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Chapter 11
This webpage reproduces part of
A Late Stuart Pretender

by George Sherburn

published by
The University of Chicago Press

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p124  Chapter Twelve

The Anatomy of Pretending

Varied and complicated are the processes of "pretending" to a position that is, because of irregular birth or out of sheer injustice, denied to the pretender. When the matter of birth is in question there are two distinct types of pretender: Type A realizes that in spite of illegitimacy he might expect generosity rather than severity of treatment; Type B is the clever impostor, who knows at heart that he has no claims, but brazenly pretends to a state to which, as he well knows, he has no rights. It is probable that the so‑called "Sobieski Stuarts" belonged to this latter class. Roehenstart is not quite true to either type. It seems altogether sure that he honestly and rightly believed himself to be the grandson of Prince Charles Edward, and the son of the Duchess of Albany. Pretending began when he thought of his father. To gain a partial recognition it was hardly necessary in 1816 to insist on legitimacy, but since he could hardly acknowledge an archbishop as father, he might as well fabricate a respectable and wedded father for himself — and there the complications in pretending began. It is likely that some of the fabrication was done for him in his infancy; but it would be like him to add the wedding of his parents.

Roehenstart had a mind preconditioned in many obvious ways. There was nothing flamboyant about him. In part this might be due to his awareness of the scandal involved in his paternity. In any case he did not go about with royal insignia displayed before him — as did the Sobieski Stuarts. They chose the heroic Ossianic tradition in which to publicize their claims. Roehenstart was in the quiet, sentimental, self-pitying tradition of his time. He was no Harry Richmond. His early training, about which we know little or nothing, stimulated a love of books and especially of poetry and travel books. Even in his later travels Roehenstart enjoyed depicting the tenderer human aspects of the strange people whom he  p125 visited. Idyllic shepherds, fervid Greek patriots, charming housewives, hospitable Turks — not to mention dogs, camels, gazelles, and Arabian steeds — evoked his sympathies. Even in the slave trade as practised by the Turks he found humane and not unattractive aspects.

His taste in books followed also the vein of sentiment. Probably Rousseau was a dominant formative influence, and although Roehenstart thought he outgrew Rousseau, one may have doubts. Probably some of the French verses copied in his manuscripts were of his own composition: they are practically always tender. He knew English poetry well, including Shakespeare, and the more recent writers such as Pope, Gray, and others of the eighteenth century. Among more recent poets he was fond of Falconer's Shipwreck. And he was of course most affected by Lord Byron. Scott's more heroic romance gets less attention from him than Byron. He knew the French poets of his own time, and was familiar with Haller, Goethe, and Schiller, as well as the more famous poets of Italy. It was the emotional warmth and wisdom of these writers that chiefly aroused his interest: trumpet calls found faint echoes in his soul.

Literature and travel were avenues of escape, were in a sense refuges. A shy pretender is likely to be an aloof, isolated person. Roehenstart was by nature such: he had, so far as his papers show, no friends who continued throughout his adult life. He dreaded that men did not believe his story, and so he passed from one to another and another listener, and from one to another geographical environment. He traveled much in books, and confused his actual wanderings with wishful journeys made in books. A lack of fixed center toward which he might strive diversified his intellectual life. His real gift very likely was for languages. Ability to speak several languages enormously stimulates one's opinion of himself, and Roehenstart was proud of his abilities of that sort. He was tremendously interested in historical problems of human relations. Born a few years later he might well have achieved some reputation as a classical archaeologist; but his mind rapidly involved itself warmly in any present problem — in military tactics, in chemistry, medicine, methods of smelting iron or building bridges, etc. But behind these diverse enthusiasms was the inhibiting fact of his royal blood. Men of his sort could not enter either learned professions or lucrative employments. On the other hand, it is probable that some psychological quirk about his birth kept him from marrying and settling at the Russian court. His departure from Russia was probably the great mistake in his career.

 p126  There was in his nature a strongly marked element of naïveté. One sees it, not pleasantly, in his attempt more than once to persuade a friend to transmit to other friends abusive letters (after reading them). One sees it in many places: for example, his thought that the priest who attended his mother at the time of her death might reveal details of her final confession. (Of course, Roehenstart at times was shrewd, and in this case he may simply have wished to present himself to Father Connolly, saying, "I am the son of the Duchess of Albany, whom she told you about" — and then await reactions.)

