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Risorgimento and Romantic Agony

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 side with the person she is writing about and to pitch her account in a conventional, justificatory tone, as if Cristina were the heroine of a romantic novel and not a historical character, whose motivation must sometimes have been more complicated than she allows. It is true that a biographer, to make up for the gaps in all records, has to grant himself or herself a good deal of the license of a novelist, but the quality of a biography is ultimately determined by the type of novelist the biographer is approximating to: Proust, Tolstoy, or Daphne du Maurier. My cynical heart sinks a little when I open a book and find the theme presented in the following way:

Born into the ancient Lombard family of Trivulzio, she had been given unusual beauty, a voice as rich in speech as in song, sharp intelligence. Equally talented at the easel or the keyboard, naturally elegant, courageous, and idealistic, Cristina, her contemporaries concurred, had the rarer gift of charm. Her biting wit and stubborn integrity were mitigated by generosity, compassion, and the love of laughter. But like the princess of the tale, she had been cursed by the wicked fairy….

I was tempted to give up at this point, but it would have been a great mistake to do so, because the book, without managing to make Cristina entirely credible, is far better than its opening paragraphs would lead one to expect.

In spite of the gulf between them, I think the nearest parallel to Cristina Trivulzio, who was born in Milan in 1808, is probably that flamboyant female figure of the previous generation, Mme de Staël, née Germaine Necker. They both had strong brains, total self-confidence in respect to what they wanted to do, patrician unselfconsciousness backed by great wealth, and a powerful sexual and mental attraction for men. Also, they both belonged to communities marginal to France, Germaine Necker to Switzerland and Cristina to Austrian-dominated Lombardy, which had been under French control during the Napoleonic period. They were married young to mediocre husbands, whom they quickly came to despise. They were both instinctively political and, in more modern times, might have played a notable part in government, as well as contributing to intellectual life. Moreover, they both had exceptionally volatile temperaments, which prevented them existing in a state of tranquillity for very long; their lives were a sort of nervous martyrdom. The fact that Cristina was a great aristocrat and Mme de Staël a commoner by origin is not a distinguishing factor, because Mme de Staël was brought up as a grande dame and always behaved like one. A striking point of difference, however, is that Mme de Staël was plump and plain, whereas Cristina ranked as a great beauty according to the standards of her day.

Her resemblances to the four other ladies are nevertheless also worth mentioning. After 1850, during one of the periods when she had to escape from Italy and was in disagreement with the French, she went first to Malta and then to the Middle East where, like Lady Hester Stanhope, she bought an estate and, for two or three years, was a well-known local figure. This was in Turkey, near the Bosphorus, more or less in the area where Voltaire had sent Candide, after similar ups and downs, to cultiver son jardin. Mrs. Brombert doesn’t mention the analogy, but one wonders if it may not have been present, more or less consciously, in Cristina’s mind.

In 1849, when the French were besieging Rome, she was put in charge of the hospitals and turned out to be a veritable Florence Nightingale with a gift for discipline and imaginative administration, not to mention an ability to put the Pope in his place with respectful imperiousness. She had already published a four-volume work of theological speculation—Essai sur la formation du dogme catholique—which, from Mrs. Brombert’s summary, sounds as refreshingly unorthodox as Miss Nightingale’s similar three-volume excursion into theology: Suggestions For Thought to the Seekers After Truth Among The Artizans Of England. Like George Sand, she was involved with Musset, but only platonically, it would seem; she had strongly liberal views which she expressed in innumerable articles; and, for many years, on her home estate at Locate, near Milan, she reigned over her tenants with benevolent firmness in the style of la bonne dame de Nohant. Like Princess Mathilde, she was involved intermittently with Louis-Napoleon, later Napoleon III, although she came to detest him because of his policy toward Italy, and during her periodic visits to Paris, she had, like Mathilde, her literary and intellectual salon with its regular stars, who included Balzac.

Since Christina lived her life mainly between Italy and France, perhaps one way of understanding the complexities of her case is to distinguish between her Italian personality and her Parisian persona. She was a genuinely progressive Milanese aristocrat, exasperated by the Austrian domination, who wanted to see her country set free and united under one king, the reigning monarch of the House of Savoy. She was not, in the first phase of her life, a republican, because she thought the Italian populace too backward for the immediate acceptance of totally democratic institutions. She later came round to republican views, for a time at least, after King Charles-Albert muffed his attempt to reject foreign authority; then, with remarkable impartiality, she understood the difficulties of his situation, and explained why he had failed. She was never really persona grata with any of the Italian political groups, not even with Cavour and Mazzini, the leaders she had to work with, probably because the more liberal sections saw her as a grande dame playing at politics, whereas the conservative members of her own class feared she was undermining their position by her attacks on authority. Her views eventually triumphed, since she lived to see Victor-Emmanuel II crowned king of Italy in 1861 and, as Mrs. Brombert points out, her remarks on the Italians in general were remarkably prophetic.

But it has to be said that, as was the case with Mme de Staël, her position as a wealthy member of the upper class gave her, in the circumstances of her time, advantages that are almost unimaginable today. The Austrian authorities sequestered her property for only two relatively short periods; she behaved bravely when her resources were cut off, but her family still enjoyed its possessions and she must have known that she would never be destitute. When she organized a charity concert for Italian refugees in Paris, it was attended by Count Apponyi, the Austrian ambassador; this is on a par with the situation of Mme de Staël, a declared enemy of Napoleon, staying at the house of his brother Joseph. The solidarity of the upper class was still strong enough to prevent any permanent and damaging sanctions being taken against her, so she enjoyed an immunity which, like Mme de Staël, she probably accepted as part of the nature of things and did not see as a temporary effect of social privilege. However, within her context, she appears to have been a very gallant lady, and so it is quite plausible that she may have served as a model for La Sanseverina in Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme.

In Italy, she was vigorous and positive, a heroine of the Risorgimento; in Paris, her pale and fragile beauty, verging on the sickly or the ethereal, corresponded to the concept of the Romantic femme fatale, and fascinated an astonishing series of famous men: Lafayette, Balzac, Musset, Heine, Liszt, etc. Here we enter a much less certain area than politics, and it has many dark corners in spite of Mrs. Brombert’s careful researches.

Cristina’s trouble was not the usual Romantic affliction of tuberculosis, but epilepsy, complicated by syphilis contracted from her husband, Prince Emilio Belgiojoso, a persistent womanizer who eventually died of general paralysis of the insane. She separated from him very quickly, and had apparently no further conjugal relations with him, even though they remained on fairly friendly terms and he occasionally stayed in the same house. He was around, as it happened, about the time when she conceived a child, but it was born in secrecy in Versailles, never met the prince, and was only legitimized as Marie Belgiojoso some twenty years later, after mysterious negotiations and on condition that she renounce all claim to the prince’s titles and possessions.

Who the father was remains uncertain, although Mrs. Brombert argues strongly in favor of François Mignet, a well-known historian of the day who never married and remained intermittently in touch with the princess throughout her life. Perhaps this is correct, but the princess’s letters to Mignet, in which she refers frequently to “my daughter,” never betray any emotional tremor indicating that they might be addressed to the child’s father. Gossip accused Cristina of having affairs with various young men who acted as her secretary or steward. Family tradition has it that the father was one Bianchi or Bolognini, a young man of respectable origin who was part of her household. I wonder if she did not decide, strongmindedly, to have “her” child, and chose the healthiest and most convenient sire to hand, as though the identity of the genitor were not of prime importance.

She gazes out of the fascinating portrait that Henri Lehmann painted of her in 1843 like some supernatural being, a willi, a peri, or a refined succubus, her gig-lamp eyes fixed in a grave and slightly sinister stare, compelling the spectator to submit to her will. She looks just the sort of person to embalm a recently deceased young lover and keep him in a cupboard, instead of having him buried in the usual way; this was one of the stories told about her that Mrs. Brombert dismisses as being based on no real evidence, although one can understand how it might have been invented. But experience proves that appearances can be deceptive. Ravishingly beautiful ladies, who seem to have been made for seduction, are sometimes armed with robust and pragmatic minds and have no particular interest in sex. Besides, an epileptic syphilitic, who was disgusted with her handsome young husband before she was twenty, may have opted, from then on, for des amours de tête.

Mrs. Brombert argues that the form of epilepsy from which Christina suffered dulls the sexual instinct and, if Cristina was as delicate in her sensibilities as one supposes, one may even be surprised that, on one occasion, she took the risk of inflicting a syphilitic heritage on an unborn child. In fact, on checking back over the references in Mrs. Brombert’s text, I can find no proof that Marie actually was Cristina’s child. No record of the birth was made in Versailles, and the letters of the time refer only to ill health, not confinement. Is it conceivable that she might have adopted a child to have the pleasure of motherhood, and so could later, with a clear, Catholic conscience, insist on her legitimization as a purely formal step in preparation for marriage? Perhaps, after the disastrous experience of her own marriage, she remained as chaste as Florence Nightingale, while people were crediting her with the sentimental abandon of Mme de Staël and George Sand.

We shall presumably never know what the French call les secrets d’alcôve. But it is certain that she inspired deep interest in at least half a dozen outstanding men, who used her image in various positive or negative ways in their imaginative creations. Musset laid seige to her for nine years, Balzac seems to have entertained a sort of love-hatred for her, she was an adored Beatrice-figure for Heine, and Liszt was tantalized by her. She was not herself a great writer, but to all of them, and to many other people besides, she wrote excellent letters; Mrs. Brombert quotes lots of extracts, including a beautiful description of tea with Mme Récamier and Chateaubriand. After recalling Princess Belgiojoso to our attention, I hope she will continue the good work by now publishing a comprehensive edition of the correspondence, preferably in the original French and Italian.

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