Woman of the Week: Suzanne Valadon (née Marie-Clémentine Valadon)

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Self-portrait (1927)

‘Suzanne’ Valadon (1865-1938) was born as the bastard Marie-Clémentine Valadon, and only acquired the name by which we know her today as an adult, when her work as a live model for the artists of Montmartre earned her the nickname derived from the biblical story, Susanna and the Elders. She graduated from modelling to using models herself as a painter and artist, and became known for the individuality lent to her work by her female perspective, although she is, somewhat sadly, perhaps best remembered as the mother of Impressionist painter Maurice Utrillo.

Though born in Bessines, Suzanne moved to Paris as a small child. She began to work when she was just 11, finding various jobs including waiting tables and factory work, until she ended up performing as an acrobat in a circus around the age of 15. Though she wanted to continue in this line of work, a serious back injury obtained from a fall whilst on the trapeze prevented her from pursuing this passion, and she turned instead to modelling.

Her first known employer was Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, with whom it is generally assumed she had some kind of romantic or sexual relationship. However, she also had a relationship with Miguel Utrillo, beginning in 1881, and it was he who eventually claimed paternity of the illegal child that Suzanne gave birth to in 1883. Maurice Utrillo, as he became known, was raised largely by his grandmother as Suzanne continued to model and started her career as an artist.

Though her career started with Puvis, Suzanne had become a popular model for many other artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir, who is attributed as the inspiration behind her nickname. She cultivated strong relationships with many of them, being romantically involved with Lautrec while becoming firm friends with Edward Degas, one of the most ardent advocates of her work. Through her observation of their techniques while they painted her, and with their instruction and influence, Suzanne became a self-taught artist who specialised in the female nude and frank, candid portraits.

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Danse à Bougival (Pierre-August Renoir, 1883) features Suzanne Valadon as the principal dancer

As models, Suzanne frequently used her own mother and son, depicting domestic scenes with a gratifying sincerity that can be found equally in her female nudes. Criticised by some for her bold style, with her figures being accused of being ‘too masculine’, others consider her startling honest treatment of the female form as the evidence of her talent. Although other female artists, such as Berthe Morisot, also favoured female subjects, Suzanne’s lower-class background gave her the liberty to paint nudes where their bourgeoisie roots held them back. Thus, Suzanne provided some of the first widely known representations of the female form produced from a female perspective.

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Catherine reclining nude on a leopard skin (1923)

In 1894, Suzanne became the first woman to ever exhibit at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, though it was only after her marriage to stockbroker Paul Mousis in 1896 that her new-found financial stability gave her the time to dedicate herself to her art. It was in the early 20th century that her perhaps most famous tableaux, such as Adam and Eve, Casting the net and The joy of life were finished. These large-scale oil paintings became famous for daring to show men as an object of desire for women, and for being the first pieces by a female artist to focus on sexual pleasure in general.

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Casting the net (Le lancement de fillet) – 1914 (Centre Georges Pompidou)

The subject of these paintings was her significantly younger lover, a painter named Andre Utter who was a friend of her artist son’s. She divorced Mousis in 1913 to remarry Utter, and the three artists lived together in Montmartre, where their former atelier now forms part of the Museum of Montmartre, supporting themselves off their work. By the 20s, though, their relationship had declined, and the pair eventually separated unofficially. Suzanne died in 1938, suffering a stroke whilst painting at her easel and dying in hospital shortly after.

Woman of the Week: Queen Christina Alexandra (née Kristina Augusta Wasa)

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Christina aged approximately 16, between 1640 and 1642 (by Jacob Henry Elbfas)

Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) isn’t one of the few queens that people actually know about, but it certainly isn’t because her life and character don’t merit the recognition. Literally from the moment she was born, Christina was causing scandals. Apparently born with unusual quantities of hair and a ‘strong, hoarse voice’, the birthing attendants initially believed the infant to be a male, which entertained her father, Gustav II Adolf, immensely. ‘She’ll be clever,’ he said, ‘she has made fools of us all!’

