Thursday, June 24, 2010

Education of a Princess

King Albert I took great care over the education of all his children, particularly his daughter, Princess Marie-José, the future Queen of Italy. Albert loved philosophy and shared this passion with his daughter, with whom he had a deep intellectual friendship. Not content with reading and discussing the works of the great masters with the young princess, he often wrote summaries of their thought for her benefit. On one occasion, the erudite sovereign put his abilities to the test with a brief, but intricate history of Greek philosophy, beginning with Thales!

In her old age, Marie-José discussed her education with her biographer, Luciano Regolo. She began her "three R's" surprisingly late, at the age of seven. Her mother, Queen Elisabeth, with her Romantic sensibilities and avant-garde ideas, passionately believed in cultivating children's musical abilities as early as possible, but was very worried about teaching little ones to read too soon...
Fino a quel momento mia madre si era opposta, non voleva che mi avvicinassi ai libri prima del tempo. "La lettura distorce l'istinto" diceva. Era convinta che l'istinto dovesse essere la molla di tutta l'esistenza e che bisognasse assecondarlo, pena l'infelicità. Spesso, anche più avanti negli anni, si divertiva a nascondermi i libri o a disturbare con scherzi e piccole arringhe le mie letture. Per me, infatti, queste furono, fin dall'infanzia, un'autentica passione che peraltro condividevo con mio padre. Ho ancora bene in mente le due ore di lettura al pomeriggio con papà nel suo studio, un'abitudine ininterrotta fino a quando non mi trasferii in Italia. Iniziammo con i volumi di storia, ma, più avanti negli anni, leggemmo insieme anche molte opere di filosofia. Papà amava commentare i filosofi classici, sopratutto Aristotele. Ogni volta, però, mia madre faceva irruzione nello studio del re e diceva: "Basta, adesso. È ora de finirla. È inutile imbottirle la testa di nozioni che un giorno non le serviranno...." Allora papà s'irrigidiva e iniziava a battere nervosamente le nocche sul volume aperto, tradendo una certa insofferenza. E, senza proferire parola, aspettava che mia madre uscisse dalla stanza per riprendere la lettera esattamente nel punto in cui era stata interrotta.
Hitherto, my mother had opposed it, she did not want me to spend time with books early on. "Reading distorts the instinct," she used to say. She was convinced that the instinct had to be the motivating force of one's whole life, and that one had to follow it, on pain of unhappiness. Often, even in later years, she amused herself by hiding my books or disturbing my readings with jokes or little speeches. In fact, for me, these readings were, from childhood, a real passion, which I shared with my father. I still vividly remember the two hours of reading in the afternoon with papa in his study, a habit we kept up until I moved to Italy. We began with the historical volumes, but, later, we read many philosophical works together. Papa loved to comment on the classical philosophers, especially Aristotle. Every time, however, my mother would burst into the king's study and say: "Enough now. It's time to finish. It's useless to fill her head with notions which will never help her..." Then papa would stiffen and begin nervously beating the open book with his knuckles, betraying a certain impatience. And, without uttering a word, he would wait until my mother had left the room, before taking up the reading again at exactly the point where it had been broken off. (Luciano Regolo, La regina incompresa, 2002, pp. 19-20)
I sense a certain irony in this passage; Marie-José's "instinct" would probably have attracted her to reading at an earlier age... I also sense a certain tension between the young princess and her mother. Regolo contends that Marie-José adored her father, but slightly resented her mother, and I agree. In her memoirs, Marie-José describes Queen Elisabeth as quite authoritarian and intolerant of opposition to her views, while portraying King Albert as more open to discussion and debate. She also notes, with some regret, that Elisabeth's approach to parenting usually prevailed.

6 comments:

MadMonarchist said...

Poor Marie-Jose, but I somehow doubt she was all that thwarted by her mother. Like many of her background Queen Elizabeth seems to me to have simply been a very practical, hard-working lady, not anti-intellectual but not seeing a great deal of 'real world' value in reading ancient philosophers. What would she have thought had they been reading Plato?!

That's a funny anecdote about King Albert's response. I can just imagine him thinking, in a slightly annoyed but affectionate way, 'Oh, that's just your mother being your mother...'

Matterhorn said...

No, of course Elisabeth wasn't anti-intellectual, she and her husband had a close circle of very intellectual friends. But I think she was just more attracted to the arts and poetry than to philosophy. She loved whatever uplifted the soul, music, painting, opera, etc., but was less drawn to theories and systems.

As for M-J's and Elisabeth's relationship, I have often sensed a certain mother/daughter tension in M-J's recollections. But it is also clear they had a great admiration and love for each other and Elisabeth was an inspiring role model for her daughter.

Ms. Lucy said...

Well, she does sound very opposing and authoritarian, and this seemed to have bothered both husband and daughter. I love that father and daughter had a close relationship and that they shared the passion for reading. Thanks:)

Matterhorn said...

Interestingly, Léopold's relationship with his parents seemed to be the opposite, almost a mirror image of Marie-José's. He just adored his mother and was always very close to her, and I think he was pretty much her favorite child. He found Elisabeth very comforting and reassuring, but found Albert intimidating (the king was very severe and demanding with his boys). As time went on, he became close to his father, too, especially as they shared the passion for mountaineering. But when he was little, Léopold used to find visiting his father's study a real ordeal, and had to wait outside the door for quite a while to steady himself beforehand, so long, in fact, that Albert's monograms, inscribed on the door handle, would become impressed in his palm as he fiddled with it nervously!

Jorge said...

Was Marie-José's marriage to Umberto arranged? Léopold was lucky enough to find a princess with whom he fall in love, but that's the exception. Was it ever considered that Belgian princes and princesses could marry local nobles?

Matterhorn said...

It was arranged; however, Marie-José did come to see Umberto as the perfection of a young man, as can be seen in her youthful diaries:

http://crossoflaeken.blogspot.com/2009/08/romantic-marie-jose.html

The first case of a Belgian prince marrying a local noble(woman) seems to be Philippe and Mathilde. I never heard of it being considered before.