One might expect that his life at the Russian court would have modified this naïveté, although, after all, the Czar Alexander had his own store of this quality. It is possible, for example, that as chamberlain to the brother of the dowager Czarina, Roehenstart might have had a ready access to the highest personages: it is at least probable that he did not realize at all any lack of such access. And so in 1816 when he wished to present his Memorial to the Prince Regent privately and personally, he was grieved and simply astonished at the impossibility of securing such an audience. He assumes naïvely, later, that the Countess Norton as lady in waiting to his mother would be sitting by her deathbed listening to secret last words. Part of this is of course wishful thinking, but much of it is naïveté.

Roehenstart was, of course, unaware of this aspect of his mind. A sentimentalist is likely to think himself a person of subtle nuances of perception and appreciation — and not altogether without reason when it comes to casual contacts. But Roehenstart is more than a little complacent when he apologizes to his wife Constance: "If sometimes I have shown moments of impatience at seeing you could not understand what I felt, it was very wrong of me" [December 21, 1833]. The sentimentalist is almost sure to find the rest of the world at least a trifle obtuse; it is unfortunate when one states that finding to the world — or to one's wife.

Paradoxically, the sentimentalist believes that his own tender feelings and habits are common to all right-thinking men, and so he plies pathos excessively in his endeavors to secure "reclamations" from such men. Thus Roehenstart overplayed his poverty in his Memorial, and he doubtless overplayed it when he told his captive listeners the story of his wrongs. He should have realized that pathos is not very useful in the attempt to convince the inquisitive listener. It is no weapon at all in the face of suspicion. Frequently, doubtless, one listened to his sad story, and — after affording brief comfort — turned away. At times his personal  p127 charm made evidence unnecessary; and having no documentary proofs of his claims, Roehenstart had to rely on charm. Again, this is easy for one who believes that we are all made of the same sensitive clay and that the spark that kindles sympathy in one man will kindle it in another. This somewhat extreme notion is reinforced by such an outmoded idea as that royal blood speaks by instinct. Roehenstart was a strong believer in the power of "two words" spoken by one person of royal blood to move another such personage. The "sacred person" of the Prince Regent, so Roehenstart firmly believed, would recognize instantly the justice of Roehenstart's claims either at sight or at the sound of two words. So also, he thought, the Countess Norton, if he could have seen her, would have been won instantly to his cause. Charm and instinct are great matters when evidence is lacking.

They worked surprisingly on occasion. The young man from Stirling who briefly lodged in the same house with Roehenstart in Edinburgh was easily captivated. In general people seemed to recognize Roehenstart as unusual. Whenever anyone looked upon him approvingly at first sight, he was delighted. By implication — such cases seldom get on the record — when people were not impressed, they showed their limited perceptiveness. A typical triumphal moment is recorded when, as Roehenstart was leaving the house of Eki Effendi at Smyrna, the alluringly handsome black-bearded stranger, who had been silent during the visit and had "sat at his pipe unmoved," interrupted to say, as Roehenstart records it, "that he knew I was a gentleman of consequence from my manner." Such recognition is ambrosia to any pretender.

Doubtless an air of distinction, possibly inherited from his Rohan father, frequently graced Roehenstart, but more marked would be a related air of aloofness. Confidence came only in flashes; but isolation — complete as that of any picaresque hero — seemed a constant trait. Circles of friends came successively, but without any permanent accretion. Roehenstart is at home with shepherds as with courtiers: he can be sociable; but his aloofness was generally recognized, and is most striking. It is seen in his travel diaries, in which companions seldom appear. The account of the Sultan's review of the Russians is unusual, but even here the number and names of companions are not given. His accounts of roaming about the Troad, seemingly alone, his failure to mention fellow officers on the "St. Vincent", even when they must have shared in the entertaining of Smyrneot visitors — such silences about companions are typical and strange. Even more strange  p128 is the silence, in the papers preserved to us, concerning the foster parents who befriended him as a child, and the one single mention of a sister. Somehow — possibly because of his applications concerning his mother's fortune — he had cut himself off from any early friends. From among them only the Duchess of Württemberg survives in later mentions, and in this case the Duchess seems to have done the casting off: she fails to send him the money he claims as his own.

Aloofness was probably due less to delusions of grandeur than to lack of confidence. Roehenstart conceived himself less as a man born to rule or live in marble halls surrounded by vassals than he did as a man of great moral integrity — a form of pretending to which many of us fall victim. In view of his early connection with Munich and with a Protestant point of view, it may be wise to quote the draft of a late letter of his, written in English to the pastor of an English congregation in Munich, whose mother had indulged in unjust accusations concerning a lady (Mrs. B?) to whom Roehenstart had long been a friend:

Dear Sir, — I feel called upon as a Member of your Congregation, as a man of honor, a Nobleman and a Gentleman, to address to you a few lines respecting the insinuations contained in Mrs. de C's letter to Mrs. B. —

In a few days we shall meet in the House of Him who sees into all our hearts, and I, here as in his presence, assure you that whatever may be the purport, or meaning of Mrs. de C's expressions, there is not one amongst those assembled there who can present herself at the Altar of our Heavenly Father with a conscience more void of offence towards Him, and more truly worthy of the respect of all mankind, than she to whom I am, and have been for several years as a Brother and protector, under Family misfortunes and difficulties which it would be as little proper as convenient to make public.