 

 

 

In fact, the strange stories about her birth, as well as her reportedly masculine behaviour and appearance, has lead modern historians to theorise that she may have had one or more unacknowledged disorders, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (which can cause hirsutism and obesity), Pervasive Developmental Disorder (encompassing behavioural disorders such as autism), or Disorder of Sex Development (involving abnormal development of sexual characteristics), although her skeleton was judged ‘typically female’ when analysed in 1965.

Having no other children, Gustav arranged for his daughter to be raised exactly as a male heir would have been, from studying statecraft and sciences to learning to fence and hunt bears. It wasn’t surprising, then, that she became known as ‘the Girl King’ when at age 6, she inherited her father’s kingdom after his death in the Thirty Year’s War – even at her coronation, her official title was ‘King of the Swedes, Goths and Wends’.

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Christina depicted on horseback in a portrait intended to gain favour with Philip IV of Spain, in 1653 (by Sébastien Bourdon)

Due to her youth, Sweden was ruled by a Privy Council until she came of age at 18, but Christina attended council meetings from the age of 14, showing a keen interest in politics and diplomacy. She is reported to have spent 10 hours a day at her studies, learning up to 8 languages other than her native Swedish and developing an interest in culture, religion and art that would last throughout her life.

As reigning queen, Christina continued to be an enthusiastic patron of the arts, gathering scholars, musicians and artists to her court, among which were philosopher René Descartes and kabbalist Menasseh Ben Israel, as well as various prominent Jesuits. It was her discussions with these last that finally convinced the young Queen that she should convert to Catholicism – a significant decision, considering that at the time, it was illegal to be Catholic in the country of Sweden. The punishment for such an offence? Only execution.

Nonetheless, Christina was determined. She had already made her first cousin, Charles X Gustav, her heir in 1649, and in 1652, after strong opposition from her advisors, Christina abdicated in favour of her heir, citing her desire to remain celibate as the reason for her decision. Immediately after the ceremonies were concluded, she disguised herself in men’s clothing so as to pass herself off as ‘Count Dohna’ whilst travelling through Denmark, a country still hostile to Swedish monarchy, on her way to Rome.

The true reasons for Christina’s celibacy may not have been purely religious motives, however. Christina’s sexuality remains a mystery even now, as she was rumoured to have romantic liaisons with both men and women but had no public relationships throughout her life. She was conjectured to have had relationships with both Charles Gustav and her long-time friend and bookkeeper, Decio Azzolino, but also with a female friend, Ebba Sparre, who is frequently alleged to have been the Queen’s lover due to the Queen’s description of her as her ‘bed-fellow’, and the intensely emotional letters written between them, which included the Queen declaring that she would always love Ebba.

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Monument to Christina in St Peter’s Basilica, ordered by Pope Innocent XII in 1702

Upon reaching Rome, Christina enjoyed considerable popularity, becoming famous as the monarch who gave up her country for her love of God. She spent the remainder of her life maintaining her extensive patronage of the arts whilst living in Italy and France. Though she made a failed attempt to regain the Swedish throne after the death of Charles X Gustav, Christina ultimately never returned to power and died in relative peace in 1689 in her palace in Rome, leaving her autobiography unfinished. Contrary to her wishes, Pope Innocent XI arranged for her to be buried with great ceremony in the Grotte Vatican beneath the St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, making her the third woman ever to be interred there.

 

 

 

Woman of the Week: Hedy Lamarr (née Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler)

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Hedy in a publicity shot, 1940

How many inventors can lay claim to the title ‘the Most Beautiful Woman in Films?’ There’s just one who springs to mind, but such singularity is typical to Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000), the Austro-Hungarian film star who invented the basis of Wifi and Bluetooth in her free time. Gorgeous, successful and obviously ingenious, Hedy is the kind of role model the world should know about.

