Friday, August 8, 2014

Myths of Infertility and Impotence

This issue impacted the couple in deeply profound ways, as one can imagine. It seems especially grievous that the trauma of their medical challenges were exploited to sell tabloid copy. The inferred image is of an infertile woman and an impotent man. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Infertility is the inability to achieve pregnancy. Being pregnant five times, should have quieted malicious whispers of infertility or any notion of the King lacking virility. 
Covering this information illustrates vividly the sad axiom, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Both Fabiola and Baudouin exhibited inspirational courage of spirit, facing the public always with a smiling face and head held high. Reports are that each time her pregnancy was announced, the palace overflowed with the abundant generosity of the Belgian people, rejoicing at the special news of their King and Queen. Each time, a brief quiet announcement would pierce their joy. 
Unscrupulous authors lazily cling to tired court rumours, one claiming Baudouin’s step-mother, Lilian Baels, received a letter reporting Fabiola never menstruated and was, thus, infertile. While laughable, the depths to which man will go for notoriety is immeasurable and certain writers and journalists have sold such nonsense to readership eager for a juicy detail. Earlier untruths cast Lilian as the apple of Baudouin’s adoring eye, being hopelessly in love with his step-mother. The proof is nowhere to be found in that pudding; Leopold and Lilian were as ignorant to Baudouin and Fabiola’s engagement as were all Belgian citizens. 
The business of outsiders blaming Fabiola for the couple’s childlessness is cruel and unconscionable. I wonder at how it is journalists or palace “insiders” feel confident or even suitably emboldened to testify with authority to the queen’s personal medical details. Fabiola’s affirmation of suffering from miscarriages was widely reported by the Belgian press in 2008. Belgians, nevertheless, were surprised at learning Baudouin and Fabiola suffered the loss of five babies. (Read full post)

