This 19th century drama queen knew everyone…and probably hated them
One of my favorite parts of history is reading old letters and diaries. Sometimes they make you feel closer to the person who wrote them. Sometimes they contain predictions for the future. And sometimes, they deliver devastating insults where the only possible reaction is to shout “BURN” like Ashton Kutcher’s character on That 70s Show.
A princess of Württemberg unhappily married to King Willem III of the Netherlands, Sophie hated both her husband and his mother.
She hated the Dutch language and the smell of Amsterdam’s canals. She hated Prussia’s arrogance and Bismarck’s…well, everything. She hated the greedy, lazy kids of the next generation.
When I read her published letters, I ended up with 10 single-spaced pages of notes on the sick burns she meted out to everyone in the firmament of European monarchies, from Queen Victoria to Emperor Franz Josef.
Living Her Dullest Life
But why was Sophie so grumpy?
For starters, she was smarter than most people around her, but not allowed to do anything about it. Back home in Württemberg, her father, King Wilhelm I, had treated her as a confidante — they talked politics, and she translated his official state papers.
But in Holland, thanks to long years of forced inactivity and marital discord, her soul atrophied. “The dullness of my life is not to be believed,” she wrote.¹
In another letter, she quoted Byron to encapsulate her life: “Byron speaks somewhere of the ‘leafless desert of the mind, the waste of feelings unemployed.’ It struck me as so true, so applicable to me…” ²
Sophie would have fared much better in our time, when she could make her own choices. Instead, she found herself subject to stifling royal etiquette and a husband she loathed.
‘Til Death Do Us Part
Sophie and Willem’s hatred for each other descended into farce.
When she was deathly ill in 1875, Willem sang and played piano under her bedroom window to keep her from sleeping. When she died two years later, she was buried with her wedding dress and veil because she believed that was the actual day her life had ended.
She spent years venting her feelings in letters to her British best friend, Lady Marian Malet. These letters are the source of the sick burns I’m quoting below.
The World According to Sophie
In 1853, Emperor Napoleon III of France married a Spanish countess, Eugénie de Montijo. Sophie, who had Bonaparte cousins, was clearly on #TeamNapoleon. She thought he’d married beneath himself, picking a woman who was beautiful but empty-headed.
Ten years later, her opinion of Eugénie hadn’t improved: “She is frivolous, childish, without any real dignity. She is not a sovereign, she is not a grande dame, and, though she is since more than ten years on one of the first thrones of Europe, she has never felt the duty and the right of her position. It is his great misery, to have found in her a trouble, no companion, and all her grace and beauty cannot compensate this.” ³
Okay, so we know Sophie thinks rulers should have dignity.
So how did she feel about Queen Victoria, one of the most dignified monarchs of all time? Was she a fan? Nope.
In 1858, Sophie wrote: “The Queen is a little woman, her virtues, her vices, her loves and her hatreds are little. The only real sterling good quality she has — English all over — is her truth. I never knew anyone who really loved her.” ⁴
Jesus, Sophie, tell us how you really feel.
Well, how about the Prussians? A monarchy with traditions based on the army’s pomp and circumstance should fit the bill for dignity and grandeur, right?
Dream on, says Sophie.
Queen Augusta of Prussia (her first cousin) rated this sick burn in an 1861 letter: “Nobody in the world likes the Queen of Prussia. She is, without cruelty, something like the Queen Mother here — a creature without anything genuine, artificial from head to foot.” ⁵ A few years later, she would call Augusta “the painted Queen of Prussia.” ⁶
You’re the Worst
If you expected Sophie to give her relatives a pass, you’re mistaken. In fact, her worst venom was reserved specifically for said family members.
Her aunt by marriage, Princess Marianne of the Netherlands, was admittedly an unconventional princess. She left her womanizing Prussian husband in 1845 and lived independently with her lover, giving birth to their son a few years later.
Did Sophie admire her independence? Not on paper.
After Marianne left her husband, Sophie wrote: “I despise the Princess above anyone, for there is not in her an atom of morality, but I pity her. She is much more wretched than myself. I am not very wretched just now. I read books and reviews, I go to bed at nine.” ⁷
Thank goodness for small favors, right?
But Sophie unleashed her most vivid descriptive powers when it came to describing her sister-in-law, also named Sophie.
This Sophie married the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar, but returned to the Netherlands for family visits. On one such visit in 1872, Sophie wrote, “The Grand Duchess of Weimar, Princess Sophie, is here. She is perfectly hideous, with such a smell you cannot come near her. Then, that small bundle of greasy fat imitates her mother’s ways and manners, which is extremely ridiculous, and I sit and listen as to the ghost of Queen Anna, returned to tease and annoy.” ⁸
Ah yes, Queen Anna — Sophie’s mother-in-law, aunt, and bête noire.
Throw Momma from the Train
Anna was born Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna of Russia, the younger sister of Sophie’s mom, Grand Duchess Ekaterina Pavlovna. Anna had been jealous of her glamorous older sister, and it didn’t take much to reactivate that negative feeling on behalf of Ekaterina’s daughter.
Anna thought that Sophie, proud and intelligent, was out to manipulate her son and essentially rule the kingdom. For her part, Sophie believed Anna had intentionally driven a wedge between herself and Willem.
Three years after her marriage, Sophie describes Anna as “hard and wicked as ever.” ⁹ Wicked is one of her favorite words when it comes to her mother-in-law.
Did she give the older woman a break when her husband, King Willem II, died in 1849?
Sophie wrote, “To her, I went with pity, for she loses all, but when I saw her rage, her disgusting violence, not one soft or tender feeling, but only frenzy, I turned from her with disgust. She will do what she can to disunite me from my husband, I never felt her so thoroughly wicked as now.” ¹⁰
Later, Anna suggested to her son that, as the new king, he buck tradition and choose Sophie’s court ladies himself. She offered her own ladies for the job, whose loyalty she could presumably count on.
Sophie found the letter where Anna suggested this and blew a gasket. She wrote, “…the treachery and viciousness of this woman is not to be believed.” ¹¹
Anna claimed she was only trying to help Willem, calling Sophie “a corrosive and pernicious element…haughty and sly… his greatest scourge on this earth.” ¹²
Time healed no wounds.
Three years later, Sophie was still on her guard against Anna. She wrote, “…the old Queen, like a she-tiger is lying in the bush and the best thing for perverse people and furious animals is to stare in their eyes, never turn our backs on them.” ¹³
When Anna died in 1865, Sophie wrote, “That life of intense selfishness and wickedness is closing.” ¹⁴
A week later, when she found out Anna had left her and her kids out of her will, she wrote that Anna was a “wicked old woman” who has “shown herself wicked in death as in life.” ¹⁵
There’s that word again — wicked.
Sophie only outlived Anna by twelve years. Without her mother-in-law as a focal point for her anger, she focused it on her husband. In her next-to-last letter, she told Lady Malet that her life was full of despair, that she’d lost hope for the world.
She died on June 20, 1877 at her home of Huis ten Bosch.
Sophie’s letters contain a lot more than insults. She also writes about books, politics, family members, the weather, and travel. Yes, she comes across as sad. Yes, she comes across as grouchy. But in terms of just wanting to be left alone to read, write, and research interesting historical figures, Sophie is a woman after my own heart.
¹ Jackman, Stranger, 81.
² Jackman, Stranger, 61–2.
³ Jackman, Stranger, 243.
⁴ Jackman, Stranger, 186.
⁵ Jackman, Stranger, 223.
⁶ Jackman, Stranger, 272.
⁷ Jackman, Stranger, 59.
⁸ Jackman, Stranger, 335.
⁹ Jackman, Stranger, 33.
¹⁰ Jackman, Stranger, 89.
¹¹ Jackman, Stranger, 90.
¹² Jackman, Relations, 326.
¹³ Jackman, Stranger, 135.
¹⁴ Jackman, Stranger, 267.
¹⁵ Jackman, Stranger, 268.
Jackman, S.W., ed. Romanov Relations. London: Macmillan, 1969.
Jackman, Sydney W. and Hella Haasse, eds. A Stranger in the Hague. Durham: Duke University Press, 1989.