Cristina, Portraits of a Princess
by Beth Archer Brombert
Knopf, 402 pp., $15.00
Before reading this biography, I confess I had never wittingly given a thought to Cristina, Princess Belgiojoso, although I must have seen the reference to her in The Romantic Agony by Mario Praz and encountered her name elsewhere. A spot-check among some of my colleagues working on nineteenth-century literature has revealed that they too knew little or nothing about her. It would seem that this is only the second book on her in English; the first, A Revolutionary Princess by H.R. Whitehouse, came out as long ago as 1906. The only French version of her life—a spiteful attack, according to Mrs. Brombert—is an obscure volume, published in 1926, by A. Augustin-Thierry, a grandnephew of the famous historian, Augustin Thierry, with whom Cristina had a long and intimate intellectual friendship. The princess rates a short article in the Grand Dictionnaire Encyclopédique but none in the Britannica.
Mrs. Brombert does not explain how she happened to light on Cristina, but the reasons for writing this book, once she had discovered her, are quite clear. She presents the princess as an extraordinary figure, who has been unduly neglected because of her sex. After listing some of her remarkable achievements during the exciting events of 1830 and 1848, Mrs. Brombert asks:
Why then was she forgotten?… Doubtless because a woman of such independence, and such talent in fields considered the private reserve of men, was abhorrent to a masculine world. The only way to cope with such a creature was to malign her…. In real life, such a heroine was an irksome reminder of masculine hypocrisy, a threat to the status quo of society and established rule, and to many of her countrymen an embarrassing reprimand for their inability to organize efficiently.
If this were generally true, we should not have heard so much about Lady Hester Stanhope, Mme de Staël, George Sand, Princess Mathilde, or Florence Nightingale, to name only five ladies whose behavior had analogies with that of the princess. Besides, on looking into her case, I find that Walter Savage Landor, whom Mrs. Brombert doesn’t mention, was sufficiently impressed to indict a poem to Cristina, “Carmen ad heroinam,” which he published first in Latin, then in English. Perhaps the Italians are more prone to machismo than the English or the French, and Cristina would have had a happier posthumous fate had she been born to the north, rather than to the south, of the Franco-Italian border. Or perhaps she was simply overlooked because she fell between two cultures; even so, it is surprising that no industrious scholar subsidized by the Centre national de la recherche scientifique has investigated the life and works of one of the most interesting personalities on the Parisian scene during the Romantic period. Mrs. Brombert is to be congratulated, then, on having reopened a rich and intriguing subject and on having unearthed a lot of fascinating material.
If her book has a fault, it is a common one with biographers. She tends to …