I admire good historical fiction so much that I once wrote (here or here) a straight historical work borrowing some of its techniques without making anything up. But it is a difficult genre to get right. How much history and how much fiction and how to prevent readers from confusing the two? The same goes for historical drama films such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Gandhi (1982), and Schindler’s List (1993).
Via Netflix, I recently saw the Danish film A Royal Affair, which in 2013 was one of the five Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film. It is based on the real-life historical fate of the English Princess Caroline Mathilde (Danish spelling), who was the sister of King George III, the king who ruled England when America rebelled against it and gained independence. At age 15, Caroline went to Denmark to become the wife of King Christian VII, who ruled from 1766 to 1808. Her new husband was mentally ill and often acted bizarrely. A few years later she became the lover of the king’s new physician, the German Johann Struensee. The doctor, who was a radical thinker influenced by French-Enlightenment views of thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau, gained great influence over King Christian.
One source succinctly describes his rise and fall:
In 1771 he was made Minister of State with unusual powers. Since the Revolution of 1660 Denmark had been under the domination of the nobility, who as a council of State governed the country. Struensee dissolved the council, and proclaimed the establishment of the ancient royal power. These measures amounted in reality to a revolution, and to a declaration of war against the aristocracy. The Queen and Struensee, in whose hands the whole power now was, chose new ministers, and excluded the feeble Christian entirely from the management of affairs. In opposition to the policy of his predecessors, Struensee endeavored to free Denmark from Russian influence, and to find a natural ally in Sweden. He put the finances in order, reduced the expenditure, freed industry and trade, encouraged education, mitigated the penal laws, and brought order into the administration. Serfdom was partially abolished. The haste with which this revolutionary course was pursued produced a reaction, while the clergy were aroused by Struensee's outspoken skepticism. The Queen and Struensee were accused of criminal relations and the King was prevailed upon, apparently against his will, to sign warrants for the arrest of Struensee. The Minister was accused of having conspired against the person and throne of the King, and of being the lover of the Queen.
Historian Stella Tillyard has described a Danish coin that appeared in Copenhagen around 1771. On the back side of it is “a crown and, below it, a vagina clearly engraved,” suggesting that Queen Caroline Mathilde was “a whore,” the lover of Dr. Struensee.
The film, beautifully shot in Prague and other locations, concentrates on the interrelations of Queen Caroline, King Christian VII, and Dr. Struensee, as well as on all the political stratagems that surround them.
The film, beautifully shot in Prague and other locations, concentrates on the interrelations of Queen Caroline, King Christian VII, and Dr. Struensee, as well as on all the political stratagems that surround them. These maneuverings involve not only the three principal figures, but also the resentful nobles on the council of State and the king’s stepmother, Queen Dowager Juliane Marie, her son Frederick, and the Commander of the Guards. Despite running 137 minutes, A Royal Affair maintains a brisk pace and never drags. By being such a German outsider, a radical reformer, and the queen’s lover, Dr. Struensee (played by the leading Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen) certainly walks a dangerous tightrope, as does Queen Caroline (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander). Throughout most of the film we wonder if their love affair will be discovered by the king and whether their personal and political boldness will end in tragic consequences for them. In order not to spoil the drama for any future viewers, I’ll reveal no more here. But the story in general is faithful to historical accounts, only taking fictional liberties where one would expect good historical fiction or films to do so.
Not only was the film a suspenseful, well-acted drama, but it also revealed much about the era in which it occurred and even contained some insights applicable to today’s politics. The late eighteenth century in Europe was a period in which the power of monarchs faced two difficult challenges: 1) the attempts of nobles to limit monarchial powers, and 2) new radical Enlightenment ideas put forward by the likes of Voltaire, Rousseau, and the French Encyclopedist Denis Diderot. At times, the two forces backing these challenges clashed with each other. In the case of France, Enlightenment ideas contributed to the French Revolution, which in turn led to the beheading of King Louis XVI.
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Being a Russian historian, I kept thinking of Catherine the Great’s experiences in Russia from the time she arrived there in 1745 until her death in 1796. Like Princess Caroline arriving in Denmark a few decades later, Catherine came from a foreign land as a teenage girl to marry a man who was mentally unstable. Although her new husband, the future Peter III, did not come to the throne until 1762, the period from the death of Peter the Great in 1725 until then was one of palace coups, court favorites, heightened noble privileges, and five rulers, three of them women and one an infant. In 1730, nobles on a Supreme Privy Council had made a major attempt to limit the monarch’s powers, but it was unsuccessful. Instead, the new ruler, Anna, relied heavily on the Baltic German adviser E. J. Biron, who was resented by the higher nobles.
Like Queen Caroline, Catherine took up with a lover (later succeeded by many others) and was influenced by Enlightenment ideas. Unlike Caroline, with the help of Guards officers Catherine overthrew her husband after he ruled for less than a year. During the first five years of her reign, Catherine II corresponded with Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire and Diderot and wished to become an “enlightened monarch.” Frederick the Great of Prussia and Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II of Austria were other rulers of the time who aspired to be “enlightened.”
Catherine displayed her enlightened principles in her Instruction (Nakaz) to a Legislative Commission she convened in Moscow in 1767. Her document reflected Enlightenment thinking, especially Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws and Beccaria’s Crime and Punishment. Voltaire called it the “finest monument of the age.” It stated that laws should be made only to procure the good of the people, that the use of torture was contrary to Nature and Reason, and that severe censorship led to ignorance. Like Dr. Struensee in A Royal Affair, she also enacted some enlightened policies like fostering smallpox inoculations.
But having overthrown her husband in a coup and dependent upon the nobility for support, Catherine was wary of angering the nobles by pushing reform too far. Serfdom, which enslaved about half of the Russian Empire’s population, was in the words of one historian “the social
creed of the ruling class and the cement of its unity.” Despite realizing that it was an “unbearable and cruel yoke,” Catherine dared not threaten the rights of serfowners. Partly by appeasing them, she was able to rule for more than three decades.
Not only in the era of Christian VII and Catherine II did sexual affairs and the guarding of vested interests and privileges affect major political developments, but we continue to see the impact of such forces in our own times. Think of President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Or more recently the dogged determinations of energy barons like the Koch brothers and their allies in Congress. They are determined to maintain political powers and do all they can to prevent cleaner energy advocates from taking steps to reduce global warming and other negative effects of climate change.
Sexual entanglements and power struggles make for rich drama. They did so in the time of A Royal Affair, and they continue to do so today.
&Walter G. Moss;