A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I do like reading about royalty. I’m not a great fan of monarchy as an institution, but I’m not a British republican either: I’m a historian. Keeping track of the members of royal families helps me remember people and events and wars in the history of a nation. Royal history is good for tracking changes in fashion history, and placing the patrons and subjects of literary history. And since royal history is lavishly illustrated, political history is made a lot easier to recall by looking at the portraits of the participating royals than by staring at acres of print. More trivially, but also more commonly experienced, because royals generate good photographs, because they sell magazines and are good for decorating the front pages of newspapers, their family history becomes as familiar as our own, so keeping up with their stories is like keeping up with remote cousins in other countries. Their particular brand of celebrity produces our empathy and affection (unless you’re indifferent, or actively anti-monarchist, in which case, why are you reading this post? I’m joking, do stay with us …).
Peter Conradi’s book on the complicated and very comfortable lives of European royalty in the 20th century, The Great Survivors, claims to be something more than an update on how the royal families of Belgium, Denmark, Monaco, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom are keeping well-dressed and decently occupied in between going to each others’ weddings. The Great Survivors is certainly long enough to be a decent analysis of how and why the royal families of Europe have survived, but it is not. It most resembles a bumper issue of Hello. It reads as if it was compiled uncritically from adulatory press releases, and captions from Hola, Grazia, Paris Match, Majesty or Point de Vue. In the acknowledgements Conradi thanks the copy editor by name for his ‘careful and sensitive editing’. I can only assume that the original MS must have been in a shockingly bad state, because this book is irritatingly repetitive and pedestrian. There are hardly any photographs, just acres of jumbled text. Much of this is taken from the work of others, online and in print, and its uneven balance shows that Conradi shaped this book by what he could get hold of, rather than by finding answers to specific questions. It was originally written for a French audience, which might explain why this English version is exhaustive on the vicissitudes of the British royal family, but scant on others with whom the French are presumably more familiar.
I ploughed through this fat volume with increasing disappointment. There is hardly any discussion of why these monarchies survive, just the assumption that because they have, we need know no more. The views of anti-monarchists are pretty much ignored. The ghost royal families of Europe are also ignored. The Bourbons of France, for instance, are photographed at their chateaux on all sorts of pretexts for the francophone celebrity magazines, but because they don’t have a throne, they don’t count here as a European royal family. Nothing is said about modern princes without a kingdom who have married American heiresses. From a political point of view, the stories of the ex-royal families of Germany and Italy are highly interesting, but just because those thrones no longer exist means we hear nothing about the Kaiser’s post-war existence, or why the last Italian kings abdicated. Those families still exist: they’re rollicking around Europe’s royal party scene and doing very nicely, according to celebrity media, but why? And how? I think we could have been told. The target readers of this book know their Euro-royals through the celebrity magazines, so to leave out the crownless (who appear in these magazines just as often as the crowned) seems arbitrary, when they’re pretty much all from the same class and tribe.
However, if what you want is detailed gossip about the marriages of Charlene and Albert of Monaco, about the illegitimate daughter of Albert II of the Belgians who nearly wrecked his marriage to Queen Paola, of shouting matches between King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain, or the highly complicated and very sad love life of Stephanie of Monaco, or the lecherous goings-on of one of the Scandinavian kings (I can’t remember which one now, and the book is too impenetrable to track him down), this really is the book for you. Sex scandal is what Conradi concentrates on, but he seems to have had lawyers sitting beside him all the way. The chapters on kings behaving badly, and on complaisant marriages, are padded protectively with well-known and unactionable stories from the nineteenth century. He gives details of the miserable upbringing of Frederik and Joachim of Denmark, carefully contextualised beside stories of their unhappy father, but only describes their mother the queen as a gifted artist.
The circumstances of new infusions of unblue blood to European royal dynasties are the most interesting parts of this book. Unemployed nineteenth-century German princelings were given new or recently vacated kingdoms, the Scandinavian crowns were handed to in-laws and servants, Napoleon plonked whoever he wanted onto spare thrones, himself included. All the recent Euro-royal marriages have been to total (but beautiful) commoners: perfectly nice, competent and lovely women and men, but why does that mean they become a Serene, a Royal Highness, or an Altesse? Given that being royal is really just a job, with good genes as a partial quaIification, I so wanted Conradi to have supplemented the gossip and facts with some pointed questions about why European monarchy is.
A final, positive remark: while I was reading this book and writing the review, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands abdicated, and Princess Lilian of Sweden (a Welsh woman) died at an advanced age. Because I’d read the book, I knew ALL about them.
Peter Conradi, The Great Survivors. How Monarchy Survived into the Twenty-First Century (London: Alma Books, 2013), ISBN 978-1 84688-234-0, £9.99.
Kate podcasts about the books she really, really likes at http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.