Thursday, 29 November 2012

New books: The wit and wisdom of Margrethe II

The Queen of Denmark is known for her wonderful ability to use the Danish language to formulate striking sentences and for her sharp powers of observation. Thus one can only applaud that the author Jens Andersen has now followed up his very interesting biography of Queen Margrethe with a collection of memorable queenly quotes.
Om man så må sige – 350 Dronning Margrethe-citater, published by Lindhardt & Ringhof, is arranged alphabetically, ranging from “abdikation” to “året” (the year) and covering a vast field of topics on the way from A to Å.
I am not sure if an alphabetical order is the best way of arranging such a book; it might perhaps have been more interesting if related topics had been grouped together. As it is, one will for instance find a quote about the Order of the Elephant under E for “Elefantordenen”, while a quote about orders in general is found under “O” for “ordensvæsen”.
The quotes are taken from the Queen’s speeches and from Andersen’s interviews with her for her biography, but primarily from the many, many interviews Queen Margrethe has given to newspapers, magazines, television and books. The oldest are from 1966, the newest very recent.
Occasionally one might have wished for other quotes to have been selected. For instance, there are two quotes about “ungdommen” (young people), both of them dating from 1975, when the Queen herself was fairly young. One supposes her views on that topic may have developed since then. On a couple of occasions I could also think of better Queen Margrethe quotes than those chosen for this book.
Queen Margrethe is interesting, intelligent and witty, and knows how to utilise the Danish language (only one utterance is quoted in another language than Danish). Thus this is a book full of pearls. Just a few examples will be enough:
“We do not have that much to moan about when one thinks of what people did not moan about before”.
“When one loves one gets more to lose”.
“I do not think one should chase the fashions of the day, concerning neither sweaters nor opinions”.
“Generalisations must be broken down on the spot”.
“One would not die from my cooking, but I am not sure one would survive my driving”.
“One may well use one’s head even though one is in love. Someone has said that one cannot prevent lightening from striking – but one may prevent the whole town from burning down”.
“It is not possible to develop into a complete human being if one must live in a room with only three walls”.
“The monarchy is an anachronism if one decides that it should be one”.
“When people say that I may not speak, they forget that I may well think. I may think what I want, like everyone else. I shall just refrain from saying everything I think. That might be something many people should do once in a while”.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

New books: The decline of monarchy in Sweden

The Swedish monarchy is today the most powerless of all the European monarchies. While other monarchs still have a constitutional role, the current Swedish Constitution, which came into force on 1 January 1975, has left the monarch with representative duties only, virtually introducing a republic while retaining the King. How this came about is the topic of the historian Jan Berggren’s interesting new book Från härskare till estradörer – Bernadotternas fall och demokratins seger, published by Carlsson Bokförlag, which charts the decline of monarchy in Sweden since the mid-nineteenth century.
The book opens with a 50-page introduction to the development of royal power from the reign of Gustaf V in the sixteenth century to Oscar I. However, the majority of the book concerns the developments since Carl XV, who came to the throne in 1859 and whose reign marks the beginning of the decline. Berggren’s analyses of the significant events and developments which led to the King’s powers’ continuous decline are very sharp. To those not too familiar with the story of the decline of monarchical power in Sweden this book will probably be an enlightening eye-opener.
The chapter on Carl XV is admirable, clearly setting out why his reign was a turning-point and summing up the key events which inflicted defeats on the King’s power from which it never recovered. The process continued through the turbulent reigns of Oscar II and Gustaf V into the rather more peaceful years of the old and generally beloved Gustaf VI Adolf, whose reign ended with the so-called Torekov agreement of 1971, whereby the monarch was confined to a symbolic role. Berggren proves to be an expert guide through the political events of this century of monarchical decline and retains a sharp eye for the turning points. About the reign of the current King, however, he has little to say (indeed he contends that it is wrong to say that Carl XVI Gustaf “reigns” at all).
Unlike most Swedish authors Berggren takes into account the crucial fact that the first four Bernadotte monarchs were also kings of Norway, which was in a personal union with Sweden from 1814 to 1905. Swedish writers tend to leave out Norwegian issues and to treat the kings as Swedish monarchs only, which means that much of vital importance is ignored. Berggren does not make this mistake, and is to be commended for his ability to present the often complex and entangled political strives of the late nineteenth century, which eventually led to the dissolution of the union, in a clear and accessible prose.
However, one might wish that Berggren would have seen the developments in the two kingdoms more in relation to each other. For instance, one of the main reason why Oscar II, following his deposal as King of Norway in 1905, declined the offer of the Norwegian crown for a Bernadotte prince, was concern that such a move might undermine the standing of the monarchy in Sweden as well as in Norway, and diaries and memoirs suggest a certain Swedish discontent with the royal family in the wake of the union’s dissolution. But how events in one country influenced the monarchy in the other is a topic Berggren avoids.
The book’s greatest weakness is indeed its lack of context. While Berggren’s survey of the political events which led to the decline of monarchical powers is in itself excellent, he does not say more than a few words about the ideas and currents of the time, which were surely the preconditions for the political developments influencing the role of the monarchy.
The author also demonstrates an interest in the monarchs’ sex lives which does not really belong in such a book. Furthermore there are some errors and over-simplifications. For instance the author writes that the famous signature stamp of the Age of Liberty was to prevent the King from refusing to give assent, but, as Jonas Nordin has shown in his excellent book Frihetstidens monarki, the main reason for acquiring this stamp was to save the King from the burden of having to sign everything by hand and it was only rarely used to stamp his signature onto documents he was unwilling to sign. He misspells the name of the leader of the Left throughout (“Svedrup” rather than Sverdrup) and that his claim that the Norwegian Parliament altered the wording of Oscar II’s refusal to give the royal assent to the consular bill of 1905 is nonsense. His claim that Queen Victoria’s behaviour during World War I bordered on the treasonous seems exaggerated given that Sweden was not actually at war.
The last chapter is not worthy of the high standard of the rest of the book. It is indeed a curious chapter, a mix of various topics, much of it consisting of polemics against various books on the monarchy and the royal family published between 2006 and 2010. For instance, there are several pages about the very well-known story of how Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte became Crown Prince of Sweden in 1810, all of it in order to argue that the word “we” used in the subtitle of the notoriously unreliable author and tabloid journalist Herman Lindqvist’s book on Carl XIV Johan, “The Man We Elected”, is misplaced.
What makes this chapter even more confused and confusing is that it was obviously written in 2010 and only very lightly updated since then. And given the events of the past two years, which have seen the standing of King Carl Gustaf dramatically undermined, much of this chapter is no longer relevant – in particular what Berggren considers the deference shown to the royal family by the media.