Hedy’s life was fascinating before she ever began to dabble in inventing. The daughter of Jewish-born parents, Hedy was born in Vienna, capital of the now obsolete Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the late 20’s, she trained as an actress in Berlin under theatre great Max Reinhardt. A year after appearing as an extra in her first film, Geld auf der Straße, she caused worldwide sensation by starring in 1933 film Extase, in which she not only appeared naked in numerous scenes, but even mimicked an orgasm onscreen – the first time a female actor had done so in a theatrically-released film.

After the attention garnered by her acting, at 19, Hedy married Friedrich Mandl, an Austrian military arms manufacturer and one of the richest men in the country. Her husband turned out to be a controlling pro-Fascist, and Hedy found herself practically imprisoned in her own luxurious home. It was there, though, that she first became familiar with weapons technology, as she attended dinners with her husband where conversation focused around new developments in armaments and artillery.

Opinions differ as to how she left her suffocating and morally compromising marriage. Hedy claimed to have drugged her maid to escape disguised in her clothes, but other sources suggest she simply disappeared during a dinner party to which she had worn as much expensive jewellery as possible. In either case, by 1937 she had met Louis B. Mayer in Paris and signed a contract with MGM studios, thus launching her Hollywood career. She chose her film name out of reverence for silent film star, the late Barbara La Marr.

Hedy’s smouldering good looks and the scent of scandal that surrounded her guaranteed her success in the flourishing film industry. She starred in various famous films over a period of 20 years, starting with Algiers in 1938 and including Boom Town (1940) with Clark Gable as leading man, White Cargo (1942) and Samson and Delilah (1949), which was at the time of its release the third highest-grossing film made.

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Hedy as Delilah in 1949 film, Samson and Delilah

Being frequently typecast as little more than a glamorous sex symbol with relatively few acting challenges, Hedy sought distraction in inventing, despite having no formal training. Horrified by the course of World War 2, she turned her inventing attentions to the war effort. Hedy realised the importance of radio-guided torpedoes but lamented how easily they could be disarmed by jamming the radio signal controlling them. To get around this, she proposed the idea of frequency-hopping: sending messages via multiple different frequencies, changing rapidly and semi-randomly from one to another so that it would be harder to block. If the control centre was synced to change to the same frequencies as the torpedo, the message would still be received perfectly clearly.

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” – Hedy Lamarr

Sharing her ideas with composer George Antheil, the pair used piano rolls as the foundations of the device that would actually allow this frequency-hopping, the earliest form of spread-spectrum communication. They patented their ‘Secret Communication System’ in 1942, and submitted the idea to the US Navy, who took little

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Excerpt from 1942 Lamarr-Antheil patent

notice of the civilians’ suggestion until 1962, when it was used during the Cuban missile crisis. Unfortunately, by this time, the patent had expired. The same patent is now recognised as the basis of the field of frequency-hopping, widely used not only in military communications but in all kinds of wireless transmission including Wifi, Bluetooth and CDMA (used in GPS and mobile phones).

Hedy and George’s impressive work finally began to find acknowledgement in 1997, with both of them receiving the American Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer award, prompting Hedy’s sardonic remark, ‘Well, it’s about time.’ A century after her birth, and 14 years after her death, Hedy was also posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

 

Woman of the Week: Rumer Godden (née Margaret Rumer Godden)

“I wish I knew when I was going to die,’ ninety-six-year-old Dame Frances Anne often said, ‘I wish I knew.’
‘Why, Dame?’
‘Then I should know what to read next.” In This House of Brede, 1969

Rumer Godden was a 20th century author who wrote with wit, charm and sensitive insight into human nature in its various manifestations. Though born in England in 1907, Rumer lived in modern-day Bangladesh until her parents decided to send her to school in England at the age of 12.  The influence of this experience during her formative years can be seen in the vividly colourful characters and settings for her novels, as she describes a stately old mansion in Cornwall with the same lively detail as her one-time home in a primitive cottage in the mountains of Kashmir.

