Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Sisters by Barbara Borkowy

 I looked forward to reading Sisters: Princess Daisy of Pless and Shelagh, Duchess of Westminster as their relationship fascinated me.  Mary Theresa and Constance Edwina Cornwallis-West, better known by their nicknames Daisy and Shelagh, used their beauty and social connections that included the Prince of Wales (Edward) to snare rich and titled husbands.  It was the only goal they had as their parents, William and Patsy Cornwallis-West were not particularly wealthy, but did move in all the right social circles.

But it can be said that neither Daisy nor Shelagh was never prepared for their future roles, as wives of very rich men, one of whom was a German prince.    

Hans Heinrich XI, the Prince of Pless, wanted to find a royal wife for his son, Hans.  He had one princess in mind so he made arrangements for Hans to have a secondment at the German Embassy in London where Hans could meet his father's choice for a bride:  Princess May of Teck, the daughter of Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge and Franz, the Duke of Teck.  

The Tecks were delighted by Hans' attention to their only daughter, but Queen Victoria had earmarked May for her grandson, the Duke of Clarence.    Daisy was presented at Court in March 1891.   Three weeks after her presentation, Daisy was invited to a ball hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Portland where she met Prince Hans Pless for the first time.

Daisy's mother was eager for a foreign marriage as it would raise her own social status and was delighted by Hans's interest.  It was at a masked ball hosted by the Earl and Countess of Ilchester in July 1891 where Hans proposed to Daisy.   They barely knew each other.  Daisy was honest and told Hans that she did not love him, but he told her love would come.  It never did.

Her father, however, was not in favor of the marriage despite his wife's protestations.  In the end, he gave in, especially as Hans would pay for the wedding, including the bride's trousseau.   Hans got a wife with the appropriate 16 aristocratic quarterings and the Cornwallis-Wests' acquired a wealthy son-in-law.

After her debut, Shelagh was also pursued by several wealthy and titled men.  It was Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster, who made the successful proposal.   Shelagh's parents were keen on this marriage as the Duke was one of the wealthiest men in England.

Neither woman was prepared for marriage, so it is not a surprise that their marriages failed and both were divorced in the 1920s.

I really wanted to like this book and share the author's enthusiasm for Daisy and Shelagh.  The author was diligent with her research, as she includes footnotes for her sources, a bibliography which included Daisy's memoirs, and an index.  All good things.   

The book was first published in Polish by Barbara Borkowy, who also did the English translation.  I am happy the book was translated into English.  However, I think  Barbara's text could have been massaged and improved with the assistance of an English-speaking editor, especially concerning titles.  On one page, she refers to Queen Victoria's eldest daughter as Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha who married Friedrich of Hohenzollern.  A few pages later, their son is called Henry of Prussia, which is correct.   Borkowy refers to Princess Alexandra, Duchess of Fife as George V's granddaughter.   Alix was the king's niece, the elder daughter of his sister, Princess Louise.   

I really wanted to like this book and share the author's enthusiasm for Daisy and Shelagh.  Barkowy is to be complimented on her diligent research, complete with footnotes for all her sources, a detailed bibliography, and an index.   All good things.   

The book does have several errors and inconsistencies that could have been cleaned up with a good editor with knowledge of royal history and titles.

A footnote on page 143 states that Prince Joachim Albrecht of Hohenzollern was Kaiser Wilhelm  II's nephew. Wilhelm II did not have a nephew named Joachim Albrecht.  

 The House's name was Hohenzollern, but members of the family were styled as princes and princesses of Prussia.  The Catholic branch of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen was styled as Princes and Princess of Hohenzollern.  

Prince Joachim Albrecht and the Kaiser were second cousins.  A prince of Hohenzollern belonged to the Catholic branch of the family, the Princely family of Sigmaringen.

It is easy to say that Sisters is a comprehensive look at the lives of Daisy and Shelagh, as the author tells us what these two ladies did nearly every day of their lives.   Before the war, Daisy and Hans spent a lot of time in England visiting family and friends, taking part in the social season. These frequent trips did not help Daisy adapt to her new life, as the wife of the Prince of Pless (his father died in 1907), in Silesia, then a part of Prussia.  The Prince of Pless was very rich, with several estates including Schloss Fürstenstein and Pless, and he was well-connected.  Wilhelm II, the German Emperor, enjoyed the company of Daisy and Hans.

As the Duchess of Westminster, Shelagh soared to the top of London's social season.  Fetes, parties, charity events, racing, children, marital problems, travel, a new lover (future second husband), two world wars, charity work, travel, and so on.

Daisy was the better known of the sisters as she married the head of the house of Pless, a member of the Prussian nobility. The Hochbergs' ancestral lands were located in what is now Poland. The end of the first world war changed the family's status and titles, the latter was abolished by the new republican government in 1919.  Most of the property in Pless, located in Upper Silesia,  was ceded to Poland following a referendum in March 1921.   The other major property, Schloss Fürstenberg, in Waldenburg, remained the property of the Prince of Pless until 1944.  After the end of the second world war, Lower Silesia was given to Poland including Waldenburg.

The facts are lovely -- and I love footnotes --  but what is sorely missing from this book are the two women's voices, the fleshing out of their personalities, their relationship with each other.  Barkowy writes that the sisters had a falling out because Daisy did not attend her nephew's baptism.  A few sentences later, she writes that the two sisters were reconciled.  Okay, lovely, but the author offers no information on what led to the reconciliation. 

Daisy and Shelagh come off as self-indulgent women, which is not a surprise, as their sole goal in life was to find rich husbands,  Neither were well-educated nor prepared for their future roles, as the wives of a Prince and a British Duke.  I am not surprised that their marriages failed and they had difficult relationships with their children.  

Daisy never made a real attempt to establish a new life with her husband, as she preferred her own country.  The first world war would change everything, and it took several years after the war for Daisy to return to England and re-establish her social status.  

The ramifications of Germany's loss led to straitened circumstances for Hans as he lost property and income to Poland.  

During the 1920s and 1930s, Germany's economic crisis (and the growth of National Socialism) led to Daisy having to sell her jewels to pay bills.  There was a brief discussion of Daisy returning to England to live, but the plan fell through because the landlord would not the lease on her house.  Shelagh's former husband, the Duke of Westminster, was still on good terms with Daisy's eldest son, Hansel (although her own relationship with her three sons was fraught with difficulties so why not ask him for assistance to pay off the lease (which was for only a few months,)

Daisy, who suffered from heart trouble and Multiple Sclerosis,  did her bit her during the second world war to help prisoners at a concentration camp near Fürstenberg.  The day after her 70th birthday, in June 1943, Daisy died, far from her family.  Shelagh lived until January 1970, dying at age 93.

The Polish and English editions of  Sisters were published by the Princess Daisy of Pless Foundation, which is located at Książ Castle (Fürstenstein).  

It is a good thing that Sisters were translated into English, thus offering a wider readership for the book.   At times, the book was compelling, especially with historical events and Daisy's death,  but I would have loved to learn more about the women themselves, and not just the facts of the parties they attended.  I would love to have read what others, their contemporaries, family members, other royals, or members of the nobility, said about Daisy and Shelagh. 

The book is available through Amazon, but not

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