Monday, June 28, 2010

The Palais Royal

Author Melanie Clegg has an intriguing post on the Palais Royal, Parisian seat of the Orléans family and the childhood home of the first Queen of the Belgians, Louise-Marie. This place has been the scene of orgies, of treacherous plots; yet, among these fabled arcades, a pure young soul came to maturity.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

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.

A Tribute to Queen Elisabeth

A lovely slideshow, set to magnificent music, in honor of the third Queen of the Belgians. Here is my own video tribute to this remarkable wife, mother, royal consort, war heroine and patroness of the arts.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Night's Dark Shade

I was delighted to read Elena Maria Vidal's latest novel, The Night's Dark Shade (2009). Like her earlier works, Trianon and Madame Royale, it is beautiful yet harrowing, vividly transporting the reader to other times and places and illustrating the dire religious, political and personal conflicts of the past while inspiring faith, hope and charity. In this case, we come face to face with the ravages of the Cathar heresy and the tragic and controversial Albigensian Crusade in 13th century southern France. Within this traumatic setting, beset with physical, moral and spiritual perils, Vidal sets forth the adventures of a lovely young noblewoman, the Vicomtesse Raphaelle de Miramande.

In Vidal's earlier novels, the protagonists were real people, and the plots closely followed historical events. In this book, the characters and their adventures are fictional, although inspired by the author's careful research and deep knowledge of the period in question. They spring from Vidal's rich imagination, spirituality and life experience. She weaves an intricate love story, in the highest sense of the term; not only a tale of romance and marriage but a portrayal of an earnest soul's purification in the love of God and man through joy and sorrow, suffering and triumph.

Raphaelle is an endearing heroine; tender, innocent, clever, brave and pious. She also has a deep capacity for passion and devotion which proves to be a dangerous blessing, nearly leading her to sacrifice her virtue for a forbidden love, yet ultimately enabling her to rise to remarkable heights of spiritual heroism in the face of cruelty, calumny, hatred and persecution.

After her father and her betrothed have been killed fighting in the Albigensian Crusade, the orphaned, vulnerable young heiress is obliged to leave her native Auvergne and travel to her uncle's castle in the Pyrenees to marry her cousin, Raymond. As if the loss of her loved ones and her home, and the perilous journey towards the unknown were not hard enough, the devout Catholic maiden soon discovers, to her horror, that her uncle's castle is a Cathar stronghold, ruled by her aunt, Lady Esclarmonde, a fanatical Cathar leader. The mysterious, sinister sect pours scorn upon all Raphaelle's most sacred religious and moral beliefs. Meanwhile, she is appalled by the poisoned fruits of Catharism. All in the name of the loftiest ideals, lust runs rampant, babies are murdered in the womb, the sick are starved to death....Does any of this sound familiar?

A harrowing series of adventures ensues, as Raphaelle struggles to break free of her betrothal to Raymond, himself a virulent Cathar. In a frightening betrayal of innocence and trust, those who ought to be Raphaelle's friends and protectors prove to be her deadliest foes. Her cold, ruthless aunt will stop at nothing to win her over to her purposes; when persuasion and imprisonment fail, she resorts to torture. Raphaelle also has to contend with Raymond's malice and violence, while her uncle, a weak Catholic, fails in his duty to defend her.

Raphaelle's traumatic experiences challenge, but ultimately strengthen, her religious faith. Through many trials, temptations and surprises, and some human failings, she matures into a worthy mother of a new family, and a worthy mother of her people, helping to heal a society shattered by heresy and warfare.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Lovely Joséphine-Charlotte

Here is a beautiful image of little Princess Joséphine-Charlotte, daughter of King Leopold III and Queen Astrid. Wasn't she adorable?

