She Sat the Whole Time Cold

Jul, 2019

The castle in Stockholm was cold. Descartes had died here in 1650, supposedly freezing to death. Queen Kristina, whom he had come to tutor, would abdicate and flee to Rome. In 1891, when Victoria arrived from her native Germany, the old castle had burned. A new palace had been built in its place, floor after floor of apartments and reception rooms, all of them cold. She too should never have come. She coughed all the time.

Born in 1862, she was the daughter of Fredrik I, Grand Duke of Baden. Royals and aristocrats visited her parents’ castle in Karlsruhe, but also writers, artists, and musicians (she once turned the sheet music for Liszt). Her romance with a young Russian nobleman ended when the tsar made it known that he opposed marriages between cousins. Her mother’s hopes that she would marry the future Kaiser, another cousin, also came to naught. Now it was Bismarck who said no. Like the tsar, he did not believe in cousin marriages, but he also questioned Victoria’s constitution, notably that racking cough, which had plagued her long before she came to Sweden. That, they said, was the end of that. Well, not quite.

When Gustaf, the crown prince of Sweden, came courting, she was only 19 years old. Studying her through his pince-nez, he was 24, tall and gangly, his manners stiff. This time no one said no. Victoria was the great granddaughter of Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden, so in a sense she would only be coming home. This same great grandfather had been dethroned and exiled after losing Finland to Russia in 1809, but the old Vasa blood still coursed through her veins, and was it not time to forget and move on? She was not considered beautiful (her face was much too strong for that), but the Swedish newspapers made the most of her large blue-gray eyes, her superb shoulders, and her tightly knit frame. Her iron will, inherited from her mother, soon made itself known, not least among her servants, some of whom trembled at the mere sound of her voice and grew to hate her.

In rapid succession she gave birth to three sons. The youngest, Erik, suffered from epilepsy, brought on, or so it was thought, by medications she took for her lungs. In search of a warmer climate, she left with Gustaf for Egypt. Joining them was Gustaf’s aide-de-camp, Baron Blixen von Finecke, witty and virile, as much at ease in a drawing room as he was in the desert (and yes, related to Bror, Karen Blixen’s husband). When not hunting hyenas, Gustaf focused on archaeology, while Blixen focused on Victoria, carrying her camera equipment, the two of them processing films in one of the tents. Exactly what passed between them is unclear, but Blixen was not allowed to join her when she returned to Egypt the following year. Gustaf confronted her and wrote about it to his father. “She sat the whole time silent and cold, hardly shed a single tear, but asked my forgiveness and confessed to everything.” Why do I shudder when I read his words? Not just for her but also for him.

In 1892 she met Axel Munthe, a Swedish doctor of lowly birth, his father a small-town pharmacist. Hardly dashing, he dressed more like an artist than a doctor, his probing glance concealed behind eyeglasses tinged blue. He had studied medicine in Paris, where he worked under Charcot, the famous neurologist, whose research on hysteria inspired August Strindberg. He now ran a clinic in Rome, overlooking the Piazza di Spagna, where he treated wealthy women with illnesses that had no name (he actually invented one – “colitis” – harmless enough not to mean very much). “He’s an evil man,” one woman wrote. “I think him capable of anything, surely he’s a hypnotist too.” Still, most women yielded to his powers – he himself called them “almost demonic” and acknowledged the temptation to misuse them. Not wearing gloves (careless indeed), he drove around the city in a pony cart, always with his dogs beside him. When Victoria invited him to a dinner she gave in Rome, he arrived half an hour late, well after the soup and the fish had been served. Was it by design, making it clear that her status as crown princess did not impress him? Or was he late because of his work at his other clinic, this one in Travestere, where he treated the Roman poor for free? Either way, when she asked him to examine her, he consented.

