02 September 2007

Letters of Love, or Love Letters?

My dear Lady:

I ask you to accept the enclosed souvenir as an expression of my warmest appreciation of the fact that you have given yourself the trouble to sit for the Agenli portrait...
The gift was an emerald ring.

The love between the hero and heroine of my latest historical is that of a royal and his official mistress. He, a man bound by blood to love his country, to think his family second only to God and she a real girl, fed by an unusual view of the world who longs to be accepted by a society where image is everything and status a brass ring.

Their sentiments sent me searching for a royal love affair that was poignant and bittersweet. I needed to look no further than Austria.

The above letter began a relationship in 1885 between Kaiser Franz-Josef and Katherina Schratt, a Viennese actress. It would last until the old gentleman's death. Many biographers of Franz-Josef have tried to make it seem that this was a platonic friendship. Other biographers have avoided the question all together. In reading the letters between Franz-Josef and Katherina there is no doubt in this author’s mind that theirs was a deep and sexual relationship. In Schratt, the Kaiser found his kindred spirit and the better half of himself and I found the model for my novel. No proof exists of a sexual relationship between the two; there were no cameras in the apartments or spies in the shrubbery. But Franz-Josef was a notoriously introverted man (except in affairs of the army) and his letters seem far too poignant to suggest anything else. These words were written by a man too circumspect to pen endearments, knowing his words would most likely be preserved by posterity. Yet they read eloquently and the reader cannot help but be struck by their sentiment.

Fear of public opinion rang in them. Each assured the other they did no wrong in being 'only friends' and they need not worry about public thought. One wonders who was jesting more. The official mistress was frowned upon by the latter part of the 19th century when the public no longer wanted to support the idea of 'governmental harlots.' Slowly, a way of life was breaking down that began in the 16th century.

The Renaissance brought a new age to Europe. Societies started to stand on their own without being held down by the thumb of the Vatican. The printing press brought books and literacy to thousands. Diaries became fashionable, and more and more monarchs took to letter writing. In these letters it became clear that the role of women was shifting. Their influence on society was becoming apparent. The woman was not only intelligent, but a beautiful and a powerful tool. A royal mistress was a coveted prize. The mistress became as important as the prime minister in many royal houses. They were expected to perform certain duties, including sexual favors in exchange for titles, honors, pensions, and a coveted place in court. She promoted the arts (a patronage require by nobles in many countries) and encouraged a love of literature, theater, music, architecture and more. She was the pacifier to the ruler, expected at all times to be gentile, available, and religiously minded. Never was she to speak ill of anyone. Her face was to be plastered with a smile even if she was violently sick, all in exchange for a life of 'comfort.' However, as the centuries progressed the mistress was more a lover than prize and come the latter half of the 19th century the aristocracy began to care about public opinion. Slowly, mistresses were tucked away as noble secrets.

The relationship of Franz-Josef, Katherina and the public’s opinion of their relationship gave me a feel for how to craft the love affair between my hero, Klaus, and heroine, Adelrune. My novel is set when this attitude shift toward mistresses was just beginning.

In many of the letters I have come across, I can feel an underlying sense of caution holding back their love. Below are letters from Franz-Josef to Katherina:

1887: "...your portrait in mourning dress with the famous angel around your neck [a gift from the Kaiser] I had framed to keep it here and to look at it constantly. This portrait, so like you, reminds me of unforgettable hours...

1888: "...fourteen days have past since I talked to you and Sunday it will be as long since I saw you if only from afar. This period seems to me an eternity..."

February 14, 1888: "...your letter I will treasure as a precious jewel and as proof of your love. Preserve for me that place I occupy in your great heart..."

1890: "...I take advantage of the early morning hours to address a few lines to you and to tell you that I think of you constantly and that I long for you incessantly."

Jealousy rears its head when Schratt caught the attention of Graf Philip Eulenburg the German ambassador to Vienna: [1896] "...he may soon push me out of your heart! That is why black thoughts pursue me constantly. It is high time that you quiet me down and that I once again see your dear, clear eyes."

There were times that their letters overflowed with emotion. These Gedankenbriefe were deeply introspective and each urged the other to destroy their written feelings. "I cannot tell you how often I reread your dangerous letter. Please lock this letter along with the others extra carefully...." Franz-Josef wrote of her stille Woche or quiet week, known to most women as a menstrual cycle. "Your quiet week ought to postpone our meeting..." and "Your quiet week arrived a day too early according to my calculation." Tell me, do you speak of such intimate subjects with platonic male friends?

True to the role of royal mistress, Schratt had private apartments attached by a special door to the Kaiser's villa in Ischl. Franz-Josef did not conceal his early morning walks through the garden at her side. Schratt was treated well having received an annual salary of about 30,000 gulden or 60,000 dollars. Franz-Josef arranged for her financial independence upon his death.

Historically, the mistress was no secret to the wife. The twist in this affair is that Franz-Josef's wife, Elisabeth, arranged and encouraged the relationship. She feared her husband's loneliness while she traveled Europe in search of the independence she lost and yearned for. But I think Elisabeth did not anticipate a profound love to have developed between the Kaiser and the actress. And her jealousy could be easily understood, especially when Elisabeth was a woman who no longer wanted her man! Franz-Josef and his bride were ill-matched from the beginning: Elisabeth too young to wear the robes of Austria and too weak to fend off the over-bearing influences of his mother, and Franz-Josef, blind to understanding her insecurities.

This is one of the most famous imperial affairs in history. It is not the story of a mistress taking over the reins of the royal household or the Lola Montez raising the cockles of royals and commoners. Here is a lonely Kaiser finding friendship in a hausfrau that bloomed to gain the respect and approval of the Viennese--despite its nature.

Thinking on that and the bittersweet tone of many of these letters, I wrote the passage that stems from my black moment. A letter from Klaus to Adelrune, finally admitting the noble secret he keeps from her:

You have captured my love and bound its wings! Though I can never wed you, you are the companion of my life. I cannot take back the words you now hold against me. But I can at least tell you my reasons in hope that some day you will forgive. You must know, despite how I have hurt you, I see you for who you are and the better half of myself. Could I drain the blood that is in my veins I would, but I am a prisoner to the life that pulses unrelentingly the title of the sultry woman I am born to obey: Austria...
If only Adelrune knew how to read.

So I ask the readers this: does it seem Franz-Josef's letters were letters of love, or love letters? Is there a difference between the two? I believe there is...