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Talk with Queen Mary

Since I have featured excerpts from Mary Roberts Rinehart's wartime conversations with Albert and Elisabeth of Belgium, it may be interesting to see the American author's account of her meeting with Mary of Teck, from  Kings, Queens and Pawns.
It will be a surprise to many Americans to learn that the Queen of England is very lovely to look at. So much emphasis has always been placed on her virtues, and so little has been written of her charm, that this tribute is only fair to Her Majesty. She is tall, perhaps five feet eight inches, with deep-blue eyes and beautiful colouring. She has a rather wide, humorous mouth. There is not a trace of austerity in her face or in any single feature. The whole impression was of sincerity and kindliness, with more than a trace of humour.
I could quite believe, after I saw Her Majesty, the delightful story that I had heard from a member of her own circle, that now and then, when during some court solemnity an absurdity occurred, it was positively dangerous to catch the Queen's eye!
Queen Mary came up the long room. As she paused and held out her hand, each lady took it and curtsied at the same time. The Queen talked, smiling as she spoke. There was no formality. Near at hand the lady-in-waiting who was in attendance stood, sometimes listening, sometimes joining in the conversation. The talk was all of supplies, for these days in England one thinks in terms of war. Certain things had come in; other things had gone or were going. For the Queen of England is to-day at the head of a great business, one that in a few months has already collected and distributed over a million garments, all new, all practical, all of excellent quality.
The Queen came toward me and paused. There was an agonised moment while the lady-in-waiting presented me. Her Majesty held out her hand. I took it and bowed. The next instant she was speaking. 
She spoke at once of America, of what had already been done by Americans for the Belgians both in England and in their desolated country. And she hastened to add her gratitude for the support they have given her Guild.
"The response has been more than generous," said Her Majesty. "We are very grateful. We are glad to find that the sympathy of America is with us."
She expressed a desire also to have America know fully just what was being done with the supplies that are being constantly sent over, both from Canada and from the United States.
"Canada has been wonderful," she said. "They are doing everything."
The ready response of Canada to the demand for both troops and supplies appeared to have touched Her Majesty. She spoke at length about the troops, the distance they had come, the fine appearance the men made, and their popularity with the crowds when they paraded on the streets of London. I had already noticed this. A Canadian regiment was sure to elicit cheers at any time, although London, generally speaking, has ceased any but silent demonstration over the soldiers.
"Have you seen any of the English hospitals on the Continent?" the Queen asked.
"I have seen a number, Your Majesty."
"Do they seem well supplied?"
I replied that they appeared to be thoroughly equipped, but that the amount of supplies required was terrifying and that at one time some of the hospitals had experienced difficulty in securing what they needed.
"One hospital in Calais," I said, "received twelve thousand pairs of bed socks in one week last autumn, and could not get a bandage."
"Those things happened early in the war. We are doing much better now. England had not expected war. We were totally unprepared."
..."What is your impression of the French and Belgian hospitals?" Her Majesty inquired.
I replied that none were so good as the English, that France had always depended on her nuns in such emergencies, and, there being no nuns in France now, her hospital situation was still not good.
"The priests of Belgium are doing wonderful work," I said. "They have suffered terribly during the war."
"It is very terrible," said Her Majesty. "Both priests and nuns have suffered, as England has reason to know."
The Queen spoke of the ladies connected with the Guild.
"They are really much overworked," she said. "They are giving all their time day after day. They are splendid. And many of them, of course, are in great anxiety."
Already, by her tact and her simplicity of manner, she had put me at my ease. The greatest people, I have found, have this quality of simplicity. When she spoke of the anxieties of her ladies, I wished that I could have conveyed to her, from so many Americans, their sympathy in her own anxieties, so keen at that time, so unselfishly borne. But the lady-in-waiting was speaking:
"Please tell the Queen about your meeting with King Albert."
So I told about it. It had been unconventional, and the recital amused Her Majesty. It was then that I realised how humorous her mouth was, how very blue and alert her eyes. I told it all to her, the things that insisted on slipping off my lap, and the King's picking them up; the old envelope he gave me on which to make notes of the interview; how I had asked him whether he would let me know when the interview was over, or whether I ought to get up and go! And finally, when we were standing talking before my departure, how I had suddenly remembered that I was not to stand nearer to His Majesty than six feet, and had hastily backed away and explained, to his great amusement.
Queen Mary laughed. Then her face clouded.
"It is all so very tragic," she said. "Have you seen the Queen?"
I replied that the Queen of the Belgians had received me a few days after my conversation with the King.
"She is very sad," said Her Majesty. "It is a terrible thing for her, especially as she is a Bavarian by birth." (Read full account)

A Talk with a King

In her book, Kings, Queens, and Pawns, available on Project Gutenberg, American writer and reporter Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958) gives an appreciative account of her meeting with King Albert I of Belgium during World War I. At the time of the audience, Albert and his wife, Queen Elisabeth, were living at La Panne, on the Belgian coast, near the front lines. Most of Belgium was under German occupation, following Germany's invasion of the country on August 4, 1914, in violation of treaties which guaranteed Belgian neutrality and independence. The United States had not yet entered the war.

This is how Rinehart describes her meeting with the King:

... There was little formality. I was taken in charge by the King's equerry, who tapped at a closed door. I drew a long breath.

"Madame Rinehart!" said the equerry, and stood aside.

There was a small screen in front of the door. I went round it. Standing alone before the fire was Albert I, King of the Belgians. I bowed; then we shook hands and he asked me to sit down.

It was to be a conversation rather than an interview; but as it was to be given as accurately as possible to the American people, I was permitted to make careful notes of both questions and answers. It was to be, in effect, a statement of the situation in Belgium as the King of the Belgians sees it.

I spoke first of a message to America.

"I have already sent a message to America," he informed me, "quite a long message. We are, of course, intensely appreciative of what Americans have done for Belgium."

"They are anxious to do what they can. The general feeling is one of great sympathy."

"Americans are both just and humane," the King replied, "and their system of distribution is excellent. I do not know what we should have done without the American Relief Committees."

"Is there anything further Your Majesty can suggest?"

"They seem to have thought of everything," the King said simply. "The food is invaluable- particularly the flour. It has saved many from starvation."

"But there is still need?"

"Oh, yes- great need."

It was clear that the subject was a tragic one. The King of the Belgians loves his people, as they love him, with a devotion that is completely unselfish. That he is helpless to relieve so much that they are compelled to endure is his great grief.

