Wednesday, 15 September 2010

New books: In defence of the Prince Consort

Henrik, the Prince Consort of Denmark, is arguably one of the least known figures among current royals. Not in the meaning that few have heard about him, but rather that few know what he is really like. He might perhaps in fact be one of the most interesting members of any European royal family, yet the way he is often caricatured by the Danish media means that few get to see those interesting sides of the man.
At the age of 76, the Prince Consort has for the first time become the subject of a biography, published by Politikens Forlag at the beginning of this month. Enegænger – Portræt af en prins is written by Stéphanie Surrugue, who in recent years has made a name for herself as a journalist at Politiken’s cultural section. The book had been postponed several times, but having read it, it seems fair to say that it was worth waiting for.
Born in 1977, Stéphanie Surrugue belongs to another generation than the Prince Consort, yet she is able to use her own story to tell that of Prince Henrik as her late father was in the same position as him – a Frenchman by birth, he moved to Denmark after marrying a Danish woman and, although integrated into Danish society, was always seen as “the Frenchman”.
But there is one thing which distorts the parallel. The Prince Consort, or Henri de Monpezat as he then was, may have been born in France, but he spent his early years at the family’s estates in what is now Vietnam, years which left deep marks on his character and the way he looks upon life. The outbreak of World War II meant that the family returned to France, which for the little boy was quite a cultural shock. One may thus say that he was uprooted twice and twice had to learn to adapt to a new country, a point which I think Surrugue does not fully take into account.
This is not a traditional biography based on a multitude of written sources, but, as the subtitle indicates, more of a portrait of the man, but also with traits of the reportage genre. The main sources are interviews with the Prince Consort himself, his immediate family and his closest friends. One might think it would have been refreshing to hear from some of those who do not adore the subject of the book and the absence of these voices does make the book somewhat one-sided. But on the other hand this seems to be first and foremost a book written in defence of Prince Henrik while at the same time trying to explore who he really is.
Surrugue’s interviews with the Prince are conducted in French, which means that the language occasionally feels a bit stilted when translated into Danish, such as his addressing her as “Madame Surrugue”. But this is a man in whose family one uses the formal “vous” rather than the informal “tu” even when addressing one’s parents, siblings or children.
A rather large part of the book is dedicated to the Prince’s life when he was not yet a prince. This is the story of Henri de Monpezat, who grew up as the second oldest of a huge flock of children at the family estate in South France, an upbringing dominated by his heavy-handed, choleric father, against whom he was in perpetual rebellion; who considered studying music but ended up as a career diplomat; and who at the age of 32 turned down the rather sensational offer of an ambassadorial posting (to Mongolia, but still an ambassadorial posting) in order to propose to the Danish princess he had met in London the previous year.
But Margrethe of Denmark was not only a princess. She was also the heiress to the throne and had in her own words “doubted if I would meet a man who would be able to say yes not only to me but to all that came with me”. Henri de Monpezat did so and thereby gave up his name and his nationality in order to move to Denmark and become the future queen’s husband and support. It was a choice which was to cause him both happiness and despair.
He now acknowledges that his father was right when he insisted that his role should be clearly defined from the beginning. But, he explains, he was young and in love and really did not feel in a position to lay down the law to the King of Denmark, his father-in-law. Queen Ingrid looked to how things had been done in Britain and the Netherlands and decided that her new son-in-law would become simply Prince Henrik of Denmark. In another context he points out that if King Frederik had told his wife that she would remain “Princess Ingrid”, she would have slammed the door behind her and gone back to Sweden.
The lack of a clearly defined role is something the Prince Consort considers one of the greatest difficulties of his life. The contrast between being a career diplomat and a prince without a real job was a “morally, intellectually and physically” difficult change, he says.
This he sees in relation to his being titled merely “Prince” until becoming “Prince Consort” in 2005. He argues that no-one could know the difference between Prince Henrik, the Queen’s husband and second in rank only to her, and little Prince Felix. If he had been made “statsprins, rigsprins, kongegemal” (State Prince or King Consort) his role would have been the same, but there would have been a clear indication that he had an actual role, he argues, while declaring that he would rather be called “Monsieur Henrik” than “Prince Henrik”.
