Wherever you are in the world, especially if you’re in an English-speaking country or Northern Europe, the great excitement over the upcoming British Royal Wedding probably won’t have escaped you. Prince William and Kate Middleton will be tying the knot in Westminster Abbey this Friday, 29th April, and the nation is rejoicing (largely, it must be said, because the Bank Holiday Friday, added to the following Bank Holiday Monday, means a four day weekend! Yippee!). And so, in honour of the big occasion, and because I’ve had a review pending on a related novel for a couple of months now, I thought it might be fun to talk about another Royal Wedding, which took place almost exactly 105 years ago, on 31 May 1906, and which sparked huge popular interest in both Britain and Spain.
The happy couple in the engagement photo on the postcard above left are Princess Ena of Battenburg, who despite her name was a British Princess, and King Alfonso XIII of Spain. Ena, or to give her full name, Victoria Eugenie Julia Ena (1887-1969) was the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, by Victoria’s youngest daughter Princess Beatrice – whose married name was Princess Henry of Battenberg. Because her mother was Queen Victoria’s youngest child, and therefore by Victorian convention responsible for looking after her widowed mother and keeping her company, Ena was born at Balmoral and remained part of the royal household until her marriage. Her father, Prince Henry of Battenberg, died of malaria en route to fight in the Ashanti War in 1895, when she was just 8 years old.
The postcard above left, like the one on the right which shows the King and his new Queen with their mothers, is from a series of at least nine postcards published in 1907 by Rotary Photographic,* part of the surge of popular mutual interest between Spain and Britain that followed the marriage announcement. A quick bibliographical survey of UK-published books on Spain during the first decade of the 20th century shows a sudden and unprecedented peak in 1906 and 1907, much of it down to the ever-resourceful Albert Frederick Calvert, a dodgy entrepreneur with a keen eye for a quick buck, who was editor and principal author of the colourful and comprehensive John Lane Spanish Series, which ran between 1906 and 1912. Calvert swiftly spotted the opportunities provided by this new Anglo-Spanish connection, and rushed out Alfonso XIII in England (1905) and the privately printed The Spanish Royal Wedding (1906), later dedicating volumes of the Spanish Series to the King, his mother, his mother in law, his sister, and the Spanish Ambassador to London (it paid off – Calvert eventually collected a range of honours from the Spanish Court).
Ena and Alfonso first met during his state visit to England in the summer of 1905, when she was seventeen and he was nineteen. After a fairly rapid courtship, they were engaged in January 1906, and married at Madrid’s San Jerónimo monastery on 31 May of the same year. Famously, the wedding party was the target of a bomb attack, which, unsurprisingly, tainted the early months of Ena’s relationship with her adopted country: as they passed up Madrid’s Calle Mayor on their way back to the Royal Palace, the anarchist Mateu Morral threw a bomb, concealed in a bouquet, at the newlyweds’ carriage. While he missed his primary target, a number of guards and bystanders were killed. Our old friend Rachel Challice, who visited the couple the following year, writes in The Secret History of the Court of Spain (source of the picture, left, of Princess Ena in her wedding dress) that:
the tragedy of the bomb cast in the bouquet, which caused so much disaster, came like a sudden frost, and nipped the spontaneous joy of the young Queen, and the drives and walks in the city of Madrid became a source of fear instead of joy … The people, therefore, are a little disappointed at their greetings not meeting with the quick response of the first days in her new land; and as Spaniards would do anything for a smile, and love to see happiness, this inborn terror, begotten of the tragedy of her wedding-morn, would form a barrier between the English Queen and her people, were they not reminded of the source of the set expression on her face (pp.316-317).**
And so now for the review … look away now if you want to avoid spoilers (and/or a slight sense of ickiness):
Alfonso and Ena’s wedding, and Morral’s attack, are the subject of the novelal Mon roi, mon amour (My King, My Love), published in 2008 by the Swiss writer Robert Pagani, which I read in its recent English translation by the late Helen Marx, The Princess, the King and the Anarchist (2010). It’s certainly fair to say that the book, only 92 pages long, has received mixed reviews: MA Orthofer, in the Complete Review, found it ‘a perfectly satisfying little novella,’ while Martin Rubin in The Washington Times was less convinced, pointing out the many errors and inconsistencies (e.g. calling Ena ‘Maria’; referring to her as a princess when in fact she’s a Queen…), and wondering, with regard to Pagani’s embellishments to the central event: ‘why fantasize when the reality is so much more horrendous than the silly product of this author’s paltry imaginative flight?’ Adelaide Kuehn, writing in Three Percent, is similarly unconvinced: ‘There are times when this novella reads like an early twentieth-century harlequin. And not in a good way.’
