I lived in England from September 2007 to September 2008-one of the best experiences of my life. During the spring and summer of 2008, I was in a constant battle of distraction from writing my Master’s thesis. A lot of my friends were still in classes at that point, and I spent my days traveling and my nights holed up in my flat, writing. Then, the unthinkable happened. The motherboard on my computer died. There went my link to my boyfriend (now husband), television and movies, music, and my dreaded thesis-gone. Luckily, I had backed up my thesis in several places, so I was safe on that front. I spent my days at the university’s library (which closed at 8), and my nights reading. As you can guess, I quickly ran out of books.
My best friend over there gave me several books to read; one of them was a particularly horrifying copy of H.G. Well’s Tales of Wonder, a collection of short stories published in 1923 (and my copy is in fact a first edition. Yay!)
But one book that stood out the most (besides the completely scary stories of H.G. Wells) during this time period was The Sphinx of Bagatelle by Princess Marthe Bibesco.
I purchased it at an Oxfam thrift store for 2.50, and for the life of me, I cannot remember what city I purchased it in, which is a shame. And while it’s generally ‘newer’ than most things I’ve covered on my blog, I think it’s a pretty unique item.
Published in 1951, it is a historical biography with a novelist’s touch, all about the clandestine affair between Louise d’Esparbes, Comtesse de Polastron, and the Comte d’Artois (who later became Charles X of France). An interesting read, for sure, all about French royalty and parties at Versailles. It kept me entertained on train rides all over England for, that’s for sure.
Princess Marthe Bibesco is a fascinating individual, not only because she was an actual princess, but because she never had any formal education. She became a literary and social giant, born into the glitzy life of royalty, but suffered through tumultuous family and political upheavals.
Born in Romania as Princess Marthe Lucie Lahovary in 1886, she was the second child to Prince Jean Lahovary, Minister of Romania in France, and Princess Emma Mavrocordato. Marthe spent most of her early life between France and Romania. Her family life was riddled with sorrow: her younger brother (and the Lahovary heir) died in 1892 from typhoid fever; her older sister died of cholera in 1911; her younger sister killed herself in 1918; her mother committed suicide in 1920. At the age of 15, she was engaged to a distant cousin, Prince Georges-Valentine Bibesco, and they married in 1902. Unfortunately, Marthe and Georges did not have a happy marriage. Georges did not hide his affairs, and Marthe refused to divorce him. They had one daughter.
Early on, Marthe took an interest in European politics, and she often consorted with several high ranking individuals in the French and European court. She and her husband traveled extensively (Georges was the founder and president of the International Aeronautic Federation, as well as a civilian aviator), and on her travels, Marthe made social and political connections with monarchs, diplomats, and authors.
In 1908, she published her first novel, Les huits paradis (The Eight Paradises), based off her and husband’s diplomatic travels through Persia by automobile. Many of her later novels were thinly disguised mini autobiographies like The Eight Paradises.
In addition to being a royal socialite, Marthe acted as an unofficial diplomat between warring nations, and even worked as a nurse in a Bucharest hospital under German occupation during WWI. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Marthe continued to publish historical novels, biographies, screenplays, and theatrical productions. Georges died in 1941, and Marthe was forced to flee Romania in 1947, forsaking her property and possessions in Romania to the Communist government. Throughout the 1950s until her death in 1973, she wrote prolifically in order to support herself. The Sphinx of Bagatelle is one amazing result.
Boldini, Giovanni. Portrait of Princess Marthe Lucile Bibesco. 1911. Private Collection. Image. 20 August 2013 http://uploads7.wikipaintings.org/images/giovanni-boldini/portrait-of-princess-marthe-lucile-bibesco-1911.jpg
Cooper, Ralph. ‘George Valentin Bibescu 1880-1941.’ Early Aviators. 22 November 2004. Image. 20 August 2013 http://earlyaviators.com/ebibescu.htm
Daviau, Monique, Kristen Davis, Jennifer Hecker, and Emily Painton. ‘Princess Marthe Bibesco: An Inventory of Her Papers at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center.’ University of Texas. 2006. Web. 18 August 2013 http://www.lib.utexas.edu/taro/uthrc/00372/hrc-00372p2.html
Sutherland, Christine. Enchantress: Marthe Bibesco and Her World. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1997. Print.