Calderón de la Barca, Frances (1804–1882)

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Calderón de la Barca, Frances (1804–1882)

Scottish-American woman of letters, traveler, and companion to the royal family of Spain, whose observations of Mexico in the age of Antonio López de Santa Anna are considered among the finest of the travel-literature genre. Name variations: Fanny Calderon. Pronunciation: Cal-der-OWN de la BAR-ca. Born Frances Erskine Inglis on December 23, 1804, in Edinburgh, Scotland; died on February 6, 1882, in Madrid, Spain; daughter of William Inglis (a prominent attorney) and Jane (Stein) Inglis (of a wealthy distilling family); married Angel Calderón de la Barca (an aristocratic Spanish civil servant and diplomat), on September 24, 1838; no children.

Moved with her widowed mother and four siblings to Boston, where she helped to operate the family's private school (1831); moved with family to New York where they established a second school on Staten Island (1837); moved with husband, Angel Calderón de la Barca, to Mexico City, where he was the first Spanish diplomat posted to Mexico (1839); stationed in Washington (1844–53); wrote much-respected Life in Mexico (1843); after Angel's recall to Spain to serve as foreign minister, forced by revolution to flee to France (1854); returned to Spain in 1856, where Angel served as senator while Fanny attended the royal court and wrote her second book, The Attaché in Madrid (1856); after death of Angel, became tutor to Princess Maria Isabel Francisca, serving in the household of Spain's royal family as educator, friend and confidante (1861); awarded patent of nobility, as the Marquesa de Calderón de la Barca (1876).

In the summer of 1840, Mexico was shaken to its foundations by a bloody revolution; a virtual civil war. Fanny and Angel Calderón de la Barca were caught at its epicenter, as their Mexico City mansion was just blocks away from the contested presidential palace. For weeks, bullets and cannonballs shrieked over and by their home, but Fanny remained typically unruffled. On July 19, she wrote, "Dr. Plane, a famous French physician, was shot this morning as he was coming out of the palace, and his body has just been carried past our door. … We pass our time on our balconies, listening to the thunder of the cannon, looking at the different parties of troops riding by … excessively tired of the whole affair."

Frances Erskine Inglis (pronounced "Ingalls") was born December 23, 1804, at Edinburgh, Scotland, the fifth of ten children in the wealthy and prominent family of William and Jane Stein Inglis . William Inglis was an attorney who traced his ancestry back to a family that had been elevated to the nobility in 1396, and Jane Stein's family had prospered in the business of highland whiskey distilleries. The child, universally called Fanny, grew up in a frenetic household of parents, servants, and five sisters and four brothers. Little is known about how she was educated, formally or by tutors, but it is clear that she grew up as a learned woman, fluent in a number of languages, conversant in the classics, and very much aware of world affairs.

When Fanny was in her teens, the family was struck by a succession of tragedies, including the death of her married sister, Catherine, followed by the death of an elder brother who was serving as a soldier in India. In 1828, William Inglis was bankrupted—a horrible stigma in that era—and forced to flee with his family to France in order to avoid creditors, and perhaps debtor's prison; broken in spirit and health, he died in 1830.

Unwilling to return to Scotland as social pariahs, the Inglis family used the last of their money to book passage for Boston. Jane Inglis set sail with her divorced daughter Richmond (and Richmond's four children), her 15-year-old son Duff, and daughters Fanny, Harriet, and Lydia. In Boston, the Inglis women opened a school on Mount Vernon Street that attracted the daughters of the city's elite and allowed the family to prosper again. But in 1833, an anonymous pamphlet was published, assaulting the character of some of Boston's finest families, and it soon became known that the author was 29-year-old Fanny. Many elite families showed their pique by withdrawing their children from the Inglis' school.

