Saturday, August 18, 2012

Un couple dans la tempête

Un couple dans la tempête: le destin malheureux de Léopold III de Belgique et de la princesse Lilian (2004) is a sympathetic, popular account of the romance and marriage of Leopold III and his second wife, Lilian Baels, centering on the upheavals that severely tested their love. The book frequently quotes Lilian's reminiscences, drawn from a series of conversations between French journalists Marcel Jullian and Claude Désiré and the elderly, widowed princess. Begun by Marcel Jullian, a great friend of Leopold and Lilian, who sadly passed away during the writing process, the account was completed by his younger colleague, Claude Désiré. Beautiful photographs of King Leopold, Queen Astrid, the royal children, and Princess Lilian are included, as well as facsimiles of interesting documents and affectionate family letters. Désiré also offers a touching tribute to the deceased Jullian, detailing his harrowing escape from execution by the Nazis while fighting in the French Resistance.

Contrary to many common perceptions, Lilian emerges as the gracious, intelligent woman so many of her intimates knew.  She comes across as sensitive and kind-hearted, most poignantly of all in her horrified recollections of visiting the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau after its liberation by the Allies, in the company of American General Alexander Patch. At the same time, we see the frankly voiced opinions and acerbic observations that often made her enemies, in her scorn for her husband's political opponents. Her comments about Winston Churchill are particularly pointed. She even suggests that he wanted to take over the Belgian Congo and thought that getting rid of Leopold was a necessary first step. We are also given a glimpse of Lilian's sadness at quarrels within the royal family in later years. Hurt by some of her children's actions, she would resignedly remark: "C'est une autre génération, c'est autre chose." ("It's a different generation, it's a different thing.")

Un couple dans la tempête is always entertaining, and often quite moving. Nonetheless, it suffers from some of the limitations of popularized accounts of royalty, being a bit too romanticized and sensationalized. The portrayal of the royal couple sometimes seems too idealized, although it is probably a good antidote to the grotesque abuse that husband and wife have often suffered and the authors do admit that Leopold and Lilian both made their share of mistakes. Michel Verwilghen, author of Le mythe d'Argenteuil (2006), found some factual errors in the book, particularly in the description of the history of the country house that became the home of King Leopold and his second family after 1960. The reader will definitely find a more accurate and much more detailed description of their life at Argenteuil in the pages of Verwilghen's erudite tome, combined with a similarly sympathetic but better nuanced portrayal of their characters.

No comments: