CRISTINA: Portraits of a Princess by Beth Archer Brombert

CRISTINA: Portraits of a Princess

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The background of this sadly botched story is the Italian Risorgimento and the Paris of Musset, George Sand, Heine, and Liszt. At the age of twenty the beautiful Princess Belgiojoso (handicapped by epilepsy and the syphilis she had contracted from her husband) fled Austrian-ruled Lombardy and was befriended by leading French liberals of the July monarchy. During her subsequent career as a journalistic champion of Italian freedom and unification, she found time to translate Vico into French, publish a lengthy work on the patristic origins of Catholic dogma, spend several years on a farm in Turkey, and win a decades-long battle to legitimize her daughter Marie (perhaps the child of the historian Mignet). One is glad to be introduced to this material no matter how clumsily presented--but things change for the worse when Brombert starts in on the unrecorded secrets of various eminent lovelives. Balzac, we are told in mazy tracings of dark clues, obviously met the Princess in time to write her into La Peau de chagrin and then covered it up. Only Cristina--certainly not George Sand--was pale, thin, and musical enough to have been the model for Brigitte in Musset's Confessions d'un enfant du siecle. In 1846 Liszt must have had time for an unrecorded, unsuccessful declaration of love. Brombert also waxes tigerish against Cristina's antagonists and putative rivals: Marie d'Agoult ""was inferior to her role, and unfit to be Liszt's companion,"" while Heine's poor contemptible Frau Mathilde ""had reduced him to less than a man three years after they were married."" All of these arguments are presented amid a tangle of misinformation. A sentence from Heine's Reisebilder, irreverently celebrating his eclectic taste in Italian women, is chopped up to prove his religious passion for some ideal of beauty in just Cristina's style. Elsewhere Cristina is called the possible model of Henry James' Princess Casamassima, impossible by Brombert's own account. With all these distortions and pointless polemics, Brombert's fulsome prose style and incoherent organization are the crowning exasperation. This biography renders only two services to Princess Belgiojoso: the generous excerpts from her own clear, incisive prose and the fervor with which it makes one desire a more adequate treatment of her story.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1977
Publisher: Knopf