Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Beauty of Flanders

As we have been discussing the divide between Flanders and Wallonia, it might be interesting to consider the case of the Flemish beauty who became the second wife of Leopold III. She was the very type of the Catholic, royalist Flemish who played such an important role in deciding the popular consultation in Leopold's favor after World War II. (Sadly, with the current trend towards separatism, more and more Flemings now seem to be turning rather venomously against the monarchy as a icon of Belgian unity). Princess Lilian was also the very type of the upper-class Flemish who adopted French culture.

This position made life even more difficult for a woman already castigated by the aristocracy as a vulgar adventuress marrying far above her station, and by other elements of popular opinion and the press as a unworthy successor to an impossibly saintly Queen Astrid, as an unscrupulous temptress, devoured by ambition, luring the King into preferring private pleasure to public duty. Lilian was doubly resented for her Flemish heritage by many Walloons. She was also blamed by more nationalistic Flemings, such as her denigrating biographer, Evrard Raskin, for supposedly betraying this same heritage through her Francophile affinities.

As Jean Cleeremans describes in Léopold III, sa famille, et son peuple sous l'occupation, there were also kinder voices among the Flemish who expressed pride at their Sovereign's marriage to one of their own, to a daughter of the talented and energetic class that had brought such prosperity to the Belgian cities through the centuries. As always in Lilian's life, however, spiteful portrayals gained much greater publicity than any appreciative ones. Hating the Princess de Réthy became a veritable industry.

Yet, through it all, Lilian remained steadfastly loyal to her principles as a woman devoted to Belgium and its monarchy. Michel Verwilghen, in Le mythe d'Argenteuil, describes her concern at the rise of separatism during the last years of her life. She even worried that her step-son, King Baudouin, might not be doing enough to oppose the efforts to shatter the country. I wonder what she would say of Belgium's most recent political crises.

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