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.