What price biographical discretion? To the renowned Dutch historian A. Th. van Deursen no price is too high. By glossing over the sex and violence in the life of Maurits van Nassau, one of the founders of the Dutch state, he forfeits the trust of the reader.
William the Silent and his second wife, Anna of Saxony, had a miserable marriage. By most accounts I have seen, it was all her fault. She was a petty, selfish, unreasonably demanding woman who gave her husband a hard time when he needed all the concentration he could muster for the failing struggle of the Netherlandish provinces against Spain. The breakup of their marriage was notorious when it occurred in 1571, and has become a set piece in modern books not only on William of Orange but also on Peter Paul Rubens. The reason for this is that the grounds for William’s divorce from Anna was her love affair with Jan Rubens, the artist’s future father.
The affair took place in Cologne, where Anna and Jan fled for different reasons. She ran away to Cologne from the Nassau castle of Dillenburg, where she felt like a prisoner, he from Antwerp where as a prominent magistrate he was suspected by his Spanish lords of having Calvinist sympathies. Jan was allowed to stay in Cologne only because he was an advisor to Anna. In one version of the story, she took advantage of his desperate situation to seduce him and thereby humiliate her husband.
Had the death sentence been carried out that hung over Jan Rubens’s head once the facts came out, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) would not have been born and the history of European art as we know it would have been unrecognizably different.
William and Anna had a son, Maurits (1567-1625), and Maurits had a biographer (2000), Prof. dr. A. Th. van Deursen (1931- ) of the Orthodox Protestant Free University of Amsterdam. Van Deursen’s telling of the above tale reads thus: "Anna lived such an irregular life in Cologne that William took a step that was very unusual in his times. In 1571 he was divorced from his wife." Full stop. In the following paragraph, by way of background information, van Deursen writes: "Divorce in the sixteenth century … was only possible if one of the partners had violated marital faith through adultery." Between the lines, he is telling us that in Cologne Anna committed adultery. He apparently does not consider it important for the reader of a full-length biography of Maurits to know more than that about the divorce of his parents, a juicy story that was undoubtedly told and retold throughout Maurits’s life. Or if van Deursen does think it important, he finds his own sense of tact more important still.
It is only because I happened to know about Anna and Jan from other sources that I recognized the passage on p. 11 of van Deursen’s 300-page book as a rather extreme example of biographical discretion. I read on with a somewhat uneasy feeling. What else about Maurits, who fathered a number of illegitimate children and had a far larger number of mistresses and casual sex partners, would van Deursen not be telling me? On p. 16 I had a bad moment. Maurits’s father had remarried, to the widowed French princess Charlotte de Bourbon, mother of six daughters. In telling us how Maurits reacted to this, van Deursen writes: "He accepted his new stepsisters without reservation. The fifth of six girls, Charlotte Brabantine, always remained for him ‘ma belle Brabant’"; the statement is footnoted with a page reference to a 19th-century edition of the letters of Louise de Coligny, William’s fourth wife.
I wondered whether van Deursen was writing between the lines again. Is he telling the attentive reader something about the young Maurits and Charlotte that respectable people do not talk about out loud? I do not think so, and if the thought crossed my mind it was only because van Deursen had put it there with his allusive writing about Anna and Jan. By trying to keep his book clean, he had turned it into a dirty guessing game.
In the passage that next brought me up short what van Deursen was not writing about was not sex but violence. Maurits was at the very start of his military career. His first campaign as (deputy) captain-general is described thus (p. 39): "Maurits’s great successes of the 1590s would not have been possible if the country’s finances had not first been put in good order. This was far from the case in 1587. The States had to opt for a cheap way of waging war. They decided therefore that Maurits and Hohenlohe should conduct a plundering raid in enemy territory. In early July they entered Brabant. In the Langstraat and Peel areas they destroyed thirty or forty villages."
They destroyed thirty or forty villages. Did Maurits and Hohenlohe slaughter the inhabitants as well? The children? Or did they merely drive them away while their goods were robbed and their houses were burnt to the ground? Is van Deursen protecting Maurits from the anachronistic judgment of 21st-century readers who might be reminded of My Lai or Beslan? Readers who are not to be trusted with the facts because in their unprofessional naiveté they might not understand that terror was not yet an ism in 1587? That it was a perfectly normal way of sparing your military budget to kill unarmed civilians rather than attack enemy troops?
For a day I abandoned my reading. If van Deursen is not going to trust me, I thought, why should I trust him? I went on, because I wanted to know about Maurits’s life and because van Deursen is a good historian and a good writer. However, despite all I am learning and all my reading pleasure, the book has been ruined for me. When I read in van Deursen’s account about Maurits’s "excessive generosity" to his enemies in Geertruidenberg and Grol (p. 115), all I see are those destroyed villages in de Peel about which he tells us nothing at all.
© Gary Schwartz 2004. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 11 September 2004.
Saturday, 28 August: Gave a talk to a joint congress of the International and European Societies for Peritoneal Dialysis. They were not interested in my views on kidney treatment but on Amsterdam and Rembrandt. The talk closed with a performance by the Nightwatch Guild from Berg en Terblijt, which poses as the figures in the Nightwatch. A guaranteed hit.
Five men and five women at the annual Herengracht block dinner in Maarssen, 28 August 2004: human society in a nutshell. (Forgive the essentialism.)
Saturday, 28 August: Got back from the RAI Congress Center in time for most of the outdoor dinner Loekie organized for everyone who lives on the Herengracht, with its 23 houses. This was the second time she did it, and the warmth – in temperature and vibes both – was once more with us.
Sunday, 29 August: With Loekie and Eddy de Jongh, drove to Tilburg to see the film Hollands licht (Dutch light, about the putative special qualities of light in Holland and in Dutch painting) at De Pont. An impressive film, but in my judgment a copout. Eddy and Loekie do not agree. I feel a column coming on.
