Queen Marie of Romania was a one woman phenomenon, a trailblazing, protocol breaking monarch whose contribution to her adopted country's history was perhaps greater than any other of its latter day rulers writes Royalty Editor Marco Houston. She played a vital role in ensuring the country fought with the Triple Entente in WWI and in its aggrandisement in the aftermath.
Marie's favourite saying was Frederick Nietzsche's `character is destiny'. In that regard she was fortunate, having been gifted with tremendous vitality, seemingly boundless energy, a quick intelligence and, although she did not realise it until her later years, a considerable talent for writing. Ideally for a memoirist, but rather tricky for a queen, her nature was passionate and impulsive, her pen sometimes indiscreet.
However, her formative years did not mark her out as exceptional, although she was certainly high born even amongst royalty. As the daughter of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, and Marie Alexandrovna, grand Duchess of Russia, Marie boasted an impressive pedigree as the granddaughter of an empress, Queen Victoria, and an emperor, Tsar Alexander II.
Poor, backward, `semi-Oriental' and usually overlooked Romania would not have been of dynastic interest to her family if the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringens had not come to the throne in 1866. Prince Karl had been elected by Romania's disputatious nobles and gladly accepted the offer before Europe could intervene, as it usually did in Balkan affairs. By 1881 the principality had been raised to a kingdom and its prince crowned as King Carol I.
Marie's husband, Ferdinand, was the King's nephew, but had been made heir in 1889, as the royal couple's marriage was childless. By that circuitous route, Romania gained a rather prestigious British princess. Although none could foresee it at the time, as Marie and the timid Ferdinand lived in the long shadow cast by their autocratic uncle until his death in 1914, she would eventually become a remarkable queen.
Marie's life up until 1918 was chronicled in the first two volumes of her autobiography published in the 1930s. Fascinating as both a personal and political memoir, it was Marie's lively, fluid prose that brought her unexpected literary plaudits. Her revelations were, however, frowned upon by many of her relatives. Marie knew this and she was careful to avoid the really scandalous events in the royal family's life, but for her audience she had ended all too soon.
In the immediate post-war period Marie found the greatest role of her life as Romania's unofficial representative at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. She did more than add royal lustre to the nation's cause; in the eyes of the world she had become Romania. Fortunately for posterity, she somehow found time in an astonishingly busy period of her life to keep a detailed diary.
The resulting memoir—'Later Chapters of my Life'—is a worthy addition to Marie's literary opus, as vital as we could have hoped for and filled with the vignettes and lively anecdotes that made the earlier volumes so entertaining. That said, there is a slightly unfinished feel to it, no doubt due to the difficult circumstances it was written under, when relations with her eldest son, by then King Carol II, were poor.
Queen Marie of Romania (right) with her daughter-in-law Princess Helen of Greece (standing) who married Crown Prince Carol in 1921, and Helen's sister Irene (left). (Inset) Queen Marie's classic autobiography created a sensation when it was published in the 1930s by the US publishers 'Charles Scribner's Sons'.
The drama, for Marie's life was certainly a magnificent drama, naturally picks up where her earlier volumes left off, at the end of the war with Romania struggling to get back on its feet. Post-war Romania is a catalogue of human misery: of loss, hunger, disease , and political unrest. Marie's time is spent running from one I desperate scene to another, trying to get foreign aid into the country and somehow raise the people's spirits.
She plunges us into her thoughts and emotions and her talent for immediacy brings the past vividly to life. There is one particularly poignant moment when a peasant woman driven mad Queen Marie by the loss of her son gives Marie his army uniform. There are also some nice accounts of the many Americans she befriended, many of which came to Romania to help `their friend' Queen Marie's country.
Where Marie really excels is her complete confidence in making the reader her closest companion. No thought, conversation or incident is unworthy of recording and she is never dry, even when she is forced to be circumspect, and she rarely loser her sense of perspective or humour.
The 'Spanish flu' was raging across Europe and Marie had a nasty bout: "I had strange hallucinations—I continually had the sensation of being two personalities, and my second self, lying in bed with me, took every sort of shape. Even the separate parts of my body seemed to have faces! It was horrid, especially as quite casual acquaintances, noted more particularly for their ugliness, became my companions, I could not get rid of them!" If only she had let on whom the real life counterparts of these apparitions were!
For historians of the period the richest sections will be those dealing with the Paris Peace Conference. Unfettered by personal considerations, Marie could express herself fully when dealing with the great and the good of the political classes.
Her participation came about as Romania's leaders saw that the Allies were not much inclined to hear their case. Prime Minister Bratianu was a considerable politician but even he was being given short shrift by the great powers. In Bucharest, Marie heard the reports with "clenched fists and racing heart" and when she heard that Bratianu was asking for her to come to Paris "a shiver of pride shuddered through" her.
