While the Emperor is, by nature, simple and self-effacing, the Empress is complicated and makes her presence felt.
The Empress is a descendant of Catherine the Great of Russia, she was brought up at Weimar, she has constantly lived in admiration of of the ancient French court, French salons, the French language. She married the Crown Price of Prussia for state reasons. The good, kindly Prince left behind him a doomed passion for a Princess Radziwill, who is now dead. Proud and alien to any sort of sentimentality, Princess Augusta saw in this union only her elevation to a rank to which she was uniquely destined by birth and for which she felt, to be precise, an artistic vocation. Cut out to be neither wife nor mother nor grandmother, as they say of her at court, she resumed her freedom as soon as she had produced an heir to the throne. From then on, she gave herself up completely to this role of queen, of which her ideal conception was as nobly bare as it was unusually imposing. She has come to constitute a strange character, artificial but logical and fascinating, who has charmed all the ambassadors to Berlin as well as all cultivated visitors, including M. de Lesseps himself.
Concerning M. de Lesseps, I might say it would not surprise me if the idea of his Berlin visit had not been first discreetly put to him by the Empress herself. At the Empress’s daily teas, every time anyone alluded to the “great Frenchman” – and he was the favorite subject of conversation of her friend, the Duke of Sagan, who steers the conversation at the Empress’s table – every time the same conclusion was reached: “To think that I might have made his acquaintance at the time of the Exposition! A misunderstanding prevented me from doing so. I also had the chance to see M. Michel Chevalier and all those gentlemen (the Saint-Simonians), but M. de Lesseps was not there. Alas! Will I never see him?” A slight pretext presented itself, a decoration conferred on our ambassador, M. Herbette; the insignia could be brought by his old friend M. de Lesseps, who had nothing else to do at the moment. The Duke of Sagan immediately took advantage of the occasion and arranged the whole affair. So you see what diplomatic feats our charming compatriot has come out of retirement to perform.
In looks and bearing, as in character, the Empress has nothing German about her. To judge from her portraits, even the one by Winterhalter, who also painted the Empress Eugénie and knew his job, the Empress Augusta has never been what one would call beautiful. Everything about her is a little masculine, her extreme height, her voice, her hands. Her complexion, which is naturally swarthy, is quite clearly covered by make-up to which only a Berlin woman could object: it goes so well with all this deliberate dress, these youthful, flowery prints that look as if they were meant to adorn an idol, with these affected manners, with this voice which, while basically harsh, is maintained on a shrill, fragile, and doleful key.
The first word uttered by this mournful and rather sibylline voice is always to say how exhausted, half-dead the lady is, while across her forehead she slowly passes a long pale hand, with a single ring on her ring finger, an extraordinarily well-cared-for hand, of which she is quite proud. One has before one a being all nerves, who seems only to endure because of them, an emaciated, worn face with eyes of an imperceptible but implacable gray. These terrible eyes are known for nailing people down and many a lady-in-waiting has had her difficulties getting accustomed to them. But as soon as the mouth smiles, especially since the smile always looks rather forced, one has the feeling of receiving an unmerited favor, and our august town council itself, hardened as it is, could not resist it. The Empress lives on nothing: tea, two fingers of champagne, and other such things. Since the age of nine, she has not passed a day without taking some sort of medicine; at seventy, almost at death’s door, she underwent one of the most delicate operations; a fall which she suffered five years ago was poorly treated, and has left her condemned to a wheelchair. By dint of her energy, she has succeeded in getting up, taking several steps, and gives the illusion at times that she can receive standing up. And moreover, her mind is still lively, her memory surprising; her eye sees everything and takes everything in, her ear catches the slighted whisper in a general conversation.
The Empress is Protestant, of course, but there has been a great Catholic influence in her life. Catholicism, in its political and social spirit, as well as in its moral code, particularities of form, and resources for the soul, has constantly been, alas, her almost Platonic preoccupation. It has also something of the aspect of forbidden fruit. It is said that were she a widow, the Sovereign would go live in Rome and very probably would be converted there. Four years ago, when Germany was celebrating the fourth centenary of Luther and the whole court was officially in Berlin, the Empress remained quietly ensconced in her castle at Coblenz. The Sovereign loves to surround herself with Catholics; the title of Catholic is for her a recommendation. Needless to say, it is abused. For example, letters are received quite often from French priests, evidently not in good standing, asking for monetary assistance. But the lady of the Palace in general charge of “external affairs,” whose duty it is to open and reply to these letters, is a diplomat worthy of being a cashier, and does not easily let money slip from her mistress’s cashbox.
