Wednesday, June 25, 2008


I’ve blogged before about spooky coincidences I’ve met during my writing. Here’s another one. This one’s not about Scotland, but Vienna.

The second book of my Aikenhead Honours trilogy, His Reluctant Mistress, is set mostly in Vienna during the Congress. By European standards, Vienna was a very small capital, with only about 200,000 inhabitants. During the Congress, another 100,000 visitors arrived and most of them stayed from September 1814 until May 1815. The city was bursting at the seams.

The Viennese were, at first, very proud to be hosting the Congress which was not expected to last more than a couple of months at most. The Austrian Emperor, Franz, ordered splendid preparations to be made, especially for the many royal guests. Three hundred carriages were freshly varnished in dark green, with the imperial arms picked out in yellow on the doors, and 1400 horses, plus grooms and coachmen, were organised to serve them. Many Austrians volunteered for duty. The humble people were paid and usually worked as domestic servants, often with spying on the side. Sons of noble houses volunteered to serve without pay as equerries and pages in the palace.

One really mind-boggling problem was protocol. When the palace is full of emperors and kings, who takes precedence? Monarchs were very prickly about that sort of thing. There are rules for it nowadays, but in 1814 there had never been such a gathering and there were no established rules.

In the end, it was decided that monarchs would take precedence according to age. That meant that the oldest monarch at the Congress, the King of Württemberg, went in to dinner first among the royal visitors. Unfortunately for the charming young Austrian Empress, whose dinner partner he was, the King of Württemberg was a most disagreeable man, coarse and ill-humoured. He was so enormously fat that a half-moon had to be cut out of the dining table to accommodate his huge belly. Vienna called him the Württemberg Monster.

The Württemberg Monster was also homosexual and was much taken with the handsome young sons of the nobility who were acting as pages. Over dinner on one occasion, he made advances to one of these young men, but he made the fundamental mistake of addressing him using the “thou” form of German (du) which is used only for family and intimates. The young man was affronted. His deference to a monarch vanished. He drew himself up to his full height and announced to the King of Württemberg that he was a baron and that even his own sovereign, the Austrian Emperor, would never dream of addressing him in such a familiar and demeaning way.

And the coincidence? In His Reluctant Mistress, I named my villain — who was created long before I read about this incident — the Baron von Beck. The young nobleman who confronted the King of Württemberg, and who is almost the only minor aristocrat named in the reference books on the Congress, was called, coincidentally, the Baron Beck. The real Baron Beck was obviously an upstanding young man. My villain is neither young nor upstanding, but I haven’t changed his name. I decided that it was just meant to be.



Melinda Hammond said...

What fascinating information you have unearthed, Joanna and what colourful characters were in Vienna at that time. I have no doubt it has inspired you with even more stories to write!

Anonymous said...

The Vienna Congress is fun to read and write about, isn't it? I set a piece of Austen fanfic there once, being Austrian I thought it would be fun. It was. ;)

I'll definitely try to get hold of both your resource and, of course, your novel. :)