Miscellanea and Ephemeron
07/16/2008 Archived Entry: "Book review: Christina, Queen of Sweden"
Christina, Queen of Sweden
Review by Chad Denton
Queen Christina Vasa of Sweden is a topic that should be formidable but rewarding for any biographer. It is true that she fails to meet the criteria that usually earn the "great people" the books that map out their lives and motives. Scholars of women's history, if they take some of her pronouncements utterly seriously, might see her as a female misogynist; besides, rather than being a good sample of royal and aristocratic women's experiences, Christina instead spent a lifetime ducking the hurdles and avoiding the paths European society placed before the women of her time. By the chilly standards of political history, Christina was almost a non-entity even though she was born a monarch, her reign one dull gap between Sweden's time as one of the leading Protestant nations in the Thirty Years War and the era of Swedish dominance that overshadowed northern European history in the late 1600s. Even though she was an accomplished polyglot academic, for intellectual history Christina has no scientific discoveries or philosophical breakthroughs or groundbreaking writings or translations to offer up, just her correspondences with scholarly superstars like René Descartes, Anne Le Fèvre Dacier, and Pierre Gassendi.
All that aside, Christina's life is still a fascinating topic that has all the raw materials for an engaging book. She swore, savored dirty jokes, routinely wore a mix of women's and men's clothing (if not masculine attire altogether), and once mortified Paris' blue bloods by flinging her legs over the armrests of her chair at a theatrical performance. Probably her most notorious moment was her "murder" of Descartes, who moved to Stockholm to become Christina's philosophy tutor at her own request and died of pneumonia after being subjected to a grueling schedule of braving cold Scandinavian mornings to meet Christina at five in the morning. Then there are her somewhat mysterious reasons for abdicating her throne and converting from Lutheranism, the religion her father died to uphold, to Catholicism, which have given fuel for romantic speculations in the films Queen Christina from 1933 and The Abdication from 1972. Even after her abdication, she had other adventures, such as a disastrous but thrilling bid to become the Queen of Naples at Spain's expense. Finally there's Christina's modern reputation as one of very few prominent lesbians in European history which, even if one does not agree, at least makes for interesting arguments and speculations one way or another.
So...how could this book go so wrong?
First off, Veronica Buckley seems blissfully unaware that readers want to hear Christina's voice, not her own. In the course of her life Christina wrote an account of her childhood and a deep corpus of letters, but one could never tell from reading this biography, which quite often eschews Christina's own thoughts and observations in favor of the author's speculations on the historical actors' inner emotional states. This would not necessarily be a poor approach, especially since even biographies with a long paper trail do require a leap of conjecture every now and then. Still, it is possible to take the leap off that cliff and fall into that magical realm where historical personalities start to look like characters in a bad novel. For just one example, not only does Buckley claim that Christina loved her cousin (and eventual successor) Karl Gustav with the "sturdy old love of a childhood friend", but turns to her window into the inner thoughts and emotions of seventeenth century people and states that he "may have loved her, too, in the simpler way that a man loves a woman" (102-3). In spite of such in-depth and audacious analysis, not a single scrap of personal writings appears to support it. Perhaps I am being too harsh here, since this is a biography for a broad audience rather than a PhD thesis, but "it's not an academic history!" is hardly an excuse for such obvious laziness and sloppiness. "Show, don't tell" is as much a fundamental law for biographers as it is for novelists.
None of this is to say that Buckley has no respect for that rule, although her choices for emphasis are a bit hard to understand. Christina's coronation merits almost ten pages, detailing such weighty matters as how Christina wanted to redecorate the royal apartments for the occasion, logistical problems with finishing three triumphal arches that had been commissioned, and even what the horses in the procession were wearing (168-9, 171-9). However, Christina's turbulent relationship with her mentally ill mother, Maria Eleonore of Brandenburg, only deserves a few pages here and there. Christina's ideas for reform and her policies in Sweden are only given shallow details, a curious thing in a biography about a reigning monarch, and even then often to support Buckley's assertion that Christina was too fickle and inept to be an effective ruler. Christina's intimate relationship with her handmaiden Belle Sparre, which along with Christina's aversion to marriage and her abdication has fed debates about Christina's sexuality, barely spans one and a half pages.
Most people with just a passing familiarity with Queen Christina's biography will notice Buckley's refusal to even delve into the issue of Christina's sexual inclinations. In the otherwise detailed index, under Christina's name "homosexuality", "lesbianism" or similar words do not appear at all. This is not the fault of the indexer, since Buckley never pauses to argue one way or another. Buckley's opinion is a definite "no", but this is something that has to be pieced together from her dismissive discussion of the "rumors" surrounding Christina's love affairs (which, of course, she very rarely cites nor does she discuss whether or not the sources might have been in any way credible), and her emphasis on Christina's male attachments over her relationship with Belle. There is nothing wrong with arguing that Christina was not attracted to the same sex or that modern categories of sexuality cannot ever be applied to people of Christina's time, but simply flitting around the issue is insulting to those who do uphold Christina as a lesbian model. Most of all, it is curious to see a biographer outright ignore one of the key reasons why Christina is a figure of widespread interest in the first place. Even Margaret Goldsmith in her biography of Christina, which was published in 1935, takes the time to delve into Christina's sexuality for over six pages.
On my part I was left wondering why Veronica Buckley bothered with Christina at all. Throughout the book Buckley's treatment of Christina is roundly unsympathetic, even hostile in places. All in all, Christina comes across as egotistical, gullible, and selfish to the point of being destructive. Buckley is also consistent in downplaying Christina's intellectual achievements and arguing that Christina was insecure to the point that her renown in European intellectual circles mostly derived from self-promotion. This is not to claim that Buckley isn't right, at least to an extent; it would be very difficult to argue that Christina was not capable of exceptionally reckless judgment or that she didn't buy into her own press. Aside from occasional outbursts of armchair therapy that diagnoses Christina with low self-esteem (in another example of newer is not always better in the world of history and biography, Goldsmith's biography also boasts, in my opinion, a more in-depth and sophisticated attempt to comprehend Christina's psychology), Buckley seems disinterested in how Christina's actions might be justified, or at least in how her motives might be described beyond simple personal failings. I am not saying that Christina deserves a hagiography, but Buckley inches toward the other extreme. As a ravenous reader of biographies, I can claim with confidence that there are books out there with more even-handed analyses of individuals like Caligula and Stalin than what Buckley gives Christina in these pages.
For these reasons and more, I am very confused by the critical accolades printed on my edition of the book. I can only assume that I had read a different book or Harper Perennial's marketing department had put a great deal of imaginative effort into taking the critics' quotes out of context. The most that can be said for Buckley's biography is that it's competently written with a prose style that keeps the reader's attention. As a biography, an effort to detail the life and personality and feelings of a man in the past, it falls apart at the slightest pressure. A critic, Frances Wilson, from The Guardian deemed it a "wonderfully rich and poignant book." In truth, the only aspect of this biography that is truly "poignant" is that an intriguing and unique figure like Christina Vasa has had her story told by a hack.
The Wapshott Press
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