The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is based on the strange but true story of Maximilian, his court, and Agustín de Iturbide y Green, the half-American grandchild of Mexico’s first emperor, and it is fleshed out by more than seven years of original research. Why then did I write it as a novel? Because the facts laid bare make little sense.Why Maximilian and Carlota came to Mexico, why Maximilian took the Iturbide child and why the Iturbides agreed, initially, are all questions impossible to answer without an understanding of their personalities and motives. Put another way, these are all matters of character and emotions, and for this kind of exploration the novel, as a form, is unsurpassed. I think of the form as a kind of vivid dream or, to use a more modern term, “virtual reality”– it allows you to experience what it would be like to, say, come into the parlor and sip ginger tea and pass around a carte-de-visite; dance at a ball; push through a cheering crowd; smell of the razorsharp air in a pine forest. And this very vividness is what invites people, I hope, to feel more empathy with the people in this time, this place, and caught in these situations. I’m not saying I want the reader to approve of any of this, but to come into the experience of it, and so understand Mexico’s Second Empire—the whole sprawlingly transnational glamorous ghastly mess— a little better.
The following is an excerpt from the second half of the novel, towards the end of the chapter “Flowers & Fish & Birds & Butterflies.” It takes place in the Casa Borda, the Imperial Residence in the little village of Cuernavaca, where the Emperor Maximilian, emulating his European counterparts, has retreated from his capital, Mexico City, to hold court in a less formal environment. It is January of 1866, less than two years after having so painfully renounced his rights as an Archduke of Austria, and less than two until his execution by a firing squad in Querétaro. Maximilian senses his government’s impending doom; already he is flirting, tenuously, with the idea of abdication. The prince of the novel’s title is Agustín de Iturbide y Green, a toddler, whose American mother is, at this point, in Paris, scheming with the U.S. minister there to wrench him back from Maximilian. In September 1865— only a few months before this scene— the child was made an Imperial Highness, removed his his parents, and brought into the court.
Though Maximilian and his consort, Carlota, were childless, this was not an adoption, precisely; as specified by the contract with the Iturbide family, which was negotiated (though not signed) by Carlota, Maximilian became the child’s tutor, and the child’s spinster aunt, Princess Josefa de Iturbide, the co-tutoress. Upon delivering the child to the palace, the parents were advised that it would be best for their health to depart Mexico immediately. In all events, their very generous pensions would only be payable in Paris. What was this all about? Read on.
A note about a few of the characters mentioned in this scene: Professor Bilimeck was a cappuchin monk and botantist who frequently accompanied Maximilian on his many collecting expeditions; José Luis was José Luis Blasio, Maximilian’s secretary and author of the memoir, Maximiliano íntimo; Franz Joseph was Maximilian’s older brother, the Kaiser of Austria; “Charlie” is the nickname for Count Karl Bombelles, a childhood friend who came to Mexico with Maximilian to head the Palatine Guard; Charlotte is Carlota (as Maximilian thinks of her); General Almonte, Grand Chamberlain of the Court; Monsieur Langlais, a finance expert sent to Mexico by France; and Bazaine, the Supreme Commander of the French Forces in Mexico.