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 …

 

Lists – ten historical places in time I’d like to visit

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This was a blog challenge idea, and it sounded so easy … but it wasn’t. I was originally going to try to tie it into particular books, but I didn’t get very far with that.  Would I really want to be caught up in the Siege of Atlanta, with or without Rhett Butler to help me escape?  Or in Russia in 1812, with everything being burned to stop the Grande Armee in its tracks?   Or negotiating the politics of the Tudor courts?   One of the balls in Jane Austen books would be a lot more peaceful, but I would very definitely be classed as “not handsome enough to tempt me“. Back to the drawing board.   Try just general places, without specific books.  And the first one has to be Victorian Manchester.  I’m so predictable, aren’t I?

1 – Victorian Manchester. Yes, I know all about the condition of the working-classes: I have read Engels’ book several times.  But this was a time of confidence, and belief, and hope.  This was a time when people believed they could change the world.  Peterloo (OK, that’s Georgian, not Victorian) – it was a tragedy, but it began with the genuine belief that people could win their rights.  The Chartists carried that on, and so did the Suffragettes.  The Anti Corn Law League, the whole campaign for free trade – we even named the Free Trade Hall after it!   The glorious buildings – to have the confidence to do that, even after the Cotton Famine.  The ideas of self-improvement and self-help, and the growth of the trade union movement.  That’s what the world’s missing now – the confidence that we can change things for the better, and getting out there and fighting for it.

And 9 more, in no particular order.

2 – Elizabethan England, again for that feeling of hope and confidence, moving on from the internal turmoil of the Wars of the Roses and the Reformation. Well, until it all went pear-shaped in Charles I’s time, but no-one would have seen that coming back in the Gloriana days.  The flourishing of culture, as well.  I can’t be doing with Shakespeare, but he does symbolise the English Renaissance.  Yes, I know that the Elizabethan Age gets rather mythologised, but you can’t have myths unless you’ve got something to start with.

3 – Venice in the 18th century. I was going to say the Renaissance, but I’m not an arty person, for one thing, and Renaissance Italy involved too much fighting and political chaos and religious intolerance.  Venice in the 18th century, all that grandeur and glamour and elegance, would be a much better bet.  I’ve even got Carnevale masks: I wore them when I went to the Venice Carnival for my, ahem, “significant” birthday in 2015.

4 – Vienna in the late 19th century.  Music and waltzing, literature and philosophy.  I quite fancy the idea of sitting in a Viennese coffee house, exchanging ideas with great minds … who would probably think I was talking a load of utter rubbish and be totally unimpressed with my support for Slavic nationalists. But still.

5 – The Caliphate of Cordoba. OK, this is another one that’s probably been mythologised into a lot more of a Golden Age than it actually was, but there is certainly something in the idea of La Convivencia, the flourishing of Christian and Jewish and Islamic culture together.  We’ve come so far from that, and sometimes it seems as if we’re getting further away from it rather than getting closer towards it again.

6 – I’ve got to have Russia in here somewhere!   I want to be a romantic Slavophile.  I want to walk around wearing a red sarafan (I have actually worn one once) and go on about mysticism and melancholy and the “going to the people” and peasant communes.  Er, except that most of that is romantic rubbish.  I could be a noble in St Petersburg, but that really doesn’t work at all with being a romantic Slavophile.  Oh dear.  I’m going to have to be a revolutionary instead, aren’t I?

7 – The Lake District in the time of the Romantic poets. Hooray – I can get away with Romanticism in this one!   Maybe I could stay with Wordsworth in Grasmere?

8 – I’ve got to have America in here somewhere, as well, but it’s a bit difficult to say that I actually want to be there during “my” period of American history, the 1840s to the 1870s. The Twelve Oaks barbecue does sound like good fun, until war gets declared in the middle of it, but, quite apart from the fact that, as with a Jane Austen ball, I’d be the person no-one wanted to sit with or dance with, it’s a slaveholding society and I just couldn’t be there.  No – it’s going to have to be the American Dream, the immigrants sailing into New York and hoping that they’re going to find that the streets are paved with gold.  OK, it’d probably mean ending up doing backbreaking work in horrible conditions, but, again, it’s that feeling of hope, that belief, that you can make the world a better place and be part of it.

9 – India with Gandhi. I normally refuse to class anything later than the First World War as “history”, but I watched the Gandhi film again recently, and I’ve been reading up on Indian history, and … that incredible idea that you can bring about change by non-violent civil resistance, and the hope – even if it did turn out to be futile – of religious tolerance and co-operation.  There are a lot of groups of people now who have little hope – the Rohingyas spring to mind – but what an inspiration that time was.

10 – Do you know what, I actually do want to go to a Jane Austen era ball? I’d get over no-one wanting to dance with me!   At least the clothes of the time were fairly loose, so I wouldn’t look as fat in them as I would in clothes from some other time periods.  I like that idea of the county society in Jane Austen books, that you did get invited to parties and balls as a matter of course, and weren’t sat at home wondering how you’d get to meet new people.  I am absolutely useless at social occasions and would probably have hated it all in practice, but I do like the idea in theory.  I mean, Mary Bennet does seem to enjoy the balls, doesn’t she, even though everyone thinks she’s weird?  I like the idea of visiting spa towns and “taking the waters” as well.

I just wish I could match all these times and places up to books! But most of the best historical fiction’s set against a background of war and turmoil.  Is that because it appeals to authors, it appeals to readers, or it appeals to me?  And, if anyone’s reading this, please tell me when and where you’d like to go, and if any of our ideas match.  If they do, maybe we can build a time machine and go there together 🙂 .