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Issue 80 - Vicissitudes of Fortune

Scotland Magazine Issue 80
April 2015

 

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Vicissitudes of Fortune

Patricia Cleveland-Peck recalls the Edinburgh girl who became a Spanish Marquesa

February 1882. An elegant titled woman died in Madrid, it is said from a chill caught while dining clad in the décolletage then fashionable at Court. Two years previously, this lady had been created Marquesa Calderón de la Barca in recognition of the service she and her late husband had given to the Royal House of Spain. Seventy seven years previously, she had been born Frances Erskine Inglis in Edinburgh.

If not all the mourners at her funeral knew of her antecedents, even fewer knew of the vicissitudes of fortune which Frances Inglis, by then known as Fanny, Calderón de la Barca, had experienced in her fascinating life.

Born into a comfortable strata of Edinburgh society, her future looked secure. Her father William Inglis, an established lawyer, had, in 1789, become a Writer to the Signet. The family could trace themselves back to 1396 when a Sir William Inglis was granted a barony for dispatching a marauding English knight with one blow.

William’s mother had even more impressive forbears stretching back to the Stuarts and the Plantagenets. Her father Colonel James Gardiner had died a hero’s death at the Battle of Prestonpans while attempting to put down the Young Pretender’s Uprising of 1745.

Colonel Gardiner’s mother, Fanny’s great- grandmother, for whom she was named, was Lady Frances Erskine, the daughter of David Erskine, 9th Earl of Buchan. Fanny’s mother was Jane Stein, whose father, James Stein, born in 1740, belonged to the great distillery dynasty founded by Andrew Stein.

Thus, initially, Fanny’s childhood, spent with her eight siblings, was happy, with a town house on Edinburgh's Queen Street and a spacious country house at Middleton, some 12 miles west of the city.

Edinburgh, in the early years of the 19th Century, was a thriving centre of intellectual activity over which the glow of the Enlightenment still shone. Education was considered of paramount importance; something that Jane Inglis took very seriously, ensuring that her sons and daughters received the crème de la crème of instruction. However, the year 1825 brought sadness with the death of the eldest daughter Catherine.

Added to this tragedy were money worries. With a series of bad investments, William faced bankruptcy and by 1828, all of his property had been sequestered. No help was forthcoming from the Steins as their financial downfall had begun even earlier. With very little money left, the family moved to France.

However, adversity focusses the mind and Fanny was soon making use of her writing skills with a 600-page historical romance,
Gertrude: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century. Her second book, The Affianced One , was based on a trip she had made to Milan in happier days.

On the 28 June 1830, the ailing William died and for the Inglis family, the sojourn in France was over. With typical fortitude they decided to go to America.

In Boston, there were exciting literary circles to which she, as a published writer, (
The Affianced had appeared the year before) was welcomed. She and her sisters also enjoyed the social events hosted by the elite families known as the Boston Brahmins.

But possibly it was her no-nonsense Scottish outlook that made this set seem a little ridiculous, and what started out as an innocent jest had unexpected consequences.

A wealthy merchant, Thomas Handasyd Perkins, announced that he would donate his Pearl Street mansion as an Institute for the Blind if a sum matching its value were raised by charity. The great and good of Boston rallied swiftly and ‘half the females of Boston,’ headed by the socialite Mrs Eliza Otis Grey, organised a Ladies Fair.

Shortly afterwards, however, an anonymous pamphlet
Scenes at the Fair appeared, caricaturing the protagonists. This caused outrage, and was considered ‘the impertinent intrusion of an alien upon our social intercourse…,’ written by ‘a malevolent and imbecilic’ author. When, the rumour spread that Fanny was the culprit, the Inglis family were obliged to leave Boston.

In 1835, they settled in the village of New Brighton on Staten Island where Richmond opened Mrs MacLeod’s School for Young Ladies. And it was on Staten Island that Fanny met the Spanish nobleman Angel Calderón de La Barca y Belgrano. A widower from Buenos Aires, he had come to the United States in 1836 to head up a Special Diplomatic Mission.

He and Fanny were married on 24 September 1838 in New York and after some months in Washington, Angel was appointed first Spanish Envoy to the newly-independent Republic of Mexico. This experience formed the basis for
Life in Mexico, Fanny’s most famous book.

It caused yet another scandal and with their latest venture ruined, the Inglis family returned to Boston where, before long ‘Mrs Inglis’s Establishment for Young Ladies’ was established at No 5 Chestnut Street.

It was at this address that Fanny wrote most of the book . She and Angel lived there for almost a year before embarking on a round of visits until Angel received his next posting, this time as Spanish Minister to Washington.

In 1854, he was called back to Spain as Minister of Foreign Affairs but two days after they arrived, the government which had appointed him, resigned. It was only at the personal request of Queen Isabella II that he accepted the same position with the replacement faction and therefore found himself serving in the disastrous administration of the deeply unpopular Conde de San Luis.

There followed plots, intrigues, mob violence and rebellion, whereupon Angel went into hiding before fleeing across the Pyrenees into France disguised as a wine merchant with dyed hair and a forged passport.

Fanny, also with an assumed identity, followed and this time they settled in a small house in Neuilly, just outside Paris. With plenty of material, this was where she wrote
The Attaché in Madrid, published in 1856.

Fanny and Angel eventually returned to Spain and were building a house at Zarauz, near San Sebastian, when Angel died, in 1861. Deeply saddened, Fanny retreated to a convent but was immediately summoned to Madrid to take charge of the education of Queen Isabella's eldest daughter, the 10 year old Infanta Maria Isabel, with a salary of 20,000 reales per annum.

Fanny became very close to her young charge who, at the age of sixteen, married Don Cayetano de Borbón, a Prince of the deposed Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. After the wedding, she visited the US again and was therefore absent during the 1868 revolution which forced the Spanish Queen and her family into exile.

However, when Fanny rejoined the Royal household in Paris, the Infanta asked her to become her companion which must have been a comfort when, in 1871 the young Don Cayetano committed suicide in Switzerland. His widow was only nineteen. Soon after, Queen Isabella II abdicated in favour of her 17 year old son Alfonso.

After finally retiring to Madrid with the Royal entourage, Fanny was created Marquesa Calderón de la Barca. Her sister Lydia, Countess of Llorente, by now also the widow of a Spanish diplomat,was appointed governess to the younger Infantas, while her niece, who had married a Spanish Marqués, also lived in Madrid.