A slice of life, a foreshadowing of death.
Concentrating on just ten months of Viennese history between July, 1888, and May, 1889, Morton dissects the life of Vienna vertically, revealing its brilliance and its contrasts–its magnificence but ineffable sadness, its political gamesmanship but resistance to social change, its “correctness” of behavior but its anti-Semitism, and its patronage of the arts and sciences but its refusal to acknowledge true originality. He carefully selects details with which the modern reader can identify to create a full picture, both of the historical characters and the constricted settings in which they try to live and breathe.
Focusing on Crown Prince Rudolf as romantic hero, liberal thinker, and sensitive social reformer, Morton selects details which show Rudolf’s resentment of his figurehead position, his lack of power to effect change, and his fears for the future of the monarchy. He is presented as a modern man trying to live within a fusty and stultifying environment. Also chafing against limitations on their creativity are artist Gustave Klimt, writers Arthur Schnitzler and Theodor Herzl, musicians Arnold Schonberg, Gustav Mahler, and Anton Bruckner, and psychiatrist Dr. Sigmund Freud, whose detailed stories of frustration run parallel with that of the Crown Prince and enhance it. Only Baroness Mary Vetsera, age 17 and full of life, is able to escape the bonds of Viennese “correctness,” attracting Rudolf, having a brief affair with him, and eventually succumbing with him in a suicide pact at Mayerling.
Morton’s scholarship and care for detail are obvious throughout, but he goes far beyond most other historians in his ability to involve the reader and make him empathize with the long-dead people in his book. In his hands the events at Mayerling become understandable–though no less sad. One can only wonder how history might have changed if Rudolf had been a partner with his father, Emperor Franz Joseph, rather than a powerless figurehead.
Note: Also reviewed here: Morton’s THUNDER AT TWILIGHT
The author’s photo is from http://www.austrianinformation.org