Friday, November 30, 2018

Anna Maria de Visscher, mother of Princess Lilian

I think she has a lovely face. Anna Maria de Visscher was the scion of respectable bourgeoisie, the daughter of a mayor and the granddaughter of a minister. Her ancestors included illustrious figures, such as the Comte Félix de Muelenaere, a member of the National Congress that founded the Kingdom of Belgium, and three times Foreign Minister between 1831 and 1841. In 1905, Anna Maria married Henri Baels, a rising young Ostende shipowner, lawyer and politician, to whom she bore eight children, six daughters and two sons. 

During the Nazi invasion of Belgium, while her husband, the Governor of West Flanders, circulated constantly to alleviate the plight of his province, Madame Baels worked for the Red Cross. The young Lilian assisted her mother in her task, transporting wounded French and Belgian soldiers by car to the St. John Hospital in Bruges, simultaneously flooded by refugees. She also helped to evacuate the elderly from the hospice of Alost, which was within the combat zone, exposed to enemy fire. 

As the military situation headed towards disaster, however, Madame Baels decided to leave for France to bring two of her daughters, then ailing, to safety. Lilian drove the family car. At a restaurant in Bernay, near Lisieux, the news of the Belgian capitulation reached the four women. At Paul Reynaud's infamous broadcast, branding the Belgian king a traitor and felon, French and Belgian officers began vilifying Léopold III, tearing apart his photograph on the front cover of a magazine. Horrified, Lilian indignantly rebuked the officers. One spitefully retaliated by seizing the Baels' car key and throwing it into a ditch. After obtaining a replacement, the ladies proceeded to the south of France, renting a villa in Anglet, near Biarritz. 

Madame Baels would have many sorrows in the years to come. Her husband and her son were unfairly accused of cowardice and treason, while her daughter Lilian was battered by gossip and slander. According to Lilian's account, as recorded in Un couple dans la tempête (2004), the news of her secret marriage with King Léopold upset and worried her mother, who foresaw that it would provoke a political storm. "My little one, you don't know what's in store for you. It will be appalling, they will all attack you, you will have a terribly hard life," she is quoted as saying (pp. 36-37). Anna Maria Baels, née de Visscher, died of heart failure in 1950, while the question of the King's return from exile was still being decided. On the grounds that her arrival, at such an emotional moment, might sway the people in Léopold's favor, Lilian was prevented from returning to Belgium to bid farewell to her dying mother. 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Life of Anna Sparre

In 1985, Anna Sparre, a Swedish noblewoman, published her memoirs of her friendship with Queen Astrid of the Belgians, a Swedish princess.  Her book has been reviewed and discussed on this blog in the past.  Under Anna's pen, Astrid's personality comes to life; tender, sensitive and loving, although not without her strict side, a loyal and devoted wife, mother and Queen.

Anna Eva Elisabeth Sparre, née Adelswärd, was born in Stockholm on February 2, 1906.  She was the daughter of Baron Theodor Adelswärd, an industrialist and politician, and his wife, historical novelist Louise Douglas.  During her youth, Anna divided her time between Stockholm and her family's country estate of Adelsnäs.  Meanwhile, her father served as a member of the Swedish parliament and government.

In 1927, a year after Astrid's marriage to Prince Leopold of Belgium, Anna married the handsome, charming Count Clas Sparre, an engineer and aviator,  and the scion of an aristocratic family dating from the Middle Ages.  Clas' father was the Swedish painter Louis Sparre.  His mother was Eva Mannerheim, a sister of the famous Marshal of Finland.  Clas and Anna had a daughter, Christina, who became a playmate of Princess Josephine-Charlotte, the eldest child of Leopold and Astrid. Sadly, Anna's marriage ended in divorce.

During World War II, Sweden managed to remain neutral, but was dangerously isolated, trapped between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  In response, the Swedish army was kept in constant readiness and a regime of rationing imposed on the population.  Anna contributed to the patriotic effort by joining the women's auxiliary forces and becoming a chief of propaganda.  After the war, she remarried, moving to Denmark with her new husband, a Danish dentist.  Unfortunately, her second marriage also failed.

A bold, free spirit, Anna forged a new, independent life, transforming her manor into a golfing resort. In her later years, partly disabled by an accident, the Countess took up writing in earnest, publishing a long series of novels.  She drew inspiration from the lives of Nordic queens and noblewomen of the past, struggling with tragedy but triumphing over misfortune.  Throughout her life, Anna remained close to Astrid's son, King Baudouin of the Belgians.  Only five months after his death, Anna passed away on December 21, 1993.
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