What do I think? Well, when I first came across the novella (actually, via Kuehn’s review), I was excited to find an historical novel about precisely the period of Anglo-Spanish relations that fascinates me. I wasn’t too put off by the scathing review, so when the book arrived, I got reading right away. First impressions: the book (at least as marketed to an Anglophone audience; I haven’t seen the original) is firmly connected with the historical events that inspired it, since it opens with a photograph of Ena’s carriage arriving at the church on the day of the wedding. Then comes a six-page introduction by Caroline Weber, which rather annoyingly gives away the whole plot, and which, if it had to be included, would have been much better placed at the end, so as to avoid spoilers. Grrr. Weber (whose considerable scholarly credentials don’t get a mention, BTW) draws our attention to the novella’s strong focus on corporeality (aka obsession with bodily functions), suggesting that the anarchist’s assault on the body of state is mirrored by his assault on the body of the Queen, so that the institutional vulnerability of the Spanish monarchy (borne out in Alfonso’s abdication 25 years later) is crystallised in the physical vulnerability of its agents.
The narrative, focused on 31 May and its immediate aftermath, remains in the third person, but shifts between the perspectives of the three principal protagonists: the eponymous Princess, King, and Anarchist. While the anarchist (here named as Fernando) puts his plans into place, the royal couple’s thoughts are largely focused on their physical discomfort – the Queen frets over her need for ‘Pipi! Pipiiiiii! Ooooh!’ (25) and her concerns about the wedding night, and what to expect from an organ shaped like a ‘medium-sized carrot, five to five and a half inches’ (27), while the King suffers over ‘his rod, an erect mast in the middle of his body … ebony, steel … [an] erect baobab’ (64-65). Admittedly, it’s a tad unfair of me to pick out the most clunking images in what isn’t at all a bad translation, but … you begin to see why Rubin and Kuehn were so unimpressed. Nonetheless, it’s with the aftermath of the explosion that Pagani really gets carried away, imagining that the fleeing anarchist somehow finds himself in the Palace gardens, where he comes across a still-distraught Queen, and … ahem … satisfies her curiosity about the carrot. Bonkers? It gets better! Later that night, just as the King and Queen are about to consummate their union, the Queen flees the bedchamber, runs out to the garden, knifes the anarchist, and recovers the ‘panties stained in her virginal blood’ (89). The novella ends on a note of ambiguity: as the monarchs lie, postcoital, the King ponders his wife’s virginity, ‘[trying] to imagine what that “almost no sign” means’ (92). His only response is to take her again, roughly, ‘Because he is the king’ (92).
As Weber points out in her introduction, the encounter between the Queen and the anarchist that brings Pagani’s novel to its bloody climax (ba-boom!) clearly never happened. What Pagani does, however, is to translate the ongoing reverberations of the anarchist attack – its blasting of the monarchy’s foundations – into human terms. The seed sown (so to speak) by the anarchist on the afternoon of 31 May 1906 is part of the complex network of influences that enabled the emergence of the Spanish Republic a quarter of a century later, when Alfonso and Ena fled Spain for sanctuary in France. Alfonso would never return; Ena only once, shortly before her death, when she attended the christening of her great-grandson, Prince Felipe of Asturias.
So I understand (I think) Pagani’s project. It’s kind of a ‘what-if’ version of history, albeit one focused on events beyond the public record, and it’s also – to a certain extent – an allegory for the emerging public awareness of the monarchy’s inherent mundanity, which of course was enabled precisely by the kinds of mass-market, tell-all publications churned out by writers such as Albert Calvert and Rachel Challice. While I understand the project, though, I have to confess I’m not convinced by it. Kuehn suggests it reads like a Harlequin romance, and I can see where she’s coming from, but the crudeness and lack of narrative control remind me more of the worst kinds of unfiltered fanfic. Without reading the original, I can’t say whether this is inherent to the novella itself or a fault in the translation, but either way, it left me with a slightly queasy feeling, as if I’d caught a glimpse of something nasty on a colleague’s internet history. Like Rubin, I don’t understand the need to tie this narrative into real events, when the events themselves are of such unexplored power and resonance. There are many, many stories waiting to be told about the dramatic events of 1906 and their aftermath. This, sadly, is one I could have done without.
* For collectors – these postcards are Rotary Photographic Series 298 E and 298 F.
** Rachel Challice, The Secret History of the Court of Spain During the Last Century. London: John Long, 1909. This book was researched during Challice’s long stay in Spain during 1907, and published shortly after her sudden death in 1909.