Wilhelmine, Margravine of Baireuth

Oscar Wilde reviews the Memoirs of WilhelmineMargravine of Baireuth. He quotes extensively from the book, highlighting some rather alarming episodes featuring Wilhelmine’s father, Frederick I of Prussia.

The Princess Christian’s translation of the Memoirs of WilhelmineMargravine of Baireuth, is a most fascinating and delightful book.  The Margravine and her brother, Frederick the Great, were, as the Princess herself points out in an admirably written introduction, ‘among the first of those questioning minds that strove after spiritual freedom’ in the last century.  ‘They had studied,’ says the Princess, ‘the English philosophers, Newton, Locke, and Shaftesbury, and were roused to enthusiasm by the writings of Voltaire and Rousseau.  Their whole lives bore the impress of the influence of French thought on the burning questions of the day.  In the eighteenth century began that great struggle of philosophy against tyranny and worn-out abuses which culminated in the French Revolution.  The noblest minds were engaged in the struggle, and, like most reformers, they pushed their conclusions to extremes, and too often lost sight of the need of a due proportion in things.  The Margravine’s influence on the intellectual development of her country is untold.  She formed at Baireuth a centre of culture and learning which had before been undreamt of in Germany.’

The historical value of these Memoirs is, of course, well known.  Carlyle speaks of them as being ‘by far the best authority’ on the early life of Frederick the Great.  But considered merely as the autobiography of a clever and charming woman, they are no less interesting, and even those who care nothing for eighteenth-century politics, and look upon history itself as an unattractive form of fiction, cannot fail to be fascinated by the Margravine’s wit, vivacity and humour, by her keen powers of observation, and by her brilliant and assertive egotism.  Not that her life was by any means a happy one.  Her father, to quote the Princess Christian, ‘ruled his family with the same harsh despotism with which he ruled his country, taking pleasure in making his power felt by all in the most galling manner,’ and the Margravine and her brother ‘had much to suffer, not only from his ungovernable temper, but also from the real privations to which they were subjected.’  Indeed, the picture the Margravine gives of the King is quite extraordinary.  ‘He despised all learning,’ she writes, ‘and wished me to occupy myself with nothing but needlework and household duties or details.  Had he found me writing or reading, he would probably have whipped me.’  He ‘considered music a capital offence, and maintained that every one should devote himself to one object: men to the military service, and women to their household duties.  Science and the arts he counted among the “seven deadly sins.”’  Sometimes he took to religion, ‘and then,’ says the Margravine, ‘we lived like Trappists, to the great grief of my brother and myself.  Every afternoon the King preached a sermon, to which we had to listen as attentively as if it proceeded from an Apostle.  My brother and I were often seized with such an intense sense of the ridiculous that we burst out laughing, upon which an apostolic curse was poured out on our heads, which we had to accept with a show of humility and penitence.’  Economy and soldiers were his only topics of conversation; his chief social amusement was to make his guests intoxicated; and as for his temper, the accounts the Margravine gives of it would be almost incredible if they were not amply corroborated from other sources.  Suetonius has written of the strange madness that comes on kings, but even in his melodramatic chronicles there is hardly anything that rivals what the Margravine has to tell us.  Here is one of her pictures of family life at a Royal Court in the last century, and it is not by any means the worst scene she describes:

On one occasion, when his temper was more than usually bad, he told the Queen that he had received letters from Anspach, in which the Margrave announced his arrival at Berlin for the beginning of May.  He was coming there for the purpose of marrying my sister, and one of his ministers would arrive previously with the betrothal ring.  My father asked my sister whether she were pleased at this prospect, and how she would arrange her household.  Now my sister had always made a point of telling him whatever came into her head, even the greatest home-truths, and he had never taken her outspokenness amiss.  On this occasion, therefore, relying on former experience, she answered him as follows: ‘When I have a house of my own, I shall take care to have a well-appointed dinner-table, better than yours is, and if I have children of my own, I shall not plague them as you do yours, and force them to eat things they thoroughly dislike!’

‘What is amiss with my dinner-table?’ the King enquired, getting very red in the face.

‘You ask what is the matter with it,’ my sister replied; ‘there is not enough on it for us to eat, and what there is is cabbage and carrots, which we detest.’  Her first answer had already angered my father, but now he gave vent to his fury.  But instead of punishing my sister he poured it all on my mother, my brother, and myself.  To begin with he threw his plate at my brother’s head, who would have been struck had he not got out of the way; a second one he threw at me, which I also happily escaped; then torrents of abuse followed these first signs of hostility.  He reproached the Queen with having brought up her children so badly.  ‘You will curse your mother,’ he said to my brother, ‘for having made you such a good-for-nothing creature.’ . . . As my brother and I passed near him to leave the room, he hit out at us with his crutch.  Happily we escaped the blow; for it would certainly have struck us down, and we at last escaped without harm.

Yet, as the Princess Christian remarks, ‘despite the almost cruel treatment Wilhelmine received from her father, it is noticeable that throughout her memoirs she speaks of him with the greatest affection.  She makes constant reference to his “good heart”’; and says that his faults ‘were more those of temper than of nature.’  Nor could all the misery and wretchedness of her home life dull the brightness of her intellect.  What would have made others morbid, made her satirical.  Instead of weeping over her own personal tragedies, she laughs at the general comedy of life.  Here, for instance, is her description of Peter the Great and his wife, who arrived at Berlin in 1718:

The Czarina was small, broad, and brown-looking, without the slightest dignity or appearance.  You had only to look at her to detect her low origin.  She might have passed for a German actress, she had decked herself out in such a manner.  Her dress had been bought second-hand, and was trimmed with some dirty looking silver embroidery; the bodice was trimmed with precious stones, arranged in such a manner as to represent the double eagle.  She wore a dozen orders; and round the bottom of her dress hung quantities of relics and pictures of saints, which rattled when she walked, and reminded one of a smartly harnessed mule.  The orders too made a great noise, knocking against each other.

The Czar, on the other hand, was tall and well grown, with a handsome face, but his expression was coarse, and impressed one with fear.  He wore a simple sailor’s dress.  His wife, who spoke German very badly, called her court jester to her aid, and spoke Russian with her.  This poor creature was a Princess Gallizin, who had been obliged to undertake this sorry office to save her life, as she had been mixed up in a conspiracy against the Czar, and had twice been flogged with the knout!

The following day [the Czar] visited all the sights of Berlin, amongst others the very curious collection of coins and antiques.  Amongst these last named was a statue, representing a heathen god.  It was anything but attractive, but was the most valuable in the collection.  The Czar admired it very much, and insisted on the Czarina kissing it.  On her refusing, he said to her in bad German that she should lose her head if she did not at once obey him.  Being terrified at the Czar’s anger she immediately complied with his orders without the least hesitation.  The Czar asked the King to give him this and other statues, a request which he could not refuse.  The same thing happened about a cupboard, inlaid with amber.  It was the only one of its kind, and had cost King Frederick I. an enormous sum, and the consternation was general on its having to be sent to Petersburg.

This barbarous Court happily left after two days.  The Queen rushed at once to Monbijou, which she found in a state resembling that of the fall of Jerusalem.  I never saw such a sight.  Everything was destroyed, so that the Queen was obliged to rebuild the whole house.

Nor are the Margravine’s descriptions of her reception as a bride in the principality of Baireuth less amusing.  Hof was the first town she came to, and a deputation of nobles was waiting there to welcome her.  This is her account of them:

Their faces would have frightened little children, and, to add to their beauty, they had arranged their hair to resemble the wigs that were then in fashion.  Their dresses clearly denoted the antiquity of their families, as they were composed of heirlooms, and were cut accordingly, so that most of them did not fit.  In spite of their costumes being the ‘Court Dresses,’ the gold and silver trimmings were so black that you had a difficulty in making out of what they were made.  The manners of these nobles suited their faces and their clothes.  They might have passed for peasants.  I could scarcely restrain my laughter when I first beheld these strange figures.  I spoke to each in turn, but none of them understood what I said, and their replies sounded to me like Hebrew, because the dialect of the Empire is quite different from that spoken in Brandenburg.

The clergy also presented themselves.  These were totally different creatures.  Round their necks they wore great ruffs, which resembled washing baskets.  They spoke very slowly, so that I might be able to understand them better.  They said the most foolish things, and it was only with much difficulty that I was able to prevent myself from laughing.  At last I got rid of all these people, and we sat down to dinner.  I tried my best to converse with those at table, but it was useless.  At last I touched on agricultural topics, and then they began to thaw.  I was at once informed of all their different farmsteads and herds of cattle.  An almost interesting discussion took place as to whether the oxen in the upper part of the country were fatter than those in the lowlands.

I was told that as the next day was Sunday, I must spend it at Hof, and listen to a sermon.  Never before had I heard such a sermon!  The clergyman began by giving us an account of all the marriages that had taken place from Adam’s time to that of Noah.  We were spared no detail, so that the gentlemen all laughed and the poor ladies blushed.  The dinner went off as on the previous day.  In the afternoon all the ladies came to pay me their respects.  Gracious heavens!  What ladies, too!  They were all as ugly as the gentlemen, and their head-dresses were so curious that swallows might have built their nests in them.

As for Baireuth itself, and its petty Court, the picture she gives of it is exceedingly curious.  Her father-in-law, the reigning Margrave, was a narrow-minded mediocrity, whose conversation ‘resembled that of a sermon read aloud for the purpose of sending the listener to sleep,’ and he had only two topics, Telemachus, and Amelot de la Houssaye’s Roman History.  The Ministers, from Baron von Stein, who always said ‘yes’ to everything, to Baron von Voit, who always said ‘no,’ were not by any means an intellectual set of men.  ‘Their chief amusement,’ says the Margravine, ‘was drinking from morning till night,’ and horses and cattle were all they talked about.  The palace itself was shabby, decayed and dirty.  ‘I was like a lamb among wolves,’ cries the poor Margravine; ‘I was settled in a strange country, at a Court which more resembled a peasant’s farm, surrounded by coarse, bad, dangerous, and tiresome people.’

Yet her esprit never deserted her.  She is always clever, witty, and entertaining.  Her stories about the endless squabbles over precedence are extremely amusing.  The society of her day cared very little for good manners, knew, indeed, very little about them, but all questions of etiquette were of vital importance, and the Margravine herself, though she saw the shallowness of the whole system, was far too proud not to assert her rights when circumstances demanded it, as the description she gives of her visit to the Empress of Germany shows very clearly.  When this meeting was first proposed, the Margravine declined positively to entertain the idea.  ‘There was no precedent,’ she writes, ‘of a King’s daughter and the Empress having met, and I did not know to what rights I ought to lay claim.’  Finally, however, she is induced to consent, but she lays down three conditions for her reception:

I desired first of all that the Empress’s Court should receive me at the foot of the stairs, secondly, that she should meet me at the door of her bedroom, and, thirdly, that she should offer me an armchair to sit on.

They disputed all day over the conditions I had made.  The two first were granted me, but all that could be obtained with respect to the third was, that the Empress would use quite a small armchair, whilst she gave me a chair.

Next day I saw this Royal personage.  I own that had I been in her place I would have made all the rules of etiquette and ceremony the excuse for not being obliged to appear.  The Empress was small and stout, round as a ball, very ugly, and without dignity or manner.  Her mind corresponded to her body.  She was terribly bigoted, and spent her whole day praying.  The old and ugly are generally the Almighty’s portion.  She received me trembling all over, and was so upset that she could not say a word.

After some silence I began the conversation in French.  She answered me in her Austrian dialect that she could not speak in that language, and begged I would speak in German.  The conversation did not last long, for the Austrian and low Saxon tongues are so different from each other that to those acquainted with only one the other is unintelligible.  This is what happened to us.  A third person would have laughed at our misunderstandings, for we caught only a word here and there, and had to guess the rest.  The poor Empress was such a slave to etiquette that she would have thought it high treason had she spoken to me in a foreign language, though she understood French quite well.

Many other extracts might be given from this delightful book, but from the few that have been selected some idea can be formed of the vivacity and picturesqueness of the Margravine’s style.  As for her character, it is very well summed up by the Princess Christian, who, while admitting that she often appears almost heartless and inconsiderate, yet claims that, ‘taken as a whole, she stands out in marked prominence among the most gifted women of the eighteenth century, not only by her mental powers, but by her goodness of heart, her self-sacrificing devotion, and true friendship.’  An interesting sequel to her Memoirs would be her correspondence with Voltaire, and it is to be hoped that we may shortly see a translation of these letters from the same accomplished pen to which we owe the present volume.