A while ago, I mentioned Princess Henriette of Belgium, Duchesse de Vendôme, and her historical work. I discussed one of Henriette's most notable achievements, the publication of the Journal of her great-grandmother, Marie-Amélie of Naples, Queen of the French. In three volumes, through apt choice of diary excerpts and sensitive, eloquent commentary, Henriette movingly traced the spiritual struggles, the strange and poignant tale of a woman destined to become queen against her most sacred religious, political and ethical principles.
Even more moving is Henriette's biography of Madame Élisabeth of France, the heroic and saintly youngest sister of King Louis XVI, guillotined during the Terror. A zealous champion of the Catholic monarchy of France, Henriette writes with crusading ardor and an immense tenderness for a kinswoman whom she clearly revered as a holy martyr. Henriette had long campaigned (albeit in vain) for Élisabeth to be officially recognized as a saint, and the book ends with a resounding appeal for her canonisation. As she explains, Henriette wanted Élisabeth raised to the altar, in order that she might be publicly invoked in prayers for the resurrection of Catholic France.
In writing her account, Henriette draws upon the surviving letters of Madame Élisabeth, earlier biographies of the princess, the memoirs of her niece, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte of France, and the accounts of intimates of the royal family. Henriette supplements these sources with oral family tradition, based upon her ties of kinship with the reigning houses of France, Austria and Saxony. The result is a very powerful portrayal of the spiritual journey of a beautiful, intelligent and ardent royal lady.
By nature stubborn and imperious, Élisabeth became, through faith, prayer and good works, a gentle, humble young woman of immense charity. The same strong will and high spirit that made her a difficult child rendered possible her constant striving for perfection. Denied permission, despite her attraction to the religious life, to become a Carmelite nun like her Aunt Louise, she took on the challenge of living the virginal, consecrated life in the world. Amidst the splendors and temptations of Versailles, no less, she managed to be a model of piety, purity and charity to the poor. Throughout court intrigues and betrayals, even within the royal family, she remained a loyal and loving sister of the King and Queen. Ultimately, she would attain a sublime degree of spiritual heroism amidst the horrors of the Revolution, inconceivable tragedy, cruelty and humiliation, and, finally, a brutal, bloody and untimely death.
Before reading Henriette's account, I was already familiar with Élisabeth's heartrending story. I found it especially moving, however, coming from the pen of another princess, herself the devoted sister of a tragic king, Albert I of Belgium. It was poignant to note that the biography was published at the height of World War II, another dark, apocalyptic time. Henriette's humility was also touching and charming. Modestly presenting her skillful, stirring account as a poor, unworthy tribute, she asks to be forgiven for undertaking such a lofty task, since she only did so as an act of obedience, presumably to a spiritual director.
Throughout the work, Henriette's deeply conservative religious and political convictions come to the fore. Like Madame Élisabeth, she seems to have disagreed with the King's conciliating policies during the Revolution. Although she venerates him as le roi martyr and portrays him with sensitivity and tenderness, Henriette also strongly criticizes Louis XVI for being (as she saw it) far too yielding and gentle with his enemies, to the detriment and destruction of altar and throne.
The solidarity of sorrow between the Princess and the people of France, is a theme in Henriette's biography. To illustrate this point, she describes the strange, poignant beauty of her heroine's last moments. Unlike Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, who were tried, condemned to death and executed individually, Madame Élisabeth suffered with a large group of compatriots of many different ranks. She tenderly consoled her fellow victims by leading them in prayer and raising their thoughts to Heaven. Again, unlike the King and Queen, who were buried in coffins, Élisabeth was interred indiscriminately in a mass grave with her companions in misfortune. Despite later searches, during the Bourbon Restoration, her remains were never found. In consequence, there is no funerary monument to set her apart from her people, whom she loved and assisted with all her heart, even in the darkest of hours. "Sa gloire si pure est partout et sa tombe nulle part." (p. 187).