Carmen Sylva – the Forgotten Writer

by Ana-Maria Negrilă

  1. Introduction

            Elisabeth Pauline Ottilie Luise zu Wied, later known as Carmen Sylva, was born in 1843 in Neuwield and became queen of Romania in 1869 when she married Carol I, who had been crowned the king of Romanian United Principalities  (Wallahia and Moldavia) three years before. He was the first member of the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen dynasty who ruled Romania and his reign was marked by national effervescence and by the wish for independence and sovereignty eventually established in 1877.

            Queen Elisabeth supported her husband and acted as a protector and promoter of Romanian national heritage not only through her works, but also through her correspondence with cultural personalities from all over the world, but especially from Germany, France, Great Britain, etc. where she also published some of her poems.

            Late 19th century was a time of national reconstruction and reconfiguration of traditions in the two regions, Wallahia and Moldavia, which had been apart, but eventually found their common roots. Admiring the items of the traditional Romanian arts, Carmen Sylva encouraged local artisans, not only through the workshops established around Pelesch Castle, but also by giving a personal example and wearing the Romanian national clothing on several occasion.

            She was active during the Russo-Turkish War in 1877 by founding hospitals and emergency services to treat the wounded, being later involved in charity work, treating poor people and providing them with medication through Queen Elisabeth Society.

  1. Literary activity

            Considering herself first poet and then mother and queen, Carmen Sylva became the patron of Higher Education for Women and encouraged women to express their thoughts and feelings through writing. Fluent in German, English, French, and Romanian she wrote in all these languages under different pennames. She became an example for Romanian women, being a writer and then a promoter of Romanian artists.

            Her early works were written in collaboration with Mitte Kremnitz, one of her maids of honor, daughter of surgeon Heinrich Adolf von Bardeleben. They published together under the penname Ditto and Idem, between 1881 and 1889, and their cooperation resulted in a number of poems, novels, short stories, and a tragedy.  As Ditto and Idem, they published: Aus zwei Welten, a novel, 1884, Anna Boleyn, historic drama, 1886, Astra, an epistolary novel, 1886, translated in 1887, in Romanian by G. Ionescu-Gion, Feldpost (The Postal Service), an epistolary novel, Rache und andere Novellen (The Revenge and Other Short Stories), 1888, In der Irre, short stories, 1887.  They also published in Romania, at Edit. Librăriei Socec & Comp, 1887, a novel, Bate la ușă (Knocking at the door), translated by Livia Maiorescu.

            Actually, her first translations appeared in 1881 when listening to Vasile Alecsandri’s advice, she put together and published a collection of poems by Eminescu, Bolintineanu, Alecsandri, Candiano-Popescu, Negruzzi, all Romanian poets and writers, who were very known at the time. In 1883, she published in Paris, at Calmann Levy Printing House, Les pensees d’une reine, with preface by Louise Ulbach,

            Throughout her life, Carmen Sylva cooperated with Romanian artists, either supporting their work, translating their poems, or writing together in the same effort to promote Romania and its people. In 1893, she published a German translation of the selected poems of Vasile Alecsandri and Dimitrie Bolintineanu, at the Institut der graphischen Künste Carol Göbl, Bucharest,

            Her works were translated into Romanian, but also in other languages. In 1882, Titu Maiorescu published in Craiova, at Editura librărieĭ S. Samitca, a collection of four novels entitled, Patru novele de Carmen Sylva, Alarcon, Bret-Harte, și din chinezeste (Four novelettes by Carmen Sylva, Alarcon, Bret-Harte, and others from Chinese). Livia Maiorescu, Elena Rosetti, Lia Hârsu or Hélène Poénaro were responsible for the Romanian version of her works. Flores y Perlas was translated into Spanish by Dona Faustina Saez de Melgar while Edith Hopkirk translated into English From memory’s shrine and A Beai Queen’s Fairy Tales (MIHĂILĂ, R.,2013:737).

            She encouraged her ladies in waiting to write and even prefaced some of their writings as in the case of Bucura Dumbravă, whose novels, Haiducul (The Outlaw) and Pandurul (The Pandour) were inspired by historical events, especially by the life of Iancu Jianu and Tudor Vladimirescu (id.739).

            Even if Carol I was not so close to his wife’s literary activity, he was familiar with it and to Mite Kremnitz’s (DOCEA, V., 2013: 8) as he selected her to work together at his biography.

