|Her Royal Highness, Princess Michael of Kent|
Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent is the younger child of the late Baron Gunther von Reibnitz and his wife, the late Marianne, née Countess Szapary. She was born at Carlsbad in Bohemia on the estate of her maternal grandmother Princess Hedwig Windisch-Graetz. Her Royal Highness descends from ancient European lineage on both sides of her Family. Having lived in Austria, Australia and on her father's farm in Mozambique, the princess moved to London from Vienna to continue her historical studies including the History of the Fine and Decorative Arts. Prior to her marriage, Princess Michael formed her own successful interior design company, Szapar Designs. While in London, she met His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent, the first cousin of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The couple married in Vienna in 1978 and have two children, Lord Frederick (25) a classics graduate from Magdalen College, Oxford, who is currently in the middle of a Law degree, and Lady Gabriella Windsor (23) who graduated this year from Brown University, Providence R.I. majoring in Comparative Literature and hopes to become a writer.
Their Royal Highnesses carry out a great number of public and charitable duties and also have the Queen's permission to earn their livelihood. Both speak a number of languages and have commericial interests in many different fields, not least in Russia. They live in an apartment in Kensington Palace and at Nether Lypiatt Manor, their 17th century country house in Gloucestershire.
Her Royal Highness has an abiding love of history and the arts and with such a background, it is not surprising that since her marriage she has written two historical books, both of which were bestsellers and translated worldwide: Crowned in a Far Country: Eight Royal Brides, and Cupid and the King: Five Royal Paramours. Her third book, The Serpent and the Moon: Two Rivals for the Love of a Renaissance King, was published in USA by Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster on 7th September, 2004 and will be published on the 1 November in the United Kingdom.
It was the success of her books that stimulated international interest in Princess Michael to give lectures on her specialist subjects, initially speaking to the French Institute. She served on the Board of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and for the past twelve years has pursued a successful lecture career, speaking on various historical subjects at museums and universities. Her Royal Highness has spoken all over the U.S., principally for charities, and typically undertakes two tours in the U.S. each year in April and October, speaking in about thirty venues each year. Princess Michael has also lectured in other countries including Canada, Argentina, Greece, Austria, Switzerland and Russia, for a variety of charities and national institutions, often at eminent museums and galleries. She has lectured for 'Save Venice' and now lectures for ‘Venetian Heritage' and the English Speaking Union in a number of different cities, as well as the Young Presidents Organization.
Princess Michael's other great love is animals, in particular horses, which she rides and breeds with interest and enthusiasm. The family has two black Labradors, two black sheep, exotic chickens, two vicious Hungarian geese and the Princess's adored Siamese and Burmese cats which travel with her between London and the country house.
Biography courtesy of the author's official web site.
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Some outtakes from our interview with Princess Michael:
"When we were children, my mother would make us write about or draw whatever we had experienced on an outing. We were to describe the people we met, their clothes, their surroundings, report their conversations. We did rather stare, but it taught us to look and listen. To this day I think I could draw or describe most of the contents of a room in which I had been a day or two before. This trick was very useful to me when I worked as an interior designer before my marriage. Sadly, I had to abandon this profession, as 26 years ago it was deemed inappropriate for a royal princess. Happily times have changed, and now I could start again."
"My name is not Michael. That is my husband's name. As I was not born an English princess, like any wife I bear my husband's name. (If I had married John Smith I would be Mrs. John Smith.) Americans and even English people find this difficult to understand because of Diana. Actually it was only the media who called her 'Princess Diana.' It was never her real title. But to be called 'The Princess of Wales' was too long and so the media dubbed her 'Princess Diana,' which also sounded more approachable and suited her. I have met two girls in the U.S. who have told me their names were also Michael, so I felt in good company."
"Like every mother I adore my two children, but they say I prefer my animals, especially my cats. I am involved in many charities as patron or president, many involve children, or the arts, hospitals and hospices, and also animals. I am the patron of three animal conservation programs in Africa which I visit as often as I can, about every two years. My charity work is very important to me because I am conscious of the privileges I have in my position, and I can only justify that a little by accepting obligations to help others."
"My other passion is my garden. I love to set out with my basket, gloves and secateurs and do some pruning and cutting, especially in my rose garden. And I like to eat my own fruit as I go along -- cherries, plums, apples, pears, rhubarb (this I cook), all the soft fruits too. I muddled feet and meters when I laid out the soft-fruit cage and it became HUGE. As a result and we have to spend a lot of time making jam with the excess berries. This is forced on our friends, as without a clearance from the Health Department, I cannot give it to my charities for auction or sale (although it is very good as we use no preservatives)."
"I am deeply committed to our charity work in U.K. and do as much as I can, given that we are the only ones in the royal family not to benefit from any expenses either from the government or the palace. My husband and I have always earned our own living and are proud to do so. I am a professional lecturer and love my lecturing career, traveling to so many different cities the world over and meeting such interesting and interested people. I never give lectures in U.K. -- there my public appearances are for charity only."