Monday, 19 November 2012

New books: Mountbatten’s daughter, Elizabeth II’s lady-in-waiting

The memoirs of the children of famous parents and of former courtiers have in common that they are frequently rather dull, dreary and over-careful not to say anything that is not already known. The autobiography of Lady Pamela Hicks, youngest daughter of the famous Earl Mountbatten of Burma, first cousin of Prince Philip and former lady-in-waiting to her third cousin, Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, is an exception to this rule.
In Daughter of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson last month, Lady Pamela Hicks tells the story of her early years with humour and a sharp eye for the telling detail. She relates the story of her life from her privileged childhood, the “exile” in the United States in the early stages of World War II, her time in India while her father was its last viceroy and the tours on which she accompanied the current Queen as lady-in-waiting. These travels include the visit to Kenya in February 1952 which was cut short by the death of George VI and the accession of Elizabeth II, which Lady Pamela observed at first hand.
As children of famous parents often are in their memoirs, Lady Pamela is admiring and generally uncritical of her parents. Yet she is very candid about her parents’ unusual marriage, and how their open infidelity to each other brought their lovers into the children’s lives in what seems a most natural manner and how these lovers themselves became important to the two Mountbatten daughters. The portrayal of her paternal grandmother, Victoria, Marchioness of Milford Haven, stands out as one of the most memorable aspects of the book, along with her loving depiction of the time she spent in India with her parents during that country’s transition from colonial status to independence.
There seems to be a set of “approved” royal anecdotes which are included in all such memoirs (how many times have we not read for instance of how the then Princess Elizabeth’s tiara snapped and the pearls and the bridal bouquet had been mislaid just before she set off for her wedding?), but besides these there are many amusing stories in this book, some of them hilarious.
Occasionally Lady Pamela gets her facts wrong, for instance by giving a wrong date or misspelling a name, or imagining she departed from “JFK” airport in the 1940s when she apparently means La Guardia. And there is a glowing account of what “a privilege” it was to meet “the legendary King Haakon of Norway”, who “was deeply revered by his countrymen as a war hero, a symbol of his people’s resistance”, before Lady Pamela goes on to tell us how he “remained defiantly in his palace and rode out on his white horse through the streets of Oslo every day”, which is the exact opposite of what King Haakon actually did (leading a government in exile from London), but reminiscent of what his brother, King Christian X of Denmark, did.
The book ends with Queen Elizabeth II’s great Commonwealth tour following her accession and then a brief epilogue about Lady Pamela’s marriage to the designer David Hicks in 1960 and how they learned of the death of her mother upon returning from their honeymoon. As such it is not a complete autobiography and indeed I think this early end to the book makes Lady Pamela herself appear less interesting than what she might actually be.
There had been marital approaches made by Prince Georg of Denmark, who was turned down by Lord Mountbatten without Lady Pamela having been consulted. There was a romance with a Lebanese man and, we are told, ten proposals of marriage. But it was only when she met an untypical suitor in the shape of David Hicks that she was “completely bowled over”.
“It was an unorthodox match but one that would change my life completely”, she writes. “After twenty-nine years as the dutiful daughter of a family at the heart of British society, with all its traditions and ceremonies, I was about to enter a completely new world – of fashion, design and the whirlwind of the 1960s”. The contrast between the world into which she was born and the world into which she married must have led to interesting experiences and, perhaps, difficult transitions, something which might have been an interesting tale. But perhaps Lady Pamela Hicks considers that a different story?

