Thursday, July 9, 2009

Queen Marie-Henriette Through Her Daughter's Eyes

In her memoirs, Princess Louise of Belgium recalls her mother, Queen Marie-Henriette. Despite her praise of her piety and virtue, Louise sadly did not follow her mother's example, leading a wild and scandalous life. She also became completely estranged from her family (including her mother). In view of this, Louise's tender account of the Queen is all the more striking and surprising.
I can still see the Queen as I saw her when I lay in her arms as a child, so long has my adoration for her survived, so long has my belief in another world remained sacred to her memory.

The Queen was of medium height and of slender build. Her beauty and grace were unrivalled. The purity of her lines and her shoulders merited the expression " royal." Her supple carriage was that of a sportswoman. Her voice was of such pure timbre that it awakened echoes in one's soul. Her eyes, a darker brown than those of the King, were not so keenly luminous, but they were far more tender; they almost spoke.

But how much less her physical perfections counted in comparison with her moral qualities. A true Christian, her idea of religion was to follow it rigorously in every detail, without being in the least narrow-minded. She had a philosophical and an assured conception of God, and the mysteries of the Infinite. This faith enlightened her doctrine and strengthened her piety.

People who cannot, or who will not, study the problem of religion, easily persuade themselves that it is absurd to subject themselves to the laws of confession and to its signs and ceremonies. The sincere Christian is the woman who is par excellence a wife and a mother, but to some bigots she is merely an inferior being, who has fallen into the hands of priests—but they would doubtless be very pleased all the same to have her as the guardian angel of their own home.

Religion did not in the least deter the Queen from her obligations to the State, or from her taste for Art, or from indulging in her favourite pursuit of sport.

She received her guests, she presided over her circle, she attended fetes with a natural charm peculiar to her, which I passionately admired from the moment when I was old enough to follow in her wake.

The Queen dressed with an inborn art which was always in harmony with her .surroundings. A woman in her position has to set out to please and win the hearts of people, and she is therefore obliged more than anyone else to study her toilette. The Queen excelled in this to such perfection that she was always held up as an example by the arbiters of Parisian fashion.

At any time fashion is peculiar, or at least it seems to be; if it were not so there would be no fashion; but la mode is not so varied as one thinks. Considered as novelties, her innovations are nothing more or less than little discoveries and arrangements with which the serpent, if not Eve, was already familiar in the Garden of Eden.

The Queen followed la mode without innovating fashions—that is the affair of other queens—queens of fashion, for which they have reasons, not dictated by Reason. But the Queen adopted and perfected fashions. It was miraculous to see how she wore the fairy-like lace which is the glory and charm of Belgium. I have always remembered one of her gowns, a certain cerise-coloured silk, the corsage draped with a fichu of Chantilly—one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life.

The Queen would often adorn the gowns worn by her at her receptions with garlands of fresh flowers. She knew how to wear them, and what a delight it was to my sisters and myself when we were told to go into the conservatories and prepare the garlands of roses, dahlias, or asters which our beloved sovereign was going to wear.

A perfect musician, the Queen was equally brilliant in her execution of a Czarda, an Italian melody or an air from an Opera, which she interpreted in a soprano voice, the possession of which many a professional singer would have envied her.

One of her great pleasures was to sing duets with Fauré, the illustrious baritone, a well-bred artist who never presumed on his position. The Queen and Fauré were wonderful in the famous duets from Hamlet and Rigoletto. ... I think of her singing even now with emotion. But all this belongs to the past; it is far away.

The Queen received the best artistic society on the same footing as the best Belgian society at her private receptions. She closely followed all the doings at the Theatre de la Monnaie and the Theatre du Pare. She interested herself in deserving talent. She was not ignorant of the anxieties and difficulties of a career of which four hours, so to speak, are lived in the realms of illusion, and the remaining twenty face to face with reality. She frequently showed her solicitude for artists in the most delicate and opportune manner. The memory of her kindness lives in many hearts. In the theatrical world gratitude is less rare than elsewhere. One can never speak too highly of the good that exists in the souls of these people, who appear so frivolous and easy-going on the surface. Corneille always had a good word for them.

The Queen loved horses with the appreciation of a born horsewoman; she liked to drive high-spirited animals, and I have inherited her taste. She knew how to control the wild Hungarian horses which were only safe with her. Refreshed with champagne, or bread dipped in red wine, they flew like the wind; one might have said that she guided them by a thread, but in reality she made them obedient to the sound of her voice.

She groomed her horses herself and taught them wonderful circus tricks. I have seen one of them ascend the grand staircase of Laeken, enter the Queen's room and come down again as though nothing had happened. What amused her most was to drive two or four different animals at once who had never been harnessed, and who were so high-spirited that no one dared to drive them. By dint of patience and the magnetic charm of her voice the most restive animal eventually became docile.

Her life was so ordered that she found time for everything—maternal cares were first and foremost with her; she looked upon these as sweet duties, of which I was her first burden...

My mother made me think deeply. Thought was my first revelation of a real existence. I began to look further than the throne and a title for the means of moral and intellectual superiority, I became a definite personality; I wished to form my own ideas so that in after life I could always be myself.

The Queen helped to mould my character by abundant reading, chiefly in French and English—principally memoirs. I was never, or very rarely, allowed to read a novel. The Queen read deliciously, giving the smallest phrase its full value; the manner in which she read aloud was not only that of a woman who knew how to read, but it also displayed a penetrating intelligence—in fact, it was more like speaking than reading, and it seemed to come from a heart which understood everything.

The Queen was gay and entrancingly charming with her intimate friends. She was always like this, in her excursions in the country, at croquet parties, at her own receptions, and in her box at the theatre. Her good humour was in accordance with the promptings of a generous and expansive nature...

The Queen took no part in politics except to discharge her duties as a sovereign. On a man like the King, feminine influence could not be exercised by a wife and mother.

It was impossible for the Queen to find in her husband the perfect union of thought, the intimacy of action and the entire confidence which, in no matter what household, are the only possible conditions for happiness, and the first deception which she experienced was followed by others which became more and more cruel.

The trial which caused the Queen to be inconsolable and which had such painful consequences, was the death of her son Leopold.

My mother could never be comforted for the loss of the heir to the Throne, this child of so much promise, who had been given and retaken by Heaven. This was the sorrow of her life. She even alluded to it in her admirable will.

From the day of his death, her health, always so robust, gradually changed little by little. Her soul began to break away from earthly things and lose itself more and more in prayer and contemplation. She lived only in the ardent hope of meeting her son in heaven.

The Queen was always a saint—and she soon became a martyr. She suffered immensely through the aloof greatness of the King, who existed solely for his Royal duties, although he would occasionally suddenly indulge in some unbridled pleasure after his arduous work. His was a nature of extremes which a tender soul could not understand, and hence arose misunderstandings and their tragic consequences. Against such a fate, which could only become more and more unhappy, there was nothing to be done. Earthly life is doomed to know implacable disillusions.

But however much the Queen suffered she never diminished her Heaven-inspired kindness. She would sometimes give way to her sorrow and allow the cries of her wounded soul to be heard! She would even attempt to defend herself by some action of which the public was cognizant but which it failed to understand. But she always returned to the feet of Christ the Consoler...

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