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W + W – a story of chance and love

We’re in the summer of 1864. Wilhelmina Kempe is presently at a German Spa, Bad Homburg, recovering after her third season. Yup. Her third season. An endless sequence of balls and other social events, of waltzing the night away, and she is still unwed. Not good. She is fast approaching twenty and is therefore the cause of some concern to her parents. I mean, a daughter that old who is as yet unwed runs the risk of becoming an old maid.

Wilhelmina Kempe is the only daughter of Wilhelm Kempe and his wife, Johanna. Her father is an immensely successful businessman who operates several profitable sawmills. Wilhelmina is therefore a major heiress – which indirectly is why Wilhelmina has turned down every single proposal she has received. There have been many proposals, but Wilhelmina has expectations: she wants her future husband to want her more than her money. I know: utterly inconceivable, but there you are, Wilhelmina is a modern young lady.

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The Ball, Victor Gilbert

There is not an unwed man of good family in Sweden who doesn’t know who Wilhelmina is—or more specifically, how much she is worth. After three seasons, Wilhelmina has danced her way through the whole lot of them and she finds them…bland. Insipid, even. Definitely exhausting, hence the visit to exotic Germany, far away from Swedish high society.

The Kempe family is a regular visitor at Bad Homburg. Wilhelm Kempe goes there for his health, his wife and daughter accompany him for a brief respite from the hectic social life in Stockholm. They enjoy spending time in Germany as German is their first language. Yes, the Kempe family is Swedish, but they have their roots in Swedish Pomerania, belong to the German Church in Stockholm and, as a matter of course, have employed a German-speaking fräulein as Wilhelmina’s governess.

Wilhelmina has not had the benefit of a thorough, in-depth education. Young ladies such as she need an adequate amount of education, a nice little veneer, no more. After all, like all young women of her time, Wilhelmina’s future is already staked out: she is to wed and have babies, focussing on making a home for her family. Things are changing, though. Wilhelmina’s father is a fine example of this, seeing as he not only wants to see his daughter wed, but also to see her happily wed. Love and compatibility may not be as important as breeding and money in the marriage mart—not yet—but young people are increasingly insisting that they want to like each other before signing up for a life together. Wilhelm is all for that: he has, after all, experienced just how important a happy marriage is. He and Johanna have been wed for yonks, and while there is only the one child to show for it, theirs is an affectionate relationship.

Wilhelmina herself has described her education as “lacking”, something she finds very surprising given that her own mother was the recipient of a very in-depth education. The reason for that is that Mrs Kempe had brothers and was allowed to participate in their lessons with their private tutor. Wilhelmina, however, had no brothers, hence no need for a tutor. So instead of wrestling with Latin declinations and advanced maths, Wilhelmina has become an excellent embroiderer—and a somewhat dedicated collector, staring off with seashells but quickly upgrading to Meissen porcelain and medieval armour. Over time, Wilhelmina will amass huge collections spanning everything from 17th century furnishings to portraits to porcelain to…well, she is rich, after all. The quality of her collections indicate she is not only rich, but also both astute and knowledgeable. But more of this later.

Anyway: there the Kempe family is, enjoying the tranquillity of the Spa when a young man sends them a little letter, wondering if he may have the pleasure of calling upon them. Walter Hallwyl is a rich young widower hailing from Switzerland and it just so happens that Wilhelmina’s governess knows a young woman who is a friend of the Hallwyl family. This young lady, Fanny, has informed Walter that the Kempe family are at Bad Homburg and suggests he pop by to visit. Is there an ulterior motive? No idea. Maybe Fanny feels her heart-broken widower friend needs to find a new love. Or maybe she is seriously worried dear Mina will end up permanently frozen on the iceberg of spinsterhood. Or maybe she just makes an innocent suggestion…

Whatever the case, Walter meets Wilhelmina. Wilhelmina meets Walter. Love, as they say, is in the air. Cupid’s arrows pierce their hearts. (So one hopes. Wilhelmina expresses in her diary that she is so happy to meet a man who knows nothing of her financial status but seems to like her for who she is. Walter, however, has travelled extensively in Sweden and assuredly has a pretty good idea of her worth). Two weeks after that first meeting, Walter proposes. Wilhelmina is all a-flutter—but this is not her decision to make. Walter therefore approaches Wilhelmina’s father in writing—and has his suit rejected. Wilhelm has his doubts: he worries that Walter is still on the rebound after the death of his wife some years ago. He is also very reluctant to have Wilhelmina wed a man who has no intention of making Sweden his home. After all, Wilhelm need an heir to his financial empire.

For the first time in her life, Wilhelmina refuses to bide by her father’s decision. She begs, she wheedles, she exclaims over and over again that in Walter she has found her soul-mate. Without him, she will never be happy, never, you hear? (I imagine teenagers back then were as melodramatic as they are now). Wilhelm relents. But he makes it a condition that Walter must make Sweden his home.

Now the Hallwyl family is an old, old Swiss family, complete with a medieval castle. To “deny thy father and refuse thy name” (okay, okay, a bit exaggerated, but still) is a big step to take. After all, the Hallwyl family have since times immemorial served their nation and Walter is an officer of the Swiss Army. But Wilhelmina is pretty, and Walter is young, and the coffers of the Kempe family are filled to overflowing, and Walter does have an older brother, so… The long and the short of it is that Walter agrees. In December of 1864, our twenty-five-year-old widower moves to Stockholm and the engagement of Miss Wilhelmina Kempe to Walter Hallwyl is announced to the world.

