Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Court Ball at the Palace of Mexico by William Wells, Overland Monthly (1868)

Only a few years ago it was no casual undertaking to secure an 1868 magazine article. But now we have an cornucopia of digital material at our fingertips, and among the wonders, many gems, such as this one, William V. Wells' "A Court Ball at the Palace of Mexico." Published in the Overland Monthly in 1868, sometime after the event itself--- winter of 1865--- Wells' article recounts his experience as a guest at what was, without doubt, one of the most astonishing entertainments yet offered in the Americas. I've been researching this period for several years and I have yet to come upon as fine and detailed a memoir of any one of Maximilian's palace balls as this one.

Wells (1826 - 1876) also published a lengthy and entertaining article on an ascent of Popocatepetl (Mexican volcano) in November 1865 for Harper's. Read that one here.

P.S. In the bibliography for my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, I only had room to list "selected books consulted," so, alas, "A Court Ball" does not appear there, though I relied heavily on it (as well as others and the Reglamento) for the scene in chapter three. However, as a tip of the cap, I brough Mr Wells in as a character in the opening chapter, one of the journalists at the U.S. Minister Corwin's rooftop entertainment when the French troops marched into Mexico City in 1863. The scene with Alice Green de Iturbide (the American mother of the "last prince", then a tiny baby) and Mr Wells is fictional--- I don't know whether Wells was there or not. But I do know, from a family memoir I found an the Agustin de Iturbide Green archive at Catholic University in Washington DC that, indeed, Alice de Iturbide held the baby in her arms as she and her husband, Angel de Iturbide, witnessed the French troops marching in, from the vantage point of the roof of the U.S. Legation.

As for Mr Corwin, the ex-Senator from Ohio, and ex-Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, he was a popular minister (ambassador) in Mexico because of his well-known and adamant opposition to the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846. Shortly after the French occupied Mexico City, Corwin was recalled to Washington DC; the United States refused to recognize a French-supported monarchy in Mexico. Notably, Corwin served as one of the pallbearers in President Lincoln's funeral.

More next Tuesday.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Kaiser Maximilian von Mexiko archive in the Library of Congress

There was a period in the summer and fall of 1866 when Maximilian was seriously considering abdicating. Actually, "waffling" would be more apt. The Empress Carlota having left Mexico for Europe in July to plead with Louis Napoleon for more money, the Mexican Imperial Treasury drier than a sun-bleached bone, and the Juaristas ever-stronger, Maximilian--- and his French advisors, as well as some of his close friends--- saw no way out but to abdicate. On the other hand, his wife, and many of his most ardent conservative supporters viewed abdication as so dishonorable as to be unthinkable.

That October, Maximilian, still undecided, went so far as to pack up his archive and have it loaded onto the ship for Europe. Only his corpse made it on board, several months later--- but that's another story. Today his papers are in the Haus, Hof, und Staasarchiv in Vienna, Austria. A partial copy of this substantial archive was made in 1929 for the Library of Congress in Washington DC. (Missing, notably, is the files of correspondence with the Iturbide family.) To hear more about this archive and what I learned from it about the Maximilian and the Iturbide family, listen in to this podcast, from my lecture at the Library of Congress back in July of last year.

One of the things that most fascinated me was seeing the handwriting. Of course many letters were simply transcribed by secretaries (there are scads of official reports and bread-and-butter letters), but many are in Maximilian's hand (wildly, nearly illegibly arabesque), as well as Carlota's (school girl perfect), General Bazaine's (rapid, vigorous), and Father Fischer's (cramped, jagged, intense).

P.S. I aim to post a more detailed note about the archive in the Library of Congress on the Maximilian page soon. For anyone who wants to look it up at the Library of Congress, note that it is listed under the German title, "Kaiser Maximilian von Mexiko."

