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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

3. Autobiography (1)The Princess: Chapter One

Gwendoline Esther Bertram at 16 and at 20
Some stories can be told as history.
There are documents that can be read - diaries and the like;
and there are some who have a version of the truth. Other stories can only be guessed at.
And it would be inappropriate, somehow, to clothe such guesses in the garb of
seeming historical truth. Such stories may only be told as fairy tales.

Once upon a time there lived a beautiful princess who was much admired throughout the land. Her name was Princess Gwendoline, and though she was a girl of but sixteen years, she longed for a prince to have and to hold, a prince with whom she could live happily ever after.
Princess Gwendoline had many brothers and sisters, and her household was full of joyous laughter and frivolity. The time came when her older sister was to be wed, and Gwendoline was to be her maid of honour. At that time, Gwendoline was still young and impressionable girl of 16 summers.
About that time a young prince came to her and told her how beautiful she looked, and her heart melted. The prince took her in his arms, and Gwendoline fell in love instantly, thinking this prince a fine and reliable man. Alas this was not true. Indeed, the prince, who wooed her with such sweet words and promises, and with kisses that made her swoon and dream, was already betrothed, promised in marriage to another.
Soon after their brief time together, Gwendoline realized her mistake. She realized, too, that she was with child. Her parents were kind and understanding, for they knew what a powerful thing love is. Many families would have thrown her out onto the street for bringing shame to the family; many would have sent her away to have the child. In that land, at that time, it was considered a terrible thing, in many houses, for an unwed girl to give birth to a child. But Gwendoline’s parents stood by the young princess.
When her child was born, Gwendoline gave him the name of her father – Arthur - in gratitude for her father’s love and understanding. Gwendoline was grateful to the king and queen for their kindness and their acceptance.
Arthur grew strong and handsome and was much admired, and the princess loved him well, as did all who met him. But still Gwendoline’s heart ached with loneliness. She had known love, and though she had been betrayed, she still longed for the day that a prince would come along and give his heart to her.
But these were different days to now, and people had strong views on such matters. Gwendoline knew what they were thinking: ‘What prince would wed a princess who has borne a child?’
One day, however, as Gwendoline was walking in a meadow, she met a prince, a handsome man who had travelled far and wide in the land, and who told her of wonderful things. They talked and laughed as they walked, and enjoyed each other’s company. At the edge of the town the prince said, ‘I must leave you now. But – will you come again tomorrow, that we might once again walk together?’ And Gwendoline agreed.
The next day she met the prince in the meadow, and they walked together and talked of all the prince had seen and done in his travels, and their laughter echoed through the woods. And again, when they came to the edge of the town, the prince said, ‘I must leave you now. But – will you come again tomorrow?’
And so it went for seven days, and on the seventh day, as they reached the edge of the town, the prince said, ‘‘I must leave you now. But – will you come again tonight, when darkness has settled? For I want to sit with you in the field and look at the beauty and wonder of the stars.’
And Gwendoline, thinking nothing amiss, agreed to meet him.
That night, they walked in the glowing light of the moon, and they sat with their backs against a tree, and looked up at the myriad lights of the heavens. And as they watched, they saw shooting stars that moved at great speed and then vanished.
‘Ah, shooting stars,’ said the prince. ‘Our lives are like that – a brief arc of light, a short moment of great beauty, and then we are gone. Tomorrow I must leave, for I have business in the city. I will be gone for a short time, but I will return to you.’
And he took Gwendoline in his arms, and kissed her, and she kissed him, and it seemed to Gwendoline that this time she had found true love.
In the days that followed, Gwendoline’s heart was full of contentment, as she waited patiently for her prince to return. But the days turned into weeks, and the weeks to months, and still he did not come. And slowly she realized that he would never return. And she realized, too, that once again she was with child.
Her parents had been so understanding when Arthur had been born. But Gwendoline knew that a second child would bring naught but shame. She cursed herself for a fool for having allowed herself to be once again betrayed. And so she made up her mind what she must do.
As the baby grew within her womb, she secretly made her plans. She wrote letters to many of the merchants in the great city, hundreds of miles away, asking if there was any work. She spoke to her brothers and sisters, and to her parents, saying, ‘I feel such a burden on all of you. It would be good if I could find some work, and so bring some money into our home.’
One day, a letter came from a rich merchant, offering her work.
‘Mother. Father. Will you care for my son Arthur for a time? I must travel to the Great City.’
Her parents were grateful, for times were hard, and the extra gold and silver would be welcome.

In the Great City, Gwendoline worked for only a short time, for soon it became apparent that she was with child, and to the people of the city, an unwed young woman bearing a child was a shameful thing, and so they shunned her.
The princess went to a place that was called ‘The Sanctuary’. It was a home for young women who were with child, young women who were not wedded. Some of the people who ran The Sanctuary were kind, but most thought that these young women deserved no respect, and treated them accordingly. Many of the girls were locked up and were given tiring chores – sweeping and scrubbing floors and washing sheets and making beds.
When the time for the birth neared, the nurses asked Princess Gwendoline what she planned for the baby. Gwendoline felt terrible. She did not want to give her baby up, but she knew she could not take it home.
The nurses were very clear. They knew what was best.
‘There are many people – people who are unable to have babies – who would happily adopt your child. They are people who are married and who want to raise a family. Your baby will be well cared for. That way you can go back to your home and start your life again.’
They brought papers to Gwendoline, and she signed them. Her baby would go to a good home.

After her baby was born, the nurses washed it, wrapped it in a bunny rug, and took it away.
‘What name do you give your child?’ they asked.
‘Richard,’ she said. ‘Richard Charles.’
‘That’s a good strong name,’ they said.
‘Could I at least hold my baby for a time?’ Gwendoline asked.
“It’s best if you don’t,’ the nurses said. ‘If you hold the child, you will begin to feel a bond – the bond that is natural between a mother and child - and that will make it harder for you to give him up.’
‘Please,’ she begged. But the nurses refused.
The next day, Gwendoline had to leave The Sanctuary, and a few days after that, she travelled back to her home. She told no one of the baby she had left behind.
‘What happened with the job,’ her father asked.
‘Oh – it didn’t work out,’ she said.
‘You’re very quiet,’ said her mother.
‘I’m just tired, I guess,’ said Gwendoline.
For weeks she felt a deep emptiness, a great sorrow within her heart. She was glad to be home. She had missed the noise and the closeness of her family, and most of all she had missed her little boy Arthur. He was barely two. Each night, she would rock him to sleep, and hold him close. She was just 20 years old, but somehow she felt much older.
She couldn’t know it at the time – none of us can know such things – that more than half her life had already past; she would not live to see her 40th year.
She never once spoke to another living soul of the child she had relinquished. She had two more children – two girls – but her life was harsh. She kept hoping that she would find a prince who would return to her the love that she held in her heart, and that she would so willingly share with another, but there was no ‘happy ever after’ to her story.
In time events would force her to give up her beloved first born son - when he was 13 - and in the weeks just before her death she would also relinquish her youngest daughter – a girl of 13 years.
Did she forget about Richard? Women who lose children – through a miscarriage, or because the child enters the world still born, or through death in childhood or because they give them up for adoption – never forget them. Those children live constantly on the fringes of consciousness; they are never forgotten. Gwendoline gave up three children out of the belief that she had no alternative, and that they would have better lives as a consequence.

What became of her two sons is the traffic of later tales.

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