Some of my more regular readers might wonder why I suddenly deviate from my modus operandi of sharing obscure sources and weird historical bits and bobs, and show a historical novel? With questionable historical content? And why the Swedish bits in the title?
Well, the answer is quite easy. First - this is the book what started it all. What made history come alive to me when I was 14 years old, and this is my old paperback from back then. Battered, read again and again. It’s the book what gave persons from the past their own personalities, what in the long run is now responsible for my digging in archives and reading letters and diaries written in the period, to find out more about the thoughts, dreams and hopes of the people back then. This is the root of all evil, and what got me interested into the French Revolution and Empire period, and what is still helping me to mindmap historical personalities together - even if they are not part of the books universe like the German early Romantics. (My brain has a weird way of connecting dots, I know. But it works.)
The second reason is a more contemporary one - I recently receive many more hits on my blog coming from Sweden - this is a little “Hej!” to you all. I am curious to see who is reading along here, I would appreciate a note in the comments, because the hits were really more frequent in recent days and I am really intrigued.
|Désirée Bernadotte - Crown Princess of Sweden, |
painted by François Gérard 1811
Royal Collection Stockholm, picture via Wikimedia Commons
Born in 17771 into a wealthy Marseillais family (not as the book has it, the daugther of a silk-merchant) named Bernardine Eugénie Désirée- she was the youngest child in a family of 10 (!) siblings - by two mothers, 3 more children didn’t reach adulthood). Yes, she had a sister named Julie, and yes, said sister did marry Giuseppe Buonaparte (Joseph Bonaparte), and she herself became Napoléon Bonapartes fiancée.
We all know - Napoléon Bonaparte ditched his bride-to-be and went on to marry Marie-Josèphe Rose de Beauharnais (Given the political climate it was more advantageous to marry a woman of nobility with connections in Paris over a provincial jeune fille). Désirée went on and married General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte - who was elected crown prince of Sweden in 1810.
And here we have the link to Sweden. As my Swedish readers know, he assumed the name Carl Johan, she became Desideria. And lived happily ever after - respectively she in Paris, he in Stockholm for a good many years, and today's Swedish Royal Family still bears the name "Bernadotte".
|Désirée Bernadotte in Mortefontaine,|
painted by François Gérard 1808
Royal Collection Stockholm, picture via Wikimedia Commons
As a reader I love her prose. Not just in Désirée, but also in “Heute heiratet mein Mann”, “Ich war ein hässliches Mädchen” and “Morgen wird alles besser” - I read all four in German, not in translation I feel I ought to add, I don’t know how they hold up to other languages.
What does come through in Désirée was the period it was written in, and to whom it was dedicated.
There is that one passage, when the fictional character of Désirée reacts to the indoctrination of children. (Sorry, this is in German, I don't have another language edition on hand, please us Google Translate or something similar):
“Ich möchte nicht, dass das Kind das lernt […]” “Das wird in allen Schulen des Kaiserreichs unterrichtet, es ist Gesetz”, replied the teacher.
[…] Den Bauern werden ihre Söhne von den Feldern geholt, damit sie in Napoleons Armeen marschieren, es kostet achttausend Francs, um sich vom Militärdienst loszukaufen, und achttausend Francs sind viel Geld für einen Bauern. Deshalb halten sie einfach ihre Söhne versteckt, und die Gendarmen sperren Frauen, Schwestern und Bräute als Geiseln ein. […] Warum lässt Napoleon sie denn marschieren, diese jungen Burschen, immer neue Kriege, immer neue Siege, Frankreichs Grenzen müssen doch längst nicht mehr verteidigt werden? Frankreich kennt gar keine Grenzen mehr. Oder handelt es sich gar nicht mehr um Frankreich? Nur noch um ihn, Napoleon, den Kaiser?”- Ich weiss nicht, wie lange wir einander gegenüberstanden, dieser junge Lehrer und ich. Ich hatte plötzlich das Gefühl, wie eine Schlafwandlerin in diesen letzten Jahren gelebt zu haben. Schliesslich drehte ich mich um und ging zur Tür.
