Sunday, 5 December 2010

New books: Establishing the Bernadotte dynasty

In connection with the bicentenary of the Bernadotte dynasty’s arrival in Sweden the jubilee foundation of the National Bank of Sweden has financed an interdisciplinary research project titled “The Making of a Dynasty”. As previously mentioned the project released its second publication in June, a book titled En dynasti blir till – Medier, myter och makt kring Karl XIV Johan och familjen Bernadotte, edited by Nils Ekedahl and published by Norstedts.
The book, like the project, aims to investigate by which means one made Carl XIV Johan and his family known to the people and how one created an imagined community between the people and the new dynasty. This should be seen as a multimedia show, the authors argue, where the variety of media used strengthened the message. Music, architecture, poetry and painting are the art forms considered by the authors contributing to this book, to which are added investigations of the use of ceremonial and the press.
I shall not dwell upon each and every chapter, but, as with all anthologies, some contributions are more interesting than others. Among those I found most interesting is the chapter by the historian Mikael Alm, who looks at the ceremonial which unfolded in connection with key events in the life of Carl Johan. The events were not only staged as “plays”, he argues, thus giving spectators the chance to observe and take part, but detailed accounts of the ceremonial were printed and distributed around the country so that the population outside the capital could also take part. Similarly, Nils Ekedahl, associate professor of rhetoric, looks at the panegyrics dedicated to the royals, which were also often printed in the newspapers and spread throughout the country.
The art historian Solfrid Söderlind, Director General of the National Museum, deals with those personages to whom Carl Johan felt it natural to compare himself. Of his predecessors on the Swedish throne, Gustaf II Adolf was the obvious choice, as both of them could be said to have led Sweden in playing a major role in events on the Continent. Napoléon I was obviously another ruler to whom it was natural to compare Carl Johan and Söderlind argues that Carl Johan’s famous words on his deathbed, “No-one has fulfilled a career comparable to mine”, was directed directly at his adversary.
Among the most interesting contributions to this anthology is also the art historian Britt-Inger Johansson’s chapter on Carl Johan’s physical environments, i.e. the palaces in which he lived and their importance for the staging of the new dynasty. In this Johansson is able to offer some interesting new interpretations. It has been rather common to say that Carl Johan showed little interest in the older Swedish palaces, except the Royal Palace itself. On the contrary Johansson shows that he gave orders for general inventories to be carried out for all of them, but that the Swedish Parliament was not willing to grant the funds he requested for renovating them.
However, in this chapter I miss a more thorough consideration of the Royal Palace in Oslo, which was the only major palace Carl Johan had the chance to build from scratch, a process in which he played an active and significant role. Despite being arguably the most important building created by Carl Johan, Oslo Palace is accorded only a short paragraph (in which there are four factual mistakes) and Johansson thus fails to use the opportunity given her to look at Carl Johan in the role as builder of a palace.
As I have commented on on several occasions it is an unfortunate trend that Swedish writers almost entirely tend to ignore the Norwegian side of the history of the Bernadottes. Sweden and Norway were indeed two independent countries in a personal union, but as the royal family was mutual (and in fact the only mutual institution besides the Foreign Service) it means that one misses out on half the story when only one of the countries is considered. In this case it means that the book gives an incomplete picture of the reception of the new dynasty.
Henrik Wergeland is the sole Norwegian mentioned in Nils Ekedahl’s chapter on panegyrics, while Cecilia Rosengren does not offer the Norwegian media a single thought in her chapter on the press. Considering the successful Swedish-Norwegian history project “Project 1905” a few years ago it is altogether more surprising that one has chosen to make this project an entirely Swedish one. Among the contributors to this book the historian Per Sandin comes closest to subjecting Norway to an equally thorough treatment as Sweden.
Sandin is currently about to complete his doctoral dissertation on the first two generations of the dynasty’s relations to civilian society and in his chapter, based on his coming dissertation, he argues that the usual image of an old, reactionary king ruling his kingdoms from his bedchamber has blocked posterity’s understanding of the interaction between monarchy and society. Sandin finds that Carl XIV Johan, particularly when compared to other contemporary monarchs, appears to have been a monarch with an unusually benevolent attitude to civil associations, which members of the royal family in several cases actively supported.
The too narrow Swedish approach is a drawback for this book, but its strength is that it brings together leading scholars in different fields who are able to offer new insights and new interpretations, which in combination give the reader a better understanding of why and by which means the Bernadottes succeeded in establishing themselves as a new dynasty. 200 years after their arrival in Sweden and 192 years after Carl XIV Johan’s accession to the throne they are the longest reigning dynasty in the country’s history. Certainly few would have expected that when Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, Sovereign Prince of Pontecorvo and Marshal of the French Empire, was surprisingly elected Crown Prince by the General Estates in August 1810.

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