  1. Promoter of Romania

            Throughout her life, Carmen Sylva militated against the segregation of German and Latin races, as she stated in a letter from 1887, and considered that the power of words and literature could bridge this gap. She used Romanian folklore to write a series of books entitled From Carmen Sylva’s Kingdom, the first being Fairy Tales of the Pelesch, published in 1883 and given as book prize to children in its Romanian version. The book began with Carmen Sylva addressing her people as their mother:

Where crags the ancient forest crown,

Where mountain streams dance wild adown,

And countless blossoms spread,

And odours sweet are shed;

There lies the land – all glad and green –

Where I am Queen!

(STACKELBERG, N., 1890: 255)

            The fairy tales were inspired by the local folklore, but contained motifs encountered in German tales, thus being an interesting combination of reality and imagination. The volume had thirteen stories that depicted well-known places in the mountainous area of Sinaia intermingled with fictional and legendary characters of Romanian folklore and with other characters that were more frequent in German stories:  Peleșul, Vârful cu Dor, Furnica, Piatra Arsă, Jepii, Caraimanul, Peștera Ialomiței, Omul, Valea Cerbului, Cetatea Babei, Ceahlăul, Valea Rea and Robia Peleșului.

            Through the centuries (1887) was the second volume of From Carmen Sylva’s Kingdom, where the writer collected other fairy tales, but also ballads written in prose ranging from the fall of Decebal to the taken of Vidin. They told the story of Romanian national heroes, Decebal, Stephen the Great, but also of characters from Romanian ballads such as Meșterul Manole. Most tales had a tragic ending in accordance with the Romanian stories, but Carmen Sylva also explained this as, «when I let my characters die, I am only like nature, in which everything ends in death» (apud STACKELBERG, N., 1890: 257).

            The next volumes should have contained legends of birds and flowers (as Carmen Sylva mentioned in her diary) inspired by Păsările noastre și legendele lor (Our Birds and their Legends) by Simion Florea Marian. Some of the stories appeared in many languages, but the project was not finalized.

            However, she continued to write about Romanian heroes or popular characters. In 1892, she published a drama having the builder of Curtea de Arges Monastery (Manole) as the main character, and later she wrote the libretto of the opera Neaga, by the Swedish composer Ivar Hallström, published in 1904. The opera was set in Romania and depicted the life of peasants and people working in the salt mines.

            She dedicated a couple of articles to the capital of Romania: Bucarest, par Carmen Sylva (S. M. la Reine Elisabeth de Roumanie in Les Capitales du Monde, no. 12, 1892, and Bucharest, an article by Carmen Sylva in Harper’s Weekly February, 1893. In 1892, she also published a book with the title București (translated by Dumitru Stăncescu) at Universul Publishing House, Bucharest.

            Other works were written in Romanian and displayed her cooperation with Romanian artists: În luncă. O idilă  by Carmen Sylva, illustrated by the Romanian painter, Nicolae Grigorescu, and dedicated to George Enescu, first published in 1904, in W. Wunderlings Hofbuchhandlung, as In der Lunca, Rumänische Idylle, the Romanian edition appearing one year later. In addition, she translated in English The Bard of the Dimbovitza, Elena Văcărescu’s collection of Romanian folk-songs, and prefaced Bucura Dumbrava’s Der Haiduck. She supported Romanian poets and she was a friend of Vasile Alecsandri and an admirer of Mihai Eminescu regardless of his opinion about regality.

  1. Carmen Sylva – the forgotten writer

            Regardless of her contribution to the promotion of Romanian values at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, her works have not had many later editions. Natalia Stackelberg was one of her first biographers and published The life of Carmen Sylva (Queen of Roumania) in 1890 and in 1905, George Bengescu published in Paris, Carmen Sylva intime, another account of queen’s life. Other biographies and articles were written during her life contributing to the image of Carmen Sylva as an unconventional and romantic character. However, the official biographies are far from the one she published in 1908, Mein Penatenwinkel, in which her life is presented in a different, more sincere light.

            Her works were praised during her life being published and translated in many languages, but after her death, in March 1916, her image as a writer began to fade. She was portrayed by her successor, Queen Maria, as a dreamer, a poet (she stated that Carmen Sylva considered that she could make anyone dream), an image that opposed the one she had all her life as militant for several causes (BADEA-PĂUN, G, 2014). It is true that at the end of the 19th century she appeared on covers of French magazines, situation that made her become known as a role model to all young women who began to emancipate. Carmen Sylva liked publicity and used it to promote her literature and her involvement in charity. Her activity included tens of volumes translated in many languages as she managed to publish 2-3 books each year (id. 5-6).

