FEMININE MYTHOLOGY: QUEEN MARIE

excerpt from
History and Myth in Romanian Consciousness
by Lucian Boia
Central European University Press, Budapest, 2001
ISBN 963-9116-96-3
First published in Romanian as Istorie și mit în conștiința românească
Humanitas, Bucharest, 1997




 


FEMININE MYTHOLOGY: QUEEN MARIE

Women are not much wanted in Romanian historical mythology. In this respect mythology is only reflecting a current and almost general prejudice. Even today, when a number of Islamic states have women prime ministers, successive governments of Romania are striking for their almost total maleness. It has been observed, not without irony, that even the Romanian delegation to the international women's conference was led by a man.

A woman can enter the mythology, of course, but only in a place fitting for her, in a marginal, subaltern position as witness and moral supporter of the great male enterprises. Gentle Lady Elena, who bore so much from Cuza Vodă, is a significant example of the type of woman who is accepted. In a more heroic version, but equally dependent on great men, we find the women of olden times evoked in Bolintineanu's portrayal of the mother of Stephen the Great, who sends her son to victory or death ("Go to the army, for the country die"), or the mother of Michael the Brave, with her extraordinary reaction to her son's death: "Your news is very sad, / Not that my son has died, / But that even by his death / He has not unbound the Romanians." It remains for the psychologists to give their verdict.

There are a few heroic figures of the second rank in the modern period too: Ana Ipătescu in 1848, and Ecaterina Teodoroiu in the First World War. But the upper reaches of the hierarchy find it hard to accept femininity. Women who want to impose themselves "at the top" are regarded badly. This applies, to take two examples from literature, to Lady Clara and Lady Chiajna. The triad of female "evildoers" of the last half century—Elena Lupescu, Ana Pauker and Elena Ceausescu—only confirms the apparent rightness of the Romanians' distrust of women in power.

The installation of the dynasty somewhat modified the indigenous feminine typology. A queen is not an ordinary woman, but a figure who shares in the sacredness of the function, regardless of her sex. This is what has allowed a number of great queens to be respected leaders of countries otherwise ruled exclusively by men. In the case of Romania, only two names come into the discussion: Queen Elizabeth/Carmen Sylva, and Queen Marie.

The myth-making process did not go very far in the former case, as it was limited by the powerful personality of Carol I. The space reserved for the queen was limited to the areas of good works, and especially cultural activity, a domain in which her qualities as creator and protector were amplified.

With Queen Marie the situation is quite different. She is the only woman in Romania who has risen to the very heights of myth1. Her remote origin may have been a positive asset—she came from another world and was somehow a different being. But what really helped was the war, and, in this context, in contrast to Carol and Elizabeth, the less than convincing image of King Ferdinand, a man with considerable intellectual abilities but timid and equivocal compared with the outgoing character of the queen. A Carol I with his frozen dignity, or a Carol II with his majestic yet familiar style might have been able to carry the whole symbolic charge of the moment, which Ferdinand shared with Queen Marie. It is true that the times called for more. The grandeur of the national ideal which had suddenly become tangible, the disaster of defeat in 1916, the mobilization of energies in the following year, the tragedy of a separate peace, the need to keep up hope in difficult times—all led inevitably to the mythical formula of the savior. The Romanians needed a savior, perhaps even more than one figure to share this mission.

We should also take into consideration the real merits of the queen, including what she actually did during the war. Myths are frequently not "undeserved". They isolate, amplify, or invest with a surplus of meaning facts that may be very real. It is certain that the queen did not limit herself to the traditional feminine role of "mother of the wounded", although this was not absent from the mythology (some versions even accredit her with healing powers, like the monarchs of old). She was much more than that; she was (I do not propose to separate the reality from the strictly mythical in this respect) the living consciousness of Romanian unity, the symbol of confidence in final victory.

It is worth noting the account given by a cynic, who was little inclined to admire his contemporaries and who was, on other occasions, far from kind in his appreciation of the queen. Constantin Argetoianu writes thus:

"Whatever Queen Marie's errors before and after the war, the war remains her page, the page of which she may boast, the page that will seat her in history's place of honor. [...] We find her in the trenches among the combatants, in forward positions; we find her in the hospitals and all the medical units; among the wounded, among the sick; we find her present wherever people met to try to do some good. She knew no fear of bullets and bombs, just as she knew no fear or disgust at disease, or impatience with the often useless efforts provoked by her desire for something better. Queen Marie fulfilled her duty on all the multiple fronts of her activity, but above all in encouraging and raising the morale of those who lived around her and who had to decide, in the most tragic moments, the fate of the country and the people. We may state that during our displacement to Moldavia, Queen Marie was the embodiment, and a fine embodiment, of the highest aspirations of the Romanian consciousness."2

to look at you, as you passed thoughtfully
along the bleeding pathways of Moldavia...
he would have ordered to be built without delay
Moldavian monasteries,
on the sites where your deep gaze had rested the most,
and your step of imperial stock...

Before your august sight,
from his proud cavalcades,
with his two eyes like the puszta,
revered by all, János Hunyadi would have stopped short...

if Michael the Brave had seen you,
white and alive—
wherever he went
the land would have grown in an instant,
under his iron tread—an empire...

Almost fifty years of communism severely eroded the myth of the queen. The solution chosen, the most efficient of all, was forgetting; in general her name was not even mentioned (though it is interesting that her image was preserved in the sculptural composition of the monument to the "Medical Heroes" in Bucharest, probably due to the sheer ignorance of the authorities!). The few references that were made sought, with the hypocrisy characteristic of dictatorships, to highlight the queen's sexual immorality (again with extracts from Argetoianu, but different passages from those we have just looked at). Today her figure has returned to view, but the myth can no longer have the force of three-quarters of a century ago. Romania lacks a great feminine myth.



1Bizomescu, Maria. "Un mit feminin: Regina Maria" (A feminine myth: Queen Marie). Mituri istorice românești, 171-198,

2Argetoianu, Constantin. Petru cei de mîine. Amintiri din vremea celor de ieri. Vol. 3, part 5. Bucharest: Humanitas, 1992, 15, 109.