THE LIEVEN LETTERS
The Private Letters of Princess Lieven to Prince Metternich, 1820-1826. Edited by Peter Quennell. (John Murray. 18s.)
" WE should be hard put to it, you and I," boasts Mme. de Lieven in the last letter of this series, " to find in the whole world people of our own calibre. Our hearts are well matched, our minds too ; and our letters are very pleasant." And the reader must agree that what she says is true. Nobody has ques- tioned the calibre of Metternich ; but one tends, perhaps, to write down Mme. de Lievcn as one of those women of the
category of Mme. de Stael or Lady Holland, who enjoyed a greater success a century ago than they would meet with today. These letters of hers show that she was indeed a very exceptional woman, as attractive as she was brilliant, as much of our time as of her own.
She had encountered Metternich in 1818 at Aix-la-Chapelle : and the liaison that was then begun subsisted for nine years. The series of letters, from which the present volume is drawn, covers the years from 182o to 1826, during which they met only twice. It was one of the most crowded and exciting lustres in English politics and society, and has been most copiously written up already. But Mme. de Lieven throws upon it an altogether new and brilliant light. The craving of her life was for news, and more news. It was her passion for being in the know that made her set out to fascinate every public man who could appease her curiosity : Castlereagh, Canning, Grey, the King himself. Her conquests were easy and genuine : she scarcely needed to pursue, the old men flocked round her so devotedly. And her trophies, which were rumours and secrets and scandals, were packed off week by week to her lover in the Chancellery of Vienna.
As a historical source, Mme. de Lieven is dangerous. She is inaccurate and credulous ; she exaggerates freely. The reader is often brought up against such stories as that of a riot in Parliament Square during the Queen's trial, in which (she says) five men were killed : an episode that could scarcely have failed to take its place among the " massacres " of the period. But she never invents : she merely passes on whatever she has gleaned. The excellence of her characterisation is a sufficient guarantee both of her powers of observation and of her essential truthfulness.
She is at her-best in her descriptions of George IV. As
an intimate member of the Cottage circle, and one of the King's dearest friends, she was able to see the worst and the best in hini. He comes out of it well : a likeable figure (as he was by then) but still an object of mild contempt.
" I was in his carriage last summer coming back from the races and going through the crowd, when about twenty scoundrels in the pay of the police began shouting ' Hurrah ! ' His eyes filled with tears. Heavens, I pitied him. He said to me : ' You see how nervous I am ! ' "
Surely that is the most recognisable sketch of George IV that was ever drawn. Lady Hertford and Lady Conyngham are done with more malice. There is a 'wonderful description of the daily routine at the Cottage, where, by the irony of time, life had become every bit as dreary and monotonous as the life at Windsor from which the King had broken away as a young man. And there are constant visits to the Pavilion, the evenings spent " half-lying on cushions . . . perfumes, music, liqueurs," and Wellington breaking in with " Devil take me, I think I must have got into bad company." There is Wellington again, propounding marvellous paradoxes:: " We have made a tremendous mistake in getting rid of Bonaparte. He is the man we ought to have had." And there is one aspect of Wellington, which only appeared, and indeed only existed, in relation to women : Mme. de Lieven accuses him of excessive vanity, and says that he could not bear to be unable to do a thing well.
. Most of the earlier part of this book is necessarily concerned
with Queen Caroline, about whom many people. still seem to feel as others do about Mary Queen of Scots. To anyone in Mme. de Lieven's walk of life, as indeed to many of her
awn supporters, the Queen's guilt seemed too clear for argument. She reports Princess Charlotte as having said that her mother was mad, as well as a pun of Brougham's that she was " pure in no sense." The Queen herself is simply written down as " completely brazen," with two enormous black eyebrows and the contents of two pots of rouge on her cheeks. With Caroline out of the way, and Canning having resigned on her account, the King might have looked forward to a period of " normalcy " ; but the next major event was the suicide of Castlereagh. Here the letters are of the greatest interest and importance, for Mme. de Lieven was Castle- reagh's intimate friend. As early as June and, 1822, she had recorded an extraordinary outburst of ill-temper on his part. On the roth, she noticed that he looked " ghastly " ; and she had learned that he was becoming obsessed with jealousy of Wellington. She saw him in good spirits on July 31st : on August nth he cut his throat. As for the actual cause of his insanity, Mine. de Lieven gives the version most unfavourable to him : but whatever the truth of that may be, there is no reason to doubt the sequence of events as it was told her the next day by Lady Conyngham.
Castlereagh was a heavy loss to her personally as well as to the public. For the next few years, all the energies of the Court circle were devoted to the exclusion of Canning, whom at first she hated as cordially as any of them. The letters tell the story of his steady rise, though they end before his last brief conquest of supreme office—and with it, of the hostility of Mine. de Lieven. By that time, Prince Metternich had lost her admiration by a second marriage.
It is quite amazing how any woman, mixing so freely among the great and powerful, friends and enemies alike, could set down all their doings with so little spite or condescension as these letters display. Mme. de Lieven adored England, and England adored her : and now we know that she deserved her unique position. No single book since Creevey has con- tained such entertaining history and so much of the real essence