The Lives of Eliza Lynch: Scandal and Courage
Michael Lillis, Ronan Fanning
Gill & Macmillan, €24.99
'A simple recital of the facts is often more astonishing than the most romantic imagination could conjure up." Those are the words of Eliza Lynch, 19th-Century Irish adventuress and controversial lover of the Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano Lopez. But they could equally be the motif of this, the latest, most exhaustive, biography of her extraordinary life.
This isn't the first attempt made to excavate the circumstances of the woman dubbed Paraguay's Eva Peron. In South America her name provokes extremes of reaction, and there have been several attempts made to portray her, either as a creature of cruelty, grotesque greed and sexual licentiousness, or a national heroine, depending on the historical perspective of the writer. More recently, she figured in a book called The World's Wickedest Women, alongside Lucretia Borgia, Catherine the Great and fellow Irishwoman Lola Montez, where she gets thoroughly bad press, as a whore, a thief, a torturer and an assassin. Two years ago, she was the subject of a sort of bodice-ripping fictional reconstruction, The Pleasures of Eliza Lynch, by Anne Enright. And yet, until now, almost nothing has really been known about this woman. Even her Irishness was disputed, and the actual facts of her life were scant.
Michael Lillis and Ronan Fanning together have penned what is finally a definitive account, The Lives of Eliza Lynch. Fanning is a historian, Professor Emeritus of Modern Irish History at UCD, while Lillis is a former diplomat, now a businessman, whose introduction to South America came during his time with Tony Ryan's GPA. Between them they bring factual rigour, and the kind of social contacts that got them access to papers such as the unpublished memoirs of Maud Lloyd, Eliza's daughter-in-law, which were held by Maud's granddaughter, a former state senator for Alaska. The resulting book is a triumph of historical and archival detective work that tells an entirely new tale about Eliza, one from which she emerges a heroine -- brave, spirited and loyal -- and in so doing, proves the true exhilaration of fact over fiction. The discoveries they make have about them a thrill of genuine excitement than can never be replicated by speculation or imaginative reconstruction.
The fascination with this woman is easy to understand. From humble though respectable beginnings, she became the life-long lover of Francisco Solano Lopez, Paraguayan dictator, and mother of seven of his children. In the savage war of the Triple Alliance, Lopez's country was devastated by the forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, who wiped out roughly 60 per cent of Paraguay's male population of fighting age. Eliza remained by his side until the bitter end, in March 1870, when he was killed in a last stand in the Paraguayan mountains. She buried his body, and that of her eldest son, with her bare hands, before turning to fight for her own life and that of her remaining children by facing down the conquering army. She was beautiful, regal and brave, as well as elegant and accomplished, and left behind a legacy in Parisian-inspired architecture, music and style that can still be seen in Paraguay today. She was also shrewd and greedy -- or perhaps understood just too well the vagaries of fate? -- amassing a fortune of billions by today's standards, most of which was finally either forfeit or stolen from her.
So where did this remarkable woman come from? The search for her true identity begins with just one piece of documentary evidence, Eliza's marriage certificate, from which the authors have successfully traced her early story. She was born in Cork in 1833, the daughter of a doctor who died at the start of the Great Famine, possibly of cholera. From there, her fascinating career is carefully reconstructed, from early marriage to a French army pharmacist who, though smitten, was also calculating, and married her in England to avoid officially designating her his wife in France; through to the demi-monde of Paris in the 1850s, the era of great courtesans, and the fateful meeting with Lopez when she was about 20.
Her life with him in Paraguay was both fabulous and difficult. Although Eliza lived in true magnificence and was loved by the populace, Lopez never married her and his family largely refused to acknowledge her existence. Official records of the time make no mention whatsoever of Eliza, even though she organised and presided over many of the balls, dinners and functions with which the State entertained visiting dignitaries.
Once the war that Lopez so rashly initiated was in full swing, his mental state degenerated and he became beset by that disease of dictators -- paranoia. Eliza was by then his only confidante, and, although she frequently feared for her own safety, managed sometimes to intercede for the victims of his savage, murderous, deranged revenges.
Nevertheless, she was consistently vilified in the South American press, with sneering accounts of her morals and actions often travelling back to Europe and across the Americas, so that when she escaped South America and returned to England, these scandalous accounts had already done her considerable harm.
Alongside Eliza's story is a fantastic history of Paraguay in the 19th Century, delivered with almost incidental panache, as well as the no-less-interesting tale of the authors' search for the facts of her life over many years, which is the narrative that underpins this tale. The Lives of Eliza Lynch takes a puzzle with many missing and mistaken pieces, a tantalisingly incomplete study of a fascinating woman, and fills in the blanks to deliver a brilliant and unexpected picture.