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- Jasmijn Groot -


As Sebastiaan rightly stated in his review of the new series Het verhaal van Nederland: Oranje-Nassau, among noble families in the Netherlands, it was very often the women behind the scenes who were the real protagonists. Until recently, they were overlooked, their role underestimated by prejudice and stereotyping about their gender. But fortunately, more and more historical women from our neck of the woods are finally getting the attention they deserve from historians, which makes us realise more and more how clever, shrewd and unashamed they actually participated in matters that were characterised as 'masculine'. Flemish historian Freeke de Meyer's research on Marie Catherine Josephe countess of Merode and princess of Rubempré and Everberg (1743-1794), which she has published in the book Hoog geboren, ambitieus en eigenzinnig, is one of the most complete and delightfully written biographies on a historical woman that I have seen so far.

Fortunate lineage and coincidences

Marie Catherine was to become a vital member of the noble van Merode family, but at the time of her birth, that was by no means certain. Her father may have come from one of the most prominent families of the Southern Netherlands, but her mother was a commoner and had served her father's family as a linen maid for many years. When their secret marriage came to light, the Brussels nobility was in an uproar and far-reaching measures were put in place to keep the misstep of the lovers out of sight.  

Marie Catherine remained an attractive match, however, and managed to climb the social ladder through the advantages of her lineage and a number of fortunate coincidences. Her family was still exorbitantly wealthy, she enjoyed the best possible education, and she was her father's principal heir. Therefore, the almost 15 years older and highly ambitious Philippe Maxmilien of Merode was only too eager to have her as a bride when she was not even 16 years old yet. Philippe Maximilien was the second son of a wealthy family, but inherited the family's patrimony after the death of his childless older brother. His family had kept poor administrative records of the family estate for generations. He wanted to turn that tide.

When Philipe Maximilien left his wife as a 29-year-old widow with four young children, an opportunity for her to take the next step arose. The estate was financially sound and secure. Now it was up to her to expand it further. And she had the power to do so. As a widow and guardian of the new head of the family, she had a lot more power than when she was a married woman. De Meyer tells us how Marie Catherine kept a firm grip on the reins until her last breath, how her lineage and experience enabled her to do so, and in what ways she was a true child of her parents.

Work of stature

For a life that spanned 50 years, De Meyer's book may at first glance seem like quite the task. The work is large in size, both outside and in. Looking past the huge cover, one quickly notices that the 400-page biography is divided into just four sections, each in turn only made clear by a number of headlines. This may give the impression that it takes some effort indeed to get through the story of this princess. Nothing could be further from the truth.

De Meyers has a very delightful and engaging narrative style, which only makes the intrigues and unctuous details of Marie Catherine's life all the juicier, making your eyes glide smoothly across the pages. And before you know it, you can't put the book down, because you want to find out even more about this world De Meyer has sucked you into.

What is so striking about this, is that De Meyer's narrative is extremely detailed. She manages to tell so much about Marie Catherine, her time and her surroundings. What she learned at school, how much her parents put down to give her an education, how many members of staff she had and what they were paid - even what they must have worn and what their relationship to their employers must have been like. De Meyer creates an overall picture of this noblewoman from the Southern Netherlands of the eightteenth century. Of course, not everything has been handed down to us. Where necessary, De Meyer admits this, but still offers possibilities and options we can work with.

Regularly, de Meyer has to consult sources that were not left to us by Marie Catherine. These are mainly sources left by the men in her life that tell us more about them at first glance. This is not a strange formula for investigations into historical women. On the contrary, it happens quite often. The danger with this is only that the focus swifts to the men in question and the reader loses sight of the women. This reviewer has already had to judge the work of many a writer and historian where this was unfortunately the case.

But not with De Meyer. She always manages to trace the information back to her leading lady. Marie Catherine is always the focal point, set entirely in her own time. That is a feat, which I have not yet seen in very many biographies of historical women.

Hoog geboren, ambitieus en eigenzinnig: Marie Catherine Josephe, gravin van Merode en prinses van Rubempré en Everberg (1743-1794) is now available for purchase. 


 Image: Freeke de Meyer (2023)


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