His face clouded. Probably he was seeing, as he must always see, the dejected figures of the peasants in the fields, the long files of his soldiers as they made their way through wet and cold to the trenches, the destroyed towns, the upheaval of a people.

"What is possible to know of the general condition of affairs in that part of Belgium occupied by the Germans?" I asked. "I do not mean in regard to food only, but the general condition of the Belgian people."

"It is impossible to say," was the answer. "During the invasion it was very bad. It is a little better now, of course, but here we are on the wrong side of the line to form any ordered judgment. To gain a real conception of the situation it would be necessary to go through the occupied portions from town to town, almost from house to house. Have you been in the other part of Belgium?"

"Not yet, I may go."

"You should do that- see Louvain, Aerschot, Antwerp- see the destroyed towns for yourself. No one can tell you. You must see them."

I was not certain that I should be permitted to make such a journey, but the King waved my doubts aside with a gesture.

"You are an American," he said. "it would be quite possible and you would see just what has happened. You would see open towns that were bombarded, other towns that were destroyed after occupation! You would see a country ruthlessly devastated, our wonderful monuments destroyed, our architectural and artistic treasures sacrificed without reason- without any justification."

"But as a necessity of war?" I asked.

"Not at all. The Germans have saved buildings when it suited their convenience to do so. No military necessity dictated the destruction of Louvain. It was not bombarded. It was deliberately destroyed. But, of course, you know that."

"The matter of the violation of Belgium's neutrality still remains an open question," I said. "I have seen American facsimile copies of documents referring to conversations between staff officers of the British and Belgian armies- documents that were found in the ministerial offices at Brussels when the Germans occupied that city last August. Of course I think that most Americans realize that, had they been of any real importance, they would have been taken away. There was time enough. But there are some, I know, who think them significant."

The King of the Belgians shrugged his shoulders.

"They were of an unofficial character and entirely without importance. The German Staff probably knew all about them long before the declaration of war. They themselves had, without doubt, discussed and recorded similar probabilities in case of war with other countries. It is a common practice in army organizations to prepare against different contingencies. It is a question of military routine only."

"There was no justification, then, for the violation of Belgian neutrality?" I inquired.

"None whatever! The German violation of Belgian neutrality was wrong," he said emphatically. "On the fourth of August their own chancellor admitted it. Belgium had no thought of war. The Belgians are a peace-loving people, who had every reason to believe in the friendship of Germany."

The next question was a difficult one. I inquired as to the behavior of the Germans in the conquered territory; but the King made no sweeping condemnation of the German army.

"Fearful things have been done, particularly during the invasion," he said, weighing his words carefully, "but it would be unfair to condemn the whole German Army. Some regiments have been most humane, but others behaved very badly. Have you seen the government report?"

I said I had not seen it, though I had heard that a careful investigation had been made.

"The government was very cautious," His Majesty said. "The investigation was absolutely impartial and as accurate as it could be made. Doubts were cast on all statements- even those of the most dependable witnesses-until they could be verified."

"They were verified?"

"Yes, again and again."

"By the victims themselves?"

"Not always. The victims of extreme cruelty do not live to tell of it, but German soldiers themselves have told the story. We have had here many hundreds of journals, taken from dead or imprisoned Germans, furnishing elaborate details of most atrocious acts. The government is keeping these journals. They furnish powerful and incontrovertible testimony of what happened in Belgium when it was swept over by a brutal army. That was, of course, during the invasion- such things are not happening now as far as we know."

He had spoken quietly, but there was a new note of strain in his voice. The burden of the King of the Belgians is a double one. To the horror of war has been added the unnecessary violation and death of noncombatants.

The King then referred to the German advance through Belgian territory.

"Thousands of civilians have been killed without reason. The execution of noncombatants is not war, and no excuse can be made for it. Such deeds cannot be called war."

"But if the townspeople fired on the Germans?"

"All weapons had been deposited in the hands of the town authorities. It is unlikely that any organized attack by civilians could have been made. However, if in individual cases shots were fired at the German soldiers, this may always be condoned in a country suffering invasion. During an occupation it would be different, naturally. No excuse can be offered for such an action in occupied territory."

