In 1971, Queen Marie-José of Italy, daughter of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, published her memoirs. In this work, entitled Albert et Elisabeth de Belgique, mes parents, she discusses her childhood and youth in Belgium prior to her marriage with Prince Umberto of Savoy in 1930. She focuses on her parents, beginning with their engagement in 1900 and ending with Albert's death in 1934. The style is clear, concise, sober, and sensitive. The book is a tribute to Albert and Elisabeth, widely admired for their heroism in World War I, and considered by their daughter to be model sovereigns. But it is also a fascinating portrayal of a lost time, and of a wide range of modern political, cultural, and scientific figures. The memoirs have been translated into Italian as La Giovinezza di una Regina (Youth of a Queen).
Throughout the book, Marie-José emphasizes that her parents' mutual love and complementary qualities enabled them to support and assist each other in their difficult roles as King and Queen. Both are portrayed as highly intelligent and sensitive, but with contrasting temperaments; Albert, thoughtful, reflective, reserved, steady, philosophic ; Elisabeth, lively, energetic, spontaneous, imaginative, impulsive, artistic. Yet, Marie-José shows, they strove to forge a strong union, enabling their characters to complement one another in an exceptionally harmonious manner. It would be rare, Marie-José asserts, to find two people collaborating so felicitously for the good of their country, "and even, if one may say so, for the good of mankind."
This is how Marie-José describes her parents' marriage:
Entre Albert de Belgique et Elisabeth en Bavière un amour profond forma des liens d'une qualité exceptionnelle, liens qui ne firent que se renforcer aussi bien dans les années heureuses et paisibles que dans celles qui seront tragiques et douloureuses. Je ne crois pas commettre d'indiscrétion en publiant des extraits de (leur) correspondance. Je pense, au contraire, qu'ils contribueront à illustrer la profondeur et la pureté de leur amour.Between Albert of Belgium and Elisabeth in Bavaria, a deep love formed a bond of an exceptional quality, a bond which only grew stronger, as much in the years that were happy and peaceful as in those which would be tragic and painful. I do not consider that I am committing an indiscretion by publishing extracts from (their) correspondence. I think, on the contrary, that they will contribute to illustrating the depth and purity of their love.
The letters are, indeed, very touching, and I would like to cite a few here. (I apologize for the rough translations from the French.)
The day after the engagement of Marie-José's parents in Neuilly, Albert, who had been obliged to leave Elisabeth for Brussels, wrote to her:
" ... Puisses-tu être heureuse comme je le souhaite. Tu pourras en tout cas compter sur mon amour le plus entier et sur ma loyauté absolue. Après t'avoir quittée ... tout me paraissait si vide que mêmes les rues encombrées de Paris me semblaient un désert ... ""... May you be as happy as I wish. You will always be able to count on my infinite love, and my absolute loyalty. After leaving you ... everything seemed so empty to me that even the crowded streets of Paris seemed to me to be a desert... "
Elisabeth immediately replied:
"Il est 11 h 3/4 du soir, je me sens si seule et triste sans toi. Dans ces quelques jours où j'étais avec toi, j'ai appris à t'aimer de tout mon coeur! Vraiment je t'aime tant! Comme je n'aurais jamais cru pouvoir aimer quelqu'un. Tu es si bon et gentil pour moi que cela me touche et me rend heureuse. Tu sais que je ne peux pas bien exprimer ce que je ressens pour toi, mais je crois que tu me comprends... ""It is 11.45 in the evening, and I feel so alone and so sad without you. In the few days I have been with you, I have come to love you with all my heart! Truly, I love you so much! In a way that I never would have believed I could love someone. You are so good and kind towards me, that it touches me and makes me happy. You know that I cannot express well what I feel for you, but I think you understand me..."
After a visit to Elisabeth's family in Bavaria during their engagement, Albert wrote to his future bride:
"Pendant ce si agréable mais trop court séjour à Possenhofen, j'ai appris à te connaître encore mieux, et surtout, si je puis te l'avouer, j'ai pu apprécier toutes les qualités de coeur, d'esprit, et de gentillesse dont ma chère Lisa est remplie et dont les apparences m'avaient conquis dès le premier jour que je l'avais vue. Tu sais, moi, je n'ai pas beaucoup de qualités, mais je puis te promettre en toute sincerité d'en avoir une: celle de tâcher de te plaire toujours et aussi de mériter d'avoir une femme telle que toi ...""During this visit to Possenhofen, so pleasant but too brief, I have come to know you even better, and, above all, if I may confess it to you, I have been able to appreciate all the qualities of heart, intelligence, and kindness, with which my dear Lisa is filled, and which had conquered me from the first day I had seen her. You know that I, myself, do not have many qualities, but I can promise you, in all sincerity, to have one: that of trying to please you always and also of trying to deserve to have a wife such as you ..."
To which Elisabeth responded:
"Quand viendra le temps où il n'y aura plus de ces terribles séparations? J'étais si heureuse d'avoir été avec toi. Chaque heur que nous passons ensemble, est pour moi le plus grand plaisir qui existe ... Chaque fois que je te revois, je t'aime encore plus. Comme je serais heureuse le jour où je ne devrai plus te quitter.""When will the time come when there will be no more of these terrible separations? I was so happy to have been with you. Every hour we pass together is, for me, the greatest pleasure that exists ... Every time I see you again, I love you even more. How happy I will be the day I no longer have to leave you."
Albert and Elisabeth seem to have taken the motto of Belgium, "L'union fait la force," or "union makes for strength," as the motto of their marriage. As Albert wrote to Elisabeth:
"Il faut que mari et femme trouvent le plus grand bonheur à rester ensemble. Ce doit être la meilleure compagnie recherchée aussi bien pour l'un que pour l'autre ... ""Dans la vie, il y a beaucoup de difficultés, toujours, partout, et pour tous, mais si l'on est bien unis dans un menage par un solide amour réciproque, on ne le craint pas et l'on est certain de trouver chez soi le vrai bonheur d'ici-bas ...""Husband and wife must find the greatest happiness in being together. It must be the best company that is sought out, and equally so for the one and for the other...""In life, there are many difficulties, always, everywhere, and for everyone, but if one is firmly united in a family by a strong mutual love, one does not fear them and one is sure to find, at home, the true happiness of this earth ..."
Many years after Albert's untimely death in a climbing accident, Elisabeth confided to her daughter, Marie-José: "Ever since the cruel separation from your father, I have not been able to live a single day during which his memory has not been present to me, and, everything I have done, I have done out of fidelity to his memory."
An inspiring story.