Life in Mexico, by Frances Calderon de la Barca


In the year 1843, two new books took the American public by storm: one was Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico, and the other Life in Mexico by Madame Calderon de la Barca. William Hickling Prescott was already known as an able historian on account of his scholarly Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain which had appeared four years before and elicited praise from all quarters; but his new work outran the former in that the author had succeeded in depicting one of the most stirring episodes of history with the grandeur of an epic and the interest of a novel.

It was therefore natural that a book with Prescott’s endorsement should be favourably received by the general public; but Life in Mexico immediately attained wide circulation on its own merits, and was received with unbounded enthusiasm. Soon the slight veil that pretended to hide the author’s name was drawn aside and Madame Calderon de la Barca became famous in literary and social circles.

Frances Erskine Inglis was born in Edinburgh in the year 1804. Her father, William Inglis, belonged to a distinguished Scottish family, related to the Earls of Buchan, and was a grandson of a gallant Colonel Gardiner who fell in the battle of Prestonpans, while her mother, a Miss Stern before her marriage, was a celebrated beauty of her time.

Fanny, as Frances was familiarly called, was still very young when her father found himself in financial difficulties and decided to retire with his family to Normandy where living was supposed to be cheaper. But William Inglis died a few years later, and his widow determined to settle in America. In the United States Mrs. Inglis established a private school first in Boston, later in Staten Island, and finally in Baltimore, and her daughter was a great help, for she immediately revealed herself as an excellent teacher. Besides, Fanny became a great friend of Ticknor, Lowell, Longfellow, and especially of Prescott, who thought her “ever lively and spirituelle.”

In 1836 a Special Diplomatic Mission from Spain arrived at Washington, and at its head came Don Angel Calderon de la Barca, a gentleman of high social standing and an accomplished man of letters, who, naturally enough, soon established literary relations with William Prescott, then at work on his History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. In this connection he became acquainted with many of Prescott’s friends, the Inglis ladies among others, and the result was that he fell in love with the accomplished Fanny, and married her in 1838. Shortly afterwards Don Angel was appointed Isabel II’s Minister to Mexico, the first Spanish Envoy to the young Republic that had formerly been the Kingdom of New Spain. The newly married couple, accordingly, started on their journey to Mexico, which was destined to be a long one, even for those days, for they left New York on October 27th and did not reach their destination until the 26th of the following December.

Calderon’s mission to Mexico lasted somewhat more than two years, during which time he and his wife, says Prescott, “lived much at their ease,” and “were regaled en prince.” In spite of Don Angel’s delicate diplomatic duties and her own frequent social engagements and strenuous excursions, Fanny Inglis Calderon found time to write almost daily letters, most of them of considerable length, to relatives and friends. These letters constituted the basis of the present book when they were collected and published — with certain necessary omissions — simultaneously in London and Boston in 1843, under the title of Life in Mexico during a Residence of Two Years in that Country. The book was provided with a short but substantial Preface by Prescott.

That same year saw Don Angel Calderon de la Barca transferred to Washington as Spanish Minister, a post in which he not only discharged his diplomatic duties with much ability, but also frequented the literary circles and even found time to translate several works into Spanish.

In 1853 Calderon was recalled to Spain by his government and arrived at Madrid on September 17th with his wife, who had recently become a Catholic. A year later, he was appointed Minister of State in the Cabinet of the Conde de San Luis, and thus became an actor in the troubled drama of that period of Isabel II’s reign. When finally the unpopularity of the government culminated in a general rebellion, Calderon managed to escape the unjust fury of the rabble by hiding first in the Austrian, and later in the Danish Legation, until he was able to cross the frontier and take refuge in France. The events that Madame Calderon had witnessed in Spain moved her to write that entertaining book The Attache in Madrid, which, pretending to be a translation from the German, appeared in New York in 1856.

The Calderons were able to return to Spain after an absence of two years, but in 1861 Don Angel died at San Sebastian, just when he was expecting to move to a small villa which was being built for him nearby in picturesque Zarauz. Hard upon this event Madame Calderon retired to a convent across the Pyrenees, but shortly afterwards Queen Isabel asked her to come back and take charge of the education of her eldest daughter, the Infanta Isabel, a request which, though at first respectfully declined, was finally accepted by her. From that time on Madame Calderon became the constant companion of the Infanta Isabel, until the latter’s marriage to the Count of Girgenti in 1868. She then returned to the United States, but only for a comparatively short time, for as soon as Alfonso XII came to the throne, Madame Calderon went back to Spain and was created by him Marquesa de Calderon de la Barca. Thenceforward she led a very quiet life until her death, in the Royal Palace of Madrid, on February 3rd, 1882.

Any radical change in the form of government is liable to be accompanied by disorders, and this is even more likely to be true in a country like Mexico, which has become famous for its frequent political troubles and has been aptly called “a land of unrest.” In the eighteen-forties the country witnessed many plans, “pronunciamientos” and revolutions, which could not escape the vigilant mind of Madame Calderon, who often refers to them with a spice of delicate satire and irony which is not unkindly. After the long period of peaceful if unexciting viceregal rule, the government of the new republic had become the prey of political groups, headed by men who coveted the presidency chiefly impelled by a “vaulting ambition” which, in most cases “overleapt itself.” Madame Calderon drew faithful portraits of many of the politicians of those days, not stinting her praise to such men of honour as Bustamante, nor hiding her sympathy towards the much reviled Santa Anna.