"Various Belgian officers have told me of seeing crowds of men, women, and children driven ahead of the Germany Army to protect the troops. This is so incredible that I must ask whether it has any foundation of truth."

"It is quite true. It is a barbarous and inhuman system of protecting the German advance. When the Belgian soldiers fired on the enemy they killed their own people. Again and again innocent civilians of both sexes were sacrificed to protect the invading army during attacks. A terrible slaughter!"

His Majesty made no effort to conceal his great grief and indignation. And again, as before, there seemed nothing to say.

"Even now," I said, "when the Belgians return the German artillery fire, they are bombarding their own towns."

"That is true, of course, but what can we do? And the civilian population is very brave. They fear invasion, but they no longer pay any attention to bombs. They work in the fields quite calmly, with shells dropping about. They must work or starve."

He then spoke of the morale of the troops, which is excellent, and of his sympathy for their situation.

"Their families are in Belgium," he said. "Many of them have heard nothing for months. But they are wonderful. They are fighting for life and to regain their families, their homes, and their country. Christmas was very sad for them."

... I referred to my last visit to Belgium, when Brussels was the capital, and to the contrast now, when La Panne, a small seaside resort, hardly more than a village, contains the court, the residence of the King and Queen, and of the various members of his household. It seemed to me unlikely that La Panne would be attacked, as the Queen of the Belgians is a Bavarian.

"Do you think La Panne will be bombarded?" I asked.

"Why not?"

"I thought that possibly, on account of Your Majesty and the Queen being there, it would be spared."

"They are bombarding Furnes, where I go every day," he replied. "And there are German airplanes overhead all the time."

..."Belgium has made a great sacrifice in flooding her lowlands," I said. "Will that land be as fertile as before?"

"Not for several years. The flooding of the productive land in the Yser district was only carried out as a military necessity. The water is sea water, of course, and will have a bad effect on the soil ... "

The conversation then shifted to America and its attitude to the war. At the end of the audience:

The King had risen and was standing in his favorite attitude, his elbow on the mantelpiece. I rose also.

"I was given some instructions as to the ceremonial of this audience," I said. "I am afraid I have not followed them!"

"What were you told to do?" said His Majesty, evidently amused. Then, without waiting for a reply:

"We are very democratic- we Belgians," he said. "More democratic than the Americans ... "

... I looked at the clock. It was after three and the interview had begun at two. I knew it was time for me to go, but I had been given no indication that the interview was at an end. Fragments of the coaching I had received came to my mind, but nothing useful, so I stated my difficulty frankly, and again, the King's serious face lighted up with a smile.

"There is no formality here, but if you are going we must find the general for you."

So we shook hands and I went out, but the beautiful courtesy of the soldier King of the Belgians brought him out to the doorstep with me.

That is the final picture I have of Albert I, King of the Belgians- a tall young man, very fair and blue-eyed, in the dark blue uniform of a lieutenant-general of his army, wearing no orders or decorations, standing bareheaded in the wind and pointing out to me the direction in which I should go to find the general who had brought me.

He is a very courteous gentleman ... a tragic and heroic figure, but thinking himself neither- thinking of himself not at all, indeed, only of his people, whose griefs are his to share but not to lighten, living day and night under the rumble of German artillery at Nieuport and Dixmude in that small corner of Belgium which remains to him...

A Talk with a Queen

In another chapter of Kings, Queens, and Pawns, Mary Roberts Rinehart brings Queen Elisabeth of Belgium to life. This is how she describes her meeting with the Queen in the royal villa at La Panne:
...The royal villa at La Panne faces the sea. It is at the end of the village and the encroaching dunes have ruined what was meant to be a small lawn. The long grass that grows out of the sand is the only vegetation about it; and outside, half-buried in the dune, is a marble seat. A sentry box or two, and sentries with carbines pacing along the sand; the constant swish of the sea wind through the dead winter grass; the half-buried garden seat- that is what the Queen of the Belgians sees as she looks from the window of her villa.

