Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Wandering Princess by Edward Hanson

Going to say it right now ... The Wandering Princess by Edward Hanson is the best royal book of the year.    This is the first biography of Princess Helene of France, Duchess of Aosta (1871-1950) ... and it was worth waiting for.

Helene, the third of eight children of Prince Philippe, Count of Paris, and Infanta Marie Isabelle, daughter of the Duke of Montpensier and Infanta Luisa Fernanda of Spain.  She was born in Twickenham, England, as her family was in exile.  The young Helene grew up in a social setting that brought her into contact with members of the British royal family.  She was a favorite of the Princess of Wales and a friend of Alexandra's three daughters.   Helene also caught the eye of Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, the eldest son of the Prince and Princess of Wales and second line to the British throne.

Helene was certainly suited to marry the second in line to the throne with one huge caveat.  Helene was Roman Catholic and Eddy, as the Duke of Clarence, was called by his family, would lose his right to the throne if he married a Roman Catholic.  Her father, a devout Roman Catholic,  put the kibosh on Helene's desire to join the Anglican church.

The Duke of Clarence became engaged to Princess May of Teck. He died from pneumonia only weeks before the wedding was to have taken place.  (Eighteen months after the duke's death, May married his younger brother, George.)

Most writers have focused on Helene's brief romance with Eddy, but, thanks to Edward Hanson, we now get a complete portrait.   Helene was certainly shopped around by her family, as they searched for a husband for her.  Duke Ernst Gunther of Schleswig-Holstein considered marrying her, knowing that such a marriage would be an anathema to his sister, Empress Auguste Viktoria.   There were also reports that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, was considering Helene as a bride.  But it was Prince Emanuele Filiberto, Duke of Aosta, who Helene married in 1895.   Five years later, King Umberto I was assassinated and was succeeded by his son Vittorio Emanuele III

The Duke of Aosta was heir presumptive to the Italian throne until 1904, when Queen Elena gave birth to a son, Umberto.

The marriage between the Duke of Aosta and Helene was not a success.  By 1900, following the birth of two sons, the couple lived largely separate lives.  Helene could not accept her husband's philandering behavior and she was ill-suited to life at the Italian court.

Although she supported numerous charitable organizations, including the Italian Red Cross, Helene spent most of her time away from the court, away from Italy, traveling with friends to the Middle East and Africa.  These travels were documented by Helene's camera and her travel diaries.

There is such detail in this book -- as Hanson brings Helene alive through her own words.

The discourse in her marriage -- and her spirit of adventure -- offered Helene the opportunity to carve out a more independent life in the early part of the 20th century.   In later years, Helene considered Emanuele Filiberto to be her best friend, but she acknowledged that there was no love for him.  The first betrayal of his marital vows occurred not long after their marriage.

Helene was very much a wandering princess.  She put her own needs before her family's, including her two young sons,  as it was unusual for a woman of her stature to be so very independent minded.

The wandering was put on hiatus during the first world war as she remained largely in Italy to support her husband's family.  But once the armistice was signed, she was already planning her next trip.

She also had her own lover,  Otto Campini, whom she married in 1936, five years after the death of the Duke of Aosta.

The major blot of Helene's life was her open and enthusiastic support for Mussolini and fascism.  This support made it difficult for Helene to communicate with her elder son, Amedeo, the 3rd Duke of Aosta, who was being held by the British in a prisoner-of-war camp in Kenya.  He died in the camp.  His younger brother, Prince Aimone, the 4th Duke of  Aosta, was named as King of Croatia, although he never reigned in the country.

The Italian monarchy came to an end in May 1946, when a referendum led to the establishment of the Italian republic.  Although King Umberto begged Helene to join the family in exile,  she sought the comfort of her home at Capodimonte, which had been her residence since 1905.  Although the new Italian government allowed Helene to remain in Italy (the law of exile applied to the male descendants of all the Italian kings and their male descendants), she had to leave Capodimonte and move into a new home.

In January 1948,  Helene's younger son, Aimone, who was married to Princess Irene of Greece, died in Argentina, leaving his young son, Amedeo, as the 5th Duke of Aosta.

Helene was 79 years old when she died on January 21,1951.   She died in Italy, which had become her home in 1895.  She understood exile, as she had been born in England, not France, as her family had been in exile since King Louis Philippe lost his throne in 1848.

Unwilling to accept the traditional (and dutiful) role of the wife of an Italian royal, Helene chose her own path.  She preferred to live her life largely on her own terms.

The Wandering Princess is a brilliant book that has all the qualities of what a good royal biography should be.  For starters,  Hanson has well-researched his subject (take a look at the comprehensive bibliography) and the writing is neither stilted nor stuffy.  Hanson has a comfortable scholarly style.  This means the book is readable for historians and the general public.

This should not come as a surprise.  An American by birth,  Edward Hanson studied history before he moved to England where he was ordained as a  priest in the Church of England.

I wait for news of what Edward Hanson's next royal subject will be.  But for now, please feast on The Wandering Princess, a most wonderful book.  There is no doubt in my mind that The Wandering Princess will become a classic biography that will be wanted by royal readers for years to come.

The book is published by Fonthill Media.

You will not regret reading this book.  Treasure it.  Royal biographies like this do not come along very often.

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