Naturally, as the wife of the Spanish Minister, she feels occasionally bound to dwell somewhat disparagingly upon the existing state of things, as compared with the excellences of the former viceregal regime. Thus, on visiting the older cities and establishments, she lays stress on the great benefits that the Mother Country had bestowed on her Colonies, an opinion that, she states, was shared by the most distinguished persons in Mexico, who missed the advantages of the days of yore: “I fear we live in a Paradise Lost,” she exclaims, “which will not be regained in our days!”

But this does not mean to say that she withholds praise where praise is due. On more than one occasion she extols the valour of a soldier, the talent of a Minister like Cuevas, or the honesty and clearsightedness of a politician like Gutierrez de Estrada; and when she refers to the rivalry that arose between the different parties, she has unbounded praises for the cadets of the Military School, for their patriotic conduct and their loyalty to the legally established government.

In Madame Calderon’s time the Mexican upper classes were an extension, so to speak, of the old viceregal society. Only the very young had not seen the Spanish flag flying over the public buildings or had not been more or less acquainted with the last viceroys. The presidential receptions of a Bustamante or a Santa Anna in the National Palace, just as during the short reign of Augustin I de Iturbide, were ablaze with brilliant uniforms, glittering decorations, fine dresses, and rich jewels, while at private parties the old family names and titles continued to be borne with the prestige of former colonial days.

On the other hand, the relations between lord and servant are faithfully portrayed by Madame Calderon de la Barca. Speaking of life in a hacienda, she describes how the lady of the house sat at the piano, while the employees and servants performed the typical dances of the country for the benefit of guests and relatives, without suggesting any idea of equality or disrespect, more or less in the fashion of the Middle Ages, when the lord and the lady of the manor sat at table with their servants, though the latter remained rigorously below the salt. With regard to the lower classes, Madame Calderon always sees the picturesque side of things which she describes vividly and colourfully.

It is to be regretted (particularly from a Mexican point of view) that Fanny Inglis, or her editor, should have thought it expedient only to give the first and last letters of the names of the more prominent persons of whom she speaks, a system which makes it difficult for a reader of later days to identify them, except in one or two cases. Many were the intimate friends of the Calderons, but especially the Conde de la Cortina, a well-known figure in society and in literary and scientific circles, the Marques and Marquesa de Vivanco, and the “Guera Rodriguez,” (the “Fair Rodriguez”), a celebrated beauty of her time, who is said to have been greatly admired by no less a person than Alexander von Humboldt himself!

Naturally enough, Madame Calderon was a competent judge of her own sex and was alert to the good qualities as well as to the foibles of the ladies of Mexico, whose excessive fondness for diamonds and, in some cases, too showy dresses elicit her mild criticism.

Monastic life was one of the features of Mexico at that time. Most cities, large and small, were full of churches, monasteries, and convents; and Madame Calderon (who became a Catholic three years later) was not then well acquainted with the ceremonies and liturgy of the Church, and consequently falls into many errors on the subject; but when she describes her visit to a convent and the ceremony of the veiling of a nun, she writes some of her most picturesque and touching pages.

Madame Calderon does not stint her admiration for the great buildings of the country, both civil and religious, though her descriptions betray only too often the influence of the romantic age in which she lived.

Beautiful indeed as is her description of a garden in Tulancingo, she rises to real eloquence before some of “Nature’s pageants,” admiring a sunset over the Monastery of San Fernando, walking under the shade of the centennial trees of Chapultepec, or wandering within the gigantic Caverns of Cacahuamilpa, the recollection of which, she says, “rests upon the mind, like a marble dream,” and where an unfortunate traveller, years before, had lost his way and met a tragic death.

Prescott’s statement that Madame Calderon’s letters were not intended originally for publication seems hardly credible; but, on the other hand, there is no proof for the suggestion that she had the letters of Madame D’Aulnoy in mind. Be that as it may, the fact is that just as the French Countess has left us a living picture of Spain in the late seventeenth century, in the same way the wife of the Spanish Minister drew a most faithful pen-portrait of the social, political, and even economic order, in Mexico in the early nineteenth.

As to Madame Calderon de la Barca’s personal appearance, since a portrait of her, which is said to exist in the possession of a relative, has never been published, the reader is free to imagine that lively lady as it may best suit his or her individual fancy. That she was clever, well-read, and an excellent judge of character, as well as a true lover of nature and a keen observer of manners and customs, is evident in her letters, which constitute by common consent a most entertaining and truly delectable narrative, which even the lapse of more than a century has not been able to mar.

Manuel Romero de Terreros,
Marques de San Francisco.


History of the Conquest of Mexico with the Life of the Conqueror Hernando Cortes, and a view of the Ancient Mexican Civilization. New York, Harper & Bros., 1843.

Life in Mexico, During a Residence of Two Years in That Country, by Madame Calderon de la Barca, with a Preface by W. H. Prescott, author of The History of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, 1843.

The Attaché in Madrid; or, Sketches of the Court of Isabella II, translated from the German, New York, 1856.

Prescott Unpublished Letters to Gayangos in the Library of the Hispanic Society of America, edited with notes by Clara Louisa Penney, New York, 1927.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01