The villa itself is small and ugly. The furnishing is the furnishing of a summer seaside cottage. The windows fit badly and rattle in the gale. In the long drawing room- really a living room - in which I waited for the Queen, a heavy red curtain had been hung across the lower part of the long French windows that face the sea, to keep out the draft. With that and an open coal fire the room was fairly comfortable.

As I waited I looked about. Rather a long room this, which has seen so many momentous discussions, so much tragedy and real grief. A chaotic room, too, for in addition to its typical villa furnishing ... an ordinary pine table by a side window was littered with papers.

On a centre table were books- H. G. Wells "The War in the Air", two American books written by correspondents who had witnessed the invasion of Belgium, and several newspapers ...

The door opened and the Queen entered without ceremony. I had not seen her before. In her simple blue dress, with its white lawn collar and cuffs, she looked even more girlish than I had anticipated. Like Queen Mary of England, she has suffered from the camera. She is indeed strikingly beautiful, with lovely coloring and hair, and with very direct wide eyes, set far apart. She is small and slender, and moves quickly. She speaks beautiful English, in that softly inflected voice of the Continent which is the envy of all American women. I bowed as she entered, and she shook hands with me at once and asked me to sit down. She sat on the sofa by the fireplace. Like the Queen of England, like King Albert, her first words were of gratitude to America.

It is not my intention to record here anything but the substance of my conversation with Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. Much that was said was the free and unrestricted speech of two women, talking over together a situation that was tragic to them both; for Queen Elisabeth allowed me to forget, as I think she had ceased to remember, her own exalted rank, in her anxiety for her people.

A devoted churchwoman, she grieved over the treatment accorded by the invading German Army to the priests and nuns of Belgium. She referred to her own Bavarian birth, and to the confidence both King Albert and she had always felt in the friendliness of Germany.

"I am a Bavarian," she said. "I have always, from my childhood, heard this talk that Germany must grow, must get to the sea. I thought it was just talk- a pleasantry!"

She had seen many of the diaries of German soldiers, had read them in the very room where we were sitting. She went quite white over the recollection and closed her eyes.

"It is the women and children!" she said. "It is terrible! There must be killing. That is war. But not this other thing."

And later on she said, in reference to German criticism of King Albert's course during the early days of the war:

"Anyone who knows the King knows that he cannot do a wrong thing. It is impossible for him. He cannot go any way but straight."

And Queen Elisabeth was right. Anyone who knows King Albert of Belgium knows that "he cannot go any way but straight."

The conversation shifted to the wounded soldiers and to the Queen's anxiety for them. I spoke of her hospital as being a remarkable one-practically under fire, but moving as smoothly as a great American institution, thousands of miles from danger. She had looked very sad, but at the mention of the Ocean Ambulance her face brightened. She spoke of its equipment, of the difficulty in securing supplies, of the new surgery, which has saved so many limbs from amputation. They were installing new and larger sterilizers, she said.

"Things are in as good condition as can be expected now," she said. "The next problem will come when we get back into our own country. What are the people to do? So many of the towns are gone; so many farms are razed!"

The Queen spoke of Brand Whitlock and praised highly his work in Brussels. From that to the relief work was only a step. I spoke of the interest America was taking in the relief work, and of the desire of so many American women to help.

"We are grateful for anything," she said. "The army seems to be as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, but the people, of course, need everything."

Inevitably the conversation turned again to the treatment of the Belgian people by the Germans, to the unnecessary and brutal murders of noncombatants, to the frightful rapine and pillage of the early months of the war. Her Majesty could not understand the scepticism of America on this point. I suggested that it was difficult to say what any army would do when it found itself in a prostrate and conquered land.

"The Belgian Army would never have behaved so," said Her Majesty. "nor the English, nor the French. Never!"

And the Queen of the Belgians is a German! True, she has suffered much. Perhaps she is embittered, but there was no bitterness in her voice that afternoon in the little villa at La Panne - only sadness and great sorrow, and, with it, deep conviction. What Queen Elisabeth of Belgium says, she believes, and who should know better? There, to that house on the sea front, in the fragment of Belgium that remains, go all the hideous details that are war. She knows them all. King Albert is not a figure-head, he is the actual fighting head of his army. The murder of Belgium has been done before his very eyes...