In the years to come, the two of them would meet on Capri, where he built his San Michele, a villa high above the Bay of Naples. One photograph shows Victoria stepping out of a boat in the Marina Grande, a woman in black, small and demure, looking up at the people on the quay, a softness about her that I haven’t noticed before. The people in the boat and on the quay watch her every step – word was she was better loved on Capri than she ever was in Sweden. Instead of rest and medications, Munthe prescribed fresh air and steep climbs up narrow, stony ravines. In the evenings, the sun sinking into the sea below, she played the piano, while he sang Schubert, his baritone floating through the loggias, past the Medusa head and the sphinx, which he claimed had belonged to Tiberius, past the vineyards and the cypresses with roses and honeysuckle circling their trunks. Were they Jean and Miss Julie, the valet and the daughter of the count, had Strindberg allowed them to escape together? If so, where was Gustaf in all this? I think of him as the absent father, too powerful to be ignored, a constant reminder that all this will not end well. “I’m trying to help her be Swedish,” Munthe wrote. “We both know she’s not.”

Gustaf would order all letters between Victoria and himself to be burned. Munthe promised to write her biography but never did. Even if he had, would he have told the truth? In a preface to his book on San Michele, in which he never mentions her, he states that “some of the scenes are laid on the ill-defined borderland between the real and the unreal.” His colleagues in Sweden called him a charlatan, questioning his use of hypnotism and his remarkable sway over the crown princess, who seemed all too eager to leave Sweden for Capri. No doubt Munthe was a social climber, who craved recognition while professing to despise the very people that might grant it. When weighing whether to become Victoria’s physician, he was well aware of the cachet and the “advertisement” it would bring. But unlike Jean, he did not care to chop off the necks of small birds. In his book he writes about his feud with the island butcher, who blinded quail with red-hot needles, which made them sing until they died, thus luring thousands of birds to the butcher’s nets. And Victoria? Did she, as Munthe claimed, suffer from “old bad blood”? Did she abase herself when she pleaded for his time? “I love you, darling, I want to be near you, see you – if only for the shortest while.” Accustomed to giving orders, did she find relief in following his? “A difficult patient,” he wrote. “But now she obeys.”

In 1907, a few months before Victoria became queen, Munthe married a much younger Englishwoman, calling it a marriage of convenience (certainly to him, as his eyesight was deteriorating). Still, it was not his marriage but the First World War that caused a rift between Victoria and him, albeit temporary. He became a British citizen and served with the Red Cross in France, while her allegiance was to Germany and the Kaiser. When King Gustaf gave his famous speech to the Swedish farmers who marched for a stronger defense, Victoria could be glimpsed behind one of the palace windows. She wanted Sweden to fight with Germany, but Gustaf’s diplomacy prevailed and Sweden remained neutral. Throughout the war, she kept visiting her family in the castle in Karlsruhe, raising eyebrows in Sweden, perhaps in Germany too. Appointed Honorary Colonel of the German army, she was photographed riding sidesaddle on a long-legged Prussian horse. She wears a uniform and a picket helmet, her back as straight as ever, whale bones gripping her flesh. In the fall of 1918, after the war ended, she was caught in the socialist revolution, fleeing from castle to castle, machine guns blocking her retreat. Even as Erik, her youngest son, fell ill and died from the Spanish influenza, she did not come to his side, blaming the risk of contagion. She did not return to Sweden until the spring of 1919. By then Munthe had spent his last winter with his wife, who banned him from her life after she found him kissing the kitchen maid. Gustaf, for his part, had sought company elsewhere, his homosexuality no longer a secret. Victoria still stood when he entered the room.

Victoria died in Rome in 1930, coughing herself to death. Both Gustaf and Munthe were present. Munthe, or so he would imply, gave her morphin to shorten her pain. He would spend much of his remaining life in one of the apartments in the palace in Stockholm. Suffering the indignities of blindness and old age, scraps of food stuck in his unkempt beard, he dressed so poorly that the royal guard was reluctant to let him pass. Gustaf, when not following the work of his government, hunted, embroidered, and played tennis, his game as impeccable as his pleated white pants. Summers Munthe would join him at Solliden, the villa Victoria had built on an island in the Baltic Sea, meant to resemble San Michele and the only place where she felt she could breathe. In one photograph, Gustaf sits so as not to tower over Munthe — the two men, who had so disliked each other, now trapped in a friendship they both called dull. If they talked at all, did they talk about her?

What would Strindberg have made of that?




by Birgitta Hjalmarson

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