The hatless princess

Mechtilde Lichnowsky

Hatless, kicking her way through the autumn leaves of St James's Park as she played with her children in the golden autumn of 1913, and wearing - to the horror of primmer strollers - a pair of short white socks, Princess Mechtilde Lichnowsky was never a conventional diplomat's wife.

  Historians are familiar with the story of the intensely anglophile and affable Prince Karl Max Lichnowsky, a Silesian descendant of the enlightened family whose kindness Beethoven had rewarded by dedicating his Moonlight and Pathetique Symphonies to them. Outside Germany, where her brilliance caused one admirer to describe her (back then) as the most brilliant mind in modern German literature, almost nothing is known of Karl Max's remarkable wife, Mechtilde.

Somebody should research a life of the Lichnowskys.  Certainly, when I was writing Noble Endeavours, this glittering and delightful couple belonged to the group of people I would most liked to have known and who best represented my ideal of international friendship and mutual respect.  Wilhelm II had picked out Karl Max as his ambassador to England in the autumn of 1912 because he trusted his old friend, and because Karl Max, like Mechtilde, was an ardent anglophile.  (He also happened to be the first cousin of the Russian ambassador in London, Count Benckendorff, a valuable connection and informant for Germany in troubling times.)

The Lichnowskys, back then, were chiefly known as the owners of two glorious homes in Germany and a fabulous collection of Old Masters.  Mechtilde was more modern ithan her husband in her tastes.  Newly arrived at what was then the German Embassy in Carlton House Terrace (significantly, back in those days when the royal families of our two countries were closely entwined, the Embassy had been placed within walking distance of Buckingham Palace), Mechtilde set out to modernise it. Away went the old-fashioned style set by the de Bunsens, back in the days when Frances de Bunsen and her erudite Prussian husband were advising Florence Nightingale on her burgeoning career in nursing; in came a new and dazzlingly contemporary display of Mechtilde's favourite painters. Out with Watts and Winterhalter; in with Franz Marc, Kokoschka and even - for Mechtilde was among the first to spot his genius - Picasso.

The Lichnowskys were not short of friends and admirers during their short stay in London. Mechtilde, attracted by the Bloomsbury Group, visited the Omega Workshop.  A photograph in my book shows her looking extraordinarily modern in a a belted skirt and striped shirt, posing in front of an Omega fabric that had been named 'Mechtilde' in her honour.  The Prince, a regular visitor to the homes of Sir Edward Grey and Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, achieved his happiest hour in June 1914, when he was called to Oxford to be granted an honorary doctorate. Responding to this tribute at the dinner that was given for him that night, the Prince declared his enthusiastic belief that 'the whole of humanity would be best served if the Teutonic peoples were brought nearer together and would join hands for the purpose of spreading their civilization to distant regions.'' Always diplomatic, he did not remark upon how much English culture owed to the inspiration of his own country.

The Lichnowskys never flagged in their efforts to avert war, and to place their faith in the fact that their desires were shared by the men whose orders they were compelled to follow. 'Mediation' was the word that cropped up most frequently in the Prince's increasingly frantic communiques to Berlin.  On 1 August, 1914, four days before war broke out, he advised the Kaiser that he had received Sir Edward Grey's personal assurance that Britain would not intervene. An interview with Asquith the following day brought the Prince to his senses.  Both men - they had become close friends -  shed tears.

On the evening of 4 August, the night after Grey had declared that Britain could not cast aside (as she had felt few qualms about doing in earlier times) her commitment to a beleaguered and friendly nation, Harold Nicolson called at the German Embassy to deliver the message of war. (Nicolson's tricky brief was to retrieve from Prince Karl Max's hands an earlier and erroneous despatch from Grey, announcing that Germany had declared war upon England.) The following morning, workmen arrived to take down the imperial eagle from its proud perch above the embassy entrance.  Daisy Pless, walking sadly through st James's Park as she prepared for her own imminent departure to her husband's country, came across Mechtilde, quietly weeping as she wandered alone along the sandy paths.

