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A rather ferocious person

17 April 2004

12:00 AM

17 April 2004

12:00 AM

Christina Queen of Sweden Veronica Buckley

Fourth Estate, pp.479, 20

Christina became queen of Sweden because her heroic father Gustavus Adolphus had been killed in battle, winning glory in Germany but having sired no legitimate sons. She was not quite six at the time, and they were not sure whether to call her king or queen; an ambiguity of roles, not of sex, which lasted a long time. Her armies went on fighting all comers in Germany for another 16 years, until everyone else was sick of war, and unable to prevent the Swedes from pulling off one last gigantic heist: the removal of the great imperial collection of books, art and curiosities from Prague. It was the biggest art-theft in Europe before Napoleon, and Christina got most of it.

By then (1648) she was a full sovereign with an alarming personality, an active brain and variety of poses running from rough tomboy in trousers to Pallas of the North, the philosopher-queen leading the Swedes to ‘grace and beauty, gaiety and freedom’ as Greta Garbo put it. That great haul of cultural swag from Prague was followed by an influx of learned refugees, of whom Descartes is and was the best known, his final illnesses precipitated by lecturing bare-headed in her cold library, but made worse by his own medicine. For a few years it seemed as if art, poetry and wit had entered what they liked to call the Arctic at the invitation of this odd but alluring young woman. In those years she was a star: see the dust-cover of this biography for Bourdon’s enchanting portrait of her out hawking on her horse, the big nose and eyes presented with a quick sideways glance reducing the observer to the status of the spaniel in the right foreground. Professors, diplomats, musicians and poets came rolling in from sunnier shores, eager to be charmed, understood, toyed with and paid, while Sweden went through hard times under the firm guidance of the chancellor, Oxenstierna.

The glamour went to her head. Quite early on, she decided that she was entitled to a more civilised audience than could be persuaded to endure Stockholm, and she knew that if she stayed there she would have to marry and produce an heir. She had no wish to bear children, and there was a suitable male cousin to take over; so she abdicated. It was a shrewd move, cushioned with moving ceremonies and generous pension arrangements, but retirement fell short of expectations. She had a medal struck to advertise these: a prancing Pegasus flapping his wings on a mountain top with the inscription: THIS DWELLING IS PREFERABLE TO A THRONE. But the pension was not enough, her court in exile became a magnet for Eurotrash, and her conversion to Roman Catholicism (less stuffy, she had hoped, than Lutheranism) provoked a stream of dim-witted invective, worthy of our own journalists. She was guyed as a lesbian, atheist, nymphomaniac, transvestite has-been, she outstayed her welcomes over much of the continent, and her come-backs as queen of Naples, Poland and Sweden (again) never got off the ground. For about 15 years she flapped her wings on the bare mountain until the charm and the cheek wore very thin, and she dwindled to something like a modern celebrity.

Part of the trouble was her insistence on keeping up the appearance and privileges of a ruling sovereign when she wasn’t. In 1657, while staying as Mazarin’s guest at Fontainebleau, she discovered that her chief courtier, the Marquess of Monaldeschi, had been tampering with her letters. After hours of accusations, tears, prayers and confessions, she withdrew to the next room while her hitmen carried out a long and messy execution of the marquess by stabbing and slashing. While she was a guest of the municipality of Hamburg, a mainly Protestant city, she held a firework display with free wine to celebrate the accession of a new pope. When the crowd got unruly, she opened fire on it with small cannon. Several were killed and wounded, and she bragged about it afterwards; as when she wrote to Mazarin after the Monaldeschi killing, ‘We Northerners are rather ferocious people.’ No doubt many readers have had to entertain difficult guests. Elizabeth I, Peter the Great, Hans Andersen, Kaiser Bill and Cyril Connolly spring to mind, with the various trials they inflicted on hosts. Spilt wine, ruined sheets, noise, petty theft, bad manners, ruinous expense, structural damage and not leaving are perennial nuisances; but with extemporary capital punishment Christina set a record in guest-ghastliness.

Nevertheless, for the last 20 years of her life, when she settled down in Rome in a palace on the edge of Trastevere, near what are now the Botanical Gardens, she mutated into something like A Good Thing. As a stumpy little character, dressed half as a man, half as a woman, busy with gardening and gossip, harmlessly compiling cynical aphorisms, she organised a theatre and concerts and a debating club which gave life and light to an otherwise increasingly dull city. As a true if ex-queen and a convert, she had found a society of bitchy old bachelors where she really counted for something, and where she could befriend and help great artists (Bernini, Scarlatti, Corelli) without being very rich. She never renounced the low-life entourage, the spongers and the conmen, or the hot self-assertion; but she stood up for Jews and Huguenots, and had less recourse to the services of Captain Merula, her bravo. In her last year, she had to beat him up personally for failing to assassinate an abbé who had raped one of her protégées; but that was reasonable, in the circumstances. Nobody’s perfect.

Her story has often been told; it is poignant and dramatic, but not tragic, since she was given too many second chances and remained consistently pleased with herself. Her greatest luck was to be resurrected in the shape of Greta Garbo and to achieve in the 1934 film the transcendence over time, place, facts, men, and women which eluded her in life. It is a performance with which the biographies cannot compete. Veronica Buckley’s is the 17th or 18th to appear in English, and that list includes Barbara Cartland’s The Outrageous Queen (1956). Michael Roberts, the historian of Sweden, noted in 1967 ‘the contemptible quality of all English (and most French) books on Christina’, but a year later Georgina Masson produced a respectable Queen Christina (Secker & Warburg) which set a higher standard. A wide trawl of recent Christina scholarship gives this new book more historical depth, and it is written with unwavering intelligence and flashes of wit; it looks handsome and the pictures are excellently chosen. If this is Veronica Buckley’s first book, it is a good argument for not rushing into print at the earliest opportunity.

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