Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Eliza Lynch: The Would-Be Empress of South America

People often ask me why I write about South America. My standard answer is that its history intrigues me. One reason for its pull: it is replete with enigmas. What could be a better background for a mystery novel? The continent is beautiful; its vibe is magical.
And almost anywhere you look in its tumultuous past you find events and especially people that inspire wildly diverging accounts and opinions. Eliza Lynch is one of those conundrums.
Biographies and a couple of biographical novels characterize her in wildly different ways
. Was she an overly ambitious adventuress who goaded the Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano López into the bloodiest war in South American history? Or a gorgeous plaything who bore López seven children and loved him so much that she stuck with him to the bitter end and buried him with her own hands? Somewhere in the mists of myth lies the real Eliza.

We know this: She was born on the third of June 1835 in County Cork in Ireland to a physician, John Lynch and his wife Adelaide Schnock. And she was beautiful. But very likely quite poor.
Her early years are forgotten and confused by lies she later told to make her family seem prominent and important than it was. When Eliza was twelve years old, her oldest sister Corinne was living in France. The family followed to Paris, where, on her fifteenth birthday, Eliza married a French military surgeon Jean Louis Armand De Quatrefages. The couple moved to Algiers but were divorced after only three years. In 1853, Eliza was back in Paris living the life of a demimonde courtesan. There is talk of a lover who was Russian nobleman. Then she met Francisco Solano López.

Some chroniclers call their meeting love at first sight. I believe it. López was the son of Carlos
Antonio López, the dictator of Paraguay. He was in Paris, again for questionable reasons: perhaps as a trade envoy looking for ways to spend the country’s fabulous wealth on armaments and modern improvements to its infrastructure. Or perhaps because his licentious behavior was causing social havoc in the capital—Asunción. Whichever it was, or both, we can imagine that he immediately saw in Eliza great beauty, sophistication, elegance the likes of which no one in insolated and primitive Paraguay had ever seen. She saw in the squat and boorish López, a level of wealth the likes of which few in Europe but emperors possessed. They remained together for the rest of his life. By the time she arrived with him in Paraguay, she was already pregnant with the first of their seven children.
Did they start a war to make themselves the Emperor and Empress of the continent? Or was she an innocent by-stander to his megalomaniacal ambitions? We will take up the next phase of their story next week.


  1. It is always a source of deep fascination why and how authors are attracted to their protagonists. We are all so different - that is what makes this world of writing such a rich bank of knowledge and intellectural joy! tjs

  2. You should write a book about them.