"When I am tense I do a good gymnastics workout if in London (where my personal trainer delights in torturing me), and when in the country I get on my horse and ride hard. I love to ski and play tennis, but I can live without water sports. I enjoy being alone so I can read or write. Writing is a solitary profession, so one must have a partner who understands that. Mine is the most tolerant, wonderful man on earth."
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In the fall of 2004, Princess Michael took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Many books have influenced me. I first learned to read in German, but from the age of ten, I discovered the magic of the English language. My stepfather was Polish, so my Austro-Hungarian mother and he communicated in French. He taught me to swear in Polish. To this day I do not know what the words mean, but I have shocked Poles whenever I have tried them.
My first books in English were the classics -- the Brontë siblings, Jane Austen, Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Hemingway, Georgette Heyer, John Masters, George Eliot. Then pretty soon (in translation) I read the great Russians: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Chekhov's plays, and also at this time, Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu. My favorite was Le Rouge et le noir. While reading voraciously every book I could find -- I was almost always alone during the day when visiting my father's farm in Africa -- I began to become interested in the ancient world. Again, the classics drew me -- the Iliad, the Odyssey -- and any tales from mythology. I had a passion for classical music, especially Wagner, and the stories of his operas so gripped my imagination that I turned toward Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. My taste in reading seemed to veer between fantasy, mythology, history with a dash of romance -- all of it definitely rooted in the imaginative past.
I cannot say that any particular book as such influenced me more than any other. We did not have television during my childhood or adolescence and so my entertainment, and escape from reality, was into books. My older brother advised me in my choices, and there were times in my youth when I did little else but read, often a book a day. Throughout my 20s, although I still followed the fashionable modern novelists, I focused more on history, as I learned that often the truth was more amazing than fiction and one was left with extra knowledge when the book was finished. Historical biographies followed fast one upon another. I jumped from century to century, continent to continent, just following a lead here or there with no particular path or plan.
I stumbled on the theme for my first book. I was researching the life of Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of King James I of England (James VI of Scotland) and sister of the future Charles I (who managed to lose his head). This was for my own pleasure -- she was an English princess who became queen of Bohemia, while I was born in Bohemia and became an English princess. I was struck by the influence she had on the land of her marriage -- the Palatine (now part of Germany) -- and then on Bohemia. I began to think about all the other princesses who had married abroad and the influence they had had as the first lady of their new countries. That theme became the subject of my first book, Crowned in a Far Country, which took me to eight different courts and countries with the action mostly in the 19th century. My second book, Cupid and the King, explored the influence of five famous royal mistresses. When princes were forced to marry for political or dynastic reasons, the choice of their heart often wielded the real power behind the throne. This time I chose my heroines from five different countries in as many centuries.
I have not specialized in any particular period of history or focused on any one nation, although I do have my favorites: France in the 16th and 18th centuries, England in the 17th, and Europe in the mid-19th century. And yet, the moment I begin to research another topic for a new lecture, I am drawn in to that period and place and that becomes my "favorite."
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
This list fluctuates. Currently I would choose:
Mary, Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser -- I love Mary, surely one of the most tragic heroines in history. In one sense she had it all -- beauty, intelligence, position, and a charm that captivated everyone she met. She was also a good woman, and such a combination is rare. And then, it all went so horribly wrong. Antonia Fraser brings her to life so that she becomes a friend, someone one cares about, laughs with, and cries for. A great biography.
The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky -- In this novel, every human emotion is on show, every quirk of character, all good and all evil. It is as if all the variations of man's character are contained in this one absorbing saga of a Russian family. And yet, they could be anyone, anywhere.
The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott -- I read this on my honeymoon in India, and by chance we traveled to the same places described in the book. I had always held a fascination for the subcontinent since reading John Masters' books about the Savage family as a child. This saga took me through India's past, the British Raj, and almost up the present day. I soaked up India through its pages and have been a frequent visitor thereafter.
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel -- This absorbing novel is set in France at the time of the French Revolution and tells the story of its three architects, Danton, Robespierre, and Desmoulins, their machinations to gain power and their fall. Hilary Mantel puts flesh on the skeletons of history and then clothes them. We can enter into her world, live through its terrors and test our own courage with that of her heroes'. So much of the status quo changed with the French Revolution, and this book makes you feel you were there in all its sickening horror.
Queen Margot by Alexandre Dumas -- Another historical novel, this time set in the 16th century and telling the story of the youngest child of King Henri II of France and Catherine de' Medici -- Marguerite, known as Margot. Forced by her mother to marry the Protestant king of Navarre in order to bring religious peace to France, Margot's wedding night became the catalyst for the horrific "massacre of St. Bartholomew" when thousands of Protestants were murdered in one night of bloodshed and religious zeal. It is a story of love and trust amid terror and betrayal during the most dreadful religious persecution, and all in the name of God. We would do well to learn from history.
Historical Memoirs by the Duc de Saint-Simon -- The Duke was one of the most fascinating men at the court of Louis XIV with life at Versailles the source of these absorbing memoirs. His influence on English and French literature has been acknowledged by Stendhal, Saint-Beuve, Proust, Macaulay, Lytton Strachey, Winston Churchill, Henry Adams, and he was even read by Queen Victoria. Aside from that, his stories are compulsive reading for lovers of the period of the Sun King and of the French Regency.
