Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Last Romantic: A Biography of Queen Marie of Roumania

The Last Romantic is a 1986 biography written by Hannah Pakula on Marie of Edinburgh, Queen of Roumania.

In 1871, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, is introduced to Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, only [surviving] daughter of Tsar Alexander II of Russia and Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna of Russia (nee Princee Marie of Hesse and by the Rhine). Having already been scared off by Elisabeth of Wied, the second son of Queen Victoria proposed to the Grand Duchess, against the wishes of both his Mother and hers. They married on January 23, 1874. Maria Alexandrovna's was an unhappy in England where she was placed behind the Princess of Wales in order of importance, despite Maria Alexandrovna being the daughter of an Emperor (styled Her Imperial Highness) while Alexandra was only the daughter of the King of Denmark (styled Her Royal Highness). The Duchess of Edinburgh was also unhappy in her marriage, once referring to herself as "[Alfred's] official mistress". Her one comfort in such a life was her children.

Marie Alexandra Victoria, nicknamed "Missy" in the family, was born on October 29, 1875, Alfred and Marie's second child and first daughter. She was preceded by her parents only son, Alfred ("Young Affie"), and three younger sisters, Victoria Melita ("Ducky"), Alexandra ("Sandra") and Beatrice ("Baby Bea"). Raised first in England, Marie never lost her love for the country. Because of her Father's naval career, Missy often spent time abroad, particularly at Malta where her cousin, George, Duke of York, was stationed. George fell in love with the prettiest of the Edinburgh girls and sought her hand in marriage. Alfred and his older brother, Edward, agreed but their wives did not. Before Missy could make any decisions for herself, Maria Alexandrovna planned for Missy to meet Crown Prince Ferdinand of Roumania.

Ferdinand Victor Albert Meinrad, or "Nando" as he was known in the family, was born on August 24, 1865, the second son of  Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen and Infanta Antonia of Portugal. His uncle, King Carol I of Roumania, had been married to Elisabeth of Wied (the same woman Alfred had rejected all those years ago), for a number of years but the only fruit of their union, Princess Marie of Roumania, had died in 1874, so he needed an heir. Having become familiar with the situation in Roumania, Ferdinand's older brother, William, renounced his rights to the Romanian throne in favor of his younger brother. Unaccustomed to life in Roumania and lonely, Ferdinand grew close to his Aunt's lady-in-waiting, Elena Vacarescu. Elisabeth, believing Elena to be the reincarnation of her deceased daugther, encouraged the romance, knowing full well that such a match would never be permitted by the King. Once Carol discovered what was going on between the Crown Prince and the cout lady, he had the Queen exiled to Neuwied and Elena to Paris. Ferdinand was duly sent to Europe to find a bride. The 27 year old Crown Prince married the 17 year old English Princess on January 10, 1893.

If Missy and Nando had little in common before their marriage, things became even worse after they married. Nando was a timid man who never stood up for his wife against his Aunt. Missy gave birth her first child, a boy named Carol after his great-uncle, on October 15, 1893. A girl, named Elisabeth, came the next year. Both children were snatched up by Queen Elisabeth, often known by her pen name as Carmen Sylva. In 1897, while Ferdinand was recovering from an illness, Missy was given a new aide-de-camp by the name of Zizi Cantacuzene. The two subsequently began an affair and like the Elena Vacarescu affair, King Carol ended it quickly. Pregnant, Missy demanded to give birth in Coburg - where her Mother was now Duchess. Missy gave birth to Marie ("Mignon") on January 6, 1900.

In 1899, Young Affie died in Meran after living a wasted life. The next year, Missy's Father succumbed to lung cancer after years of dissipation. The following year, Queen Victoria died to be reunited with her beloved Albert. Ducky had been married to Grand Duke Ernest of Hesse since 1894, a plan that had gone according to the wishes of the Duke of Edinburgh, but the two were illmatched and had long hoped for a divorce. Now that the chief opposition to the divorce was gone, the couple duly separated and Victoria Melita went to the open arms of Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich of Russia. Unfortunately for Ducky and her main man, Ernest sister was Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia who had her husband strip the Grand Duke of his title. Missy named her next child, a boy, Nicholas after the Tsar to try and placate him. There were rumors that Nicholas was the son of Missy's close friend, Waldorf Astor, although Pakula refutes this.