            After 1916, her image fades or is distorted and her activities is soon forgotten in the turmoil of the World Wars. Some of her books continued to be published until 1940, but after that Romania fell under the communist regime which tried to distort and even wipe out the contribution of regality to the formation of the modern state. Some of her poems and fairy tales were still reedited until the Second World War, in 1936 being published a collection of her poems, Poezii de Carmen Sylva (Poems by Carmen Sylva), a volume illustrated by Rodica Maniu, a known Romanian painter, who died in 1958.

             In 1941, Elizabeth Burgoyne wrote a biography of the queen, Elizabeth, Queen Consort of Charles I, King of Romania, Carmen Sylva: Queen and Woman, but which went virtually unnoticed because of the impending war. Still, an article in the Spectator from 10th July 1940 welcomed the new biography, “As Rumania has been in our minds of late, Miss Burgoyne’s pleasant life of her first queen, Elizabeth of Wied, makes an appropriate appearance” (Spectator, no. 5898,1940: 20).

            In 1940, another edition of Pierre Lotti’s Carmen Sylva and Sketches from the Orient (Editorial Cervantes, 1940) was published in Barcelona. Written in 1887, it evoked Pierre Lotti’s visit to Pelesch Castle and his encounter with the queen, who appeared before his eyes as a fairy, all dressed in white and wearing a long veil.

            Few accounts of her life and works have been published in the last 20 years – Roger Merle, Carmen Sylva, l’extravagante Reine Elisabeth de Roumanie, (Michaël Ittah, 1999), Gabriel Badea-Păun, (2014), Carmen Sylva – uimitoarea regină Elisabeta a României (Carmen Sylva- the amazing Queen Elizabeth of Romania), and Irina Zimmerman, (2013): Regina poeta. Literatura în serviciul Coroanei (Die dichtende Königin. Elisabeth, Prinzessin zu Wied, Königin von Rumänien, Carmen Sylva. Selbstmythisierung und prodynastische Öffentlichkeitsarbeit durch Literatur).

  1. Conclusion

            Due to her poetic nature, but also to her education, Queen Elizabeth made her first writing attempts when she was a teenager, but only a traumatic event – the death of her daughter, Maria, followed by Vasile Alecsandri’s advice to find her peace in poetry – made her publish her works in 1881. She devoted herself to charity, taking very seriously her role as mother of the country, and she became an emblematic figure and a well-known writer praised for her collections of poems and fairy tales. Publicity brought her notoriety and made Romania, a newly emerging state from Eastern Europe, known for its beautiful landscape, traditions, and troubled history. She contributed to the translation of many Romanian poets and writers in German, French, and English, and supported them when possible.

                Far from her notoriety from the beginning of the 20th century, Carmen Sylva’s image continues to intrigue. Seen as a promoter of equality for women and a supporter of progress, Carmen Sylva is still mentioned when it comes to the extraordinary women who lived a century ago.

Bibliographic references

 BADEA-PĂUN, Gabriel (2014). Carmen Sylva – uimitoarea regină Elisabeta a României, București, Editura Humanitas.

STACKELBERG, Natalie (1890). The life of Carmen Sylva (Queen of Roumania), London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co Limited.

DONCEA, Vasile (2013). «Regele citește». In DONCEA, Vasile. Lecturn, nr.1, Biblioteca Centrală Universitară ,,Eugen Todoran’, p.9.

MIHĂILĂ, Ramona (2013). «Gender(Ed) Discourse: Images and Experiences in 19th Century Women’s Writing», In: The Proceedings of the International Conference Literature, Discourse and Multicultural Dialogue. Section: Language and Discourse, 1, Tîrgu-Mureş, Arhipelag XXI Press, pp. 734-741

ZIMMERMAN, Irina (2013). Regina poeta. Literatura în serviciul Coroanei, Bucuresti, Editura All.

ZIMMERMAN, Irina., (retrieved 20.12.2016)

ZIMMERMAN, Irina., (retrieved 20.12.2016)

List of Carmen Sylva’s works

(retrieved 19.12.2016)

Bibliografia românească modernă,, (retrieved 19.12.2016)

Carmen Sylva, Queen and Woman. By Elizabeth Burgoyne (1940). In Spectator, no. 5898, 10th July 1940, p. 20,  (retrieved 29.12.2016)

Carmen Sylva – the Forgotten Writer

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