply because the consort has been the stronger character.

    And then there are those rare occasions when a husband and wife have been co-monarchs, such as Mary II and William III of England, Scotland and Ireland following the Glorious Revolution (this arrangement was also what Ulrika Eleonora of Sweden wanted, but when the Estates refused to accept it she abdicated in favour of her husband - thus they switched positions so that she went from being the monarch to being the consort, while the consort became the monarch).

  5. Yes, I understand that situations like Mary and William's where a monarch's spouse is officially a co-monarch are rare, but I wondered whether it was ever normal practice in any monarchy for a consort to have an official role in running the kingdom (under normal circumstances, and not only during regencies). I've read comments that husbands of modern European queens are titled Prince (instead of King) to distinguish them from ruling kings, and wondered whether the habit of titling female consorts Queen indicated some kind of role in ruling. Or was it the other way around, with female monarchs receiving the title (queen) previously established for consorts?

  6. No, I do not know of any country where it was normal for a consort to have an official role in the running of the country. In most cases where a consort was the real power behind the throne that would be an informal arrangement based on special circumstances.

    Reigning queens have been comparatively rare in European history, but there are countries where their husbands have been titled king rather than prince (Scotland, Spain and Portugal come to mind). It seems this really changed with Queen Victoria's marriage to Prince Albert in 1840, when Parliament was unwilling to comply with her wishes that he should be given the title king (one argument used against it was that as a British woman shares her husband's rank and title, one might risk that Prince Albert survived Queen Victoria and remarried a woman who would thus have the right to be styled as queen). It was only in 1857 that Prince Albert was given a British title as prince consort.

    Queen was and is the title mostly used by the wives of kings and I guess that when a woman became monarch it was considered natural for her to use that title - although both Queen Christina and Queen Ulrika Eleonora were actually proclaimed "King of Sweden" at their coronations to mark the fact that it was the role of the king they filled although females and titled queen. (Karin Tegenborg Falkdalen has written an interesting dissertation on this subject, titled "Kungen är en kvinna" - "The King is a Woman").

  7. How absolutely fascinating. Now if we could only have a female pope we could resolve a lot of problems!

  8. I am quite disappointed with the author's facts on Duchess Maria Amalia of Parma. It seems that he did not even bother to verify his sources on her or look into more reliable sources.....

  9. Excellent review above! I didn't even think of your points but looking back, all your points make so much sense. I guess I was too much focused on the author's "facts" on Maria Amalia back then to take in the other aspects of the book. I think the book is more on historical fiction, at least as far as the sections of the Duchess of Parma is concerned.

    I very much agree that the theme tragedy was very exaggerated. For instance, I am hard pressed to find many "tragedies" (I can only think of 4-5) in the case of Maria Amalia, and she, in fact, did much better than many of her siblings, both personally and politically.

  10. Excellent review, Mr. Isaksen. However, I have to disagree with your statement that "The author does not make a lot of factual mistakes". In fact, this book is FULL of factual mistakes. For instance, it states that Maria Amalia, Duchess of Parma, constantly argued with her husband. I don't know where Mr Vovk got this information from, because if one reads the only Italian biography of Maria Amalia (something Mr Vovk obviously didn't), it's clear that their relationship was quite harmonious since the beginning of their marriage. I could give more examples, but it would be too much time-consuming. My point is that several statements in this book are FAR from accurate.


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