The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire by C.M. Mayo
One of the most appealing things about historical fiction for me is the opportunity to learn something I don’t know about people I’ve never heard of but really should have been taught at some point in my long and illustrious education. (Like when I was pursuing that four-year degree in, um, history.) There were several things about C. M. Mayo’s The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire that startled me when I first read about it, such as that Mexico was occupied by the French during the U.S. Civil War and that Louis Napoleon placed the Archduke of Austria, Maximilian von Habsburg, on the Mexican throne as Emperor. The facts that Maximilian did not want this job (he much preferred the life of a naturalist in Italy), that the Mexicans did not want the French or the Austrians anywhere near them, or that everyone involved had precious little clue as to what life in Mexico was like in the mid-19th century was all immaterial to France’s colonial ambitions. In the end you do have to give Louis Napoleon some credit – he managed to plunder the heck out of Mexico for several years at the price of some French soldiers and the sanity of Maximilian’s wife. For him it was a deal, for everyone else, especially the Mexican family whose son became the pseudo heir, the whole thing was a debacle.
Mayo has a big story to tell with the novel but wisely keeps it small by focusing on a few key players: Maximilian, his wife Charlotte, and the Mexican couple whose son would almost become a prince, Angelo Iturbide and his American wife, Alice. The Iturbides have their own convoluted history -- Angelo’s father was once emperor of Mexico but had to abdicate his self-imposed throne, and then returned from European exile to be executed by firing squad. Angelo and his family escaped to the U.S. where he eventually became secretary to the Mexican legation. After the French invaded the Iturbides were invited back to the country. Alice was happy to travel to her husband’s homeland where she embraced the Mexican culture and became a fixture on the new, and very royal, social scene.
By presenting the story in varying points of view, Mayo shows the many different goals pursued by the major characters. This becomes particularly interesting after the Iturbides sign over custody of their son to the Hapsburgs. While the motives of the royals have never completely been determined (they did not have children of their own and it is assumed that a Mexican prince was sought to endear them more to the people) the Iturbides hoped to obtain a superior education for their son and believed they would have continued intimate contact with him in spite of his new status. They also seem to have been a bit “royal struck,” not realizing perhaps what a perilous situation they were in when their little boy gained the Empress’s attention. They both immediately regretted the decision and as Mayo writes, in the months that followed Alice in particular was driven nearly mad with grief. The family suffered immediate unexpected exile and yet still fought their case before various international governments from the U.S. (who once the war was over had soldiers on the border to keep the French at bay) to the French to repeated entreaties addressed to Maximilian himself. As Alice became inconsolable, Maximilian disappeared into a fantasy of the life he could have had, and the young prince was lost in a shuffle of loyalties both personal and professional. The rebels move closer, Charlotte becomes increasingly more unhinged, the Iturbides are relentless in the pursuit of their son and Maximilian is paralyzed by an inability to accept what his life has become. All the while the political situation continues to heat up and everyone who is not Mexican finally realizes that maybe none of this occupation business was a good idea. In the final pages Mayo jumps forward so readers may learn what happened to everyone, while marveling how so much of this could ever have been possible in the first place.
The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is a very compelling story with a ton of juicy history to savor. Mayo has an elegant style that weaves in and out of fact and fiction as she reaches into the minds of the major players and then deviates to introduce supporting characters (nearly all of them real as well). My only complaint is that occasionally the cast becomes too large and readers might need to pause for a moment to recall how everyone is related but this is a truly minor quibble when you consider the scope of the tale being told here. I am sure that I am only one of many Americans who know practically nothing of Mexican history (something Mayo reveals about herself in a sprawling author’s note at the end). After finishing this wonderful novel I have new respect for the trials suffered by our southern neighbor in the recent past and also a deep desire to learn more about so many of the names involved, not the least of which the little boy who almost became the future ruler of a nation.
The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire by C.M. Mayo