A Spanish grandee and Ambassador to the Court of St James’s once compared the success of an Anthology to that of a culinary chef d’oeuvre: for Santiago de Mora-Figueroa y Williams, Marqués de Tamarón, a great Anglophile but also a refined European
the perfect anthology, like the perfect hors d'oeuvre, should turn us into gluttons. The many small dishes add up to a balanced and nourishing meal, but they are so exquisite that they whet one's appetite for more. And the anthology should also include unexpected delicacies, things that even the literary gourmet had not heard about.
On a deeper reflection, Tamarón’s metaphor encapsulates perfectly well the ethos of the ‘Blouse Roumaine’. Yet, as an Anthology of Romanian women, this corpus was initially conceived to connect with a French painting of Henri Matisse - the eponymous canvas, ‘La Blouse Roumaine’ (1940), which hangs today in the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris: for every and each biography contained in this Women’s Anthology is like a minutely embroidered stitch on an ethnic tapestry, such as we have admired, not so long ago in the Retrospective exhibition of Matisse’s collection of textiles, presented at the Royal Academy in London and later also shown in New York. For those of us who missed this exhibition the analogy to the current book is like a roll call of women presented in a sequence of biographical cameos. These sketches are displayed like a series of miniatures in a virtual National Portrait Gallery: they are all glittering stars from Western galaxies and Eastern nebulae, in all 160 of them…
The manuscript gestation involved a work of love and dedication, spanning over several years, a creation which gradually came to life very much like in the Marqués de Tamarón’s definition - a ‘menu of diverse and delicious hors d’oeuvres, visually appealing’ but at the same time teasing the imagination and stimulating the taste: for such choice not only offers food for thought as well as for the heart, but also food for academic appetite, extending the frontiers of taste beyond the familiar courses of history, politics, literature, music, film, theatre, feminism or science - for ‘Blouse Roumaine’ is at the same time a trans-disciplinary book.
This subjective if somewhat esoteric compilation of impressionistic essays is preceded by a historical, cultural and political overview of Romanian society. This introductory social fresco sets the tone of the narrative which is perceived through a European looking glass, allowing the reader to consider Romania not in its exotic isolation, but as part of a much broader ‘concert of nations’ and therefore evaluate it within a familiar territory. These will be countries such as France, Spain, Italy or Britain which for the last two hundred years were the playground of Romanian aristocrats (Bibesco, Noailles, Ghika, Brancovan, Cantacuzène) and lately the land of exile of many an uprooted artist and writer (Constantin Brancusi, Eugène Ionesco, Emil Cioran, Vintila Horia, Mircea Eliade, Georges Enesco, Dinu Lipatti, Clara Haskil, Nadia Gray, Elvire Popesco, Hélène Vacaresco).
The Anthology is complemented by texts often published for the first time in English and sourced from over 4,000 French, Romanian, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and German references. Six hundred quotations convey the narrative an arcane erudition inviting the reader on a joyful pursuit of an abstruse and little-explored subject. This is virgin territory offering sheer delight.
As we turn the pages of this book we are made witness to an exotic cavalcade of female characters who conjure the scent, colour and voices of time past to the present day, from the sunflower fields of the Danube Plains to the darkest forests of Transylvania, from the languid music of the Carpathian panpipes to the uplifting Parisian literary salons and the stages of La Scala, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan operas, or the prestigious Comédie Française and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Further afield some of these intrepid amazons reached the distant shores of the river de la Plata, or, in the 19th century discovered the sources of the White Nile.
Yet, if such momentous revelations were not surprising enough, ‘Blouse Roumaine’ would also evoke associations with scores of famous glitterati and politicians of European and American dimension… For these women of the Orient Express disembarking in Milan, Paris, Madrid, London, New York or Buenos Aires, women who inspired poets and composers, who created new opera roles, these muses enthralled political eagles and aristocrats alike, caused crown heads to dream and lesser mortals to lose their heads. Some of these women made their lovers’ suicide respectable, before they retired to the seclusion of their convent to pray for the salvation of their soul, where some of them were suspected of trying to seduce God!… Through these enchantresses come to life a choice array of foreign suitors, lovers, admirers, patrons and sometimes husbands: King George V, Alfonso XIII of Spain, Carlos I of Portugal, the Earl of Carnarvon, the Earl of Asquith, Lord Thomson of Cardington, Sacheverell Sitwell, Noel Coward, David Farrar, Paul Morand, Marcel Proust, Pierre Lotti, Anatole France, Puvis de Chavannes, Vincent Van Gogh, Mark Twain, Verdi, Puccini, Richard Strauss, Eric Satie and more recently Humphrey Bogart, Lord Lloyd Webber, Roberto Alagna, Michel Foucault or Jacques Lacan, to name just a few.
