Izabela Czartoryska

Writing the story of the indomitable Polish Princess, Izabela the Valiant.
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Izabela Czartoryska

The joy of taking on a subject not previously covered by historians is that one can approach it with an open mind, uncovering and assessing virgin sources like an archaeologist.

With subjects such as the Congress of Vienna or Napoleon one struggles to rid oneself of received ideas while at the same time carrying out a necessary reconnaissance of the current literature, and that often triggers a subliminal urge to prove them all wrong, which is not helpful as one embarks on the research.

Although there was nothing particularly virginal about Izabela Czartoryska, and although I could not fail to have some received ideas about her, I had to restrict my research to primary and mostly archival sources – and these yielded all manner of gems of far wider relevance.

My protagonist was born in 1745 and her ninety-year life spanned a period of social, ideological and political change punctuated by recurrent war. Changing political fortunes meant that she spent her life as a subject of, in turn, the Saxon Augustus II, the Polish Stanisław II Augustus, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, the Grand Duke of Warsaw Frederick Augustus, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, Catherine II of Russia, Alexander I of Russia as King of Poland, and died under the emperor Francis II of Austria.

This in itself provided insights into how arrangements made in far-off chancelleries impacted on the lives of ordinary people in ways one does not always appreciate when reading, or indeed writing, about historical events. At a practical level, the wars she lived through not only destroyed her home (twice), they entailed a sudden dearth of coinage in circulation, while the requisitioning of horses to provide passing armies with mobility and cattle to feed them, depriving the population of livelihoods and economic activity of its motors. Changing frontiers placed people in different administrations overnight, altering their legal, social, religious and fiscal status, and ensnaring them in a skein of alien bureaucratic practices. When the Polish forces of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw liberated the former Polish province of Galicia from Austrian rule, the Jewish population welcomed them solely because they anticipated the abolition of the tax imposed on kosher food by the Austrian Koscherfleischverzehrungsundlichterzündungsaufschlagsgefälladministration (sic). When my heroine needed to have her tooth pulled after the second partition of Poland, she had to meet her dentist at the new border and endure the operation with each of them standing in a different sovereignty. Such absurdities were applied with dogged stupidity, particularly by the Austrians. When the baronne de Staël was invited to St Petersburg by Tsar Alexander I she was only allowed to travel through Galicia with a smelly Austrian policeman in her carriage to prevent her from communicating with Polish ‘subversives’ and only allowed to stay one night at the castle of Łańcut with the rabidly reactionary Princess Lubomirska, for the same reason.

Private archives provide a human perspective on historic figures as well as events, and in this case I came across some delightful entirely unknown vignettes. Princess Izabela’s descriptions of her close encounters with Frederick the Great revealed him to me in a new light – as sympathetic, kind, susceptible to female charm and endowed with a sense of humour, which I had not been aware of before. The record of her encounter with Rousseau is not flattering, representing him as a coarse and angry pedant. That of her cure from depression by Benjamin Franklin is touching and arresting. Her observations are nothing if not direct, and she is seldom impressed by rank or reputation. She noted that Joseph II, who seems to have taken more than a liking to her, ‘speaks well but talks too much,’ and was surprised at his indiscretion; on his way to a meeting with Catherine II at Kherson in 1787, he confessed that he thought the Russian Empress ‘ridiculous’. Izabela was even more astonished when he started telling her dirty jokes, ‘shaking with laughter’. ‘He is strange, this emperor Joseph,’ she concluded. A tantalising detail is that as she was setting off for Paris he entrusted her with a package she was to deliver to his sister Marie-Antoinette without any witnesses. She found Joseph’s successor Leopold II no less strange when she met him in Vienna in 1791. ‘He has remarkable lungs,’ she noted. ‘He shouts as he speaks, so loud one can hear him in the street.’ But he did have a valuable piece of information for her to pass on in Poland.

Particularly illuminating are her relations with Alexander I of Russia. As his mother’s brother had married one of Izabela’s daughters and one of her sons had become the Tsar’s closest friend, he saw himself one of the family. Staying at her country house and relaxing in her Warsaw apartment he addressed her as maman. He confided in her and particularly in her daughter, his aunt by marriage, to whom he confessed his guilty feelings over his marital infidelities. To Izabela’s son-in-law he admitted having been in thrall to Napoleon in his youth. Izabela believed in the sincerity of Alexander’s desire to right the wrongs of Russia’s extinction of Poland’s independence as well as his expansive declarations of friendship for her and her family. Yet the relationship reveals much about his character, particularly his weakness and his treachery when he found it politically expedient to break up her son’s and his closest friend’s proposed marriage to the future Duchess of Dino.

Having written about some of the great events and figures of the period, I enjoyed being able to view them from a new angle and to have snapshots of what was going on in the wings of the principal drama. More than one of Izabela’s lovers and admirers was involved in diplomatic ventures going on behind the scenes, providing tantalising glimpses of how things might have turned out otherwise.

It is fortunate that she was an assiduous recorder and a persistent letter-writer, with a good turn of phrase. Her observations on people and places as she travelled around Europe are never banal and her judgments are amusingly stringent. She disliked the French for ‘that je ne sais quoi’ in their manner designed ‘to make foreigners feel they were superior to them’. Although she was profoundly inspired by England and Scotland, which she toured describing historic sites, country houses, factories and mines, she felt she could not live here, as ‘…there are two things to which I should never accustom myself. The climate and the society. The one is excessively damp, the other superlatively cold. The one is bad for my health, the other for my soul.’

Adam Zamoyski is the author of Izabela the Valiant.