Monday, June 14, 2010

More on Marie-Christine

In "Ma mère telle qu'on l'a peu connue," an interview published September 26, 2002, in La Libre Belgique, Princess Marie-Esmeralda of Belgium commented on her sister's tragic estrangement from her family:
Elle-même a pris ses distances à partir du moment où, en 1980, elle est partie au Canada pour se marier et aussitôt divorcer. Elle a eu, à ce moment-là, une brouille avec mes parents qui a rejailli sur toute sa vie passée. Une coupure s'est faite en elle. Elle n'est jamais revenue en Belgique. Elle vit actuellement dans le Nevada, est remariée et n'a pas d'enfant. Mon frère et moi avons gardé le contact. Bien que de cinq ans plus jeune, j'étais très proche de ma soeur. Durant toute sa maladie, Maman a espéré un signe. Mais il ne s'est pas fait. Papa attribuait à Marie-Christine, au-delà de la reine Elisabeth, quelque chose du tempérament indépendant, excessif, imaginatif des Wittelsbach, du côté de Sissi, de Louis II...
She herself distanced herself from the moment in 1980 when she left for Canada to get married and then divorced. At that moment, she had a fight with my parents which spilled over her whole past life. There was a break in her. She has never returned to Belgium. She now lives in Nevada, has married again, and has no children. My brother and I have kept in contact with her. Although five years her junior, I used to be very close to my sister. Throughout her illness, Maman hoped for a sign. But it never came. Papa attributed to Marie-Christine, through Queen Elisabeth, something of the independent, excessive, imaginative temperament of the Wittelsbachs, on the side of Sissi, of Ludwig II...
Recently, Jorge raised the issue of Marie-Christine's tragic claim to have been physically molested in her youth and deeply wounded and disappointed by her family's reaction. According to Marie-Christine, she was raped as a teenager, by one of her cousins, no less, and when she told her mother, Lilian did not believe her and severely punished her. If the story is true, it is heartbreaking and I can understand why Marie-Christine would be very hurt. I have to say, though, that I cannot help wondering a bit about this story, since Marie-Christine has herself admitted she was always a liar (Michel Verwilghen, Le mythe d'Argenteuil, 2006, p. 54). I also cannot help wondering whether a real rape victim would use such a terrible trauma for publicity. In any case, though, the princess is obviously a very troubled lady, and I feel sorry for her.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Élisabeth and Henriette

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).

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Memory of Queen Elisabeth

In my gallery of sovereigns I cannot forget the gracious Queen of Belgium. I have always seen her, however, in company with her august husband, and this story would become interminable if I were to include “Their Majesties” of the sterner sex—the Emperor of Germany, the Kings of Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Portugal....

As I have had more to do with princes than with sovereigns, my tongue sometimes slips in talking to the latter. As I excused myself one day for addressing the Queen of Belgium as “Highness,” she replied, with a smile, “Don’t apologize; that recalls good times.”

She told me of the time when she and the king, then only heirs apparent, used to go up and down the Mediterranean coast in a little two-seated car. It was during this period that I had the honor of meeting them at the palace of his Serene Highness the Prince of Monaco, and of having charming and interesting personal conversation with them, for the king is a savant and the queen an artist.

~ Musical Memories, by Camille Saint-Saëns

A Prayer for Queen Astrid

I came across this touching memorial card with a beautiful prayer for the repose of the soul of Astrid, Queen of the Belgians. Unfortunately, there are a few words I cannot quite make out, so if anyone can read them, or knows the prayer, please let me know.

Lord, our God, Who girded, here below, the young brow of our beloved Queen with a royal crown, accord her, close to You, the imperishable crown of the elect; that the radiance of goodness of her immortal soul may protect the King, the children of the King, the Mother of the King and us, the subjects of the King. Behold our raised hands, behold our brows and our thoughts, behold our breasts and our hearts, behold us all...(we give?)...a promise of inviolable fidelity.

Honorable Mention

I was very touched to discover that Marilyn Braun of Marilyn's Royal Blog, The Royal Chronicles, and the Kate Middleton Report, featured the Cross of Laeken on the latest episode of her charming and informative radio show, The Royal Report.  I am most grateful for her kind words!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Suzanne Danco

Here is a biography of one of my favorite singers, the great Belgian soprano, Suzanne Danco (1911-2000). She was a protégée of the music loving Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians. (Who says monarchs are a useless burden on their peoples?)