Tuesday, 31 August: This year we managed to get to only one concert in the extraordinary annual Early Music Festival in Utrecht. In the main concert hall, Vredenburg, we heard an outstanding recital by the English Concert of a mass and chamber music by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704). Why I had never heard of Biber before a few years ago I cannot imagine. The canon of great artists, for all its indispensability, is a nasty, exclusionary piece of work. Talking of Dutch light – Biber’s music, with its dramatic contrasts between forte and piano, rough and smooth, made me think of Rembrandtesque chiaroscuro. And the man wasn’t even Dutch.
Wednesday, 1 September: Interviewed by Warna Oosterbaan, an editor of NRC Handelsblad, on my thoughts about the qualities of the Netherlands on which the country can pride itself. I surprised myself by singling out the House of Orange. In preparing for the discussion, it occurred to me that no other European country has as long and fruitful a relationship with its leading family, now getting on to 450 years. Only the Japanese royal family has that kind of record, and what a difference!
The author with a participant in the Town Criers’ Contest held in Zutphen, 3 September 2004, wondering behind his smile whether town crying might not be a better medium than Internet after all.
Thursday-Saturday, 2-4 September. The annual summer excursion of Boekverkooperscollegie Eendragt went to Rosendael Castle, Deventer, Zutphen and Middachten Castle.This year I was on the excursion committee. Everything went as planned; the trip was very enjoyable, the weather perfect.
Saturday, 4 September: Our friends Jan Houwert and Marty Six once more shared their wealth (he is way up there in the list of the richest Netherlanders) with their friends for a day. For several years they have been commissioning monumental sculptures for their park from European artists, mainly Dutch. Today a concrete sculpture by Sjoerd Buisman was unveiled. It was a motif Buisman has been working on for decades, a cross-section of a celery plant, with its concentric ribbed circles. With the other guests, we admired it and the earlier commissions. On the terrace, got into a discussion with two men, one of whom made a remark that revealed he had been to the same high school as Loekie, the Utrechts Stedelijk Gymnasium, in the same years as she. The two were lovers of our Great People’s Writer Gerard van het Reve. In his writings they are known as Teigetje (from the Dutch translation of Winnie-the-Pooh) and Woelrat, names they now use for their couture atelier. Must reread Reve on them.
Wednesday, 8 September: Another graduate of the same school of the same vintage, Wim Gerritsen, professor emeritus of Dutch literature at Utrecht University, delivered the 13th Bert van Selm Lecture with which the Department of Dutch Language and Literature of Leiden University, where he now has a position, opens the academic year. Bert van Selm was a friend to whom I was very attached before he died tragically young, and I attend the Van Selm Lecture whenever I can. The person and qualities of the speaker made today’s trip to Leiden, with Loekie, doubly rewarding. Wim spoke eloquently and interestingly on Boethius and the Second Revolution of the Book. He used the incredible 75 incunable editions of the Consolation of Philosophy to demonstrate a fascinating point about book history, van Selm’s field.
Thursday, 9 September: Spent a John Adams Institute evening, beginning with a reception at the Amstel Hotel, in the company of Antonin Scalia, the reactionary, strict constructionist Supreme Court Justice. Beforehand, I had dreaded what I thought of as the likelihood of an irritating right-wing tirade, but the experience was very different. For the first time in a long time, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to someone with whom I have basic disagreements. Scalia is able to maintain a sarcastic tone for longer than anyone I know without becoming impossibly annoying. Just the way he pronounces the words "living Constitution," which he did many times, was worth the sit. His way of claiming to be the protector of democracy and the American people against unelected regulatory agencies was illuminating if not entirely sincere.
Scalia was out for a fight, and he got it from the audience. For once, I kept my seat. The other questioners were all lawyers, including dignitaries like Wilhelmina Thomassen, justice on the European Court for Human Rights, and I would have been out of my depth challenging Scalia. Had I dared, I would have asked him if he really believed that activist judgeship in the United States was invented by Earl Warren, as he claimed? Are the last 40 years the exception, as Scalia said, or is he out of tune with a history of American jurisprudence that has always been sensitive to social issues and public opinion and constantly writes law from the bench? The evening was full of American-Dutch-European tension; at the reception following the lecture, people were at each other’s throats about the controversial closing remarks of the dean of the Law Faculty at the University of Amsterdam, who told how exciting the Warren Court was when he was a law student. He contrasted Scalia’s view of judicial appeal to the present attempt in the Netherland to establish a supreme court here. Most people in the audience thought he was insulting the speaker, but I didn’t see it that way. The best John Adams evening I’ve ever attended, including, unfortunately, that with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom I found mealy-mouthed by comparison with Scalia.
Saturday, 11 September: After driving friends who stayed with us overnight to Schiphol, Loekie and I went on to The Hague to see the exhibition at the Mesdag Museum of beach and coast paintings by Dutch and French artists of the 19th century. We wanted to check the chique opinion about Dutch light from the film against examples. Standing far enough from the paintings not to be able to read the labels, we found ourselves incapable of distinguishing between qualities of light by location or nationality. Definitely a column coming on. In The Hague, we found ourselves in the middle of National Open Monument Day, when once a year closed locations of all kinds are opened to the public. We hit a few highlights, such as the Kabinet der Koningin and the Kloosterkerk, where Prince Maurits changed Dutch history by attending Counterremonstrant services (see van Deursen). We were disappointed not to be able to visit two locations in the Binnenhof, which were on the list but turned out to be closed after all: the Ridderzaal and the meeting hall of the First Chamber of the Dutch Parliament. We were told that the government closed these locations only the day before, when it dawned on them what the date was.