Christina, Queen of Sweden: The Restless Life of a European Eccentric
by Veronica Buckley
I love Henry VIII, even though he had two of his wives' heads cut off and horribly mistreated his waistline. I am fascinated by Richard III, even though he likely murdered his two young nephews in order to seize the crown of England. For goodness' sake, I read passionately about Jack the Ripper even though he (whoever he was) was a sick serial-killing monster who brutally mutilated women in the late 19th century. So no one can accuse me of disliking historical figures unfairly or being prejudiced against them for the mere crimes of murder or extreme misogyny. That being said, I loathe and despise Queen Christina of Sweden with all my being.
Here are some of the notes I wrote while reading this book--sequentially:
"Ooh, smart and studious, impressive!"
"Hmm, not very smart..."
"Wow, not very honorable..."
"Is there anything likeable about her???"
"She's a monster!"
I feel like the progression is clear. And that was only 100 pages in. I can't in good conscience reproduce the notes I took around page 200.
I was so excited to learn about this late medieval queen of Sweden, the land of my ancestors, in the years immediately following the 30 Years' War. This was a fascinating period, and one I didn't know much about (though I did find myself apologizing a lot while in Prague for the behavior of the Swedes during this war). At least we weren't responsible for the Defenestration of Prague (literally, throwing Catholic guys out of a castle window to murder them, only they survived the 70-foot drop because they landed in a dung heap). Christina's father, King Gustav Adolf, played a huge part in the war, and his exploits are briefly covered in this book. Despite my eagerness to learn about his daughter, the things I learned about Christina made me--well, you saw my notes. Here are some of the worst tidbits:
The Swedish Queen's favorite portrait of herself, which hung in her bedroom her whole life. In case you're wondering, Christina is the one holding the reins.
- Christina strongly disliked and disrespected women, often saying that "the defect of being female is the greatest defect of all." (289) I'm not even a feminist, but this offends me. She also called pregnant women cows and remarked that "even the best husband isn't worth staying with". She obviously didn't know Ben...I would rather be defenestrated myself than leave him!
- She basically killed René Descartes. She captured him and made him her "trophy philosopher", but thought he was too ugly so she gave him a makeover. She then crushed his spirit by trying to make him guest star in a ballet, and forcing him to write a trashy play about an Icelandic princess who is prone to disguises. Christina refused to let Descartes leave Sweden and wouldn't let him heat his lodgings, so he got influenza and died.
- She destroyed a Renaissance palace in Rome because she wanted to fire a cannon but forgot to aim. Don't even get me started on her "archaeological" exploits.
You really have to read the book to get a full sense of how poor her emotional development was. It practically leaps off the pages of the book from across the veil of time. Her own image of herself was that of a mighty, wise, kind ruler. This strongly conflicts with the facts about her: How she abdicated her throne and gave up her responsibilities out of boredom (and later tried to worm her way back into the crown because she realized she was nothing without it); how she converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism and scandalized the world, but only did it for drama and didn't seem even to believe in religion; how she clandestinely had a man murdered in a monastery right in front of her for no real reason; how she despised women for being tied to men--but when she got her first boyfriend (a literal cardinal) she wrote him letters about how she wanted to live and die his slave; how she blatantly condoned rape among her courtiers; how she yearned for intrigue to prove her own importance but literally made everything she touched worse; and how she hated to be corrected or proven wrong so she just never ventured her opinion in conversations.
This was a woman who was so unbelievably insecure, so blindly arrogant and immature, so willfully against facing herself and her own issues that all her reactions were born of defensiveness and spite. She had less sense than a six-year old child, and her real-world naiveté was simply astonishing. There were absolutely no redeeming features to this person that I could find. At one point she said (in her strikingly self-deceptive autobiography) that if Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great had lived in her day, they would never have accomplished anything of note either. Ha! I'd like to hear her say that while crossing the Rubicon or subduing the Persian Empire.
While I found Christina herself repulsive, I actually enjoyed the book quite a lot. Veronica Buckley is a skilled biographer, very detailed, inclusive and fair. She chronicles the facts of Christina's life and her context within late medieval Sweden, but also gives insightful details and theories about her personality and motivations. She discusses the rumors of Christina's sexual ambiguity, her cross-dressing, and her habits of walking, speaking, and cursing like a man. While this seems to describe a historical figure ahead of her time, unconventional and brave, spitting in the face of traditional gender and cultural roles---this idea fades more and more with each new fact you learn about Christina.
So be warned--while this book is very informative and sheds light on a remote Scandinavian queen in a well-rounded and interesting way, your face may freeze into a hideous, monstrous grimace while reading it and your soul may blacken with disgust and disdain for its subject. Yet even then, you would still be a more attractive person than Christina.