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Merthen, Eva (1723 - 1811)

'Duchess of Finland'

During the war of 1741 - 1743, Eva Merthen was the lover and de facto wife of the Russians' commander-in-chief, James Keith, and she became famous as the main character in Z. Topelius' novel 'The Duchess of Finland' (Hertiginnan af Finland). In Topelius' view, the mildness of the Russian occupation administration was due especially to Eva Merthen.

Eva Merthen was born in Turku in 1723, one of eight children of the merchant Carl Merthen. Her paternal grandfather and his father were merchants in Turku, the last-mentioned apparently coming from Lübeck. This Anders Merthen is mentioned as a burgess of Turku in 1624. His son by his marriage to Katarina Gerdner was also called Anders Merthen and worked as the acting librarian at the University. The merchant family's links with the academic world are indicated by Carl Merthen's marriage to Helena Kristina Sveder, daughter of Matthias Svederus, a professor of Law.

Carl Merthen became a magistrate in 1728 and chief judge of the town's administrative court in 1732. He represented Turku at four sessions of the Diet between 1723 and 1741 and was later regarded as a member of the 'Hats' faction. During the Russian occupation in 1742/43, he was among the leaders of the town and was appointed to the Russian-period Imperial Court of Appeal as a permanent member of the college of judges. Carl Merthen died on 31 March 1743, before the end of the occupation.

At parties during the Russian occupation, Eva Merthen drew attention with her beauty and charm, and this led to a love relationship with the then 47-year-old commander-in-chief, General James (Jakob) Keith. Already in Turku, Eva Merthen seems to have become his de facto wife, a position in which she followed Keith until his death. Keith's occupation administration was based on general instructions from the Empress Elizabeth, and Carl Merthen and his daughter are considered to have contributed to its leniency and flexibility.

According to the testimony of contemporaries, Eva Merthen was dark-haired and of a stately beauty - she had especially beautiful eyes. The attractive and cultured Miss Merthen spoke French well and read Tacitus, evidently because of her cultured home and her continued studies during her life with Keith. In addition, Keith and Eva Merthen were united by their Scottish heritage: the Katarina Gerdner mentioned above came from a family of Scottish origin.

In 1743, Keith moved from his post with the Russian forces to Sweden, where he was ambassador in Stockholm for some time, but in 1746 he left the service of Russia and in the following year entered that of Prussia, becoming the governor of Berlin and a field marshal. He fell at the battle at Hochkirch fought in 1758 against the Austrians. James Keith and Eva Merthen lived near Sanssouci at Potsdam, and their union lacked only "the outward forms of a marriage". Also in the service of Prussia was his brother George Keith, the head of the family and the hereditary Earl Marischal of Scotland.

According to biographies, the brothers' high estate prevented the public legitimation of the relationship between Keith and Eva Merthen, but after his death she made good most of her claims according to James' will in an inheritance case against George Keith. In 1759 or 1760, probably in Berlin, Eva Merthen married Johan David von Reichenbach, who was nine years her junior, and lived happily with him at Stralsund in Swedish Pomerania, where von Reichenbach was the governor of the castle and the chief official of the rural district. The couple had a beautiful home containing a notable collection of pictures. Von Reichenbach died in 1807, four years before his wife.

All of the sources telling of Eva Merthen, including those published during her lifetime, state that she had children by Keith, but it has not been possible to identify them. There are no hints to the effect that Merthen's two sisters, who initially accompanied her, looked after any children. Were the heirs of the childless von Reichenbachs, the sister and grandchildren of Johan David, perhaps actually children of Eva Merthen?

Information on Eva Merthen is already to be found in C. F. Paul's biography of Keith, which appeared in 1759 in German and 1761 in Swedish and was used for an article in the Turku journal Mnemosyne in 1822. In 1844, a longer biography of James Keith by K. A. Varnhagen von Ense was published, and it inspired Topelius' novel Hertiginnan af Finland, romantiserad berättelse, jemte en historisk skildring af Finska Kriget åren 1741 - 1743 ('The Duchess of Finland, romanticised narrative, including a description of the Finnish War of 1741 - 43'); the work appeared first in serial form in Topelius' Helsingfors Tidningar and then as a book in summer 1850. This work, the oldest of his historical novels, was the first Finnish novel to achieve popularity and to exercise an influence as a model.

The serialised historical novel was a literary genre that had just attained enormous popularity, and in the Helsingfors Tidningar Topelius alludes to his models Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas; according to Topelius, the former had written the masterpiece in this genre, while the latter had produced a 12-part novel. But because of its political nature, the novel was a dangerous literary genre that had aroused the particular concern of the government in Finland, and it was precisely in the spring of 1850 that it had banned, in particular, the publication of novels in Finnish. Topelius' novel, which emphasises the leniency and humaneness of the Russian conquest during the Finnish War (the 'Little Hatred') and explains how the Finns, in contrast to the Swedes, have learned the value of patience and peaceful cultivation as compared with that of conquests, fitted in well with the policy of loyalty adopted by Topelius. The author touched up the serialised version for the published novel and did so again for later editions. A Finnish version, Suomen Herttuatar, appeared for the first time in 1874.

Matti Klinge

Translated by Roderick Fletcher


Eva Merthen, born 1723 Turku, died 1811 Prussia. Parents: Carl Merthen, merchant, and Helena Kristina Sveder.

© Biografiakeskus, Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, PL 259, 00171 HELSINKI

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