More or less immediately, the preparations for the wedding commence. The ceremony will be held in the bride’s home and other than arranging said ceremony and the subsequent wining & dining, there is a trousseau to assemble, clothes to prepare, linen to be monogrammed. And in between this, our young couple is also getting to know each other.

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In Love, Marcus Stone

To judge from surviving little missives, their relationship quickly develops into a genuine love affair. They send each other notes on a daily basis (despite seeing each other every day) and at some point so many are the notes sent back and forth they could probably hire their own little messenger boy. All very sweet, but the notes also indicate the odd tiff, moments of sombre moods etc. A relief, really, as life is rarely a constant sugar-coated pink, is it?

In June of 1865, Wilhelmina Kempe marries Walter Hallwyl. The bride is in white—ever since Queen Victoria married her Arthur in white and veils young brides have opted for this colour instead of the more traditional black. Wilhelmina’s veil is held in place by a circlet of myrtle and adorned with a myrtle crown. Her dress is a feminine version of the uniform her groom is wearing. To our modern eyes, it is surprisingly strict. The bride compensates in what she wears beneath: silk stockings, embroidered garters, sheer linen and a beautiful corset that enhances the swell of her hips and her bosoms (it also reduces her waistline to a mere 53 centimetres). Once divested of her dress, Wilhelmina will look sensual and alluring.

Wilhelmina at the time of her wedding, 1865
Wilhelmina at the time of her wedding, 1865 (Hallwyl Museum)

Some days after their wedding, Walter and Wilhelmina depart for Switzerland. It is time for Wilhelmina to meet the in-laws. She has corresponded with them, and to judge from surviving letters, the Hallwyl parents are delighted their son has found a new wife—they have been concerned, as Walter has shown signs of melancholia after his first wife dies (does him credit, that does) While in Switzerland, Walter is ordered to report to his regiment. Off he goes to do his officer thing, leaving Mina in the tender care of his mother and father. Once again, the young couple correspond more or less daily. The letters indicate a growing affection and passion, with Walter expressing just how much he longs to kiss his dearest wife, the most precious thing in his life. Every night, he kisses the gift she has given him, a miniature of herself and a lock of her hair encased in a gold medallion.

He writes of how he longs for her, how much he desires “to create something beautiful with you” next time they meet. And Wilhelmina very much wants to “create something beautiful” as well, but she worries this may have an impact on the new little life she suspects is growing in her womb. Walter is ecstatic: married less than three months and she is already with child! Maybe come May they will be able to welcome a little Walter into the world!

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Walter in 1865 (Hallwyl Museum)

By the time May 1866 comes round, the family is back in Sweden. And the child is a girl, Ebba. Wilhelm Kempe is delighted with his grandchild but is mostly busy solving the thorny issue regarding what his son-in-law is to do with his life in Sweden. Walter is too young and inexperienced to step into a top management role in the family business. As a Swiss officer, he cannot enrol in the Swedish army. As a gentleman, he isn’t supposed to work—it would reflect badly on them all. This leaves only one option: Walter must become a landowner. Wilhelm therefore buys his daughter and her husband a sizeable estate. Thing is, neither Wilhelmina nor Walter are exactly escape to the country peeps. Besides, the political situation in Europe requires Walter to be in Switzerland and fulfil his military duties. So poor Wilhelmina spends a lot of time at their manor alone. Very alone. Yes, she manages things capably and finds some stimulation in her expanding collections (Walter is a warm admirer of his wife’s various collections and is likely aware that investing time and effort in this pursuit energises her) but she misses her husband. He pops by for visits resulting in daughters number two and three. Sadly, little Elna, daughter number three, dies of poisoning before her second birthday.

In 1874, Walter moves permanently to Sweden. He desires to be a good husband and a good father to his three daughters (A fourth girl, Irma, is born in 1873) Mina is very happy to have him with her full time. This is a marriage built on genuine affection, so much so that the loving couple share a bedroom instead of having separate rooms. Life rolls on. Wilhelm Kempe’s fortune grows, Walter learns the business. The Hallwyl family is destined to become one of the wealthiest families in Sweden once Wilhelm passes. Unfortunately, those riches will not be passed to a son, which in effect means that the Swedish branch of the Hallwyl family will die out with Walter.

Despite this fact, the Hallwyl name lives on in Sweden. Why? Well, it all has to do with Wilhelmina’s collections and her determination to house all her precious artifacts adequately. In the last decade of the 19th century, the Hallwyls build themselves a new home, a home that includes such modernities as a bathroom but which is decorated with Wilhelmina’s exquisite objects. Medieval tapestries, 17th century gilded leather “wallpaper”, baroque furnishings, 16th century chests, antique carpets—all of this is tastefully integrated into the finished product. A home to be proud of, a home that breathes wealth and culture and refinement. A home that was gifted in its entirety to the Swedish state and can therefore still be visited, which is verily like stepping into a time capsule.

There, on the walls, hang portraits of Walter and Wilhelmina, of their daughters and grandchildren. Who could have imagined that a chance meeting in a German Spa town would result in this monument to a long and very happy marriage, hey? Although, of course, we will never know just how much of a chance that meeting really was.

NOTE: If you are ever in Stockholm, I warmly recommend you to visit the Hallwyl museum and spend a couple of hours wandering the impressive rooms.  

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