Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Countess Paula Kollonitz's Eine Reise Nach Mexiko im Jahre 1864

Eine Reise nach Mexiko im Jahre 1864, pictured left, is an extraordinary memoir by one of the Empress Carlota's ladies-in-waiting. It has been translated-- as far as I know-- into Italian (by Marchesa Dondi-Dall' Orolagio as Un Viaggio al Messico, Florence, 1868); Spanish (by Neftali Beltrán, from the Italian, as México en 1864, FCE, 1984); and English (by Joseph Earle Ollivant as The Court of Mexico, London, 1868), and certainly it deserves to be translated into many more languages. In my novel, I based much of the description of Maximilian's voyage from Europe to Mexico on Countess Kollonitz's vivid descriptions. To quote from her memoir (Ollivant's translation):

... we went at eleven p.m. to the Coliseum. The moon shone clear and beautiful, when we arrived there: the first impression was overpowering, but soon a thick fog settled upon those gigantic remains of Roman splendour, of Roman pride; and when we had toiled up all the steps, a thick veil hid from us the view which we expected. I, however, was seized with giddiness, all beneath me rocked and moved as if I still had that uncertain, fluctuating element under my feet, which I had left only a few hours before...

Some ways into the journey...

Upon deck, where we were sheltered, when there was a lack of wind, from the rays of the sun by an awning, a splendid, pure, fresh air breathed around us. It enticed even the Empress out of her handsome, comfortable cabin, in which she ceaslessly read and wrote, on to the deck, where she made her uniform promenade, and continued her occupations in the fresh air. Even in the evening, when the rest of us were deep in contemplation of the setting sun, she paid but little attention to its glory, and remained faithful to her books and to her writing tables by the pale light of the ship's lanterns. During a solitary and earnest childhood, her delight in study, her joy in books, and her capability iof mastering quickly what she had read had been highly developed and, at the same time, she displayed a stern industry, and a power of abstract attention, which was much assisted by an excellent memory. She was very quick at languages and can write and speak German, English, Italian, and Spanish grammatically, and without the least hesitation.

(Carlota was working, among other things, on the thick tome that is the Reglamento de la corte.)

Then, out in open ocean, nearing Mexico:
Even the moon had changed her wonted aspect; her light is more golden, more ruddy, and the position of the crescent is different; it does not stand upright as with us, but lies horizontally, whether waxing or waning. Never shall I forget the calm splendour of these evenings, of these nights,--- the world of divine, exalted poetry, unlike aught else.

Neither did our our days fail in interests, in little variations; the sea, which for a long time seemed to us uninhabited, at length became animated. We were often guided on our way by dolphins, which with their bodies half out of the water, chased past us in their wanton sports with incredible speed; and as we looked down through the clear waves we could see the sea-hyena, or dog-fish, following us on its greedy look-out for prey. Swarms of flying-fish were frightened into the air by the ship; they hovered like flakes of snow at a little height above the sea, and then sank again, hardly pressed by their pursuers, to whom they serve as food. The seamen of the south of France give them the name blé de la mer.


Kollonitz also provides copious descriptions (alas, with all the clichés one might expect from a mid-19th century European tourist) of Veracruz, Orizaba, Mexico City, and environs.

There's a bit about the countess on the Mexico Desconocido website.

Later in life she had a brief and unhappy marriage to Felix Eloin, the Belgian engineer who had been Maximilian's chef du cabinet. (Click here to visit the webpage for his archives at Rice University in Houston.)

Countess Kollonitz does not appear in my novel, however, as she departed Mexico just before the action began. I would have liked to include her, but the cast of characters is already quite a crowd!

More next Tuesday.

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