Missy began an affair with Barbo Stirbey at the beginning of the century, a love affair that would be the loves of both their lives. Missy's favorite child, Ileana, was born in 1909 and there were many rumors abound that her biological father was Stirbey but Pakula says otherwise. The matter is entirely different when it comes to Prince Mircea who was born in 1913 - whom it is generally assumed among historians that Stirbey is the Father. Mircea was born just before the outbreak of the First World War.

Roumania had earned itself some recognition in the first and second Balkan Wars but it was no where near ready for a full scale war. As with many royal families, the Great War divided the Romanian royal family in two. Carol and Elisabeth both avowed German while Missy stayed true to her roots. Romania, however, stayed neutral for the first few years of the war. Carol's sudden death in 1914 made Ferdinand King but it was plain to all that the actually ruler of Romania was Queen Marie. Despite going against his bloodline and heritage, Ferdinand joined the war on the sides of the Entente. The war was a great hardship on the Romanian people, Missy too was effected. Mircea died in 1916 and his death absolutely devastated his Mother. Marie focused all her attention of her country and was a symbol of strength and resilience to the Romanian people. She chose correctly; the Entente was triumphant and the war ended on November 11, 1918.

Now that the war was over, the trouble in Missy's life stemmed from Carol, her eldest son. Like his Father before him, Carol fell in love with a Romanian girl, Jeanna "Zizi" Lambrino. Knowing full well that if he married her he would forfeit the throne, he married her in August 1918. Missy and Nando were furious and declared the marriage illegal. Despite pledging his eternal love for Zizi, Carol eventually grew tired of her and went along with his parents in having the marriage annulled. In 1921, in a double marriage between two sets of brothers and sisters, Carol married Helen of Greece and Elisabeth married Crown Prince George of Greece. Zizi gave birth to Carol's son, Mircea, in 1920. Helen gave birth to Carol's son, Michael, in 1921. In 1922, Mignon marrried King Alexander of Yugoslavia, completing the three marriages that would earn Missy the nickname of "GrandMother of the Balkans".

Helen, or as she was called by close friends "Sitta", and Carol's marriage soon broke down after Carol's relationship with Elena Lupescu came to light in 1925. They divorced in 1928. Missy felt rather sympathetic to her daughter-in-law's plight but disliked the way she kept Michael isolated from his family. Rather than give Lupescu up, Carol renounced his rights to the Romanian throne. In 1927, Nando died and Missy's five year old grandson ascended the throne. His reign was a short one because Carol returned in 1930 and proclaimed himself king while factions ofI the royal family fought over the regency. He had his wife place practically under house arrest and his Mother found herself increasingly under greater supervision. Wishing to rid himself of all perceived threats he used his siblings marriages to chase them away.

Marie died on July 18, 1938, aged 62 - before the fall of the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen dynasty, whose path to destruction sprung from her own son's rule, and the rise of the Communist party in her beloved Romania.

I give this book a 4/5. Having already read Pakula's other work An Uncommon Woman I decided to give this book a shot. Now I'm not necessarily a fan of Missy, I've always been a bit of prude when it came to who I emulated (preferring people such as Victoria, Princess Royal and Alix of Hesse etc.), but Hannah Pakula does the romantic Queen of Roumania justice. The book was engaging and well written and I commend Pakula for that. I had a giggle or two with some outdated facts but then again this book was written almost three decades ago so that can't be helped. The one disappointment that I had with the book is its lack of overall...romance. I was expecting a little more on Zizi Cantacuzene affair because she muddles up Marie's pregnancy in 1897 and Mignon's birth in 1900. And I know that the book would mostly focus on the bane of Marie's life, Carol, it was a little lacking with her other children. I wanted to read a bit more about her relationship with Mignon and Elisabeth, who was a terror in and of herself. All in all a good read and yes, I'd recommend it to people.

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