Financially strapped again, the Inglises held on out of stubborn pride and only left Boston at a time of their own choosing. In 1837, they moved to New York City and settled into a fashionable area of Staten Island, where they opened another school, catering to the children of government officials and diplomats. Once again the family prospered, and Fanny, by then in her early 30s, began to receive the attentions of a diplomat she had met casually in Boston. Angel Calderón de la Barca was minister plenipotentiary (ambassador) of Spain to the United States, a career diplomat, and smitten by the young Scottish woman. Now that she was closer to Washington, he visited her often, and the two were soon betrothed.

So it appears to me that when bullets are whizzing about our ears … it ought to be considered extremely natural, and quite feminine, to inquire into the cause of such phenomena.

—Fanny Calderón de la Barca

On September 24, 1838, the 33-year-old Fanny married the 48-year-old diplomat in a Catholic ceremony in New York. The following summer, Angel's tour in Washington was ended, and the couple spent some months on Staten Island with the Inglis clan. In late October 1839, they took ship for Mexico, where Angel had been posted as the country's first Spanish ambassador.

Fanny, whose linguistic gifts made learning a new language a trifle, was fluent in Spanish before their ship anchored in the Vera Cruz harbor. For her husband, the assignment to Mexico was employment; for her, it was an adventure, and she was eager to observe and record everything she could. During the four turbulent years she remained there, she kept a form of daily journal, copies of letters she wrote, and random jottings and musings. She was an exceptionally keen and witty observer, as has been recognized by later travelers and scholars ever since. In 1908, Charles Flandrau wrote in Viva Mexico!: "The most entertaining as well as the most essentially true book on Mexico that I have been able to find was written by … Madame Calderón de la Barca." More recently, Selden Rodman wrote in his Mexican Journal in 1958: "She accepts Mexico, from the heart, without closing her eyes to its defects."

Her observations of people—such as "the melancholy and philosophic" dictator General Antonio López de Santa Anna, conqueror of the Alamo—and of the terrain, flora and fauna, religious and social customs, and a good deal more, were succinct and insightful. They have also proved to be extremely detailed and accurate. As Flandrau noted 60 years later, "From Madame Calderón, and from her only, was I able to learn the exact religious import of the nine dances" of the Christmas season. Today's scholars of 19th-century Mexico consider her book to be one of the major sources, if not the source, on the period.

When she first put them on paper, Fanny had no thought of publishing her writings. A lengthy correspondence with William Hickling Prescott led to the possibility. Prescott, conceivably the first true historian in the United States, was dedicated to the history of Mexico and South America, and had been a friend of the Calderóns since their first years in Washington. Nearly blind, he researched and wrote a number of stout volumes, including the monumental, three-volume History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843). After reading Fanny's papers, he all but demanded that she have them published, and she agreed, somewhat reluctantly. With the scholar's editorial advice, she arranged for the large volume, Life in Mexico, to be published by friends in Boston in late 1843; soon thereafter, it appeared in London.

In a transparent, but diplomatic, gesture of anonymity (she was, after all, wife of a serving diplomat), she had authorship credited to a "Madame C——de la B——." The book was an instant success and has since become what one critic has termed "a quiet persistent classic," translated into a score of languages. To her relief, it was early applauded even in Mexico, which she observed with rather blunt frankness: "On first arriving in Mexico one cannot fail—especially if arrived from the United States where an ugly woman is a phoenix—to be struck at the first glance with the general absence of beauty and grace."

During the next nine years, Angel again represented Spain in Washington. In 1847, Fanny Calderón converted to Catholicism, which apparently played a role in the advancement of her husband to the highest of diplomatic positions. In 1853, he was recalled to Madrid, to serve as minister of foreign affairs. The exhilarating move into the exalted circles and having access to the royal court was not to last, however. When a revolution ousted the government in 1854, Angel was forced to flee for his life to France, disguised and using a false passport. Fanny Calderón soon followed, also traveling incognito, and for two years the couple lived quietly in Neuilly, then Paris, where she wrote, in complete anonymity, her very perceptive The Attaché in Madrid. When the governmental crisis was ended, the couple returned to Spain in 1856, the year The Attaché in Madrid first reached print in New York. Purportedly written by a German diplomat, it dealt with the turmoil into which Spain descended in 1854, and it was not known for many years that Fanny Calderón de la Barca was its real author.