If one replaces “Kaiser” with Führer, Napoleon with Hitler - it receives a way more contemporary tinge, and a way more urgent appeal. Annemarie Selinko lived in German occupied Denmark during the war until she and her husband fled to Sweden in 1943 (as their work in the Resistance became too dangerous). Her books - though light and airy on the surface can have darker sides - most visible in “Heute heiratet mein Mann” how much of the occupation influenced the passage when the Gestapo was searching for their resistance involved dentist and interviewed the protagonist Thesi and her husband in their own homes at gunpoint - the dentist then escaping to Sweden in an open rowing boat - as did later Selinko and her husband three years later.
Or how the protagonist Thesi - an Austrian, as was Selinko comments that her own country didn't exist anymore, was erased and part of a Reich she couldn't and wouldn't identify with. How a veteran of the International Brigade was living through deep sorrow (my great grandfather was one of the Swiss volunteers of the International Brigade, that's another reason why this book has such an appeal to me.
The Book “Heute heiratet mein Mann” was not surprisingly on the list of forbidden books in Nazi controlled territory, it is available as a reedition since 2018. (And several soppy film, what concentrate on the love story, not on the political issues)
What she describes in Désirée happening to farmer’s sons in the period happened to Danes during the war (also to Alsatians, and I am sure to other areas under occupation). If some went into hiding, their wives, sisters, daughters were taken in, to pressure the deserters out of their hiding places. Désirée might appear a soppy, easy read on the surface, but to anyone with a penchant to history, and 20th century history a such, the undertones don't go unnoticed.
“Désirée” bears the dedication: “Dem Andenken meiner Schwester Liselotte, ihres Frohsinns und ihrer Herzensgüte, in tiefem Leid gewidmet”- “In memory of my sister Liselotte, in memory of her cheerful nature and her goodness, dedicated in deep sorrow”
Her sister Liselotte was murdered in Auschwitz, in 1944.
So - my dear Swedish readers and of course my other readers: I hope this post wasn't too shallow, the regular nerdy content will resume shortly.
Did you know the real Désirée Bernadotte? Or did you only knew about Annemarie Selinko's Désirée? Have you read the book? Watched one of the movies? And who among you gets the thing about "I also used four handkerchieves..." and co-miserates with a lady who still has to take refuge to those to achieve the fashionable Empire silhouette?
The Swedish royal collection’s page:
The excellent page by Julie Zetterberg
A good blog by Michael Sibalis picking apart the story and fiction (in English)
Wikipedia entries to Désirée, her sister Julie, her husband Bernadotte and her “rival” Joséphine:
And a nice set of prints and some letters:
The story of Annemarie Selinkos’s Sister Liselotte Roederer (née Selinko)
About Annemarie Selinko:
“Le Destin fabuleux de Désirée Clary” by Sacha Guitry from 1942 https://ok.ru/video/748068669962
The movie is in black and white, in French, not subtitled - I recommend an ad-blocker on your browser.
“Désirée” by Henry Koster from 1954 - based on the novel of Annemarie Selinko - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SR2Vl5qaPY a movie that bad that it’s already good again (I own the DVD, perfect if one wants some really easy and soppy 1950ies historical fiction)
Secrets d’Histoire - “Marseillaise et Reine de Suède”
Secrets d’Histoire is a French Documentary channel with subscription content. The nice bits: They usually have access to the most amazing places and passages and rooms usually hidden to visitors. The bad - every woman is "La petite (insert name of heroine here)" "Elle était belle" "La p'tite mignonne (insert name of heroine here)" - there's even some sort of "Secret's d'Histoire Bingo" - because the formula repeats itself again and again.
Easy on the eye, something for a rainy Sunday afternoon, don't expect much - it's a format for a general public, not for historians. But - credit where credit is due - it really helped making History again a staple in French households, and during museums events a lot of visitors come prepared with some knowledge they were able to pull from those shows.
You might want to keep an eye on youtube, sometimes Secrets d’Histoire reruns older shows for a limited period of time. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTC7hIfGddo