Byzantium: The Trilogy by John Julius Norwich -- These three books cover the history of the Byzantine Empire, which lasted over 1,000 years. The third book, my favorite, tells the story of the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Described as "the last great epic in the history of the Middle Ages," it tells of the city's brave but vain resistance against the mighty Ottoman Turkish armies.
One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez -- I frequently return to these two masterpieces. Márquez weaves the tapestry of his characters, colored threads of mystery, subtlety and grace, never ceasing to enthrall, fascinate and captivate. His descriptions of the tiniest incidents of everyday life twist and turn the commonplace into the extraordinary. If I had to choose one author's collected works (and eliminating the Bible and Shakespeare) to take with me to a desert island, I would choose Gabriel García Márquez.
1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow -- by Adam Zamoyski -- Napoleon's fateful invasion of Russia and the horror of his retreat is an epic of such overwhelming proportions that one would think it would have deterred man from ever undertaking war on such a scale again. Sadly it did not, and 100 years later came the Battle of the Somme. The tragic story is vividly told, taken from the accounts of soldiers from every nation within the great polyglot Grande Armée, and also from the victors.
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay -- This is a 19th-century study of crowd psychology and mass mania. The author describes scams and swindles, schemes which ruined thousands like the South Sea Bubble, the Mississippi Scheme, or the Tulipomania that became such an obsession in Holland. This is the history of group hysteria. Whether inspired by soothsayers, fortune tellers, astrologers, or sheer wickedness, men have emerged throughout history who have succeeded in the art of persuasion to alarming degrees.
Oh, and lots and lots more -- These above are just some of my favorites.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Out of Africa -- Because it reminds me of the time I spent on my father's farm there.
War and Peace -- The Russian version -- one of the greatest epic films containing love, betrayal, heroism, and tragedy.
Lawrence of Arabia -- Its scale and the mystery of the desert -- an uncharted place which called me until I went there. And that mirage scene!
The Black Stallion -- So beautiful, so simple, and yet such a poignant story of a relationship between a boy and a horse. No need for dialogue.
Ran -- The Japanese King Lear; I sat on the edge of my seat for over three hours to watch a film spoken in Japanese -- totally absorbing and a timeless story.
The Big Blue -- This still has the power to haunt me after so many years. I swam with dolphins after seeing it and still do.
Elvira Madigan -- Relates the hopelessness of mismatched lovers unable to overcome their backgrounds to share happiness. It reminds us that anything is possible today.
Anna Karenina -- For the same reasons as Elvira Madigan.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Any Mozart -- not only orchestral, also his operas; Wagner's Ring Cycle; any Verdi, Puccini. I listen mostly to opera, but also Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Handel, and Haydn.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Virginia Woolf's novels, especially To the Lighthouse, Orlando, Mrs. Dalloway, A Voyage Out. She teaches the reader how to write as well as binding them tightly as she spins her magic web to catch our imaginations.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Historical biographies -- the lives of the great, good or bad, are always interesting. Occasionally a good new novel -- I like the pace of Frederick Forsyth, John le Carré, and my children give me P. J. Wodehouse when they think I need a good laugh.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
On my desktop sits my laptop and one of my cats on a cushion always within stroking distance -- in fact, behind many good writers there is a very talented cat. A dream catcher from Arizona hangs from my angle-poise lamp. I like to have a flower, usually a rose, in a small vase by a photograph of my mother, who has always been my muse.
When I have completed my researches, I sort my notes into chapter piles. These I bind with elastic bands, box and send to the Place of Creative Hibernation. Then I disappear from the world for two months or until I have written the first draft. I write for around 14 hours a day, take no days off, and keep to a strict diet as I don't do any exercise. Then I spend about a year polishing the text and arguing with my editor, who likes to eliminate my favorite pieces of research (like the food people ate) as she says it distracts from the pace of the story -- and she's always right.
What are you working on now?
A life of Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of King James I of England (James VI of Scotland) who is known in history as "The Winter Queen." She was the first historical character I researched, but I gave up on her as the second part of her life was so sad -- deep winter, permafrost. I have now realized that her happy ending made up for the middle years and have come to see her sad circumstances as she did -- with fortitude and optimism. Hers is a tale as enthralling as that of her grandmother Mary, Queen of Scots.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I find writing history is slow and painstaking, and in my case, includes years of research with enjoyable travel to the places where my characters lived. My husband often joins me on these "field trips" and takes photographs to jog my memory for descriptive narrative. My first book took me five years, and I thought I would never finish. Then one does not want to let the manuscript go until the editor has to tear the child away from the mother and throw it into the deep water of criticism.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Alice Randall, from Nashville, who has written Wind Done Gone, and her new novel Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, for her quirky wit, her brilliant concepts, her turn of phrase, both poetic and acerbic. For her imagination. She will go far.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
There is only one way to write a book and that is to sit in front of that paper or machine and write every day. A book won't write itself. And never give up.
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