Marie gives some of her best when describing Woodrow Wilson. She clearly respected but did not like him, seeing him not as a visionary but as a symptom of Europe's need for a quasi-messianic figure to solve its self-inflicted problems. For his part, Wilson, as a proud democrat of the New World, took a rather haughty attitude towards this monarch from the old.
Marie was acutely aware that winning the war had solved nothing, that it was only a new beginning: "Our country had nearly doubled in size, our people were no more so homogeneous . . . It was all very well to talk of the brothers beyond the mountains—these certainly had the same language, the same aspirations, but they also has their own habits, their pride, their susceptibilities. For centuries they had been oppressed, so they were very easily suspicious, very much on their guard, ready to see offence in every approach, and fraternal feelings did not always prove strong."
That realisation did not lessen her missionary zeal; the thoughts of the wartime sacrifices and the ongoing suffering of her people were driving her on. She departed Romania at the beginning of March 1919 and hit the French capital like a tornado a week later.
It was another of those daunting challenges she seemed to live for. Standing up to the German war machine and sharing the misery of the war years with her people had given her the confidence to deal with the world's leaders, and whether it was Georges Clemeceau, David Lloyd-George or Woodrow Wilson Wilson, Marie was ready to to take them all on!
The hero of France was first on the itinerary: "I always imagined I would like Clemenceau and I did. He looks the old man he is, but otherwise there is nothing old about him, but he is certainly stubborn." They enjoyed each other's company, he found Marie's directness a pleasing contrast after dealing with so many diplomats, but they locked horns over Romania's suing for peace with Germany.
He considered it had been no less than a betrayal of the Allied cause; Marie countered that there had been little choice. On the point she was defeated by her own bravery as she found herself being reminded that it was the Queen who had been all for continuing the resistance. Undaunted she laid out Romania's case and, at the least, gained the `Tiger's' respect.
Marie's meeting with Lloyd George was informal, at a party given by Lord and Lady Derby. Whilst enjoying the Welshman's "fun and wit", she was left wondering how much he really understood about the world beyond the confines of the British Empire. It was an observation others have also made.
Having been born in that particular "Great Country" Marie saw clearly that, for the European powers, the Balkan states were considered to be more trouble than they were worth. She, however, had gone thoroughly native, even so far as to show a tinge of regional jealousy toward Greece's Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos, who was also making the most of his celebrity status to forward his nation's interests: "Very sure of his own charm, his voice was soft, his manner ingratiating . . . one felt he t did not was out to seduce."
Romania's royal extrovert did not relish the thought of Greece's showman stealing her limelight!
Marie gives some of world, her best when describing this Woodrow Wilson. She clearly respected but did not like him, seeing him not as a visionary but as a symptom of Europe's need for a quasi-messianic figure to solve its self-inflicted problems.
For his part, Wilson, as a proud democrat of the New World, took a rather haughty attitude toward this monarch from the old.
The President agreed to see the Queen but his busy schedule meant it had to be before 9am. Marie coolly replied that, as an early riser, she would be glad to receive him at seven! The President called at half-past eight, clearly seeing the meeting as a tiresome chore, but Marie made enough of an impression to receive an invitation to lunch for the following day.
Accompanied by her sister, the Infanta Beatrice, and her daughters Ileana and Mignon, Marie was determined to make a good impression on this most important player on the diplomatic chessboard. They were not, however, well suited to strike up a friendship: she was far too flamboyant for the President's taste; he was too full of himself for her liking.
Although Marie saw Wilson as a false prophet, and she knew of his domestic weakness with the isolationist Senate waiting to pounce, she was genuinely interested to hear him expound on his grand ideas for a new world order. Let him speak and gently bring his attention to Romania's needs was her tactic.
The forced cordiality snapped when Wilson "very sanctimoniously" criticised Romania's treatment of its minorities. Marie countered that he was no doubt so well acquainted with such problems with the United States having the Japanese question to grapple with: "Upon this he bared his long white teeth in a polite smile, drew up his eyebrows and declared he was not aware of a Japanese question in America!"
Marie makes it graphically clear from the outset that she believed the high hopes invested in Wilson and the peace conference were badly misplaced. At forty-three years of age she was an experienced and shrewd observer of politics and gives plentiful food for thought for students of diplomacy.
Throughout the account of the peace conference there is a streak of portentous pessimism, nowhere more so than when Wilson proselytises his vision of the League of Nations. Marie admires his idealism but can only see man's infinite capacity for folly corrupting the original thought: "Christ would probably weep over what man has made of His teaching." A very bleak thought from one so positive in life.