Death of a Princess

On June 7, 2002, Princess Lilian of Belgium, born Mary Lilian Baels, widow of King Leopold III, died peacefully, after a long illness, at her home at Argenteuil, near Waterloo. One of her doctors, and close collaborators in the Princess Lilian Cardiological Foundation, Charles van Ypersele de Strihou, later testified:
During her long illness, the Princess never complained. Although aware of her prognosis, She nevertheless fought step by step with a courage that commanded the admiration of physicians and nurses. She kept her sense of humour, confronted the physicians with the limits of their art and obtained the best of their talents. She remained attached to life despite the hardship of illness and some moments of discouragement. A few weeks before her death, She confided gratefully that She had enjoyed her long, full life. (Charles van Ypersele de Strihou, "Princess Lilian: some personal recollections," in Proceedings of the Princess Lilian Cardiology Foundation Symposium to commemorate its Patron, HRH Princess Lilian of Belgium, "Cardiology and cardiovascular surgery at the onset of the XXIst century," Acta Cardiologica - An International Journal of Cardiology, suppl. to volume 59, 2004, p. 20, quoted by Michel Verwilghen in Le Mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal, 2006, p. 39)
Verwilghen adds:
She who, during her life, had morally suffered so from the innumerable calumnies of which she was the victim, did not know the physical pains of the end of life. Some of her intimates said that Providence spared her a long and painful agony. As if she were falling asleep, she slipped, little by little, into unconsciousness, a few moments after the final auscultation. She ceased to breathe less than an hour later. Death came shortly before 1 pm, while Princess Lilian was surrounded only by her silent doctors and supported by her maid, whose sobs, restrained with difficulty, expressed her profound emotion.

The chatelaine of Argenteuil, who royally personified that marvelous corner of Belgium, transfigured by her talent, had left it, after living there for more than 41 years. Her mortal remains would rest there for eight days yet, before passing, for the last time, through the gates of the royal dwelling over which, at her suggestion, had been forged two "L's", interlaced and surmounted with a crown, monograms of Leopold and Lilian, evocative of their common destiny. (p. 40, translated from the French original)
Before her death, Lilian had the joy of becoming a grandmother twice, with the birth of Alexandra and Leopoldo to her youngest daughter, Marie-Esmeralda. It had been highly uncertain whether Lilian would ever have grandchildren, since Marie-Esmeralda married very late in life, and Alexandre and Marie-Christine, who had married earlier, never had children. But, at long last, Lilian had the consolation of knowing that the family she had founded with King Leopold would continue....Tragically, however, although she had hoped for a healing of the rift with her eldest daughter, Lilian died without ever being reconciled with Marie-Christine.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Silhouette of Queen Astrid

Charles X

The Mad Monarchist has an interesting article on Charles X of France (1757-1836). He was the king whose throne Louis-Philippe, Duc d'Orléans, father of Queen Louise-Marie of the Belgians, took during the July Revolution of 1830.

HERE is an account of two plays by Gareth Russell dealing with Charles X. They sound fascinating and I would love to see them performed.

(*Readers may recall that I promised, a while back, to write a fuller account of the reaction of Louise-Marie's mother, Marie-Amélie of Naples, to the July Revolution. I have not forgotten this idea, but I think I will post on the topic closer to the anniversary of the event).

Belgium's Rebel Princess

One of the most tragic, rebellious and controversial Belgian royals is HRH Princess Marie-Christine, the second child and eldest daughter of King Leopold III and Princess Lilian. Marie-Christine Daphné Astrid Elisabeth Léopoldine was born February 6, 1951, just five months before her father's forced abdication. She came into the world at a painful time for her family, towards the end of the agonizing "Royal Question" that brought great grief and humiliation to her parents and nearly plunged her country into civil war. Tragedy would continue to mark Marie-Christine's life in the years to come...

Photographs of the young Marie-Christine (or " Daphné" as she was called, affectionately, in the family) reveal a beautiful, blonde girl, with the fair complexion and the fine, sensitive and noble features of her father, Leopold III.  A night-and-day contrast with her younger sister, Esmeralda, a dark brunette strongly resembling Lilian. During Marie-Christine's childhood, magazines reported that she was musically talented and that her grandmother, the music loving Queen Elisabeth, encouraged her in this interest. Marie-Christine also had an overriding romantic streak which led her to dream continually of shining knights and ideal loves (See Patrick Weber, Amours royales et princières (2006) pp. 168-169).

