‘Polyphiloprogenitive’ isn’t a word a reviewer gets to use very often, so an opportunity to apply it to the Habsburg dynasty during the nineteenth century is irresistible. Though a less important ruling house prompted Queen Victoria’s comment that ‘they carry on like the rabbits in Windsor Great Park’, the remark might as easily have been made of the Austrian imperial family. The result was archdukes and archduchesses by the dozen, litters of Karl Ferdinands, Karl Salvators, Maria Christinas and Maria Isabellas whose duty was not to embarrass Emperor Franz Josef by marrying below their exalted degree. Now and then they took to drugs, eloped with their chauffeurs or appeared in public clad in nothing but the chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece. A few went mad, understandably given the stultifying protocols of the Viennese court, and just a handful turned out to be individuals of genuine talent, culture and distinction.
Archduke Wilhelm, born in 1895, belonged to one of the brighter and more evolved of the dynasty’s branches. His father Karl Stefan was an admiral in the Austrian navy, married to Maria Theresia, granddaughter of Tuscany’s last Grand Duke (who also happened to be a Habsburg). Shunning a palace in