Rumer was soon to return to the country that had already laid such a strong claim to her heart, as she and her older sister, Jon, struggled to settle into English life. While in London, she had trained as a dancer despite having serious spinal damage resulting from a bad fall as a child, and in 1925 Rumer moved to Calcutta to open a mixed-race dancing school. Despite public shock at her audacity, Rumer and her younger sister Nancy ran the Peggy Godden School of Dance successfully for 20 years.

When the Second World War broke out, Rumer was unhappily married to Laurence Foster, with two young children, Jane and Paula, and had just published her first best-seller, the novel Black Narcissus, which dealt with a group of Catholic nuns living in India. Her husband having joined the army, Rumer decided to move to Kashmir with her children in 1942, living initially on a houseboat and later in a remote house in the mountains. The small family lived without many modern luxuries of the time, such as electricity or running water, but were still considered as well-off compared to the local Indians. Their time in Kashmir came to an abrupt end when it was discovered that their Indian cook had tried to poison them by adding ground-up glass to their food, in addition to quantities of opium and marijuana, with no apparent motive. Finding little support from the community, both of locals and other British colonists, Rumer returned to England to support her children through her writing.

Rumer divorced her first husband in 1948 and remarried the year after, her second choice being James Hayn Dixon, who she remained with til his death despite her wry comment that she “loved Mr. Darcy far more than any of [her] own husbands.” Since her first publication in 1937, Rumer had been writing prolifically, and her output remained consistent until her death in 1998, with her last novel, Cromartie versus the God Shiva acting through the Government of India, being released the year before.

Though reasonably widely acknowledged as an influential European writer of the 20th century, since her death almost twenty years ago, Godden’s legacy has faded from attention. But the themes of  childhood innocence and the contrasting corruption of adult life that emerge through much of her work remain as relevant today as half a century ago.

“I know now it is children who accept life; grown people cover it up and pretend it is different with drinks.” (The Greengage Summer, 1957)

Her work, whether intended for adults or children, throbs with theatrical characterisation and fascinating stories woven into the tapestry of everyday life, reflecting the huge array of experiences she had in her own life.

Famous Works:

The River, 1946
The Diddakoi, 1972 (Winner of the 1972 Whitbread Award in the Children’s Book category)

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Portrait for Vogue, 1947

Woman of the Week: Marie Laurencin

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Self Portrait (around 1905 – Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris)

Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) was a contemporary of Picasso and Delaunay and friends with both. Despite the significant role she played in the Paris avant-garde movement, her artwork remained largely uninfluenced by the Cubism being developed by her close associates, and is frequently forgotten today.

 

Marie, illegitimately born to Pauline Laurencin, cited her date of birth as 1885, claiming that ‘the age of a natural child is always mysterious – it is found neither in reality nor in dreams, it is not determined by a date.’ Her father, a tax collector who refused to officially recognise his daughter, visited her rarely.

Marie’s career began officially when she went to Sèvres to study porcelain painting at the age of 18. She soon returned to Paris to study at the Académie Humbert, where she turned her focus to oil painting, one of the mediums she would use most often in her recognisable works. It was there, too, that she first met George Braque and Georges Lepape, fellow students who were impressed equally by the fantastic, whimsical canvases she executed with such apparent ease, and her engrossing personality – ‘my name’s Marie Laurencin,’ she told the curious Lepape, ‘but call me Coco.’

At the age of 24, Marie exhibited at the famous Salon des Indépendants for the first time. She met Picasso, who in turn introduced her to Guillaume Apollinaire, and soon became ensconced in the circle of artists and writers that made up the avant-garde movement and particularly the Section d’Or, which focused on Cubism and Orphism. She began a long-term romantic relationship with Apollinaire, being generally recognised as his muse and particularly as the Tristouse Ballerinette from his 1916 work, ‘Le Poète assassiné’.

