Monday, January 18, 2010

A Soldier and a Lady

In Louise reine des Belges: 1812-1850, Madeleine Lassère quotes (in French translation) a passage from Charlotte Bronte's  satirical novel Villette (1853), describing (according to Lassère) King Leopold I and Queen Louise of the Belgians. Actually, Villette takes place in an imaginary country disparagingly called "Labassecour" ("The  Farmyard"). Nonetheless, the story was inspired by Bronte's experiences of Belgium during the 1840's. In particular, this passage, describing a concert attended by the King and Queen of Labassecour, was based upon a gala performance in Brussels attended by Leopold and Louise. Although the author apparently detested the Belgians, describing them in a letter as "singularly cold, selfish, animal and inferior," the portrayal of the King and Queen is surprisingly sympathetic. The description of the King's sadness and the Queen's kindness does coincide with what we know of Leopold and Louise.
A signal was given, the doors rolled back, the assembly stood up, the orchestra burst out, and, to the welcome of a choral burst, enter the King, the Queen, the Court of Labassecour.Till then, I had never set eyes on living king or queen ; it may consequently be conjectured how I strained my powers of vision to take in these specimens of European royalty. By whomsoever majesty is beheld for the first time, there will always be experienced a vague surprise bordering on disappointment, that the same does not appear seated, en permanence, on a throne, bonneted with a crown, and furnished, as to the hand, with a sceptre. Looking out for a king and queen, and seeing only a middle-aged soldier and rather a young lady, I felt half cheated, half pleased.
Well do I recall that King—a man of fifty, a little bowed, a little gray ; there was no face in all that assembly which resembled his. I had never read, never been told anything of his nature or his habits : and at first the strong hieroglyphics graven as with iron stylet on his brow, round his eyes, beside his mouth, puzzled and baffled instinct. Ere long, however, if I did not know, at least I felt, the meaning of those characters written without hand. There sat a silent sufferer—a nervous, melancholy man...
Some might say it was the foreign crown pressing the King's brows which bent them to that peculiar and painful fold; some might quote the effects of early bereavement. Something there might be of both these, but these as embittered by that darkest foe of humanity—constitutional melancholy. The Queen, his wife, knew this : it seemed to me, the reflection of her husband's grief lay, a subduing shadow, on her own benignant face. A mild, thoughtful, graceful woman that princess seemed ; not beautiful, not at all like the woman of solid charms and marble feelings described a page or two since. Hers was a somewhat slender shape ; her features, though distinguished enough, were too suggestive of reigning dynasties and royal lines to give unqualified pleasure. The expression clothing that profile was agreeable in the present instance; but you could not avoid connecting it with remembered effigies, where similar lines appeared, under phase ignoble, feeble, or sensual, or cunning, as the case might be. The Queen's eye, however, was her own, and pity, goodness, sweet sympathy, blessed it with divinest light. She moved no sovereign, but a lady—kind, loving, elegant. Her little son... accompanied her : he leaned on his mother's knee, and, ever and anon, in the course of that evening, I saw her observant of the monarch at her side, conscious of his beclouded abstraction, and desirous to rouse him from it by drawing his attention to their son. She often bent her head to listen to the boy's remarks, and would then smilingly repeat them to his sire. The moody King started, listened, smiled, but invariably relapsed as soon as his good angel ceased speaking. Full mournful and significant was that spectacle !


Jorge said...

What an interesting post. I always imagined Leopold I as a very energetic man who only cared about founding a respectable dynasty and making Belgium an important nation in Europe. I thought he wouldn't be such a...vulnerable (if that's the right word) person. But his life was quite difficult. He lost the love of his life (Princess Charlotte) and accepted a throne of a country which had nothing in common with him. It must have been difficult, but certainly his efforts were worth the try.
Thanks, Matterhorn.

Jorge said...

Hey, another interesting thing. I read that before the throne of Belgium was offered to Leopold, it was offered to the head of Belgium's first noble family, Prince Eugène de Ligne. But the nobleman refused, saying that he could contribute more to Belgium as Prince of Ligne than as King of the Belgians. It would be interesting to read about his life.

The current Prince de Ligne is Michel, married to Princess Leonor de Orléans e Bragança, a direct descendant of Emperor Pedro I of Brazil and King Louis-Philippe of the French.

May said...

There were a number of different ways things could have gone, with different people being chosen as first King of the Belgians. Another option was Louis, Duc de Nemours, second son of Louis-Philippe of France.

I'll have to find out more about the Prince de Ligne. Thanks for the comments.