A botanist, a pope and a princess: Three new biographies

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Three writers dive into the lives of the beautiful, brilliant and bad-tempered Princess Margaret; Pius IX, a terrible leader and politician; and physician and passionate botanist David Hosack.

Lit Life

Existence is a struggle, and even princesses, popes and philanthropists have problems. Three new biographies underline the premise that life can be tough, even for those who have it handed to them on a silver salver.

When I was a little girl Britain’s Princess Margaret (1930-2002) was a staple of the women’s magazines I devoured in the beauty shop where my mother had her hair done. Margaret, elegant in a tiara and pearls, free of the burdens shouldered by her older sister, seemed to have it knocked — none of the work, all of the fun.

Then I forgot about her, until the recent television series “The Crown” resurrected Queen Elizabeth’s bad-girl sibling in all her louche glory. So I picked up Craig Brown’s “Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28) with interest, and barely put it down until I was done.

Brown, a brilliant British writer and satirist, reclaims Margaret through 99 short chapters. He seems to have absorbed everything ever recorded about the princess and her times: newspaper clippings, diary entries, memoirs (often viperish), servants’ confessionals (sometimes resentful), YouTube videos, even some what-if alternative history. Everyone from Gore Vidal to John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi has their say. He captures a woman who, as writer/aristocrat Selina Hastings noted, “looked at the world outside between the bars of her extremely comfortable cage. She was inquisitive and she was courageous, and sometimes she ventured halfway out. But the moment it looked as though there may be difficulties, back she flew into her cage, slamming the door behind her.”

A lot of Margaret observers would say that Hastings was being kind: it’s tempting to pronounce the verdict “loutish boor” on Royal Princess Number Two. Who else, lacking an ashtray, would flick ashes into the hands of a dinner companion? Would arrive four hours late and keep the party going until 4 a.m., knowing that no one could leave until she did? Would intone loudly that the coronation chicken served at the opening of an old folks’ home “looks like sick”?

She was imperious and bad-tempered, but also beautiful, brilliant and loyal to her friends. Who knows what she could have been if she had opened the door to that gilded cage? This unsettling, incisive and honest book also manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, and is a startlingly original contribution to the genre of biography.

I’ve read a lot of mysteries set in the power centers of the Roman Catholic Church, but “The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe” by David I. Kertzer (Random House, $35), is rock-solid history, with enough intrigue and double-dealing to compete with any Robert Harris thriller.

Kertzer, a professor at Brown University, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in biography for his book “The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe.”  His new book tells the story of how another pope, also named Pius, crushed revolution in the Papal States in the mid-19th century and set back the unification of Italy by several decades.

Before Italy became a country, the Papal States claimed a substantial swath of land across central Italy. Though Europe in the 19th century was moving toward democracy, in the Papal States the pope and the church had near total power over its residences. The guillotine was used to silence the opposition. Church spies hauled everyday people into ecclesiastical court for infractions such as eating meat during Lent, and priest-judges passed sentence.

When Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti  (1792-1878) was elected pope in 1846, the people embraced him. “The new pope was a good-looking man of medium height, with a broad chest and blond hair,” Kertzer writes. “He projected a sense of goodness and simplicity that would quickly win him sympathy.” But he was a terrible leader and politician. He initially made some gestures toward liberalization, such as destroying the gates that locked Rome’s Jews into the ghetto, but when the movement to unify Italy and create a new country threatened absolute papal authority he yielded to pressure and clamped down on Italian nationalists. They rebelled, and after his prime minister was assassinated he fled for his life.

Exiled in southern Italy, embittered by rejection, Pius IX and his cardinals parlayed with the European powers and plotted his return. Troops of the ambivalent French republic, dragged into the fray to preserve the balance of power, besieged Rome, now controlled by the nationalists. In a now almost forgotten display of courage, the rebels made their stand against the superior French army, but they were no match in weapons and manpower — the French retook the city and drove the rebels out. Many were hunted down and executed.

Pius IX’s first encyclical after his return embraced a medieval version of society, stipulating that no one could believe in freedom of religion, speech, or the press and remain a Christian in good standing. Though Italy would eventually be unified, Pius IX set the church on a reactionary course that would endure for decades.

New Yorker David Hosack (1769-1835) was intelligent, ambitious and public spirited. A respected physician, he attended his friend Alexander Hamilton in his duel with Aaron Burr and presided at Hamilton’s death watch. A gifted teacher, Hosack drew throngs of students to his classes in Manhattan’s medical schools.

But Hosack’s passion was botany. In the days when drugs came entirely from plants, he believed their systematic study was essential to discovering cures for humanity’s ills. On the site where Rockefeller Center stands today he founded the Elgin Botanic Garden and embarked on a struggle to make it a permanent resource for American science and medicine.

Victoria Johnson’s “American Eden: David Hosack, Botany and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic” (Liveright, $29.95) tells the story of Hosack’s quest. Anyone in philanthropy or the nonprofit sector will empathize with his struggles to raise funds from wealthy New Yorkers (and the heedless state legislature). Gardeners will savor stories of 19th century botanizing and appreciate Hosack’s quest to save a garden, the most ephemeral of treasures, for posterity.

The flaw in this interesting story is that the narrative veers off into tales of Hamilton, Burr and others in Hosack’s circle who have already inspired many, many books. But “American Eden” is a worthwhile read for history lovers, gardeners and anyone interested in the challenge of turning a good idea into a legacy.

 

Mary Ann Gwinn: . Mary Ann Gwinn writes about books and authors for The Seattle Times and other publications. mgwinn@seattletimes.com.