The Lichnowskys had been much admired in England.  They were given a handsome send-off.  'I was treated,' Karl Max later wrote, 'like a departing Sovereign.' Visiting the boarded-up Embassy a few weeks later, as part of a clearance team, Shane Leslie noted the sad evidence of a hasty departure: a half-filled silver cigarette case, toys scattered across the nursery floor, Mechtilde's rosary beads, abandoned where they had been dropped. Among the books, young Leslie found a little volume of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations.  A message to Karl Max had been scrawled across the flypage and dated: 'the day of war'. 'To the most true and honourable of men,' ran Margot Asquith's affectionate tribute; writing up his notes that night, Shane Leslie added an observation of his own: 'which I believe he is.' It was a brave thing to say of a German, in London, in the late September of 1914. 

The Lichnowskys, returning to their home in Silesia, were tarnished by an anglophilia which came, with the publication of a private book by Karl Max during the war, to seem close to treason. Rendered almost destitute during the years after the War, they sold their great paintings and lived in diminished circumstances. It was at this point that Mechtilde's personality came to the fore. Witty in her perceptions and skilled as an artist, she contributed drawings to The Torch, Karl Kraus's subversively brilliant magazine.  Kraus himself (the subject of a brilliant essay by Clive James and singled out by Jonathan Franzen's most recent book) was a great admirer of the Princess; it's possible that he was among the crowd of visitors who filled Kuchelna during these darker times.  Max Reinhardt; Alban Berg, Max Liebermann, Elias Canetti: these were the friends who did not desert the Lichnowskys during the post-war years.

Karl Max, a gaunt shadow of his dapper old self, died in 1928.  Mechtilde, disgusted by the hate-filled speeches of a party that was becoming troublingly visible in Germany - withdrew from her old life.  In Munich, she stayed with her sister, Helene Harrach, in an artistic house on the Biedersteinerstrasse, where the garden was filled with Count Harrach's sculptures, and the house with the young English friends of his lively daughters.

Possibly, Mechtilde was visiting Munich when one of the Harrach daughters, Irene (Nucci to her family) married my uncle John Howard de Walden in the late summer of 1934.  Photographs shows the English and German families mingling together out in the garden and on the steps of the Harrach's town house;  I can't see Mechtilde, but I feel sure she must have been there.  It's even possible that my mother, a wide-eyed eleven year old half hidden behind her bridesmaid's towering sheaf of gladioli, was introduced to a distinguished and still beautiful woman: the aunt of a dazzlingly pretty bride with whom my uncle John returned to England.

Mechtilde had been visiting Munich back in her teens when she was first introduced to a quietly humorous young Englishman called Ralph Peto.  A marriage was forbidden by Mechtilde's ardently Catholic family. In 1936, while attending a concert in London, at the Queen's Hall, the widowed princess remet her former suitor.  They fell in love, married in 1937 and settled in London, a city that would feature in the memoirs and novels for which the Princess was beginning to make her name. In August 1939, however, while paying a brief visit to her eldest son in Germany, Mechtilde was trapped there by the outbreak of war.  She never saw Ralph Peto again. (He died in 1944). 

Widowed and very short of money (all the great Lichnowssky estates had gone and the family had left Germany for new lives in Italy and South America), Mechtilde returned to London.  To quote from my book:

'Living in London among a circle of literary exiles who included Elias Canetti and a beautiful Czech baroness (Sidonie Borutin, a patroness of Rilke), whom she had known since childhood, Mechtilde continued to write, to sketch, to go to concerts and to remain joyously unconventional until her death in 1958.'

Some day soon, I plan to pay a visit to Weybidge and to see the churchyard where the Princess is buried.  It's time to pay respects in more than a blog to a woman of rare courage, charm, grace and genius.  Like all the great cast of Noble Endeavours, I have loved getting to know her. I hope readers have enjoyed reading about a few of my heroines here.  These blogs aren't works of art, but they do convey a bit of what writing this book has meant to me, its author. And if Noble Endeavours (a five year endeavour of my own) contributes a little towards helping to remind us how rich the shared history is of our two countries, and that more needs to be remembered - and taught - of our shared history than those terrible, unforgivable twelve years of Nazidom, then I will feel that every moment has been well spent.

   Added: Saturday 14 December 2013