Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Dearest grandmama

Looking south along Fifth Avenue last Friday, 12 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, March 14, 2017. A cold, windy, sometimes sunny yesterday in New York with Daylight Savings reminding us that Spring is just around the corner. Except: the weatherman telling us that an enormous blizzard is coming our way.
The snow was gone by 3 PM on Friday. Hopefully, today's storm won't do further damage to the tree buds.
March 12th, 1888. A blizzard unexpectedly hit New York killing over 200 people. Thanks to the National Weather Service Doppler Radar, we know now what today's blizzard will bring.
Over the weekend I finished reading Christina Croft’s Queen Victoria’s Grandsons (1859 – 1918) (Hilliard & Croft publishers). A friend recommended it a few months ago knowing that I’d already read a couple of biographies on the reign of Victoria and the Edwardian Age.

Click to order Queen Victoria's Grandsons (1859-1918)
Victoria had nine children with Prince Albert, followed by 18 grandsons and 22 granddaughters. She herself was never fond of babies per se. She saw them as “frog-like and rather disgusting ... particularly when undressed.” Nor did she like being frequently pregnant, ruining the pleasure, she believed, of the early years of her marriage to her darling, adored Albert. Although she was not what you would call a warm and cuddly mother, she nevertheless loved her grandchildren (“As a rule, I like girls best”), both girls and boys, and she was remembered by them with love as “dearest grandmama.”

The girls, through a series of dynastic marriages, included the Empress of Russia, the Queens of Spain, Greece and Norway, as well as the Crown Princesses of Rumania and Sweden. The boys occupied the thrones of England, Germany and Denmark. It was Prince Albert’s dream that via those dynastic bonds, the grandchildren — brothers, sisters, cousins — Europe would be assured of a peaceful coexistence for generations to come.

This was not to be. Prince Albert, who died at forty-two lived only long enough to see the birth of his first grandson, Wilhelm  — always known as Willy — who would later become Kaiser Wilhelm II, son of Albert and Victoria’s eldest daughter, also named Victoria, the Princess Royal. By 1914, thirteen years after the death of Victoria, the great days of the European monarchies were finished, ended by the catastrophic World War I. Grandson Willy, then Emperor of Germany, was blamed as the scourge that brought about that ending.
Queen Victoria with grandson Prince Wilhelm.
The book of the grandsons is divided into chapters about each from the beginning of his life. Victoria’s children married their European peers, inspiring the reference to her as “the Grandmother of European monarchies.” Hers was a family dominated by the then most powerful woman in the world, monarch of the most politically, economically and geographically powerful country on Earth in the 19th century.

The grandchildren all knew who grandmama was in relationship to them (The Queen), and they knew her affectionate heart with them. As Queen, of course, she had much influence not to be ignored — but not always — about whom they would marry and why. But of the eighteen boys, there were all personality types who got themselves into all kinds of experiences.
Queen Victoria with Prince Albert Victor of Wales (known as Prince Eddy), Princess Victoria of Hesse, Prince George of Wales (later King George V), and Princess Elizabeth of Hesse, 1871. Princess Elizabeth, known as Ella in the family, was murdered by the Bolsheviks.
What the author does so well, is to lay it out a story board of characters and their interrelationships in a huge family of political power and wealth. Even by the middle of the 20th century, Americans growing up then heard about the institutional constrictiveness of the Victorians. Ironically Victoria the Queen never felt constricted in terms of enjoying her carnal desires (whenever possible). Her Prince Albert, her consort, had the touch.

Christina Croft’s history has the attraction of soap opera, or soap operetta at times, as it were. Royal or not, you follow the grandchildren into their marriages, their offspring and their family dramas. Marriage was politically important and many were bred for that, but all, no matter their rank or station, were merely human.

As the grandchildren’s generation aged to the end of the 19th century, and the modern age moved in on everyone, history changed channels. After the death of Victoria in 1901 (who had the longest reign in British history — sixty-four years — until her great-great granddaughter Elizabeth II), the Suffragette Movement for the emancipation of women — something Victoria herself disapproved of — took hold.  The fall of the great monarchies, the First World War, and the political and economic upheaval of our times. Victoria’s granddaughters, the sisters Alexandra (Alix) and Elizabeth (Ella) came to brutally violent endings during the Bolshevik (Russian) Revolution. Alix, her husband Nicholas and children were mass murdered, and Ella, wife of a Russian noble, was beaten and then thrown down a mineshaft, left to die eventually of her wounds.
Prince Ernest Louis of Hesse (1868-1937) later the Grand Duke of Hesse; Prince George of Wales (1865-1936) later King George V, and Prince Alfred of Edinburgh (1874-1899) later Prince Alfred of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, in a position of high to low order with Prince Ernest Louis standing, Prince George seated, and Prince Alfred sitting on the ground, circa 1890.
One of the most compelling personalities is that of the first born grandson, Wilhelm or William — or Willy which was the name his siblings and relatives knew him by. The world later knew him as Kaiser Wilhelm of the First World War.

The story of Willy from birth is a classic example of how we get to be who we are — from the beginning. His birth came after a 13 hour labor.

Croft writes: “The child was discovered to be in the breech position, which, in normal circumstances at the time would necessitate a caesarean. In those days (1859) a caesarean operation often resulted in the mother’s death, and none of the doctors were prepared to accept responsibility for killing the English princess. Fearing for the life of both mother and child, the doctor (Martin) eventually opted to use forceps, and by the time the baby was dragged from the womb he appeared so lifeless that he was presumed to be dead.”
Four generations: Queen Victoria with her son Bertie, grandson George, and great grandson Edward, who was later known as the Duke of Windsor.
The moment the little one was born, a German midwife recounted many years after, a despairing moan came from the mother ...

“The Princess is dying — she is paying dearly for her son,’ whispered the doctors, while working with blanched faces over the prostrate body.’ Of course, I had to abandon the child momentarily to help them and when she revived after a little while, I knelt down before the couch on which our heir rested. Imagine my fright: he had not yet uttered a cry, nor did he move a muscle. ‘Still-born, by Heaven’ I thought.”

“The midwife gestured to Dr. Martin who immediately seized the baby and rubbed him so vigorously that the nerves of his shoulder already weakened by the forceps, were irreparably damaged, leaving him with a disability which would plague him throughout his life.”
Queen Victoria, Princess Alice and Princess Beatrice and her son Alexander and his siblings.
Croft, in an interview about her book recalled Willy as an erratic man; greatly maligned. “Manic, monster, madman. That image is very far from the truth. Prone to making irrational statements and having strange outbursts which have been quoted to prove he was this kind of monster.

“He loved England, loved his beloved grandmother.” As emperor “he was very keen to promote culture, the arts, and refused to turn against the people. Bismarck was urging him to crush the workers and he refused to do that.”

“People of that time were manipulated to fear that they were about to be attacked by that terrible enemy overseas, believing the Germans would move in and take over all of Europe.”

Tragedy all around, for everyone. Except for those — as there always are — who profited from the War and destruction. A fascinating story, fable-like, of a family, and us.
Queen Victoria with her children and grandchildren.

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