#BookReview: Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs by Greg King & Penny Wilson

Historical Nonfiction

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On a snowy January morning in 1889, a worried servant hacked open a locked door at the remote hunting lodge deep in the Vienna Woods. Inside, he found two bodies sprawled on an ornate bed, blood oozing from their mouths. Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary appeared to have shot his seventeen-year-old mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera as she slept, sat with the corpse for hours and, when dawn broke, turned the pistol on himself.

A century has transformed this bloody scene into romantic tragedy: star-crossed lovers who preferred death together than to be parted by a cold, unfeeling Viennese Court. But Mayerling is also the story of family secrets: incestuous relationships and mental instability; blackmail, venereal disease, and political treason; and a disillusioned, morphine-addicted Crown Prince and a na├»ve schoolgirl caught up in a dangerous and deadly waltz inside a decaying empire. What happened in that locked room remains one of history’s most evocative mysteries: What led Rudolf and mistress to this desperate act? Was it really a suicide pact? Or did something far more disturbing take place at that remote hunting lodge and result in murder?

Drawing interviews with members of the Habsburg family and archival sources in Vienna, Greg King and Penny Wilson reconstruct this historical mystery, laying out evidence and information long ignored that conclusively refutes the romantic myth and the conspiracy stories.‘There’s never a minute of the day now that guns aren't firing. I write from my dug out in the O.P. Aeroplanes overhead, guns booming, rifles cracking, bullets swinging away, it’s the same thing day after day.’

As a boy, Alan Lloyd could never have imagined the harsh realities of the war he would one day fight in. In this retelling of his story, using extracts from diaries and correspondence, including Alan’s letters to his wife from the front line, Isobel Charman has woven together the tale of a journey from privileged young man to officer fighting for his life and country in World War One.

Descended from the Lloyds banking family, Alan grew up wanting for nothing. He studied at Cambridge, where his life revolved around rowing, cricket and planning his future. After university, he fell in love with Dorothy and set about forging a career in farming, but then, just as the couple were ready to settle down, war broke out.

Against the wishes of his devout Quaker family, Alan joined the army. In July 1915 he left for France, where his life became one of guns, trenches, death and survival in the Great War.

This is the full account of Alan Lloyd’s life, whose experiences were featured in ITV’s The Great War: The People's Story. The stories from the television series, form a set of personal, moving and at times humorous accounts of courage, love and loyalty in one of the worst wars in modern history.

Crown Prince Rudolf has fascinated me for years, but finding information on him can be a challenge for an English speaker in the United States. The Road to Mayerling by Richard Barkeley is fabulous, but I think Mayerling: The Facts Behind the Legend by Fritz Judtmann a stronger resource. If asked a week ago, it’d have been the only title I’d have recommended, but that was before I’d gotten my hands on an advanced copy of Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs.

Between these pages, Greg King and Penny Wilson offer compelling and complex arguments for Rudolf’s actions, present a detailed glimpse at his inner circle, and pull aside the curtain that surrounds his relationship with the Baroness Mary Vetsera. They understand the sentimental romanticism that characterizes their subject matter, but what I love about this book is how the authors dissect and separate fact from fiction to uncover the truths beneath.

Twilight of Empire is easily one of the most comprehensive and detailed accounts of the of the double-suicide and while I don’t agree with all of the authors’ conclusions, I do feel they come closer to than any of their peers and recommend their work as one of the best available.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 23, 2017

No one in the ballroom knew that they had just witnessed one of the final scenes in a high royal drama destined to shock the world: In eighty hours Rudolf and his mistress would be dead.