Next post next Tuesday.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Reglamento y ceremonial de la corte (Maximilian and Carlota's book of court etiquette)

To a modern republican sensibility, one of the most ridiculous things about Maximilian's short-lived Imperial Court was its elaborate etiquette, and to many historians, a sure sign of Maximilian's superficiality his concern with such trivia as whose bench should be cushioned in velvet, what color stockings the lackeys should wear for a third-class dinner, & etc. Read the Reglamento y ceremonial de la Corte and I can guarantee some eye rolling and chuckles. But in context, the 1860s, when rigorous court etiquette was widely, from Austria to Spain to France and England, considered a crucial instrument to maintain the stability of the State-- and this when the upheavals of 1848 were a fresh memory for so many--- the Reglamento begins to look more sad than nonsensical.

It is still possible to find copies of the Reglamento y ceremonial de la corte in antiquarian bookstores, especially in Mexico City. I have seen an original--- it had been inherited, over the generations, by the daughter of a friend. It was crisply printed on luxuriously heavy paper, and beautifully bound in a faded scarlet linen cover. My first thought: this must have cost a fortune and a half to print.

My own copy of the Reglamento, which I came upon in Mexico City's antiquarian bookstore, the marvelous Libreria Madero, is not an original, but a xerox copy bound--- and this in itself is revealing--- in the heaviest, finest and extravagantly tooled sea-blue Morocco leather.

Important note: there are two editions of the Reglamento: the first, which was speedily written by Maximilian and Carlota in 1864, while en route to Mexico, and a second, published in 1866, which includes an all new chapter with elaborate detail about the Iturbide princes, whom Maximilian had elevated to the status of "Imperial Highnesses" in September of 1865. I aim to post a transcription of that 1866 chapter shortly. At this time I have a few bits transcribed, as well as some jpgs of selected chapters, and the index, on-line at my "Maximilian" page.

Here's the flashback in my novel when the Princess Iturbide (Pepa) recalls receiving her copy:

On her bedside table, next to a dish with the coil of rosary beads, is the Reglamento y ceremonial de la Corte, big as a Bible. It is being reprinted with an all-new Chapter One, "On the Iturbide Princes," specifying their rank, which is above all others with the exception of Imperial Princes (of which there are none); Cardinals; those rare few, such as General Almonte, upon whom the emperor has bestowed the medal of the order of the Mexican Eagle; and Their Majesties. Princess Iturbide may make visits in society and leave her card; however, she need not return visits except to Cardinals, Mexican Eagles, Ambassadors, Ministers of State, and their wives. When Their Majesties are on their thrones, she must place herself at their feet, on the first step, to the left of the empress. In church, her place is in the first row, and the bench covered in velvet. But she shall not be presented with the holy water. There is so much to study, too much to remember. But God will help.

"Please," said the Master of Ceremonies when he brought her this book, together with the loose manuscript pages of Chapter One. "I am at your service."

"I am obliged to you," Pepa had answered, but with the firm intention of making questions unnecessary.

But the Master of Ceremonies, rather than put the book in her hands, took a slight step backwards. Holding this tome as a waiter does his tray, he lifted the cover and then slid his glove over the small square of a certificate that had been pasted on the inside. "Please," he said, "you will see here that this book is for your personal use, however, it remains, now and always, the property of His Majesty."

Pepa had put on her spectacles. The Master of Ceremonies could have, but did not turn the book around for her to be able to read the certificate.

"Each book," he went on, "has a registration number."

"I see."

His tongue pushed against the inside of his cheek. It seemed the Master of Ceremonies was going to say something more; but no. With an air of infinite reserve, he closed the lid of the book and, dipping his head slightly, presented it to her.

It was so heavy she'd had to carry it with both hands.


More next Tuesday.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

New Website Design for "Maximilian"



Just revamped the website design for the Maximilian page. This is the original webpage I started a few years ago as a handy bucket-list of links, but it has grown so large that it made sense to break it up into several subpages: my works; photos; on-line articles and books; bibliography; podcasts, and links. No doubt it will morph further (the links can be broken down into various categories as well). Until next Tuesday...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

An Albany Engineer Dines with the Emperor Maximilian

A curious article from June 1865 reprinted on-line at the New York Times.

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