Dan Jacobson was inspired to write this story of slightly barmy romantic devotion by a passage in Neal Ascherson's The King Incorporated. Ascherson's subject was Leopold II, king of the Belgians, the unsavoury looter of the Congo, but he included a mention of Leopold's scandalous daughter Louise, who married a Habsburg prince and then ran off with a cavalry officer, and who was punished by being banged up in an asylum.
What intrigued Jacobson was that both Louise and her lover, Count Mattachich (who was not really a count), wrote their own accounts of the affair. The novel is based partly on these very obscure volumes, though rather more, one suspects, on the biography of Louise by Gerd Holler. "Imagine, then, that first exchange of glances between the princess and the hussar. A fine May morning in the Prater: sun, trees, shadows, grass." Crikey. The old "imagine, then" motif. It seemed very modern and self-aware when Paul Scott used it to begin The Jewel in the Crown. It now seems redolent of lava lamps, "happenings" and Margaret Drabble. But it is not such a bad device, so let it pass. We will also overlook the small technical slip: Mattachich was a lancer, not a hussar.
So, Mattachich and Louise, without a word passing between them, fall for each other while out riding in the park. We do not know exactly why, because one never knows how these things happen, and although Jacobson often enters imaginatively into the characters' minds, he just as often likes to maintain a distant, academic tone, even to the extent of including footnotes to specify and discuss his sources. He is a retired professor, after all.
He draws our attention to the pitfalls of historical fiction. Noting that turn-of-the-century Vienna has been called "the birthplace of the modern world", he warns:
There is no need for you to imagine that this slight, bearded, firm-gazed, intensely respectable Jew, who looks on with interest as Louise and her retinue pull up in front of the Coburg palace in Seilerstrasse, is Dr Sigmund Freud.
And so on in the same vein, with disavowed vignettes of Gustav Klimt and the schoolboy Wittgenstein. I think that's called having your cake and eating it.
He also advises: "Imagine that to them there is nothing 'period' or outlandish about the world they live in: the clothes they wear . . . the carriages they ride in, the candles and gas lamps ." Later, however, in Nice, he mentions passers-by gawping at a motor car "as if it were a creature escaped from the zoo", though cars would probably be an everyday sight in that rich people's playground.
How did we get to Nice? The lovers have been too indiscreet and the Empe- ror Franz Josef has banished them from Vienna. They are not supposed to meet up, but meet they do, and go on a spending spree across Europe. Louise's husband puts a stop to it by placing an advert in the papers to announce that he will no longer settle his wife's debts. Louise's ghastly father won't help, either, and they dare not ask her sister Stephanie, also married to a Habsburg prince (though now widowed: he was the mad one who shot himself and his mistress at the notorious hunting lodge in Mayerling). Instead, Mattachich forges Stephanie's signature on a promissory note for some Jewish moneylenders, and thus gives the Viennese authorities the excuse they need to take him out of circulation.
There is a hilarious account of Louise's last ball in the rented villa in Nice, with the band going on strike, unpaid tradesmen walking off with the silver and an unseemly fracas breaking out on all sides. Then Mattachich is recalled by his regiment and is arrested and jailed, while poor Louise is declared insane by none other than "Baron Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902)" and committed. Yet that is not the end, because love will find a way.
Why should we care about the self-imposed problems of idle, not very nice people? Heaven knows, but that was precisely the formula which made Dallas the world's top television show for several years; and despite the best efforts of Mattachich and Louise to be tiresome and obnoxious, their loyalty to each other is finally quite touching. Jacobson also earns high marks for avoiding any nudge-nudge comparisons with wayward princesses closer to home, or indeed with cavalry officers. Not that that will stop some readers making them anyway.