Over the years, I confess that I have fallen in love with history, especially the more glamourous parts of it. One story that has always tugged at me has been those of Queen Victoria's descendants, who married into the various royal houses of Europe, creating a network of alliances, and sometimes not-so-friendly rivalries, all of which would culminate in World War I, and its aftermath, when many of those same families would loose their privileges, and sometimes their lives.
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Of the five daughters of Queen Victoria, it was her second daughter, Alice, who would find herself at odds with her mother most often. She had married young, not long after the death of her father, and the Queen was bitterly disappointed that her "dear, helpful Alice" was leaving her to marry Ludwig (or Louis) of Hesse. And at first all appeared to be going well, the young couple raising several young children together, and if the money was tight, they seemed to be happy enough. But the Prussian wars against Austria and the French, not to mention Alice's constant pregnancies, started to take their toll. The little grand duchy of Hesse was subsumed into the new German Empire, and worse was to come with one son dying of complications of hemophilia, and then the loss of both Alice and her youngest daughter when diphtheria swept through the family.
Queen Victoria stepped in at this point, and began to oversee the upbringing and education of her four surviving granddaughters -- Victoria, Ella, Irene, and Alix. Indeed, the eldest of the four girls, Victoria, would spend most of her life being her grandmother's devoted shadow, overlooking her younger siblings, and spending most of her life in England. When it came time for her to marry, she made it a love-match, marrying a cousin, Louis of Battenberg, a prince whose birth was considered being rather low, but Victoria was determined to have him anyway, and the pair made their home in England while Louis served in the British Navy.
When it came time for the second sister to wed, there was just as much controversy. Elisabeth, or Ella, as she was known, was considered the most beautiful princess in Europe, and her cousin, Wilhelm (later on Kaiser Wilhelm) fell quite desperately in love with her. She refused the suit, as well as quite a few others, but when Grand Duke Serge of Russia asked for her, she accepted him. Her grandmother was appalled, regarding Russia as a barbarous, uncivilized land where no one in their right mind would go. But Ella persisted and wed her Grand Duke, leaving behind some of the more intriguing rumours about the Romanovs, and this rather cold, nearly loveless man.
As for Irene, she tends to be the one that history overlooks the most. She was considered to be more handsome than pretty, and she would lead a very quiet life, marrying Kaiser Wilhelm's younger brother, Henry, and coping with her own quiet despair, having passed on to two of her sons hemophilia -- a disease that would claim both of them at a young age. Worst still, when World War One erupted, she would be caught between loyalty to her husband, and that for her sisters, gone away into the allies against Germany.
The fourth is the best known of the quartet, Alix, who also married for love, being won by Nicholas II of Russia after a long and contentious courtship. What I found most interesting about this book were the revelations that her sister Ella was behind many of the meetings between Alix and Nicholas, and encouraged their relationship. And much as Ella had been, Queen Victoria was quite against the match, especially as she had been hoping that Alix would marry of her British cousins, but Alix proved to be just as stubborn. She would become Nicholas' wife and Empress of Russia, but tragedy would arrive with the birth of her only son, another prince afflicted with hemophilia.
Throughout their lives, the four sisters would keep in touch with letters and visits to one another, and would try to do their best when war finally swept over Europe. For Ella and Alix, it would be the most devastating, facing imprisonment and execution at the hands of the Bolsheviks; and for Victoria watching as her husband was hounded from his office of Admiral and First Sea Lord in the British Navy because of his German birth. And Irene would spend most of her life during the war and afterwards isolated in Germany.
The story is briskly told, with hardly any long pauses, and what emerges are four very distinct personalities, each sister possessing her own strengths and weaknesses. While the author focuses most of her attention on the eldest, Victoria, she does a credible job with the other three, and also includes much of the story of their surviving brother, Ernie. Also of note is the tragedy that overtook the Hessian family in 1937, when three generations of the family were killed in an air crash in Belguim.
In addition to the narrative, there are genealogy charts, an insert of black and white photos, and extensive notes and a bibliography.
On the whole, this book made a fine addition to my collection of royal literature, and would make interesting reading for anyone interested in the people and personalities involved. Fortunately, the author keeps any personal prejudices aside and does a very even handed depiction of these lives. Four stars overall, recommended.
The author has also written a fictional account of the lives of these princesses under the name Theresa Sherman, and the title is The Royal Mob.
Many thanks to the Books CL Dramastef for adding this book to the database for me.
The Four Graces: Queen Victoria's Hessian Granddaughters
Ilana D. Miller
2011; Kensington House Books
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