Hilmes gives an important and remarkably well-researched account of this endlessly fascinating, if often repellent figure. It is compelling both as a work about a hugely influential cultural figure, and as a graphic account of what seems to me to be a seriously damaged personality. The account of her deeply unhappy childhood and first marriage offers some explanation of the psychological underpinning of Cosima's complex mixture of guilt and masochism, desire for total control, and development and tending of the cult of Bayreuth. One begins the book with enormous sympathy for the way the young Cosima is treated and emotionally neglected by her parents (whom she does not see quite literally, for years) and then repressed by governesses before embarking on a disastrous marriage to Hans von Bulow: I don't think it is too much of a simplification to say that one finishes it seeing the consequences of such a troubling childhood and early life animating her behaviour in Wahnfried. At the risk of being accused of crudity, the pitiable child has become a manipulative and controlling monster by the end of the book.
No deviation from her perception of what is necessary to `our cause' (such self-aggrandising terminology for the ersatz, quasi-religion of Wagnerism litters her letters) is tolerated from family or even dedicated friends and supporters of Wagner's work. Even her children are subjected to a highly developed level of emotional blackmail and psychological manipulation, leading ultimately to the complete anathematisation of the more independently minded Isolde: or to become proxy expiators for the parent's guilt in the case of Daniela. Hermann Levi, the (Jewish) first conductor of `Parsifal' and stalwart of later productions on the Green Hill is treated in a way which seems to this reader psychologically abusive: `it is not my actions, thoughts and remarks that offend you' (he writes in response to his treatment) 'but ... you regard my entire nature and my mere existence as something hostile to you personally and disruptive to your whole circle.' His attempts to resign are rejected: such seems to be the power of his commitment and dependency that he cannot simply go of his own volition. (Jews, however offensive, could be used where it suited 'the cause', their commitment an act of contrition for their ingrained nature!!!)
Wagner was quite capable of soiling his own reputation by his behaviour and attitudes, but it is hard not to finish this book with the conclusion that much of the responsibility for the crude stereotype which conflates Nazism and Wagnerism is due largely to the extraordinary wife who survived him. She not only sought to preserve everything as `the Master' had it, including theatre production, in a sort of cultural formaldehyde, but also created a coterie of sycophantic bigotry and political reaction around her. Without wishing to be guilty of special pleading for Wagner, there is ample evidence to suggest that in his lifetime she encouraged his racism, and after his death adopted a nationalist/racist agenda significantly beyond the bounds of his own. Wahnfried became a haven, under Cosima's stewardship, for like-minded nationalists and anti-Semites such as the grotesque Houston Stewart Chamberlain: he welcomed the rise of the far right in the 1920s, greeted the Fuhrer himself, and basked in the admiration the new leader dispensed on Chamberlain's extreme political writings. Cosima's relationship with him was very close (she supported the publication of many of his later pamphlets) and it is hard to escape the inference that she engineered his marriage to her daughter Eva to embrace him within the circle. (It was a loveless marriage, and perhaps another example of the child as proxy: after all, the high priestess of Bayreuth could not marry him herself without tarnishing her image as the guardian of Wagner's memory.)
This book is essential (if disturbing and painful) reading for Wagnerites, as it offers a profound insight into the shaping of an important aspect of the public perception of Wagner: but I fear the uninitiated might be so repelled by this narrative that the possibility of them listening to Wagner's music with `open ears' might be lost forever, which would be a very great pity. Others who care to read an account that illustrates all too well the truth of Larkin's perhaps most quoted poem, 'This be the verse', will find much to ponder.
As far as the negative comments made elsewhere re the quality of the writing/translation: in my opinion, any solecisms are occasional and very minor, insufficient to discourage any interested readers - so compelling is Hilmes' account that I doubt one would focus on them very much!