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Royal jewels: The Brazilian tiara

The grandest of the many grand tiaras in the possession of the Swedish royal family is the so-called Brazilian tiara, formerly wrongly known as the Coronation tiara. This magnificent piece of jewellery is normally only worn for the grandest of occasions. Queen Silvia has made it a tradition to wear it for incoming state visits from reigning monarchs and she also wore it for Crown Princess Victoria’s and Prince Daniel’s wedding in 2010 and for the sixtieth birthday of King Carl Gustaf in 2006. She has also worn it for most official portraits.
The myth that this tiara was worn by Swedish queens on their way to the coronation church ever since the eighteenth century can be traced no further than to a book written by the royal postcard collector Sigyn Reimers in 1957 (a book which also seems to be the original source for the equally wrong claim that the emerald parure now in the possession of the King of Norway belonged to Empress Joséphine of the French and was worn by her at the coronation in 1804).
However, there are no traces of this splendid piece of jewellery until the inventory of the jewels of the Dowager Queen Josephina of Sweden and of Norway which was drawn up after her death in 1876. In this inventory the tiara and a matching necklace, a brooch and a pair of earrings are valued at 248,000 SEK, making it by far the most expensive parure in the inventory – the so-called Leuchtenberg sapphires are, for comparison, valued at 69,500 SEK, and the emerald parure now in Norway at 41,000 SEK.
The art historian Göran Alm, who recently retired as head of the Bernadotte Library at the Swedish Royal Collection, has furthermore discovered that Queen Josephina in a draft of her will describes it as “the great Brazilian parure”, leaving it to the royal jewellery foundation. This makes it obvious that the parure only came to Sweden as part of the great inheritance from Queen Josephina’s younger sister, the Dowager ex-Empress Amélie of Brazil, who died in Lisbon in 1873, an inheritance which also included the above-mentioned emerald parure and many other splendid items.
The inheritance was shipped to Kristiansand in Norway onboard the Norwegian naval corvette “Balder” and from there to Stockholm. Thus the tiara arrived in Sweden after the last coronation in the country’s history had been held in May 1873, making it possible to reject conclusively the myth put forward by Sigyn Reimers.
The Brazilian author Claudia Thome Witte, who is writing a biography of Empress Amélie, has recently revealed that the tiara was a wedding present to her from her husband, Emperor Pedro I, in 1829. The diamonds had originally belonged to the Emperor’s first wife, Leopoldina, née Archduchess of Austria, and had been inherited by their children following the Empress’s death in 1826. Pedro acquired the diamonds by assuming a debt in bonds as compensation to the children and presented the tiara to his new bride, who first wore it for the hand-kissing ceremony following her wedding. Empress Amélie wrote to her mother, Dowager Duchess Auguste Amalie of Leuchtenberg, that “the tiara [was set] with the best Brazilian diamonds in various sizes and [of] so pure clarity that [they] seemed made of water”.
There are no known portraits of Queen Josephina wearing the tiara, but following her death in 1876 it was worn by her daughter-in-law, Queen Sophia (pictured above with it and parts of the emerald parure) and subsequently by Queen Victoria. Following Queen Victoria’s death in 1930 it was worn rather frequently by her daughter-in-law, Crown Princess and from 1950 Queen Louise. Queen Louise often wore it to the State Opening of Parliament and in 1937 also at the coronation of her second cousin, King George VI of Britain. After Queen Louise’s death in 1965 it was not seen again until her step-grandson Carl XVI Gustaf married in 1976 and Queen Silvia immediately began to wear it. Now that its Brazilian origins have been established this seems particularly fitting, as Queen Silvia is herself half Brazilian.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

