A Scandal at the Villa Paradiso

All the world loves a scandal. The affair of Princess Louise of Belgium and Géza Mattachich is forgotten today, but a hundred years ago newspapers and magazines were full of it. With good reason, since it had a great deal to offer their readers: adultery in high places, a royal elopement, a duel, forgery, wrongful incarceration, a daring escape, a whole string of related intrigues and mini-dramas.

Princess Louise was the eldest daughter of King Leopold II of the Belgians, the infamous plunderer of the Congo. She had a bleak upbringing—Leopold’s only son had died in childhood, and he couldn’t forgive his daughters for not being boys. But if Louise thought that marriage represented an escape, she was quickly disabused. The husband to whom her parents consigned her when she was seventeen, Philipp of Saxe-Coburg, was a German prince with palaces in Budapest, where the couple initially lived, and Vienna, where they subsequently settled. Fourteen years her senior, he was awkward and unappealing. (Her private nickname for him was der Dicke, the fat one.) Their wedding night, for which she was utterly unprepared, filled her with horror; after that she settled into twenty years of discontent. And then one day, while she was being driven in her coach through the Prater, the famous Viennese park, her eye was caught by a young cavalryman who was trying to impress her with his horsemanship. It was Géza Mattachich.

There was a wide social gulf between the two of them. Louise was an important figure in the Hapsburg court, not only on her own account, but also because her sister Stéphanie had married Crown Prince Rudolf, the heir to the imperial throne. (This was the same Rudolf who was to commit suicide with one of his mistresses in the hunting lodge at Mayerling.) By contrast, the Mattachich family were minor gentry from a remote corner of Croatia. Géza’s mother shared her dreary home with a drunken husband and a lover. Mattachich himself was an unremarkable second lieutenant, serving in an army in which his Croatian background counted against him, and he had limited prospects of advancement. But he was romantic. He became obsessed with the princess as he watched her take her daily ride; once their eyes had met, he felt sure his passion was reciprocated. He was also ambitious and determined. He contrived to make contact with Louise by seducing her maid and using the girl as a go-between. He followed her to an Adriatic resort, gate-crashed a party at which she was a guest, and spoke to her for the first time. Two nights later he climbed through her bedroom window—and his confidence proved justified.

Such was the first act of the drama on which Dan Jacobson has based his new novel, All for Love. Much of it sounds like the stuff of an opera or an operetta. The same is no less true of many subsequent episodes in the affair. But it all actually happened—in broad outline, at least—just as…

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