Marie married a German artist, Otto von Wätjen, in 1913, causing her to flee to exile in Spain when war broke out a year later, as she had lost her French citizenship upon marriage. She remained there until 1919, finding solace and inspiration in the works of Vélasquez and Goya, and beginning friendships with various new artists, including Gleizes, Delaunay and Picabia, the latter two with which she would later exhibit. She divorced her husband in 1921, and would go on to have various affairs, often with well-known figures such as diplomat Philippe Berthelot and lesbian literary expatriate, Natalie Clifford Barney.

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Portrait de Mademoiselle Chanel (1923 – Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris)

 

 

In this period, Marie made a name for herself as a portraitist, with the famous faces gracing her canvases ranging from ladies of nobility to Coco Chanel. In 1923, Serge de Dhiagelev asked her to undertake the décor and costuming for his ballet, ‘Les Biches’. Her work was received successfully, and ballet costuming and décor became a new facet of her creative expression.

Though criticised for her repetitive subjects and relatively unvaried style, Marie’s work remains highly recognisable for those very reasons. She preferred to depict young girls with dreamy, mask-like features, accompanied by various animals, from unicorns to swans to faithful hounds. Both human and beast frequently have a strong sense of unreality, with figures appearing to undergo transfigurative processes within the image. She focused on themes of femininity, relying heavily on pastel shades of blue, pink and grey which she felt helped to express these themes.

Upon her death in 1956, caused by cardiac arrest, Marie was buried in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery according to her wishes: dressed in, with a rose clutched in one hand and the love letters written to her by Guillaume Apollinaire laid across her heart.

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Watercolour for ‘Les Biches’ (1923 – Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris)

 

 

 

Woman of the Week: Ada Lovelace (née Augusta Ada Byron)

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Ada in 1840 (by Alfred Edward Chalon)

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) is known as the ‘mother of modern computing’, but not by nearly enough of the world. The only legitimate child of the famous poet, Lord Byron, she deserves fame in her own right for her contributions to computing and mathematics, a field vastly different from her father’s.

Ada never knew Lord Byron, thanks in part to his dying when she was just 8 years old, but more specifically due to her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke, maintaining a violent dislike for her husband, who she considered insane. Hoping to discourage any similar tendencies in their only offspring, she encouraged Ada to study mathematics and science, which she believed would help subdue poetic (and thus insane) proclivities.

Whether due to her mother’s grooming or her own natural talent, Ada’s zest for innovation and learning manifested at an early age. When she was just 12, Ada was designing wings to allow human flight, using her anatomical observations of birds to determine the size, shape and materials that would best achieve her goal.

Her education was enhanced greatly by the opportunity of having Mary Somerville, one of the first known female scientists, as a tutor. Becoming close friends with the Scottish mathematician, it was Somerville who both encouraged her studies in higher mathematics and who would eventually introduce her to Charles Babbage in 1833. The 17 year old scholar quickly gained his respect and began an extensive correspondence with him in which they discussed mathematics and Babbage’s invention, an early calculator he called the difference machine. Babbage clearly respected his gifted protégée, coming to refer to her as the ‘Enchantress of Number’.

Ada shed her famous father’s name in 1835, upon marrying William King, later the first Earl of Lovelace. Fortunately, King appears to have supported her scholastic pursuits, and together the couple enjoyed the society of various known academics of the time including Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens. Family life didn’t prevent Ada’s continuing endeavours – in fact, her most famous contributions were made only after the birth of her third and last child.

In 1842, Ada started translating a French work describing Babbage’s newest computational concept, called Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage. However, the notes and algorithms that she added to the basic translation were so abundant that by the time it was published, the work was largely her own.

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Though not visually impressive, the Bernouli algorithm is recognised today as the world’s first computer program

There remains contention regarding whether Ada herself wrote an algorithm intended to compute Bernouli numbers, widely considered to be the first known computer program. While it is certain that she worked on it, some scholars believe that the actual calculations were performed by Babbage, with Ada only editing it and specifically correcting a major error made by the older mathematician. Regardless of the exact details, it was remarkable work for the 26 year old that gives Ada and Babbage every right to their titles as the ‘mother and father’ of computer programming.  In addition, Ada is credited with being the first to recognise the wider application of using algorithms for any sort of information, such as music or language, by converting the data into numerical form. Today, this concept seems meaninglessly abstruse or glaringly self-evident: at the time, it was revolutionary.