New books: The Queen Mother in her own words

As I pointed out when reviewing William Shawcross’s official biography of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother of Britain three years ago, one of the pleasant surprises about that book was what a sparkling letter-writer the late Queen was throughout her long life. Apparently I was not alone in noticing this, and last month Macmillan issued what might perhaps be called a companion volume to the official biography, titled Counting One’s Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, edited by Shawcross.
The book runs to 666 pages and covers the huge time span from 1909 until 2001. In between the letters there are also some extracts from the diaries she occasionally wrote in younger years, a few speeches and extracts from recorded conversations with Eric Anderson in 1994 and 1995. The letters are written to a great many different addressees and only very occasionally has the editor chosen to include extracts from letters written to Queen Elizabeth.
Obviously, not all of the letters are equally interesting. The largest section of the book is devoted to the brief fifteen years when she was Queen, while less space is given to her five decades as Queen Mother. To me this seems a reasonable solution, as her years as Queen were obviously more interesting and event-filled than her long widowhood. As the wife of the monarch she was naturally more involved in affairs than as the mother of the monarch, and there are occasional glimpses of her machinations behind the scenes during World War II – for instance how she tried to ensure that the King got the media attention she thought he deserved, and criticism of the King’s advisers in that respect as well as of Churchill for upstaging her husband in a way she thought undermined his position.
There are, in my opinion, perhaps too many letters included from the teenage Lady Elizabeth to her governess turned best friend Beryl Poignand, which deal with such things as her infatuation with the Justin Biebers of a hundred years ago. On the other hand one is charmed when the fifteen-year-old Elizabeth is going to a tea “to meet Princess Mary and Prince Albert next Sunday”, adding that “[t]hey don’t frighten me quite as much as Queens” (“rather nice” was her comment, after the tea, about the Prince who would one day make her Queen). Some of her observations of royal life shortly after her marriage, seen with the eyes of one who was until recently an outsider, are also quite amusing.
Through the letters the reader gets closer to a person who was highly visible for eighty years, but who nevertheless managed to remain very private. In her letters Queen Elizabeth made no attempt at hiding her views on party politics. Already in 1924 she describes herself as “extremely anti-Labour”, followed by other harsh words through the years and herself longing to use her vote and dispatching “a busload of servants up to London” to vote for the Conservative candidate Duff Cooper in 1931.
She declares her hate for the League of Nations and her view that it is “a crime for women to take jobs that men can do as well”. Gandhi was in her eyes “an old blackmailer […], practically committing murder to gain his own ends […]”. There are no signs of her having become less conservative with time, but apparently she learned to express herself somewhat more diplomatically on political matters with the passing of the years and in her old age even acknowledged that Attlee had been “a very good Prime Minister”.
On the other hand she mostly remained discreet about family matters, although there are some critical remarks about her parents-in-law and expressions of the young Duchess’s sense of being frustrated in her wishes by “Press & Precedent”.
Occasionally her letters are self-revelatory in a way which was perhaps unintended. For instance, when Beryl Poignand in 1930 is about to publish a book on Princess Elizabeth, the Duchess of York asks only for the removal of a suggestion that she might one day be Queen. “It always irritates me, this assumption that the Prince of Wales will not marry – he is quiet young and it is rude to him in a way too”, she writes, and one is left wondering if it was perhaps also a thought the Duchess herself was uncomfortable with.
On the subject of King Edward VIII one notes how close she used to be to him in the early years of her marriage. When he abdicated she found it “hard to believe that the one that we knew as Prince of Wales could possibly have done what King Edward did” – to her, the Prince of Wales and King Edward were apparently almost two different men. Queen Elizabeth is often said to have thought that the abdication, and thus in fact Edward VIII, caused the early death of her husband. This is not a view expressed in any of the letters quoted, but already in 1951 we find her referring to the Duke of Windsor as “the part author of the King’s troubles”.
Her deep sense of loss after King George’s death is very evident, as is the degree to which she had depended on him and how he, as she wrote to Queen Mary on the day of his death, had been her “whole life”. Doing things without him “nearly kills one”, she writes in 1954. The letters speak of a blackness which engulfed her for years after his death – in 1957 she was still struggling to find peace of mind – but also of her resolve to never give in, as “the King never gave in, and I am determined to try & do what he would have wished”.
Her letters to Queen Elizabeth II in particular speak of a sense of loneliness which apparently never left her after the death of her husband (the letters suggest that her relationship with Princess Margaret was less confidential than with her elder daughter). The most moving personal aspect of this book is perhaps that of the contrast between the joy which always radiated from the Queen Mother in public and the melancholy and loneliness she felt in private as she lived on for fifty years after losing the man she had been reluctant to marry but who became everything to her. In that way this collection of letters is also implicitly a love story in itself.