The next five years were pleasant, placid ones for the couple, with Angel serving in the Spanish senate, Fanny reading a great deal, and summers spent in the cool, mountainous Basque provinces near the French border. This peaceful time of stability and contemplation was broken abruptly by Angel's unexpected death in the spring of 1861, just as the United States was entering its Civil War.

Not long after Angel's passing, the widow Calderón was summoned to the royal court, where Queen Isabella II (1830–1904) paid her the singular honor of asking her to tutor the nine-year-old "Infanta," Maria Isabel Francisca (b. 1851), known as Princess Isabel. With some reluctance, Fanny, now 57, assented, gave up her stately Madrid mansion, and moved into the gigantic royal palace to take up her new duties. Because Isabel was the oldest royal child, and her only brother was weak and chronically ill, it was apparent that Fanny was probably educating the future queen of Spain. In 1868, when the Infanta was married, at age 16, to Caetano de Borbón, a distant cousin, the duties of the former tutor were completed, and she took the opportunity to sail to the United States on an extended vacation visit.

That same year, yet another revolution swept through Spain, requiring the royal family to flee into exile in France. Young Isabel, who had developed an almost filial attachment to her former tutor, now wrote from France pleading that Calderón return to her side as confidant, educator, and companion. After some hesitation, Calderón's sense of duty to the royal family impelled her to travel to France to be at the teenager's side. Isabel's husband had by then developed a severe mental illness (probably acute depression) and was displaying, among other things, suicidal tendencies. Fanny found herself acting as nursemaid to the prince while advising the princess, but in late 1871, despite all efforts, Caetano shot himself to death.

While Fanny was consoling the young Isabel in France, Queen Isabella II abdicated the throne of Spain to her—still sickly—son, Alphonso (XII). In 1874, Parliament officially proclaimed him king. Before long, Fanny was again living in Spain's royal palace, as companion to the princess; two years later, the young king (whom Fanny had briefly tutored in his tender years) brought Fanny, the Scottish-born tutor and daughter of a debtor, into the Spanish nobility, as the Marquesa de Calderón.

Nor was she alone and without family of her own in Madrid. By quirk of fate, one of her nieces had married a Spanish marques and lived in the capital; her widowed younger sister, Harriet, lived part of each year in Madrid, with a daughter who had married a Spanish diplomat; and her youngest sister, Lydia, lived there as well, married to yet another Spanish diplomat. When Lydia's husband died, she was appointed governess to a new generation of the children in the royal family.

After years of separation, the Inglis descendants were reunited in Madrid, living spirited, happy, and useful lives. Fanny remained remarkably healthy throughout her years, despite all of her travel and living in sometimes primitive circumstances. At age 77, she was still fully active, when she contracted "the chills" (probably pneumonia) and died soon after on February 6, 1882, in the royal palace she had called home for most of the past 20 years. At a funeral attended by Spain's royal family and members of her own family, she was buried in a ceremony befitting a marquesa.


Calderón de la Barca, Fanny. Life in Mexico. Boston: Anchor Books, 1970.

——. Life in Mexico During a Residence of Two Years in that Country. NY: Everyman's Library, 1954.

suggested reading:

Becher, Carl C. Cartas sobre México. Mexico City: Nueva Biblioteca Mexicana, 1959.

Simpson, Lesley Byrd. Many Mexicos. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1962.

Stephens, John L. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. 2 vols. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1843 (1963).

John Hoyt Williams , Professor of History, Indiana State University, Terre Haute, Indiana

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Calderón de la Barca, Frances (1804–1882)

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