At our respective ages, we neither seek nor desire society, nor regret on that account the change of fortune which makes prudent a life of retirement, and I must say, it appears somewhat cruel that one so unobtrusive should have been troubled by such a letter as that of Mrs. de C. —

In conclusion allow me, as an older man than yourself, and one who has lived long in what is called "the world" to advise you to do, as I have done towards yourself, during my residence in Munich, to repulse with indignation reports which are derogatory to the good name of a fellow creature.

I am, Dear Sir,

Yours truly


December 16th

 p129  Written in after the letter, in Roehenstart's hand, is the following comment:

In answer to this letter Mr. de C, instead of coming himself or writing, immediately sent his mother to make an apology, and enquire what were the reports in circulation against him! — I replied it was impossible me to mention them to any but himself; but I was quite willing to give him all the information he could require.

The man has not dared to meet me!!

The high noble tone here taken contrasts sharply with the less pleasant aspect of pretending, which is the necessary element of deception: to put it bluntly, of lying. There can be no doubt that Roehenstart lied beyond the call either of duty or diplomacy. His invention of a respectable Swedish father for himself is forgivable, if needlessly elaborated in its details. In blackening the character of the Cardinal-Duke of York, he is probably following the slanders that his grandmother had taught him, but he should have been content to make the Cardinal "the enemy" who had deprived Charlotte Stuart's family of their rightful fortune, and not to have made him a murderer. Again when he says that the Cardinal and the Countess Norton on their respective deathbeds called for him repeatedly, he is deviously using the lies to draw out from others what he is sure is truth. When he pretends to recall sitting as a small child on the knee of his grandfather, Prince Charles Edward, he prevaricates amusingly.

In all pretending there is involved The Lie: that is inevitable. But one many differentiate between that to which Roehenstart pretended and that to which he laid no claim. He believed, and it was not difficult to believe, that Cardinal York had suppressed the true last will of the Duchess of Albany and thus deprived him of a fortune. He may actually have believed that his grandmother was truly married to Prince Charles (much as the Prince Regent was married to Mrs. Fitzherbert) but he pretended disingenuously that the Duchess of Albany was secretly married to a Swedish count, and that their son had been recognized by the royal grandfather. But he did not seriously ever claim, as (if one accepted his story) he might have claimed, not too firmly, to be a formal pretender to the British throne. His real rights, as he said more than once, extended only to Frascati, i.e., to his mother's fortune. He evidently thought the story of the Swedish count advisable for popular consumption, but he knew that his real father might be easily discovered. It must have been awkward when one pressed for an explanation  p130 of the origin of the name Roehenstart. Was it not a combination of Rohan and Stuart? And if so, the reason would be obvious. It was the scandal of that possible discovery that limited Roehenstart in his pretending to his mother's estate. Awareness of that possible discovery alone can explain Roehenstart's repeated talk of the "sad business" of his claims in his Memorial of 1816. There was nothing sad about the affair if his story was accepted. A mother born in wedlock as daughter to an exiled prince and married to a respectable Swedish nobleman is nothing to be apologetic about. Obviously an imaginative liar gets confused in the tangles of his own inventions.

After canvassing Roehenstart's career one is led to conclude that it was for him a very sad day, that on which as a child (?) he learned of his royal connections. When he was not pretending, he was an amiable, intelligent, and happy man; when pretending he was unhappy because the whole world seemed unjustly all against him. Even so he seems to have taken it largely without tincture of misanthropy. Melancholy he felt, and rather enjoyed; but that was as much the tone of his age as of his personal career. When the words sic transit gloria mundi were placed on Roehenstart's tomb at Dunkeld, his friends merely meant to say, "Here lies the last of a once glorious house." Roehenstart's ought not to be called the "fag‑end" of a dynasty: in no fashion for which he was responsible, except his lying, was he a discredit either in manners or in intelligence to the house from which he claimed descent. It may even be true that much of his character as well as something of his personal appearance came from his Scottish grandmother, Clementine Walkinshaw. His life was quietly active and much of the time was happy. Yet there was little of the gloria mundi either in his tastes or in his behavior.

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Page updated: 10 Apr 17