The Prince Consort announces his intention to spend as much of his old age as possible at his château in France, which will confirm one of the most common Danish (mis?)conceptions about him, namely that he is more French than Danish. “Never forget to be proud of France”, was de Gaulle’s parting words to his young countryman when he departed for his wife’s country and Prince Henrik never has (he speaks of “the Anglo-Saxon dictatorship”).
With her own mixed Dano-French origins, Surrugue is in a better position than most Danes to understand the Prince Consort’s cultural background and the challenges facing him in Denmark. Denmark in 1967 was, as she points out, a country where wine was something one drank at confirmation parties and where only 29,000 out of 4.8 million inhabitants were immigrants – and only 621 of them were French. Queen Margrethe admits that a Frenchman was probably the last thing her parents had expected her to end up with – they rather expected a Briton or a Swede.
For Prince Henrik the easiest part of changing his country was apparently converting from Catholicism to Lutheranism. His father was furious and threatened to boycott the wedding, but Henrik himself anyway considers himself mostly a follower of Taoism and Confucianism. The language and the Danes’ attitude to foreigners were greater hurdles.
“I came to Denmark wishing to integrate myself entirely into my new country”, the Prince Consort says. The Danes are perhaps slightly xenophobic in that they expect immigrants to become entirely Danish as quickly as possible, yet they will continue to consider them foreigners (or “strangers”, which is the word often used) almost no matter how well they succeed.
That someone “is really Danish” is about the highest compliment a Dane can pay anyone and it was often said in that admiring manner of Prince Henrik’s Swedish-born mother-in-law, who succeeded better than most foreigners at coming across as truly Danish. Prince Henrik, on the other hand, still appears more French than Danish to many Danes and that is apparently something which rankles deeply with them.
The Prince Consort sees this himself and realises that language is the key factor. He acknowledges his mistake in not learning Danish well and fast enough, thinking from the beginning that there were more pressing issues to deal with and that he could catch up with the language later. His failure to do so would cost him dearly, as Prince Henrik’s Danish remains a standing joke to this day and is obviously one of the reasons why the Danes have never really taken him to their hearts.
Another reason why the Danes love Queen Margrethe but have never really taken to her husband may be that it is so obvious that the Queen absolutely loves her position with all its different aspects, while the Prince Consort often seems to come across as someone who loves the privileges and perks of his position more than the duties and responsibilities that come with it. This conception causes a lot of criticism of the kind that the Prince Consort really does not do much.
Surrugue addresses that criticism only implicitly, by dedicating a chapter to his patronages and the work he has laid down on them, thereby showing that he has made a difference. Yet she does perhaps weaken her own argument somewhat by dedicating more space to his hanging out with colourful friends and presenting him as the typical bon-vivant. Those parts of the book do also come across as a little too long-winded to me.
It could also be argued that the author sometimes relies too heavily on the Prince Consort as a source. “If there is anyone who knows the world history of princes consort it is the Danish title holder”, she writes, but this is obviously not quite right as Prince Henrik says he “after more than three decades took the title of Prince Consort which my equals in the Netherlands and Britain have had” – but none of the husbands of the three Dutch queens have had that title and neither does Prince Philip, yet this does not restrain Surrugue from referring to “Prince Consort Claus”, “Prince Consort Bernhardt [sic]” and “Prince Consort Phillip [sic]”.
There are also some other minor mistakes, but all in all this is a good book which, if it is widely read, may at last give the Danes a more accurate picture of who the Prince Consort is. He is a complex personality and to me it seems he is one of the most genuine characters on the public stage by always being himself, for better or for worse.
Prince Henrik’s diaries are “not only personal, they are private”. He has decided to leave the decision of whether to publish them to posterity. Until that day Stéphanie Surrugue’s portrait of the Prince Consort is likely to remain the most insightful account of the character of the man the Danes have lived with for more than forty years but never really come to understand or appreciate. One can only hope it is not too late.


  1. Thank you very much for the review, Trond.


  2. Elenor van den Bergh17 September 2010 at 11:10

    Great review, thanks!


Comments are welcome, but should be signed - preferably by a name, but an initial or a nick will also be accepted. Advertisements are not allowed. COMMENTS WHICH DO NOT COMPLY WITH THESE RULES WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED.