Wednesday, January 16, 2013
The Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (1798-1860)
Of all famous quotations usually misquoted few are more popular than what Scott Fitzgerald said about the difference between rich people and “us”, meaning the not-so-rich people. In a fictional voice, in a short story called “The Rich Boy”, Fitzgerald wrote thus: Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.
Being one of “us” I don’t know whether those sentiments are true, but they are very modern and very American and, let me add, very different from some attitudes of our ancestors. Fitzgerald was one of the great literary theoreticians of the American aristocracy of wealth. Our model differed from the old feudal model of an aristocracy of blood and rank in many ways, but in no way more noticeable than in its neglect of a sense of obligation.
This point has been driven home to me by some of my recent general reading, which has been roaming among the Romanovs. A more dutiful bunch of autocrats would be hard to find. In particular, I came upon a charming mini-memoir* written by the Empress Dowager Alexandra Feodorovna (1798-1860), the widow of Nicholas I and mother of Alexander II, the “tsar-liberator”. (Incidentally, is it at all embarrassing that the Russian czarist Manifesto of Emancipation antedates the American presidential Emancipation Proclamation by two years?) This beautiful and virtuous lady spent her girlhood as a Prussian princess named Charlotte, but everything had to change, including her name, when she fell into cahoots with the Romanovs. Her memoir, written in French in her widowhood, deals with her early years of married life (1817-1821).
There is a solid historical explanation for the plots of Jane Austen’s novels and most others worth reading. I suppose that the Darwinian imperative of sexual mating is too obvious to argue. But if you add to it a powerful religious rationale and even more powerful political, social, and economic motives you pretty much have the history of Western literature from the Iliad to Downton Abbey.
The chief reason that the royal houses of Europe ended up in such a mess of mediocrity, idiocy, and congenital disease was what might be called the “stale blood” problem: royalty had to marry other royalty. That had been a demographic challenge since the Middle Ages, but it became particularly acute after the French Revolution. The chief occupation of the royal youth of the age was checking out or being checked out as a potential spouse. Nicholas met Charlotte (Alexandra) in Berlin in 1814. He was 18, she 16; but the families closed the deal more or less on the spot. They were married in 1817.
As a ruler Nicholas I can fairly be judged as a disaster, and one of the worst kind, meaning a well-intentioned disaster. The first thing he did, on the very day of his accession to power in December, 1825, was to slaughter a few of those noble and romantic rebels henceforth known as the “Decembrists”. In macro-historical terms that was rather like fighting for the wrong guys at Bunker Hill. One of the last things he did was to lose the Crimean War in humiliating fashion. But the disasters had been thrust upon him. Like George VI a century later, Nicholas was an accidental monarch. His elder brother Constantine had been next in line for the throne, but when the time came he abdicated for a reason far more plausible than Wallis Simpson—cowardice.
Before his marriage Nicholas had gone on a number of educational tours, one of which was a fairly protracted stay in England, the nation recommended to him by some enlightened advisers around the court (and there actually were some) as a beacon of “representative government”. His host and cicerone in the industrial Midlands was the Duke of Wellington. It will tell you something of Nicholas’s political primitiveness that what he took to be the dangerous liberalism of the Duke and of the whole setup in pre-Reform Britain simply confirmed his belief in the sacred necessity of absolute autocracy.
Almost everything the imperial couple did was undertaken out of a sense of obligation, and sacrificial duty is actually the main theme of the Empress’s recollections of her early married life. Poor little rich girl, indeed! In the middle of June, accompanied by a military guard but with little you could call “emotional support”, she was sent off from her native palace in the direction of the Russian frontier, where she arrived about a week later to be met by her betrothed “with drawn sword, at the head of a guard of honor” and accompanied by various Orthodox ecclesiastics with lots of hair and weird hats. Part of the deal of being a Russian Grand Duchess was a crash course in the Orthodox faith. She was a Lutheran, and a serious one; but now she was closeted for five days with a priest named Moussowsky for an emergency spiritual transplant. Five days! Moussowsky must have been quite a guy. I’ve been working away at the works of John Chrysostom and Basil the Great for half a lifetime, and I’m nowhere near done.
For the whole week’s run-up to the elaborate formal announcement of the betrothal, she writes, “I did nothing but cry whenever I found myself alone; the change in religions cost me a lot and weighed upon my heart….On the 24th June I was taken to church by the Emperor. As well as I could I made my profession of faith in Russian. Beside me stood a black-robed Abbess, while I, dressed in white, with a little cross at my neck, looked like a sacrificial victim. This was the impression I produced on all our Prussian attendants, who with feelings of compassion and eyes full of tears watched their poor Princess Charlotte take part in a ceremony strange and mystical to the minds of Protestants.” But protest made she none.
*A Czarina’s Story, trans. by Una Pope-Hennessy (London, 1948)