This Catholic influence has come to the Empress, like much that makes up her life, from France, from a Frenchman. This man, who died before the war, was the secretary to whom Talleyrand dictated his Mémoires; he is none other than the great-uncle of the author of Autour d’un Marriage. He was French consul at Karlsruhe and lived much of the time at Baden-Baden. A sort of mystic friendship was established between the Queen of Prussia and the personage who seemed to one or two court skeptics a charming Jesuit, while to the Empress’s whole entourage, he was a model of refinement and knowledge. His photograph is displayed on a number of tables at the Palace , and the anniversary of his death is observed with mute sadness. “How fortunate that he died before this war!” the Empress still exclaims.
For the Emperor, all this goes with his wife’s intellectual activities, her superior make-up; it has nothing to do with him.
Berliners believe that the Empress is swallowed up in exercises of piety.
This is certainly not the case. The Empress does not have the temperament of a religious bigot, nor has the she taken on the habits, language or look of one. Although all her sympathies and convictions as both woman and sovereign lean toward Catholicism, her upbringing was quite Protestant. And even in the atmosphere of Rome, she would not follow in the footsteps of Madame Gervaisais, whose story has held her interest so completely, without in any way upsetting her.
Convinced of her superiority and domineering by nature – all the more domineering because of the Emperor’s predilection for submitting to political tutelage – the Empress was bound to be attracted to dabbling in matters of state. Herr von Bismarck always quietly put a stop to this. At the time of the religious affairs of the Kulturkampf, which the Empress took particularly to heart, the struggle was lively and the two sides were found to be irreconcilable. The Chancellor knew that, as always, with everyone, he would have the last word. He played his hand by remaining calm and waiting for the disfavor to end of its own accord, and for the Sovereign to give him her hand again to kiss on New Year’s day. As on many other occasions, he could not forego his favorite pleasure, the use of swear words. His exact words naturally only traveled on the level of gossip, but the Empress’s Chamberlain received one full in the face before everyone. One day with Herr von Bismarck came as usual to see the Emperor, her Chamberlain, who happened to be there in the antechamber where the court officers come and go, turned his back on him and began to drum with his fingertips on a windowpane. And the Chancellor said in a loud voice for all to hear: “Who wants to set foot in a house when you can’t even get the flunkeys to greet you?”
Today they are again on good terms; the reconciliation took place four years ago. The extent of the Chancellor’s bowing and scraping, and the veneration he puts in his voice are surprising even to the entourage of the Empress. Commediante, tragediante! one may say of him as the Pope said of Napoleon.
Berliners never have a chance to see their Sovereign, do not know her, are not interested in what she does and certainly would be incapable of saying whether or not she is in Berlin, has just left or is going to return. The Empress never appears with the Emperor, and never goes out in an open carriage. The photographs seen of her in the shopwindows of Berlin are copied from busts, medallions, drawings entirely composed and corrected under her personal supervision, according to her specifications.
The Empress is unpopular in Berlin. It is not so much because of her French sympathies; they are not generally known, and besides are a matter about which Germans are less sensitive than we would be under the circumstances. No, but the Empress never appears and seems consequently to disdain her place at the Emperor’s side. She is said to be Catholic and devout, she is hostile to the Chancellor, she is a stickler for protocol, she dislikes beer, she hates all the sweet and simple things dear to the German heart, she is incapable of Gemüt; she is, in short, not “from these parts.”
Are they better known in France, these French sympathies of hers, which, while remaining within tactful limits, are nothing short of platonic? In one of M. Rothan’s books one reads this note: “The name of the Empress Augusta should only be pronounced with respect in France.” His note is accompanied by facts to justify it; one could easily supply others. When you tour the valley of the Rhine, stop at Coblenz and visit the charming cemetery for French soldiers who died during their internment; the Empress is wholly responsible for this cemetery, and she alone pays for its upkeep.
The Empress speaks French perfectly, and with no accent whatever. But a peculiar thing about her French is that when she is in an agreeable frame of mind, it tends, through the preciosity of carefully chosen expressions and the childish and somewhat ironic affectation of its slow intonations, to constitute a kind of wit that one follows with pleasure. Only at first, when one is still poorly oriented to this sovereign presence, in which everything seems designed to put one off, does it seem really affected.
While partaking of her only real pleasure, tea-time conversation, the Empress delights in replying with a quip in French; it is the sort of quip that is impossible in German, but when used in a French comedy, is sure to charm a foreign audience. Although it goes without saying that these retorts, especially in a conversation in France, would almost never be called for, yet the Empress forces the occasion and meets it, and that’s that. One afternoon at tea, telling of some usual happening, the Empress added: “In short, it made my hair stand on end.” The Chaberlain, a plump harmless character, began to laugh agreeably. And the Empress, seizing the occasion, cut him with a glance, whipping out so quickly that no one understood and the whole pleasure was for herself alone: “I must say that’s the last thing that could happen to me,” alluding to what one can only guess.
Love of the French language could not be carried farther than it is by the Empress, who imposes it like another soverign presence and insists on using it on every possible occasion and often insists too vehemently. The Empress and her daughter – the latter is nothing but a German imitation of her mother – always write to each other in French; when visiting an exhibition in Dresden, I believe it was, they could even be heard chatting in French as they moved through the crowd.