Rash, headstrong, restless and unhappy, feeling imprisoned in a "golden cage," Marie-Christine frequently rebelled against the restraints of her royal position. Her love interests, in particular, gave rise to a long series of family quarrels (Weber, pp. 168-169). Lilian wanted her children to make prestigious matches, and forcefully pressed her views, but her passionate and willful daughter stubbornly refused all the marriages her parents suggested. Meanwhile, Marie-Christine's own choices, apt to be wildly inappropriate for her regal station, met with their disapproval and consternation. Tragically, Marie-Christine also, apparently, fell into quite a dissolute lifestyle, experimenting with drugs and debauchery. Her relations with her parents, especially her mother, became more and more tormented. In 1981, at the age of 30, she moved to Canada, bitterly turning her back on Belgium forever.

Ahead of her lay dreams, disappointments, dissipation, financial ruin, sorrow and bitterness. She mingled with the Hollywood set and longed to be a movie star, but her fairytale dreams have never come to fruition. She has married twice, but never had any children. In 1981, against her alarmed parents' advice, she defiantly married Paul Drucker, a Quebecois bar pianist, thirteen years her senior, a widower with two children, and, reportedly, a homosexual. With Marie-Christine's connivance, the press then published lurid photographs of the newlyweds, scantily clad in their hotel room. Leopold and Lilian were appalled. For the old, ailing King Leopold, this final family rupture, coming after the estrangements from his brother Charles, and son Baudouin, was the last in a long series of painful ordeals. The marriage, predictably, proved a fiasco; within weeks, Marie-Christine had abandoned her husband to live with another man (see Weber, pp. 169 -170) and Michel Verwilghen, Le mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal (2006), pp. 349-350). In 1989, after divorcing Drucker, Marie-Christine married a French restaurateur living in the USA, Jean-Paul Gougues. Over the years, Marie-Christine has moved around quite a bit, living, at different times, in Toronto, Las Vegas and San Diego.

In recent years, in vitriolic interviews and memoirs, Marie-Christine has bitterly attacked the Belgian royal family. In an article published April 17, 2007 in Humo magazine,  she even declared that "abolishing the monarchy might prove to be of benefit to Belgium." Claiming to have broken all contact with her family, she did not attend the funerals of her father, her mother, her half-brother, King Baudouin, or her brother, Prince Alexandre. She has consistently portrayed Princess Lilian, in particular, as a harsh, unloving, domineering, controlling, and even cruel mother.

I find this hard to believe. I know Lilian was a difficult woman at times, but we must remember that she also won the abiding love and devotion of her three step-children, Josephine-Charlotte, Baudouin and Albert, over many years. As for her two other children, Alexandre and Marie-Esmeralda, both have honored her memory with love and respect. Esmeralda, in particular, in her memoirs, recalls Lilian's tender care in creating a beautiful and elegant home at Argenteuil for her family. She also emphasizes that her relations (and, in fact, her siblings' relations) with their parents were very warm and affectionate. Surely, Marie-Christine's bitter statements ought to be weighed against these contrasting testimonies?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Bust of Queen Elisabeth

I think this is absolutely lovely. The text reads:
Elisabeth Gabrielle Valerie Marie, born at Possenhoven, on July 25, 1876, daughter of HRH Charles Theodore, Duke of Bavaria(1) and HRH Marie-Josephe Beatrix, Duchess of Braganza. Married on October 2, 1900 to King Albert (then heir presumptive). We know the queen's charitable role during the war. With a sweet simplicity, she busied herself with the wounded, cared for them, comforted them, presided over the creation of field hospitals (often under very difficult conditions) and supported everyone with her valiance, her smiling kindness, her constant equanimity. Wounded in her deepest affections by the tragic death of the King and of Queen Astrid, she opposes, in a most dignified retirement, a resigned stoicism to the blows of fate.
(1) His title was actually Duke in Bavaria.