ENCHANTRESS: MARTHE BIBESCO AND HER WORLD
By Christine Sutherland
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux
318 pp., $30
She was a great beauty, a talented writer, a Romanian
princess adored by powerful men in Germany, France, and Britain.
Her life included literary triumphs, personal tragedies, great
wealth and aristocratic status, two world wars on her doorstep, and
then exile from her homeland - with some fame but no longer any
"Enchantress: Marthe Bibesco and Her World," by Christine
Sutherland, is a tale with the sweep of romantic fiction. It is in
fact a true story that encapsulates the culture and politics of
20th-century Europe through the life of a remarkable woman.
Born in Romania before the turn of the century, Marthe
Lahovary was married at 16 to George Bibesco, scion of one of the
country's noble families. "I stepped onto the European stage
through the grand door," she wrote on her wedding day. Her father,
who had been educated in France, held the post of foreign minister.
Fluent in French at an early age, Marthe spent the early
years of her marriage under the tutelage of her stern
mother-in-law, who saw to it that she got a thorough education in
European history and literature. An old peasant woman, Baba Outza,
saw to it that she was also well-versed in Romanian folk traditions
and tales. Meanwhile, her husband, George, was chasing fast cars
and women - but also adding to the family fortune.
Marthe was bored, despite the birth of a daughter, Valentine.
When George was sent by the king on a mission to the Shah, she
eagerly embarked on a trip to Persia, recording her observations in
Launching a literary career
The travel memoir she wrote about what she saw, "Les Huit
Paradis" ("The Eight Paradises"), launched her on a lifelong career
as a successful writer of both nonfiction and novels. She became
the toast of Belle Epoque Paris, moving easily among the literary
and power elites. She was awarded the Prix de l'Academe Francaise
and met Marcel Proust, who sent her a letter praising her book:
"You are not only a splendid writer, Princess, but a sculptor of
words, a musician, a purveyor of scents, a poet."
Among the European nobility, divorce was social death, but
dalliance was not. While Marthe and George continued in what was
sometimes actually a mutually supportive partnership, they pursued
their own interests. A French prince fell in love with Marthe, an
affair that lasted for a decade. The German Kronprinz (the Kaiser's
son), though married, wrote warmly affectionate letters to her for
15 years. In Paris, she also encountered the Roman Catholic Abbe
Mugnier, converted from her Orthodox faith, and began an extensive,
frank correspondence with him that was to last 36 years.
When Romania at last entered World War I on the Allied side,
Marthe worked at a hospital in Bucharest until the Germans burned
her home in the Carpathian Mountains. She fled the country to join
her mother and daughter in Geneva. There she continued to write.
For most of her life, she wrote every morning until lunchtime. Her
journals alone fill 65 volumes.
In Switzerland, she began "Isvor: The Land of the Willow."
Sutherland calls it Marthe's Romanian masterpiece, writing that it
"conveyed brilliantly the everyday life and customs of her people,
the extraordinary mixture of superstition, childlike philosophy,
resignation and hope, and the unending struggle between age-old
pagan beliefs and Christian faith. …