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Gustaf III and Gustave III: Shaping an Image

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 151-168 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0006

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Whatever the political animosity devoted to Gustaf III in the last decade of his life, he seems never to have completely lost the interest, perhaps even the affection, of ordinary people.1 As the fourth Gustaf ’s image seemed to rust in front of their eyes, that of the third received considerable polishing. This refurbishment reached its greatest public culmination in the unveiling on Skeppsbron in 1808 of Johan Tobias Sergel’s statue of the King. Of equal—no, more remarkable—interest, however, is that there was at the same time a project of publishing at least some of the literary remains of the late monarch.

Now, in our day and age, when politicians apparently cannot wait to get out of office so they can press upon an apparently eager public their epics of self-justification, often amusingly referred to as memoirs, it is hard for us to see just how special, even strange, this late-Gustavian project was. With the possible exception of Queen Christina, I know of no other Swedish monarch, indeed, of few monarchs of any time or place, to whom such attention as a literary figure has been given or, even, can be given, perhaps because there has seldom been a monarch quite like Gustaf III.2

Anyone interested in this thing we call “Gustavian” must sooner or later come up against its eponym. The manuscript materials for studying the life and work of Gustaf III are extensive, but beyond one or two public collections they are also difficult to access. The publishing project I address here, however, brought together a highly selective collection of these materials. It came in two phases.

The first, appearing between 1803 and 1805, was the publication in Stockholm by Carl Delén of five volumes of a Collection des écrits politiques, littéraires et dramatiques de Gustave III, roi de Suède; suivie de sa Correspondence (The Collected Political, Literary, and Dramatic Writings of Gustaf III, King of Sweden; Followed by his Correspondence). The second, a similar set, Konung Gustaf III:s skrifter i politiska och vittra ämnen; tillika med dess brefvexling (King Gustaf III’s Writings on Political and Literary Subjects, Together with his Correspondence), came in six volumes by the same publisher between 1806 and 1812. A note at the end of the sixth Swedish volume says that the cost of the individual volumes varied from rdr. bco. 1:12 to rdr. bco. 1:36 and that the whole set cost rdr. bco. 9. As a comparison, in 1810 a copper engraving of Carl XIII, the new king, would set one back rdr. 3 and a barrel of dubbelt öl cost rdr. bco. 9:8 (Lagerqvist and Nathorst-Böös 1984, 89).3

In his preface to the Swedish edition of the King’s writings, Johan Gabriel Oxenstierna (1750–1818), says it came about at the orders of the King, “den Beskyddaren som förordnat deras utgifvande” (Gustaf 1806–12, vol. 1, p. 3 [unnumbered]) [that Protector who ordered their publication], but neither set could have come about without the King’s permission. I rather expect, as well, that the French edition got a boost from Duke Carl, who subscribed to it but not to the Swedish one, and whose irritation with his nephew, the King, was known to be growing at this time and of whom the King was, in turn, suspicious in a high degree.4 It is often assumed that Oxenstierna was the general editor for both editions, though his name appears only on the dedication of the Swedish set, and it also seems to me likely that Nils von Rosenstein (1752–1824) probably had more than a little to do with both.5 In a way, however, the real surprise is that it would seem that the late king’s favorite poet, Carl Gustaf Leopold (1756–1829) had nothing to do with either, though the French foreword to the volumes of the plays cites a few lines from him in translation. All of this noted in his brief dedication to the French set, Bernard Dechaux (1755–1849)—of whom the family genealogy says “il fut le lecteur bibliothécaire et traducteur des œuvres...

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