“[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations…” – (notes on Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage, 1843)

Sadly, from 1843, Ada’s health declined and she began to drink heavily and rely on opiates prescribed as painkillers, causing her moods to be erratic. Her habit of gambling resulted in huge debts after she tried unsuccessfully to devise a mathematical model allowing for large wins, and this minor scandal was exacerbated by rumours of affairs with various men. She died tragically young in 1852, aged just 36, from uterine cancer.

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A portrait of Ada in 1836, jokingly described thus in a letter: “I conclude [the artist] is bent on displaying the whole expanse of my capacious jaw bone upon which the word Mathematics should be written.” (by Margaret Carpenter)

Woman of the Week: Desirée Clary (née Bernardine Eugénie Désirée Clary)

Desirée Clary (1777-1860) was a woman who knew how to climb the social ladder. Born the daughter of a reasonably wealthy silk merchant in Marseilles, she ended up being the Queen of two nations and a political informant within the French government. That begs the question – well, how? The answer is simple, as technically all she had to do was marry the right man, but the story is far more interesting.

It starts just after the French Revolution, when in 1794 Desirée became engaged to a young soldier from Corse called Bonaparte, but the arrangement was broken off so that Desirée’s older sister, Julie, could marry him instead. A bad deal for Desirée? Not really, considering that the change was suggested by Bonaparte’s younger brother, who had his eye on Desirée himself – another soldier, very recently elevated to the status of general, whose first name just so happened to be Napoleon.

In another turn of events that ended up being a blessing in surprise, Napoleon soon abandoned Desirée to become involved with Josephine de Beauharnais, a wealthy and influential widow in the Parisian ‘set’. Throughout his life, though, he maintained a respect and affection for his one-time fiancée that would give her a unique position within the inner machinations of the French government.

Returning to Paris after a sojourn in Italy with her sister, Desirée soon found herself romantically linked to another French general, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who she married in 1798. Bernadotte was already a well-known and well-liked figure in the military before Napoleon’s rise to power, and was seen by many as the ideal alternative to the despotic Bonaparte. As the wife and ex-fiancee of these two powerful rivals, Desirée had to contend with both factions trying to use her as a political pawn.

Though Bonaparte hoped to end Bernadotte’s military and political influence in 1809, when he stripped the other man of the Marshal’s baton (and rank) that he had bestowed upon him in 1804, a healthy dose of karma helped to balance the scales again. Bernadotte’s benevolent treatment of some Swedish prisoners brought him to the attention of the aging, heirless King Charles XIII of Sweden, who eventually adopted him as his royal heir.

Thus Desirée became the Crown Princess, and inevitably, after the old King’s death in 1818, the Queen of Sweden and Norway. Finding the -20 weather that greeted her upon her first arrival in Sweden to be rather not to her taste, Desirée flatly refused to stay in her adopted kingdom and returned to Paris instead, where she remained for 12 years.

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Desirée as Queen Consort in 1822 (by Fredric Westin)

Whilst there, though her personal relationship with Bernadotte drifted into insignificance, she stayed in close contact with him so as to provide Sweden with the latest political news in Europe and France. By receiving important personages like Talleyrand and
Fouché
, and playing on her lingering intimacy with Napoleon, she helped to mediate political conflicts between the country of her birth and that of which she became Queen, despite a self-professed lack of interest in politics and government.

Though Desirée did eventually move permanently to Sweden in 1823, to remain until her death, the French habits and expectations that she clung to were at odds with Swedish culture, and she never truly adapted to – or was adopted by – the nation with the enthusiasm of her husband.