The Empress recieved, as was the custiom in her youth, all the education needed to reside over a Dresden tea service. The Empress still reads a great deal, and what she reads is, needless to say, French. Every morning, the Figaro, the Temps, and the Débats are placed on her table, and every fortnight, the head valet, a Frenchman, is given the Revue des deux mondes so he may cut the pages. She is especially fond of memoirs and reminiscences. From time to time a novel: Octave Feuillet is always welcome and remains the first of the few who may be read in their entirety. Pierre Loti is delightful in extracts. It is also by means of extracts that she fulfills her obligations to the “new school,” that is, the Goncourts, Zola, Daudet, whose language is a bit too revolutionary for a faithful reader of the Revue des deux mondes. There is one writer of whom she reads every word: Maxine du Camp, an old friend who returns every summer to Baden-Baden. What happy evenings she owes to this old skeptic’s presence at Parisian charity balls! There is another writer, and only one, who is systematically excluded from the Empress’s library, and that in Renan, naturally because of his Life of Jesus.
Like a proper eighteenth-century woman, the Empress is interested only in genre painting and in Italian music, or music of an even lighter nature. When she is forced to accompany some royal guest to the Opera and sit through two acts of Wagner, it is more than her delicate nerves can stand.
In any event, the Empress no longer goes to the Opera since she suffered her fall. Five years ago, however, every time the Berlin Opera gave Carmen, which was once a week, the people of Berlin knew where they could be sure of setting eyes on their invisible sovereign. Still today, at noon, when the guardsmen march by the Palace with the band in the lead, if the bandleader wants to be agreeable, he can do nothing better than play a march from Bizet’s opera. During the winder, the Empress gives what are known as her “Musical Thursday.” These are mainly occasions for receiving the diplomatic corps and for organizing a little French conversation. A majority of the great virtuosi have played on these occasions. Sarasate is still the spoiled child and Rubinstein is kept away only because of his unsociability.
The Empress lives in Berlin from the first of December to the first of May. She divides her time between the Augusta Hospital and the Augusta Boarding School. When one sees a carriage, a heavy brougham with a body low enough to receive the Empress’s wheelchair, leaving the Palace as usual by a rear gate, one can be sure that she is on the way to one or the other of her places of refuge. To them goes also the greater part of her money. The Red Cross and the German Health societies are also regular occupations for which she employs a secretary.
After the first of May begins a series of stops in Baden-Baden, Coblenz, and Homburg, where the Empress and her household, reduced to a minimum, live quite informally either in the local castle when there is one, or in a hotel. The Chamberlain and the ladies-in-waiting are changed every month. The Chamberlain is usually a country squire, a baron or a count, who doesn’t know what to do with his hands when he has put down his teacup. The ladies-in-waiting are young countesses who are made to come for a month from their castles, and who only know how to say, “Yes, Your Majesty! No, Your Majesty!” and who are afterwards sent back with a small gift.
At Baden-Baden the empress has the great distraction of visits from her daughter and from the Grand Duke, and almost daily visits with the duchess Hamilton and her inseparable lady friend, the Countess Tascher de la Pagerie, who may leave behind some rather spirited memoirs.
In Berlin the Empress’s household consists of a Grand Mistress and two ladies-in-waiting, one of them lives with the memory of her great beauty and past royal favors, the other is the Empress’s strong right arm. In addition, there is a permanent lady-in-waiting, a chamberlain, a doctor, a secretary and four Women of the Bedchamber of whom the first is the one person out of the entire court capable of writing the most curious and complete memoirs, which she will never do. We might add that all this society has not been very closely observed by the author of Berlin Society.
The one feature lacking in this portrait of the Empress is perhaps easy to guess. The Empress is a superior person; she is certainly of a race infinitely superior to her surroundings. She feels it, she reads it in the eyes of all about her; all is adoration around her and there is no one in her entourage who has not had to endure the cruelties of her pride and the caprices of her great boredom. The Empress has spent her life not being able to adjust to her milieu, dreaming of a Catholic monarchy and French salons. She has been bored, she is still bored, and she still dreams.
Her greatest distraction is the arrival of some foreign guest whom she must receive. The waiting is feverish; after the departure there is a period of letdown and most often of harsh words. Let us hope that M. de Lesseps will have lived up to expectations and have proved neither overly flattering nor overly pedantic, nor too technical in the explanation of plans of his canal.
I have spoken of the extraordinary vitality of the Empress in the apparent ruin of her health. If, as they say, the Emperor is made of gold, then the Empress is made of steel. Once a widow, she will undoubtedly retire to Rome: only there, whether she is converted or not, may she find at last consolation and advice on her withdrawal. There she will, at least, have the sun, the good sun she loves so much.
Turtle Point Press – ISBN 9781885983022