Saturday, October 2, 2010

"Das Kind"

Queen Elisabeth of Belgium was a fragile, yet heroic woman. Her accomplishments during difficult, often tragic, times (especially her exhausting work as a nurse during World War I!) are all the more remarkable given her precarious health and vulnerable sensibility.

While still Crown Princess, Elisabeth suffered from the strains and fatigues of her position. She had a great need for personal liberty and independence, and, as she would later confess to her daughter, Marie-José, she found the atmosphere of the Belgian court bureaucratic and constricting. She missed the mountains, open spaces, and fresh air of her native Bavaria. She often felt intimidated by her husband's uncle, the aging King Leopold II, and his daughter, Princess Clementine, whose caustic severity contrasted with the benevolent tolerance of the Wittelsbachs.Yet, Elisabeth did not complain, accepting these trials in silence and concentrating on supporting and encouraging her husband, Prince Albert.

Undoubtedly, Albert's tender affection, in turn, greatly aided Elisabeth. Touching letters illustrate the young Prince's loving and solicitous attitude to his wife. Elisabeth's pregnancies always left her physically exhausted, and, after the birth of each of her children, she had to spend time convalescing in Bavaria. On one occasion, Albert wrote to her:

"... Je dois t'avouer que je suis de plus en plus anxieux de n'avoir pas de nouvelles précises de ta santé. L'envoi d'un simple bulletin aurait comblé tous mes voeux. J'espère apprendre des augmentations de poids qui m'apparaîtront sous la forme de chiffres d'or entourés d'azur, comme les paraboles célestes. La maison est vide sans toi, chère Lisa, et à être loin de toi, je sens toute la place que tu as prise dans mon existence..."

"...I must confess that I am increasingly anxious at not receiving precise news of your health. A simple bulletin would have satisfied all my wishes. I hope to learn of increases in weight, which will appear to me as golden numbers surrounded with blue, like celestial orbits.... The house is empty without you, dear Lisa, and, from being far from you, I realize all the place you have taken in my life.."

Understanding the stresses of her role, Albert constantly sought to assist Elisabeth. He treated her protectively, like a child, calling her "Das Kind." Down to the most minute details, he was deeply concerned for her welfare and comfort. For instance, when she had to return from a rest cure in Bavaria to attend the funeral of Queen Marie-Henriette, Albert wrote to her:

"Maintenant, je dois m'occuper de petit 'Kind'. C'est le professeur qui parle. Il faut bien le soigner, parce que l'on y tient plus que tout ce qui existe au monde. Quand il arrive demain, il doit bien déjeuner: deux oeufs, un peu de jambon, pas trop de pain. Il ne doit pas se fatiguer à essayer ses robes et il doit aussi se reposer...Le Kind doit bien déjeuner vers midi, car à 3 h 1/2, il doit être à Laeken, à l'église... Le petit Kind doit bien se il doit mettre des bottines qui lui tiennent les pieds au chaud parce que les pierres dans l'église sont froides. 

"Now, I must take care of the little 'Kind.' It is the teacher who is speaking. I must take good care of it, because I care about it more than everything in the world. When it arrives tomorrow, it must have a good breakfast: two eggs, a little ham, not too much bread. It must not tire itself out trying on its dresses, and it must rest, too... The Kind must have a good lunch around noon, because at 3:30, it must be at Laeken, at the church...The little Kind must cover itself up well...and it must put on boots to keep its feet warm because the stones in the church are cold."

Although delicate and petite, Elisabeth was also daring and intrepid. She enjoyed riding boldly, even recklessly, on horseback. This worried Albert: 

"Sois bien prudente à cheval; ne saute pas d'obstacles trop hauts, sans cela je vais me fâcher. Tu sais que je m'inquiète vite parce que je t'aime tellement que tu ne le sauras jamais assez et je suis facilement inquiet pour ce qui te concerne. Je veux te conserver aussi longtemps que je vis... Aujourd'hui, le temps est très beau, mais tout cela m'est égal, parce que je n'ai pas Lisa avec moi. Je ferait tout ce qu'elle demande quand elle reviendra; cette séparation m'a prouvé quel empire tu as pris sur moi, il n'y a pas une seconde de toute la journée que je ne pense à toi. J'espère que tu ne trouves pas mes lettres ridicules ou exagérées, c'est tellement que je t'aime que j'écris toutes ces choses..."

