- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 26, 2005



By Julia P. Gelardi

St. Martin’s, $29.95, 457 pages, illus.


By Anne Kjellberg

V & A/Abrams, $45, 112 pages, illus.


Some years ago, that inveterate chronicler of the royals, the late Theo Aronson, wrote a book about Queen Victoria’s descendents called “Grandmama of Europe.” At the dawn of the 20th century, Victoria’s son King Edward VII was commonly known as “Uncle of Europe” because of an enthusiasm at least equal to hers for marrying off kinfolk into continental royal families.

“Born to Rule” takes us behind those sobriquets and tells the stories of Edward’s youngest daughter and four of his nieces who by 1914 were the consorts of European monarchs: Queen Maud of Norway (1869-1938), Queen Sophie of Greece (1870-1932), Queen Marie of Romania (1875-1938), Queen Ena of Spain (1887-1966), and Empress Alexandra of Russia (1872-1918).

An odd quintet, these women, but their stories provide an unusual take on aspects of European history in the first decades of the last century. Only Edward’s daughter, Maud, might be said to have had a really good experience on her throne, although she had evidently neither hoped nor even expected to rise to that position. Married to her cousin, a young Danish prince serving in the navy, Maud was enjoying a life divided between Copenhagen and her beloved native England and thought of herself as the last princess suited to being a queen. She had reckoned without the dynastic ambitions of her father, however.

Never one to let an opportunity slip past him, Edward saw to it that his son-in-law was elected to the throne of Norway on its separation from Sweden in 1905. No one, apparently, was more surprised than his daughter: “Behold! I am a Queen !!! Who would have thought it! And I am the very last person to be struck on a throne ! I am actually getting accustomed to being called ‘Your Majesty’! And yet often pinch myself to feel if I am not dreaming!”

Initially appalled, Maud discovered to her delight that Norway was just the sort of nation whose queen she was ideally suited to be: no court society to be bothered with and a populace who adored her down-to-earth manner, athleticism (she skied into her 60s), and lack of airs and graces. They didn’t even mind her prolonged absences from Oslo when she indulged her passion for still simpler living at her house on the Sandringham estate back home in Norfolk.

Enormously popular for her 33 years as queen, her legacy is a monarchy that continues to this day to be a resounding success: Her grandson, Harald, is as popular today as she was in her day. As was her son, Olav, who, when told that he needed a bodyguard as he walked about Oslo, replied that he had millions of bodyguards: the people of Norway.

Queen Victoria’s other crowned granddaughters did not fare as well in their adopted countries. Marie of Romania was one of the Allied heroines of World War I for her role in encouraging her kingdom’s resistance to the aggression of the Central Powers. At the Versailles Peace Conference, her rather over-the-top charm failed to entrance Woodrow Wilson, but her superstar status with other politicians there and with the world press played an undoubted role in doubling the size of Romanian territory overnight.

Marie enjoyed another moment in the spotlight during a triumphal tour of the United States in 1926, but back home she was caught up in political intrigue and eventually frozen out of any influence by her notorious son, King Carol.

Sophie of Greece rode a rollercoaster from euphoric popularity after Hellenic successes in the Balkan Wars which preceded the global conflict of 1914-1918 to scapegoat as she and her husband sought to insulate their nation from involvement in the world war.

Because she was the sister of the German Kaiser, Sophie became the focus of Allied propaganda efforts which eventually led to her husband’s abdication and exile. All this was quite unfair, since she was no fan of her impossible brother, having tasted his tyranny at first hand when he banned her from coming home after she converted to her husband’s Greek Orthodox faith.

Ena of Spain endured a difficult marriage to an adulterous husband and the dynastic tragedy of passing hemophilia on to some of her sons. Despite the trauma of her wedding dress being splattered with blood after a bomb was thrown at her bridal procession in Madrid in 1906, she managed throughout the rest of her reign to project a placid image. A symbol of forward-looking, fashionably modern monarchy, she was popular with her subjects and generally stayed aloof from politics. On being forced into exile in 1931, she expressed surprise, declaring with some justice, “I thought I had done rather well.”

Ena’s wounded pride, Sophie’s heartache, and Marie’s disappointments all pale into insignificance beside the terrible end endured by their cousin, Empress Alexandra of Russia. Her story — told before in countless books and movies — of imprisonment, humiliation and eventually brutal murder of her and her family is much better known than theirs. Although her actions do seem to have contributed more to her destiny than those of her cousins to theirs, she scarcely deserved so cruel a fate.

Still, she emerges as the least likeable of these cousins: shy, stiff, and haughty. Only as a wife and mother does she shine; her devotion to her hemophiliac son and to her daughters, all of them bayoneted to death moments after she herself was shot, is beyond question. Like her cousins Maud and Sophie, Alexandra was blessed with a very happy marriage and adored her offspring.

All these queenly cousins thought of themselves as Englishwomen and tried to simulate in their palaces an English way of life. Furniture from the Tottenham Court Road, Peak Frean’s Biscuits, English nannies, and above all the English language: All these were to be found in Tsarskoe Selo, and in the palaces of Athens, Bucharest, Oslo, and Madrid.

Yet English notions of statecraft and of constitutional democracy do not seem to have flowed through any of these queens to their respective realms. Norway had no need of it, but Spain, Greece, Romania and Russia could all have done with a solid infusion of English tradition. Yet in Marie’s political meddling, Ena’s indifference to the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, Sophie’s resistance to Prime Minister Venizelos’s policies, and above all in Alexandra’s affirmation of autocracy (“Be Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible,” she famously enjoined her husband), there is no hint of any such influence.

Oddly enough, given her modesty, Maud of Norway was mad about clothes. Her affinity for all things sartorial is highlighted in “Style & Splendour,” a companion volume to an exhibition of her clothes and accessories currently on view at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Blessed with a trim figure, Maud was able to dress with advantage from the age of Victorian and Edwardian ornateness into the simpler modes of the 1920s and 1930s. Despite her devotion to her adopted country, Maud was so dedicated to high fashion that she disappointed Norwegian couturiers by preferring to go to London and Paris for her apparel.

Seeing her elegant, always stylish dresses — to say nothing of gloves, handbags, and shoes, now a little worn with the passage of time — is a poignant experience and somehow does provide an odd, ineffable sense of the flesh-and-blood woman who was queen.

Which unfortunately is precisely what is lacking in Julia Gelardi’s “Born to Rule.” This first-time author is a diligent researcher who gets her facts straight and documents them properly with footnotes. What she lacks is any flair for telling the kind of stories she has here. Workmanlike, worthy, but never winsome, she is a plodding writer.

She has also chosen to weave her five tales of queen consorts into a braided narrative, a method which demands particularly colorful and evocative writing: exactly the qualities lacking in this book. It might also have helped to have had more (and more detailed) genealogical tables highlighting the complicated familial relationships between the five queens and indeed between them and other European royalty. Still, by its very nature, “Born to Rule” has much of interest in it and can serve as an introduction to these four queens and an empress.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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