But looking at this rich social tapestry, this folk embroidery of multicoloured and infinite stitches, one is equally absorbed by the darker side of the 20th century history - of women who died in prison for their political beliefs, of Passionarias who, after the Second World War, took the armed struggle to the Carpathian mountains, or simply the faceless yet equally important unknown illustrious peasant women, or middle class housewives who steeled their obstinate resolve and silent resistance against the leveling steamroller of dictatorship.
Constantin ROMAN evokes these heroines with a melancholy acknowledgment of the brutal destruction of a society and culture. This Romanian society was alive and well and it was so aptly described before WWII by Paul Morand and Marcel Proust, by Marie of Edinburgh and Patrick Leigh Fermor, by Sacheverell Sitwell, Elizabeth and Margot Asquith, by Vineretta Singer de Polignac and Violet Trefusis, Olivia Manning, Panait Istrati or Gregor von Rezzori, Colette, or Virginia Ocampo, by the Princess Hélène Chrissoveloni Soutso, Princess Marthe Bibesco, or Countess Anna de Noailles.
This was the ‘faraway country’ which inspired Dorothy Parker’s classic verse:
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.
For some of these women also represent the extravagant if exotic Romanian society evoked in the correspondence of Queen Victoria, Napoleon III, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, Don Pedro of Portugal or Ramsey MacDonald, Winston Churchill, Roosevelt, and de Gaulle. In the process we also admire portraits left to posterity by artists of world repute such as Rodin, Ignacio Zuloaga, Whistler, Singer Sargent, de Laszlo, Vuillard, Paul César Helleu, Edmond Lapeyre, Puvis de Chavannes. Many other portraits are also immortalised by the London society photographers Walter Barnett, Alexander Bassano, Van Dyke, Lafayette or Russell Westwood, or brought to life by film directors such as Federico Fellini of ‘La Dolce Vita’ fame, or more recently by opera stage directors Francesca Zamballo, David Pountney and even and, quite oddly, by a young student of Edinburgh University by the name of Gordon Brown…
There is never a dull moment in this gallery of royals and aristocrats but also of ordinary but exuberant women of talent, who fascinated the British society to the point of venting
its wit in the now classic limerick about King Carol II’s mistress, a diabolically seductive and unrepentant divorcee, who kept the English gossip columnists busy for many long years:
Have you heard of Madame Lupescu
Who came to Romania’s rescue?
It’s a wonderful thing
To be under a King:
Is democracy better I ask you?
At the other end of this social spectrum we discover women inspired by loftier ideals: enrolling as fighter pilots during WWII, or breaking world records at parachute jumping, pioneer solo pilots across the Mediterranean, or international sports champions, opera divas, suffragettes shaking the Parisian bastions of male power in the legal profession, in architecture or international diplomacy… women with guts who inspired so many.
These colourful strong-headed and often beautiful ladies, whether of the exile or home-grown variety had all, without exception, an amazing story to tell and often a memorable quote to impart. For ‘Blouse Roumaine’ is not only a celebration, it is also a memorial to the past, as the stories unfold before our eyes not just as pickings for the literary gourmet and delicacies for the academic palate, but also as an Orthodox liturgy, a Romanian Epiphany which brings alive in our mind a nearly-forgotten but fascinating history with unexpected DNA links to the Western European psyche.
The lyrical, witty, and often satirical and uncompromisingly critical narrative of the ‘Blouse Roumaine’ may appear to some readers if not controversial at least thought-provoking, as it offers forays into some of the recesses of time prior to WWII, reflecting a somewhat politically schizophrenic world of contrasts. To complement this period the reader is offered also a close look into the emotional times of modern communist Nemesis. This is the darker world of the vengeful and remorseless Ana Pauker, Elena Ceausescu and their fawning Court poets which explains the legacy of their system in the post-modern Romania.
The synthesis of such bipolar images conjured in the ‘Blouse Roumaine’ remains, (if we were to quote again our Spanish grandee the Marqués de Tamarón), a memorable witness to:
‘the joy and pain and privilege of a writer to save the memories and thereby the physical beauty of past glories, a task which he sets about to carry out supremely well and with an immense joie de vivre’.