Love and Death in Vienna by Bunny Paine-Clemes

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Oh dear.  “Life was a Sachertorte, and she had arrived with a spoon to lick the whipped cream of its sweetness.”  “His soul?  Sometimes he felt her sucking it, like a greedy vampire.  She was a child with a straw, and he was the seltzer water.”  “I am the seltzer water, you are the straw” … it’s not exactly the most romantic line ever, is it?   And I suppose it might be quite nice if life was a Sachertorte (although someone possibly needs to explain to the author that the whipped cream comes on the side and isn’t actually part of the torte), but it’s not really the sort of line you can take very seriously 🙂 .  I was a bit put off before I even started reading this, after the author said in the foreword that she asked for the scenes to come to her in dreams.  OK, whatever works for you, but it just seemed rather odd.

The book’s about the affair between Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary and the 17-year-old Baroness Mary/Marie Vetsera, who famously and tragically died in the  Mayerling Incident of 1889.  The whole thing was hushed up, and Mary was buried without even her mother being allowed to attend.  First it was claimed that Rudolf had had a heart attack.  Then that he’d been poisoned.  Then that it was a suicide pact.  There’ve been claims that it was a double murder by foreign agents, or that Rudolf was killed by Mary’s angry relatives and she was shot by accident, or that Mary died due to a botched abortion and Rudolf killed himself out of grief; but the suicide pact explanation, with Rudolf killing Mary and then himself, seems the most likely, and that’s the one which Bunny Paine-Clemes has gone for.

What’s even less clear is how long the affair had been going on for – was it just a few months, or had it been going on for a few years?  No-one really seems to know.  Mary was only 17 when she died, but it’s possible that an affair had started when she was only 15 … and Rudolf in his late 30s, and married with a child.  The story given in the book is that Mary was obsessed with Rudolf from an early age, and that they were introduced by a family friend of hers who was also a relative of his, and began an affair.

It was an odd relationship.  Rudolf already had a long-term mistress, an actress – and, with all due respect, an actress or maybe a married noblewoman would have been the usual choice of mistress for a crown prince, not a 17-year-old unmarried baroness.  Mary’s family, obviously, hoped for a good match for her – and there was a real chance that she could have married the Duke of Braganza, the Miguelist pretender to the Portuguese throne, living in exile in Vienna.  Instead, she got embroiled with Rudolf.

The author clearly has a lot of sympathy for Rudolf, but she goes overboard which a lot of what she says.  He apparently wanted to end all discrimination on the grounds of race and class.  Excuse me?  He, his mother Sisi, his brother Maximilian and his cousin Franz Ferdinand all had more liberal ideas than Franz Joseph, but that’s going a bit OTT!  And, apparently, the Hungarian nobility did too.  That’ll be the same Hungarian nobility of whom many members were involved in the White Terror of the 1920s and the pro-Nazi government of the late 1930s and early 1940s.  Hmm.

Sorry, but I really find it hard to have much sympathy for Rudolf.  There’s a rather amusing scene in which we see him chatting to the Prince of Wales about how they’re both stuck in a rut until their respective parents vacate their thrones by dying, but Bertie/Edward did not infect his wife with an STD, causing her to become infertile, and get involved with a girl who may have been as young as 15 when their relationship began.  Rudolf did.  I can sympathise with the fact that he seemed to be suffering from mental illness, whether it was depression or whether it was brought on by the STD, but the book makes it sound as if Mary did all the chasing.  I appreciate that the idea of “MeToo” was not exactly around in the 1880s, but she was barely an adult.

Did Rudolf talk her into a suicide pact?  It seems likely.  What a tragedy.

It’s a sad story, and an interesting one, and one which still attracts a lot of attention.  But it’s quite hard to take this style of writing seriously, and I’m also not very comfortable with the idea that a teenage girl with a crush is the one driving a relationship with a married man who’s twice her age and knows very well that he could be infecting her with gonorrhoea.  Not a great book.  But I’ve got a piece of Sachertorte in the freezer, and I really want to eat it now …