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Archive for the ‘John van der Kiste’ Category

I am a history geek.  Most of you know this already.  I was the girl who always read her history textbooks well ahead of classes just because they were interesting.  I still have an uncertain relationship with fiction because of this obsession – while I like novels, I can never get as excited about them as I do about histories or biographies.  And few things excite me more than late-19th Century German history, which is why Dearest Vicky, Darling Fritz by John van der Kiste was so very high on my To-Be-Read list.  And it did not disappoint.

At some point in my clearly misguided youth, I developed a bit of an obsession with Vicky, the daughter of and mother to two of Europe’s most unforgettable leaders: Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm II.  Her life began so very happily, the eldest member of a close family, the darling of her inspiring father, and her marriage to a man she loved, Crown Prince Frederich of Prussia, a man who viewed her progressive father as a mentor, held all the promise of a happy future.  However, after an early marriage, life in with her husband’s family in Prussia soon proved to be very different to what she had known in England:

Life in Prussia was a shattering shock to the system.  In England she had been the second lady in the land after her mother and sovereign, and as the eldest of nine children a natural leader in the nursery.  A gifted, quick-witted learner with intellectual powers that impressed even her demanding father, she had often been told that she was far cleverer than her backward, stupid, stammering brother Bertie, heir to their mother’s throne.  Now, a conscientious, eager yet immature girl of seventeen, her position had changed overnight.  She had to take her place as the youngest of several princesses, who were almost without exception a dull, vacuous crowd, content to accept their lot as good for childbearing, prepared to fill their time with gossip and dinner parties. (p. 41)

One of the best things about the book is van der Kiste’s liberal use of Vicky’s letters to her mother.  Since Queen Victoria died only a few months before Vicky in 1901, the correspondence is remarkably complete, covering all of the major events and period in Vicky’s life.  The relationship between the two women was also surprisingly intimate, particularly after Vicky became a mother herself, making for fascinatingly detailed and honest letters between them.  Really, who needs fiction when you have material like this?  This does mean that more of the focus is on Vicky and the reactions of her family – Fritz’s dour Prussian family is described dismissively as hostile and unwelcoming, an attitude that does not change as the years pass and on which we receive little further detail or explaination.  I was a little disappointed by that: I read An Uncommon Woman, Hannah Pakula’s biography of Vicky, several years ago and so I already knew quite a lot about her.  What I was hoping for here was more information on Fritz and his family.  While van der Kiste does an excellent job of detailing their relationship, Fritz is definitely the less profiled partner, though it does sound as though he may have paled in comparison to his wife in reality, outshone by her vitality and brilliance.  

The tale of the bright, intelligent Vicky and the beleaguered but hopeful Fritz can hardly be counted as anything other than tragic.  They adored one another and had a very happy marriage but all the other aspects of their lives seemed out of their control (as seems to be the case for most Royals whose parents are gifted with long-life).  Bullied by Fritz’s father, then by Bismarck, and then by their own son, the liberal ideals both Vicky and Fritz so longed to see implemented once Fritz became emperor never came to pass.  By the time Fritz assumed the throne he was already dying of cancer of the larynx; each week of his three month reign saw him growing frailer and frailer.  What strength he had in those last months was partially put towards smuggling his personal papers out of Germany to prevent his son from finding and destroying them (which is exactly what Wilhelm attempted to do, starting only hours after his father’s death).  And we all know what happened when Wilhelm II, heir to his grandfather’s and Bismarck’s nationalist and militaristic aspirations, became emperor and how his actions altered the fate of the western world.  It is endlessly fascinating to ponder what might have been:   

When Wilhelm II is taken out the picture and Frederich III put in his place, the European scene is transformed.  There would almost certainly have been a reconciliation between Germany and France; fragile Russo-German relations, notwithstanding the Battenberg crisis, would have healed and been placed on a firmer footing; and the naval arms race, presided over by Admiral Tirpitz and Wilhelm II with such devastating effect, would surely never have happened.  (p. 260)

I say that I’m interested in Vicky and her relationship with Fritz, and I am, but I’m also fixated on her relationship to her son.  Here was this woman who believed in the promise of the future, in new ideas and in change, in broadening minds and forgetting old grudges, and yet she birthed a son who clung to old hostilities while fostering new ones.  Their relationship was distant from his earliest years but, still, she was his mother.  She was responsible for him and how do you bear that kind of pain and disappointment?  Is that what motherhood can be?  A sentence to spend the rest of your life atoning for bringing a child into the world who changed it for the worse?  Knowing that the world could have been a better place without him in it?  How far, exactly, does maternal love extend, how many sins does it excuse?

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