Een freule van dertien
Hofschandalen in de 19e eeuw
Madelon Djajadiningrat
Published by Conserve, March 2006

Few people will probably realize how rare a publication like “Sovereign Between Two Worlds” is. That is the first sentence the well known writer Hella Haasse wrote in her preface to this book. For Madelon Djajadiningrat, a historical anthropologist who is married to a grandson of the sovereign, has been able to write a historical novel, thanks to diaries, letters and material found in the archives, about a ruler who was doomed to live in between two worlds.

Often she stayed in the palace at Solo, Mid Java, where she enjoyed ample access to both family life and the archives. That enabled her to step into the shoes of the Javanese sovereign and to tell his story, a story that connects us with life in the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies in the first half of the previous century.

As the son of a Javanese sovereign, Soeparto, the later Mangkoenegoro VII, departs for the Netherlands in 1913 to study Eastern Literature at the University of Leiden. In 1914 the first World War breaks out. Already trained as a reserve officer, he is called up during the mobilization to help defend the Netherlands.
He returns to Java in 1915 in order to succeed his uncle as sovereign. As he had been inspired in the Netherlands by the progressive ideas of the time, he feels a renaissance of the Javanese culture to be necessary.

Primarily, there was a lot of interest for his endeavors. Around the sovereign there grew a circle of prominent scientists, artists, administrators and even missionaries, who met regularly in order to discuss possible future developments. They were not able to prevent, however, that with upcoming socialism, nationalism and the economic crisis at the end of the twenties, the policy of the Dutch government was becoming increasingly conservative.

More and more the sovereign came to clash with the impossibilities of the colonial situation and the limits of the feudal system. Even modernizing his realm in order to promote prosperity, met with resistance from the Netherlands-Indies government. Culturally, the possibilities to realize his ideas were better. Thanks to his initiative, for example, the Java Institute was formed in order to promote Javanese studies, in which western and Javanese scholars alike have endeavored to open up the Javanese culture.

The sovereign received recognition of his endeavors during the visit of the Bengal poet and Nobel prizewinner Rabindranath Tagore in 1927. Tagore saw the sovereign as one of the most important inspired cultural forces of the time.
During W.W. II, the sovereign kept aloof from the Japanese occupation. He died in 1944. We can only guess what his role would have been in the creation of the Republic, had he lived.

The novel has been very well received. A second printing already appeared in September 2006. For further information see


Some quotations that appeared in the Dutch press follow below.

Noord Hollands Dagblad, Hans Visser

Royal families appeal to one’s imagination. The outer shell is visible, but what goes on behind the façade? Moreover, the image of the Javanese dynasties has long been cloaked in fairytale mysticism. Not wrongly so, because their existence goes straight back to age old traditions that can scarcely be evaluated by western people. Therefore, no one has been able to describe life at the court from within until now. That reason alone already makes this book “Sovereign Between Two Worlds” exceptional.
It is even more interesting that in Mangkoenegoro VII a ruler is portrayed who reigned in the first half of the 20th century when a revolutionary development took place in the relations between the Netherlands and their colonial East Indies realm. In both of those worlds, the writer Madelon Djajadiningrat is an ideal guide.

NRC, Kester Freriks, June 9, 2006

In “Sovereign Between Two Worlds” Madelon Djajadiningrat presents a personal point of view. She opens her book brilliantly with the portrait that the painter Isaac Isräels painted of the Javanese ruler. He is not happy with the portrayal. He finds his expression too gloomy. At the end of this cyclic book, the sovereign studies the painting once more; he has to admit that Isräels was right in his interpretation.
Djajadiningrat describes his ultimate isolation with psychological insight and empathy. It was a good choice to let Mangkoenegoro’s study friend from their Leiden university days act as a sounding board. The conversations between the sovereign and Schrieke, his friend from Leiden, are the driving forces of the book. Their conversations have been presented in a vivid way. The writer convincingly transforms authentic material into lively elements in her novel. It is seldom that the reader can gain such insight into the secret, closed Javanese world of the monarchs.

Trouw, Joop van de Berg, August, 2006

I must say that Madelon Djajadiningrat has done well; her narration is fascinating and as an anthropologist, she knows how to explain complex situations clearly. Specifically, the role of concubines in that society is told by her with sober anthropological aplomb. The personal life of the monarch himself, his two years of study in Leiden and his period of conscripted military service in the Netherlands, are described vividly. But his inner life, torn apart by his constant need to balance between two powers, is conveyed as well with the necessary nuances. Many authentic photos owned by the family make this book a colorful acquisition.

Close window