That unhappy world view was undoubtedly in good part due to the family tragedies that Marie could see all around. Her Russian relatives were either dead or in exile, the Germans caught up in the nation's defeat and devastation and the British were not doing their bit for the destitute and the exiled.
Poor Maria Putiatin, daughter of Marie's uncle, Grand Duke Paul, had been among the fortunate few and escaped to Romania. Marie gladly gave her shelter and there is a touching account of how they learned of Grand Duke Paul's murder by the Bolsheviks.
Closer to home, whilst
Marie was saving Romania's bacon in Paris, the family was in turmoil. Her
marriage had become a shadow, she and Ferdinand's personal lives had long since
parted ways; and, far worse, her eldest son had defied her by marrying a
Romanian girl of noble birth.
Given Marie's confessional nature she might well have wanted to tell us more on both subjects. Loyally she only speaks well of her husband. In the case of Crown Prince Carol she is equally constrained, but this was as much out of trepidation as tact. After returning from exile in 1930 to reclaim his right to the throne, Carol feared Marie as a focal point for the powerful clique he was determined to exclude from power.
As has so often been the case, Carol has been accused a dark deed toward his mother regarding her memoirs: of having destroyed the manuscript of `Later Chapters of my Life' after her death in 1938. Carol, usually portrayed almost stereotypically by his biographers as an enfant terrible, is generally held to blame for most, if not all, of the familial strife and, therefore, if Marie's memoirs had gone missing, who else could have been behind it?
The facts are now known thanks to Romanian historian Diana Mandache. She was convinced of its survival and spent seven years tracking it down, eventually finding the lost manuscript in the Romanian National Archives in " Bucharest. She has done an excellent job in preparing it for publication.
If he has been unfairly maligned, Carol's relationship with Marie had nonetheless deteriorated into hostility and suspicion and she was forced to work on the memoir in secret. That pressing constraint meant that she could not dare write about his marriage to Ioana Lambrino-Rangabe in 1918, which had brought about the lifelong schism between them.
Marie only gives us one brief passage alluding to the "great grief" that had destroyed the family's happiness. Even so we get a sense of her horror at Carol's recklessness, and also her anguished realisation that he was not entirely to blame, that they were divided by two different conceptions of duty, "absolutely unable to come to an understanding or even to a truce."
With the family coming apart at the seams, the burden largely fell on Marie's shoulders, as she was in real terms the head of the family. Carol's marriage, she believed, threatened to destroy everything they had all worked for. The pressure on her throughout 1918-1919 must have been enormous.
With so much to contend with, one has to marvel at how well she managed to represent Romania at the peace conference, turning a minor European nation into a diplomatic cause celebre. Paris was a triumphant moment in her life and the zenith of her reign.
But, as she foresaw, building the future was much harder than demolishing the past had been. Naturally avowedly anti-Bolshevik, she also railed against the aggressive capitalism of the post-war period, which was dividing people who desperately needed to work together. The resurgence of the chronic factionalism of Romanian politics adds another lamentable layer to her portrayal of discordant times.
The memoir concludes with the King and Queen's coronation at Alba Julia in 1922. At the time this was seen as hubris, little Romania's monarchs swaggering around like the Byzantine emperors of old. However, Marie saw it exactly for what it was: a "big ceremony" on an overcast October day. Whilst the nation had earned its day in the metaphorical sun with blood and tears, there was little triumphalism from the Queen: "And so, the coronation over, another corner was turned, another road stretched ahead, teeming with life and human problems, new ways, new demands on all who travel it."
For Marie the remaining years of life's journey were particularly difficult. The 1920s were politically unstable and relations with Carol worsened steadily. After King Ferdinand's death in 1927 her power waned; his passivity had allowed Marie to wield power in his name. Carol's infant son Michael was placed on the throne but Marie was not made one of the three regents, and when Carol reclaimed the throne she had no real power to oppose him. Marie's political career was over and her decline was swift and lonely. Her other children were all living abroad and she became an isolated figure; even the great love of her life, Prince Barbo Stirbey, was gone, having fled the country in anticipation of Carol settling old scores.
Written near the end of her life, 'Later Chapter's of my Life' is inevitably of a darker hue than its predecessors: the great performance is nearly over; the curtain is coming down for the final time. Each moment has been lived to the full but the recounting is circumscribed with doubt, with the realisation that we are all destined to be defeated, that in the end even the brightest star dims and dies.
But Marie was nothing if not a fighter and she would have taken solace in the knowledge that a new generation of readers can now appreciate afresh the literary talents of a most remarkable woman who happened to be an equally remarkable monarch.
'Later Chapters of my Life: The Lost Memoir of Queen Marie of Romania' is available from the Royalty Bookclub.