"Be very careful on horseback; do not leap over obstacles that are too high, otherwise I will be angry. You know that I quickly become worried because I love you  -so much that you will never be able to comprehend it- and I easily worry about everything connected with you. I want to keep you as long as I live... Today, the weather is very fine, but it makes no difference to me, because I do not have Lisa with me. I will do everything she asks when she comes back; this separation has proved to me what dominion you have assumed over me, there is not a single second, in the whole day, in which I am not thinking of you. I hope you do not find my letters ridiculous or exaggerated, it is because I love you so much that I write all these things." 

 Albert felt a deep need for Elisabeth's collaboration in his public life. He considered her intellectual and moral qualities a precious asset. During his tour of the Belgian Congo, in 1909, not long before his accession to the throne, the Prince wrote to his wife in Brussels: 

"...Etant fort loin, on réfléchit sans cesse à tout ce qui pourrait se passer, mais ce qui m'apaise, c'est que tu es très intelligente et très bonne, deux qualités avec lesquelles on assure le bonheur de la famille et on obtient la considération des autres, si nécessaires dans notre métier."

"Tu sais que j'ai une confiance absolue dans ton jugement, en sorte que tu peux toujours, même parler en mon nom. J'ai confiance dans ton sens raffiné des nuances que je possède beaucoup moins que toi."

"...As I am far away, I reflect constantly upon everything that could happen, but what reassures me, is that you are very intelligent, and very good, two qualities with which one assures the happiness of the family, and gains the respect of others, so necessary in our position." 

"You know that I have absolute confidence in your judgment, so that you can always speak for me. I have confidence in your refined sense of nuances, which I possess to a much lesser degree." 

On another occasion, as he contemplated his future responsibilities as King, he implored her aid and support: 

"Il me paraît indispensable que tu sois là pour mon entrée dans la vie politique, celle-ci n'a rien de très attrayant et depuis quelque temps je suis vraiment accablé par l'avenir particulièrement difficile qui se présente à moi, difficile par lui-même en raison de la complexité de la vie désunie du pays, difficile surtout pour mon manque de préparation dont j'envisage à l'avance toutes les suites...Je suis plus isolé que personne, je n'ai foi en aucun. Il y a des hommes qui, au milieu de mille obstacles, sont pourtant arrivés à de grandes choses...ils l'ont déclaré plus tard, c'était grâce à la tendre sollicitude dont les entouraient des êtres chers de qui la chaude affection, la finesse et le dévouement étaient les meilleurs encouragements et leur constante consolation. Voilà ce que je voudrais pour moi..."

"It seems absolutely necessary to me that you be here for my entry into political life, it is not very attractive at all, and for some time I have been truly overwhelmed by the particularly difficult future I see before me, difficult, in itself, because of the country's disunity, and difficult, above all, because of my lack of preparation; I foresee all its consequences...I am more isolated than anyone else, I have faith in no one. There are men who, amidst countless obstacles, have nonetheless, accomplished great things...and they have afterwards declared that it was thanks to the tender care with which they were surrounded by their loved ones, whose warm affection, kindness, and devotion were the best encouragements, and their constant consolation. This is what I would like for myself..."

Elisabeth responded with great affection:

"...Je ferait tout mon possible pour te rendre la vie agréable...Tu mérites d'avoir une femme qui vive pour toi, ce que je tâcherai de faire toute ma vie..."

"...I will do everything I can to make life pleasant for you... You deserve to have a wife who lives for you, which is what I will try to do all my life..."

And so she did, admirably fulfilling her role as Queen Consort for nearly 25 years. 

Petite and delicate - the young Elisabeth with her daughter

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