Tormented Prince Charming

By Johnson, Douglas | The Spectator, March 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

Tormented Prince Charming


Johnson, Douglas, The Spectator


PRINCE OF EUROPE:

THE LIFE OF CHARLES JOSEPH DE LIGNE, 1735-1814

by Philip Mansel

Weidenfeld, 25, pp. 338

ISBN 1842127314

The story begins at the chateau of Beloeil, the seat of the Ligne family since the 11 th century. Now in Belgium, it stands at the crossroads of Europe, between the English Channel and the borders of the Netherlands, Germany and France. The province was governed by the Dukes of Burgundy, then by the Spanish Habsburgs, and from the beginning of the 18th century by the Austrian Habsburgs.

The subject of this biography is the seventh Prince de Ligne, born in 1735 and christened in Brussels. A nobleman of the southern Netherlands, a grandee of Spain, a prince of the Holy Roman Empire, by the past marriages of his family he was related to many foreign dynasties. He was therefore, both geographically and historically, a European figure. At the age of 16 he was taken by his father to Vienna, where he was presented to the Emperor and the Empress. From then, until his death at the age of 79, he travelled incessantly and had many residences in different countries, so that he could proudly say, 'I have six or seven fatherlands.' He was a soldier, a diplomat and an adviser to many important people. A prolific writer, he was the author of different forms of literature, but he was above all a remarkable historian of his age. He knew most of the celebrities of Europe and he himself became a celebrity thanks to his good looks, his charm and his gift of conversation. He was famous too for his success with women, whether they were kitchen maids or aristocratic married ladies.

Thus he is an intriguing man. Philip Mansel recounts his life directly and concisely, having researched even more widely than Ligne travelled. He has discovered documents in Sweden (Uppsala), the Czech Republic (Decin) and Hampshire (Winchester), and visiting Beloeil he has seen illustrations of the importance of the Ligne family. Two massive pictures show the entry of a Prince de Ligne to London in 1660 with a suite of 254, and his reception in the Banqueting Hall of Whitehall Palace. The occasion was Philip IV of Spain sending an embassy to congratulate Charles 11 on his restoration to the throne. Also in Beloeil he saw the visiting cards, the shaving bowl and the earring of the seventh prince.

As his narrative proceeds, at appropriate moments Mansel discusses the characteristics of Ligne and the period in which he lived. He tells us that this was an age that deified sexual pleasure. The Prater Park outside Vienna was a place where couples were constantly disappearing into thickets; in the women's salons in Brussels the conversation was very lubricious; and Paris, one need not say, was even wilder. Ligne wrote a short story in which the hero explains that after 'attacking' many women, the pleasure of the sexual act passed, but the honour of it remained. We are told that, like his imaginary hero, Ligne believed in the 'honour' of sexual conquest and, in an extraordinary letter to his daughter, he proudly describes how he had a love affair with a village girl when he was about 58. But whilst he bedded ser's wants and prostitutes and had sexual affairs with a cosmopolitan collection of aristocratic ladies, there are some doubts about all the affairs that he described in his letters. He wanted to maintain his reputation. One of his close friends said that he did not believe in half of the love affairs. As he grew older he knew that his conquests could not continue. Once, when he was inscribing a mistress's initials on the wall of one of his houses (a strange occupation), we are told that he wrote in one of his manuscripts, 'I always think it is the last one; oh! this time it certainly is!' Eventually his passions became more platonic. The Princess Dolgoruky, whom he called in a letter to her 'a mythical goddess', was angry if his hand so much as touched hers.

Many acquaintances and observers thought that Ligne had an enviable and successful life. …

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