Sunday, February 9, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Carlota and Maximilian

Yesterday I had a child visitor and we agreed that this was a good opportunity to go to a museum. Her favorite local museum is the Witte, and when I looked, I saw that, though their big exhibit on extraterrestrial life won't open until the 22nd, they had smaller exhibits on magic lanterns and Maximilian and Carlota. This excited me.

My young friend is nine, so it didn't surprise me that she didn't know who Maximilian and Carlota were. My husband is from Georgia, a state with a history not much influenced by the history of Mexico, so it didn't surprise me too much that he didn't know who they were. But nobody else I've mentioned it to did, either; which is the sort of thing that makes you wander around muttering about educational systems and so on.

Because, holey cheese, Marie Antoinette is dull as dishwater compared to Carlota, and Madame Bovary's fantasy life (not to mention the lengths she'd go to in support of it) was banal. You could make a movie of this story that makes Gone with the Wind seem restrained, probable, and unproblematic.

The bare bones of the story are, that after gaining freedom from Spain, President Juarez of Mexico annoyed the French a great deal by repudiating the oppressive debt, mostly to French interests, in which the previous regime had mired the country. Sensing an opportunity, the most conservative (and richest) faction in Mexico persuaded Louis Napoleon that the people of Mexico would just love to have a European monarch. Since America was a bit too busy fighting its own Civil War to enforce the Monroe doctrine, Louis Napoleon arranged for the job to be given to his granddaughter and her husband, a Hapsburg who should be easily controllable. Under the impression that they were crossing the ocean to liberate a grateful populace from mob rule, Maximilian and Carlota went blithely off to become Emperor and Empress of Mexico, and spent a short time throwing lavish parties, supporting local industry, and attempting to implement what would, in fact, have been some pretty good reformations of economic and social life had they been able to implement any of them. President Juarez was a long way from out, the Mexican population were disinclined to trust a couple of conspicuously wealthy foreigners with absolute power, the conservative faction wanted figureheads rather than rulers, and Louis Napoleon was soon as badly annoyed with them as he was with the Juaristas.

The link above overlooks some of the most interesting angles of the story, brought out in the exhibit we saw yesterday. Like, the fact that Maximilian often retreated to a hacienda and left Carlota in charge; that Carlota called him a coward for considering abdication and made an eloquent speech about the duties of monarchs; that Maximilian spent a lot of time having his portrait made and also got one of his mistress in an attitude and costume intended to match one of his, while Carlota's portrait was knocked out by an inferior artist; that the sounds of battle could be heard over the music of some of their balls; that the battle commemorated today as Cinco de Mayo was a Juarista victory in these conflicts.

As is true of so much of Mexican history, it's hard to pick out any heroes who are not also villains, or villains who are not also heroes. As is true of so much of women's history, it is hard to find the real Carlota underneath the fantasies projected onto her. Did the stress of work and frustration at being refused aid by everyone who had gotten her into this mess really drive her mad, or was this a case of the twin patriarchal forces of government and medicine joining forces to silence a woman who was too vocal and capable for comfort? How much of her royal image - the loving wife, the benevolent beauty - a calculated effect? What was the deal with her husband's mistress? I couldn't help noticing that nowhere in the exhibit was there any sign of them producing a potential heir - and a good thing, too, but in the nineteenth century that begs a number of questions.

It is precisely these difficulties that give the story so much potential. No one could hope to produce the definitive fictional treatment. It would support an opera, an epic movie and even more epic mini-series, two or three conflicting novels. It's the kind of story that could be fruitfully revisited time and again, reinterpreted to address the concerns of different generations.

At least read the non-fiction book that just came out!


  1. Very interesting - I hadn't heard of Maximilian and Carlotta either! You never know where those Hapsburgs are going to turn up next.

    Apologies in advance for the following geeky and trivial comment... but your first link doesn't work. I sometimes have the same problem - I think that if you paste a link in without http at the front Blogger treats it as an internal link on your own blog.

  2. I opened up the post to edit it, and that link has http in it. The link also works for me, so I'm not sure what to do about it; I can't see what's wrong.

    There's a whole lot of history out there, so it's not surprising that any given person doesn't know a particular interesting bit of history; but why a story like this one, that just sparkles with elements of mass appeal, doesn't lodge itself in the public imagination is beyond me. It just goes to show that popularity and notoriety are down to external and random factors and have nothing to do with intrinsic qualities. I grant you Maximilian comes across as a bit of drip (with the most absurd facial hair you're ever likely to see), but Carlota had charisma enough for both of them.

  3. The link still doesn't work for me, but being in the UK I access your blog through "" so maybe that has something to do with why the link is playing up. Never mind! The Witte sounds like a really interesting museum, by the way.