2011-05-09

The Silver Mask

I have spent a few days reading a short little book about the Swedish 17th Century queen Kristina, "Silvermasken" (= the silver mask) by Peter Englund, who is a famous Swedish historian and member (secretary, actually) of the Swedish Academy. The book was written for the Academy, actually.

I didn´t know much about her, not more than anyone else: that she was the daughter of Gustav II Adolf, who died on the battlefield in L├╝tzen in 1632 (a fat king got lost in the mist), her mother became mad with grief, she was probably homosexual and she abdicated in favour of her cousin Karl X, and became a Catholic, and moved to Rome, where she died. Englund puts a bit more flesh on her, makes her a bit more complex.

She tried to get a new kingdom for herself, mostly because her allowance from Sweden was rarely paid out to her, as the new king needed every crown for his warfare. She wanted Neaples, and when that fell through set her sights on Poland, but mostly it was to her disadvantage that she was a woman and she had no heirs. There were lots of rumours about her and a cardinal Azzolino, but she was adamant that she died virgo intacta, and there is nothing substantial to contradict that.

She was also an entusiastic writer, she had at least two secretaries, and sat for hours every day with pen in hand. But she finished very little, and her memoirs became more and more fiction the more she worked with them, apparently. It seems to have been a lot about keeping up appearances, she was always a queen and she tried to live like one, even when she was rather poor. That image I had of a humble religous woman seems to have been completely wrong.

The title refers to her death mask, that was laid over her face in the grave, but also to the many reinventions of herself that she undertook during her life. It was only in the 17th Century that philosophy came up with the idea of the individual, with an ability to think freely, and break away from the predestination of one´s birth. Kristina had, from a very young age, been very interested in these ideas, and she was very influenced by them. Without them, she probably could never have acted the way she did.

So, an easy, educational and entertaining read. A great way to spend a few evenings.

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