Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Four Graces by Ilana Miller

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We have a winner.  A real winner.   I read a lot of books.   I have read a lot of books about royalty.  The majority of books published in English are largely fluff.   Consider the number of books that have been published on Prince William's engagement and wedding and then think about how many well-researched, scholarly books you have read. 

I have been reviewing books since 1983, when I first started the print version of Royal Book News, then a bi-monthly newsletter.  I have read some good stuff -- Hugo Vickers' biography of Princess Alice comes to mind, as well as Greg King's biographies, and I have also forced myself to gorge on Kitty Kelley and Lady Colin Campbell, although Lady C was on to something because she, not Andrew Morton, was the first to write about Charles and Diana's marriage and Diana's psychological issues.

The James Pope-Hennesseys and Greg Kings are far and few between, and, sadly, the publishing industry is not willing to encourage major royal tomes.   Although the archives at Harewood House must be teaming with material, there has never been a serious biography on Princess Mary, Countess of Harewood.  Two hagiographies were published in the late 1920s, but nothing since then.  Princess Mary died in 1965 shortly after she learned that her elder son was the father of an illegitimate son.   The late Princess Royal is largely unknown in the United Kingdom.  She is the only child of George V who has not been subjected to a biographer's pen.   Even her youngest brother, the mentally challenged, epileptic Prince John, has had more biographical information published about him than Princess Mary has. 

It is a shame that no one has taken on Princess Mary.  I used to say the same thing about Princess Victoria of Hesse and By Rhine, the eldest child of Princess Alice, second daughter of Queen Victoria, and Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse and By Rhine.   There are biographies on Victoria's sisters, Ella and Alix, who married Grand Duke Serge and Nicholas II of Russia, respectively.  Victoria's only surviving  brother, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig, wrote his memoirs, and was also the subject of a biography, both in German.

Victoria, who provided the center, the core, to her siblings,  featured in the biographies of her siblings and her daughters, Princess Alice, and Queen Louise, but she was never the star.  Until now.

Thanks to Ilana  Miller's The Four Graces ( $43.00),  Victoria's story has come to the fore in a meticulously, well-researched book.  Suffice to say, this is a superb book, and one of the best royal books I have read in a long time.  Miller breathes life into a princess, less known than her sisters, but far more important in many ways. 

The Four Graces refers to Victoria and her three younger sisters, Irene, Ella and Alix, although all three take a back seat to Victoria in this book. The three younger sisters  made spectacular dynastic marriages:  Irene married her first cousin, Prince Henry of Prussia; Ella wed Grand Duke Serge of Russia, who was assassinated in 1905; and Alix made the grandest marriage of all, when she married Nicholas II of Russia.  The princesses' maternal grandmother, Queen Victoria, made it clear that she did not approve of any of these marriages.  She did not believe that Alix did not have the right stuff to be the consort of the Tsar of Russia.  In this matter, Queen Victoria was proved right.  Although Nicholas and Alexandra were very much in love,  neither were ever prepared for the mammoth tasks.

Princess Victoria was very close to her grandmother.  She was born at Windsor Castle, and, despite her German title, Victoria was to spend most of her life in England.  She did not make a grand marriage.  She, too, married for love, and her husband was Prince Louis of Battenberg, her father's first cousin.   The marriage was  not considered equal, as Prince Louis was a morganaut, the son of Prince Alexander of Hesse and By Rhine and Julie von Hauke, who was created Princess of Battenberg.  

Victoria was content to stay in the background, support her husband in his naval career in the United Kingdom.  She rose among the many tragedies in her life.  Frittie's fall from the window in 1873.   Alice and May's deaths from diphtheria in 1878.  Ernie's divorce.  The death of his daughter, Elisabeth, in 1903.  Serge's assassination in 1905.  The regicide at Ekaterinburg and Alapaevsk in 1918.  The air crash at Steene in 1937. George's death from cancer in 1938.

One can only imagine how strong Victoria had to be in order to provide support and comfort to others.   The day after the crash that killed her sister-in-law, Onor, her granddaughter, Cecile, and her nephew, Donatus, and their two sons, the pragmatic Victoria suggested that the marriage between Don's younger brother, Prince Ludwig, and the Hon. Margaret Geddes take place the next day, albeit quietly.  The family had been en route to London to attend the wedding.  Young Princes Alexander and Ludwig were to have been pages in the wedding. 

Ilana Miller, an Adjunct Professor of History at Pepperdine University spent an enormous amount of time working on this book.  She read the appropriate histories and biographies.  She was able to do research in Darmstadt, and she was given access to unpublished material, including Princess Victoria's and Grand Duke Dimitri's unpublished memoirs.  Copies of the former are at Southampton University and Darmstadt and Dimitri's diaries are at Harvard.  Ilana also met with Victoria's granddaughter, Lady Mountbatten, who was able to provide first hand information about Victoria.

In 1917,  Prince Louis of Battenberg renounced his German title and was created Marquess of Milford Haven.  Victoria, a Princess in her own right, could have retained her title, but she, too, chose to relinquish her grand ducal title, and became known as the Marchioness of Milford Haven.

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Victoria's life was far from ordinary.  She was the glue, the lynch pin, that kept her family together, even when divided by war.  She was close to her two daughters-in-law, Edwina, and Nada,  and she provided the stability for her young grandson, Prince Philip. 

Considering the vicissitudes of her own live - and the lives around her - Victoria was the ultimate survivor.  Considering her own family ties,  one can only imagine her joy on November 20, 1947, when she sat in Westminster Abbey to watch her grandson marry the future Queen of the United Kingdom.  No doubt Queen Victoria would have approved of this marriage.

Ilana  Miller is to be commended and complimented for The Four Graces, which is sure to become a well-thumbed reference work for future biographers and historians. 

The book is illustrated with eighty photos.

I would recommend that Eurohistory use a professional indexer in order to create a more detailed index based in names and places. This book deserves a detailed index.  

One more quibble:  the typeface is too small.  Older folks may require a magnifying glass in order to read the book.  I am not kidding.  

So invest in a magnifying glass if you have trouble with small print.  It's worth the investment.  The Four Graces is one of the best royal books that I have read in a long time.  This book is a true winner.  It is a must read, a definite need for your royal collections.

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